Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Five Questions for Tim Murphy on His New 1980s-Lookback Novel, 'Speech Team'

I'm pretty sure the first time I discovered Tim Murphy was during his stint as Man on the Street for the Intelligencer, when he boarded le Jeanne d'Arc -- a French naval ship "full of well-groomed, effete Gallic seamen ... in well-fitting outfits" -- for its final mission. (Je regrette to inform you that New York magazine no longer has the video up, but rest assured both he and the mariners were magnifique!)

Over the years I have marveled watching him continue to hone his craft -- with everything from deft reporting on HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues to anti-gun efforts and acclaimed novels like "Christodora" (2016) and "Correspondents" (2019) -- and have enjoyed occasionally running into him at various events, such as the premiere for the documentary about the famed Meatpacking District diner Florent. (RIP.)

And now Tim's back with a new novel, "Speech Team" (Viking), which tells the story of four 1980s high school brainy nerds -- two of them gay guys -- who slowly and awkwardly reunite 25 years later, in the year 2012, to go track down together the teacher/Speech Team coach who was both a mentor and a psychological abuser to all of them. (The story certainly resonates with me, who has cyber-sleuthed my former tennis team coach but have never confronted him.) Not only is it an intense time machine back to the 1980s -- the music, the clothes, the news events and (most of all) the pre-woke microaggressions -- it's a bitchily funny and surprisingly moving tale of trying to find closure for past hurts, reconnecting in the Facebook era with forgotten friends of youth and struggling to shake off the damage of the past in order to live fully in the present. 

Murphy, whom you may also know from "The Caftan Chronicles," his popular gay interview Substack, took a few minutes to answer some quick questions about the novel. 

Kenneth in the (212): This novel is so much shorter and faster-paced than your prior ones, "Christodora" and "Correspondents." What inspired it?

Tim: The desire to write a shorter and faster-paced novel than the last ones! Seriously! That was part of my intent, to write more of a propulsive summer beach read. But it was really sparked by meeting up with two friends from high school I had literally not seen since graduation day in 1987 -- one of them gay like me, the other a Jewish woman -- and revisiting a lot of the abuse and bullying we endured. I wanted the story to turn on the question: "What would happen if we confronted people years later with the awful things they said or did to us? Would they admit it and apologize? Genuinely or disingenuously claim no recollection? Get angry?" And the follow-up question: "Would doing so make us feel any better?"

Kenneth: A lot of the novel is about how hard it was growing up gay, or even being perceived as gay, in the pre-woke, pre-"Will and Grace" 1980s. Do you think things are all that better today?

Tim: Obviously there is still a lot of anti-LGBTQ animus out there, as we can see from the slew of horrible, hateful laws being passed against transgender healthcare, bathroom choice and LGBTQ books and school content. And certainly young queer or trans people still get bullied. I think the difference is that today there is language for it, like "homophobia" and "transphobia," and it's understood that this is wrong and that there may be serious repercussions for it. There was very little sense back in the 1980s, especially with AIDS-phobia, that queer people were to be respected and left alone, never mind affirmed. It was open season on queers at school and it was just "how things were," or "kids being kids." And that very much went hand in hand with all the unexamined racism and sexism of the period as well.

Kenneth: What were the most fun parts of writing the book?

Tim: I loved writing the character of Anthony Malouf, this working-class ethnic queer kid who grows up to be this fancy, haughty menswear designer who is quite lonely underneath all the glamour. And recreating all the details of daily 1980s life was really fun -- the radio hits versus the indie scene, the different genres of fashion (mainstream neon, indie overcoats and combat boots), the iconic news events like the Challenger explosion or Baby Jessica falling down the well. And also just writing characters gossiping about one another after 25 years apart was fun. 

Kenneth: What was the hardest part?

Tim: That it is so autobiographical in many places. It brought up a lot of pain and damage I'd mostly pushed down or thought I'd somehow gotten past through time, age, and therapy. I also just felt very exposed writing a main character, Tip Murray, so obviously based on me as opposed to tucking little aspects of my own life or personality into various characters, as I've done in the past books. 

Kenneth: What are your favorite things about the 1980s?

Tim: The music, for one thing. It was the first hardcore decade of synthesizers and drum machines and that opened up a whole new emotional sonic palette, a lot of it really beautifully dark and moody, like the Cocteau Twins or New Order or The Cure. But also so much amazing non-synth indie music like The Smiths and R.E.M., so full of ruefulness, cynicism and discontent about the Reagan and Thatcher eras. I also love the fashion -- not the neon aerobics stuff but the earth-toned indie stuff and the New Romantic stuff. On a more personal level, it was the decade, in high school and college, when my life really opened up to literature, theater, music, film and journalism, which is why, in pursuit of more of this stuff, I moved to NYC in 1991, right out of college, and have never left!

You can buy "Speech Team" on Amazon or at your local independent bookstore. If you email a screenshot of the receipt to timmurphynycwriter (at), he will donate $3 to Lambda Legal, which fights in U.S. courts for LGBTQ rights.

No comments: