Larry Kramer Talks Art, Activism,
and D.H. Lawrence
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. Do you ever come across a book that everyone can’t get enough of? The kind that just seems to speak to anyone who picks it up? One of the most beloved books in this category is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I first met the little prince when I was 11 or 12. But I’ve got to tell you: the little prince didn’t charm me, and neither did the book about him. So many people I knew loved this little book. I remember seeing several people (once, two in one day) with tattoos featuring the iconic drawing of the little prince permanently inked on some part of their body. A few also had a quote from the book etched on their skin: “One sees clearly only with the heart.” Having read the book already, I felt no need to read it again. I just assigned it to that enormous shelf of slender books that speak volumes to others but not to me. But on an icy winter day a few years ago, I was feeling restless and decided to walk to a local bookstore. There was a copy of The Little Prince on a table in the front, and I found myself taking it home. This time, I finally saw it clearly. And recently, I got to talking about how picking up a book for the second time can result in seeing it—and yourself—entirely differently with today’s guest.
Larry Kramer: I’m Larry Kramer. I’m a writer and activist.
WS: Larry Kramer is a titan—of literature and theater, of public health and LGBT advocacy, and. . . of my own life. I’ve known Larry for a long time. How long? Well, I’ll let him tell you.
LK: I’ve known Will since before he was born. His mother was one of my dear, close friends. Much beloved and much missed.
WS: I’ve spent much of my life talking to Larry about all sorts of things and naturally, we’ve spent a lot of that time talking about books. So I found myself curious about which book he’d pick as the one that changed his life. But long before he ever came across that book, he was just a kid, growing up just outside of Washington, D.C. in the 1940s. A kid who from the very beginning was drawn to the power of words, and the thrill of watching them come alive.
LK: We lived in a garden apartment development on the wrong side of the district line. And everything was very new, very small townish. It was not a happy childhood, so I’d just as soon move on to what we’re going to talk about.
I was pretty much a loner. I liked reading, I liked going to the theater, which you were able to do for very little money in those days. I just remember the experience of sitting in the second balcony, which you could do for like 90 cents. And the feeling of. . . some sort of magic that was going on inside the theater when the lights went down. It just felt safe, somehow. I don’t know why.
My father was against all my artistic impulses. My mother had artistic intentions. She had wanted to be a radio actress when she was a child. She did send me to some sort of cockamamy kids drama classes, acting and things, which I don’t remember very fondly.
WS: While Larry had little patience for the drama classes, there was one aspect of the theater that he found himself drawn to.
LK: I wrote a little play for the Cub Scouts, of which I was one. So I must have been interested, somehow there. I guess it was a way of seeing pretend come to life, somehow—it seemed welcoming, comforting. I like it much more than going to the movies, although I certainly did that. But I was not drawn toward movies for some reason.
WS: Despite not being that excited by movies, Larry made a career of them, moving to England to work as a production assistant and story editor for Columbia Pictures. But the move across the pond did not make his life any easier.
LK: Oh, God. Being gay in London at that time was very. . . it was against the law still, so you went to what I call “knock three times and whisper low” kind of places. Bars in basements. You know, there were plenty of gay people and one dated. I was not interested in a lover at those kinds of places. That was not on the list of what most gay men wanted in those days, because it was too hard to live with anybody visibly.
WS: It was while Larry was working in London that he found himself reading one of the seminal works of English literature: D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.
LK: One of the directors that I was nurturing gave me a book to read. And the first time I read it, I didn’t get it. And then I was sick in my apartment with something or other and I reread it again, and I said, holy goly, this is a great, great, great, great novel that I have a chance to do something with.
WS: The novel tells the story of the passionate love affairs two couples have after the first World War. Set in a mining town in the Midlands, the book has strong sexual content—including a significant homoerotic subplot between the two male leads.
LK: Lawrence was a great, great writer. He’s much more appreciated over there than he was here. His writing is very strong and passionate about the relationships between men and men and men and women. I suspect he would have been gay, outwardly gay, if he were alive today. As a writer, he was wonderful. For me, he’s a brilliant writer. It has such yearning in it. For more in relationships.
WS: The movie’s production was not without challenges—in fact, it was filled with one after the other. The original director, Silvio Narizzano, left the project and a number of others were considered before Ken Russell was hired. And when the original screenplay deviated too far from the book, there was only one thing Larry could do.
LK: The original screenwriter, I used all my money to pay him, and it was completely wrong for D.H. Lawrence. And his agent—she said, Larry, he’s done a terrible job, I should give you your money back. But she didn’t.
I knew that they would not finance another screenplay. So to save it, I wrote a screenplay, which turned out to be the first important work that I had done. I had had only one experience of writing a screenplay before. I wanted to be a writer, but like most people who want to be writers, they’re afraid of writing. And I came to write the screenplay for this because I had to.
WS: And the experience of making Women in Love became especially significant in Larry’s life as a writer.
LK: It was the first important thing I’ve ever done. I was in psychoanalysis when I was living in London, going every day, lying on the couch, and looking for a reason why I wasn’t writing. I think I was still afraid. And so one of the proudest moments for me was when I finished the screenplay, handing it to my doctor and saying, see here! I’ve done it.
I was so proud of the screenplay of Women in Love that I sent it to F.R. Leavis, who was the great critic at Cambridge. He wrote me back the angriest letter—how dare I take this great work of art and dare to defame it by doing what I’ve done. He didn’t read it, it was just the idea that you were making a movie out of it.
WS: F.R. Leavis was in the minority. The film went on to receive critical acclaim, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Larry.
LK: I don’t react very much to awards. It’s nice, I’ve got a Tony, and I’ve got a lot of awards. Peggy Ramsey, the great agent said to me, she said, darling, don’t believe anything you’ve ever read. The good or the bad. It just gets in the way. Best bit of advice I’ve ever had.
WS: When we come back from the break, Larry takes that advice to heart—and takes to the stage.
WS: Larry Kramer wrote an Oscar nominated adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the book that changed his life. Which is why the number of times he’s read it may come as a surprise.
WS: Have you read Women in Love since making the movie?
LK: No. It was another part of my life. AIDS changed everything. My life is before and after AIDS.
LK: After Women in Love, I came back to America to live and I went back to the theater, which is what I really wanted, and started writing plays. And that was a. . . harder apprenticeship because writing a play is, I think, harder than almost anything.
WS: But the collaborative nature of theater helped Larry learn quickly.
LK: I learned how to write plays really more from Gail Papp at the Public Theater because my first play that I brought to them, it really was a mess. But Gail would ask me these questions, and I would answer them. And so when I’d get really excited about something, she’d say, well, see? I’ve been very lucky to have had good guidance. I don’t think any writer ever thinks he’s any good. It’s such hard work. So, it’s good to have people whom you respect giving you reactions.
WS: And out of that came the final version of The Normal Heart. Premiering in 1985, the play called attention to the rise of AIDS in New York, focusing on a writer and activist who helps form a public health group to raise awareness of a disease killing gay men, and takes on the mayor and the city at large. The Normal Heart drew on Larry’s own efforts to fight the spread of the disease through the organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He would later found ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
LK: I tend to be more interested in the best way to get the message about what you’re thinking out there. So when I became an activist, I didn’t have any tool to fight back the world with except my writing, so each of the things that I wrote then I wrote for practical reasons. A lot of the stuff I write is political. To rouse the troops. I wrote The Normal Heart as a play because I knew how long it took to write a novel, and I knew no one would make a movie of it.
WS: The Normal Heart was made into a movie, on HBO in 2014—and he won a Tony for the 2011 Broadway revival. But even more exciting is the new work he’s been doing—his latest is the monumental novel The American People, the second volume of which will be published next year. And so, Larry’s work continues to make an indelible mark on American culture.
LK: Listen. You can only write what you feel and what you think, and you can’t care what they think about it. If I had a quarter for every rotten review I got out of The New York Times for all the various things I’ve done over the years, I’d be able to buy a steak dinner or something.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Larry Kramer. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.