In his epic new romance, Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style, author Paul Rudnick celebrates a pair of 18-year-olds falling in love at Yale University and follows them across an arc of gay history from New York to Hollywood to Paris and beyond. Like all the writer’s work, it’s non-stop incisive and insightful, as well as a rare combination of achingly funny and achingly tender. It’s a joy to read.
Rudnick, 65, shares a lot of biographical details with his narrator, Nate, who’s from Piscataway, New Jersey, went to Yale, and had a surprise hit on Broadway with what was once mischaracterized as “a comedy about AIDS.” Rudnick made a name for himself with his own version of that play, Jeffrey, and he’s been sharing his thoughts on stage and screen, in books and online ever since. His Twitter account is hilarious.
We spoke on a recent sunny afternoon in New York, where the author was surrounded by piles of important-looking papers in his office at home in Greenwich Village. It looked like the stage set of a play about the writer Paul Rudnick.
LGBTQ NATION: Who is Farrell Covington based on?
Paul Rudnick: He was inspired by a great many things, but one spark was, when I was applying to colleges, in the Jurassic period, I was on a train. I was a teenager headed back to New Jersey. And a man started talking to me. It was in no way sexual — he was extraordinarily handsome — but beyond that he had a confidence and an ease to him. And he started asking me about my life and I told him about applying to colleges.
He gave me some sort of extraordinary advice which, sadly, I cannot remember a word of, but I remember being so impressed with his personal style, with his ability to talk to a stranger, with his presentation. He also had the single most beautiful piece of luggage I’ve seen to this day.
I just thought, okay, that guy comes from another planet entirely. He was not a snob in any way, and I assume he was probably wealthy. He was tan in November so there was a hint of the ski slopes, but there was something else about him, something that was purely stylish, and it stayed with me even when his particular piece of advice did not. But there was something about this guy that made such a strong impression on me, and it was one of those first moments when I thought, ‘Okay, that’s worth emulating,’ and Farrell is sort of an emanation of those feelings. He’s a guy who is thoroughly confident, way too rich, but someone who will not repress his personality, no matter what the obstacles might be. He has a certain dazzle to him. And that was how it began.
LGBTQ NATION: Did you start the book with him in mind?
PR: When I started the book, he had not appeared. It was not planned out. And he kind of erupted somewhere around the second or third page, and would not stop, and I just surrendered. Because that’s what you have to do in the face of someone with that strong a presence, and when the writing is suddenly going well. So I just hung on for dear life.
LGBTQ NATION: Late in the book, Nate says of Farrell, “Romance was his religion.” If Ferrell is a romantic, how would you describe Nate?
PR: I think he’s someone who was waiting for a Farrell. I think he’s — he has many things in common with me. One of them was that I never divided the world into gay people and straight people, but into people who lived in New Jersey and people who lived in New York. I always assumed that at some point, a bus would arrive and bring me into Midtown Manhattan. And that’s what I think Nate has been striving for.
There was never a dislike of New Jersey, which has many fine features, and it’s actually a great place to raise a family. But it was a sense of the allure, of the unknown and the sophisticated, and I think that’s what Nate has more than anything. But he’s somebody who’s yearning. He’s someone who wants to see what the world has to offer. And when Farrell shows up, he sort of can’t believe his luck and is terrified at the same time because this is his dream. This is something that may outdistance him, that may astonish him, and may shame him. He has no idea. But he’s smart enough to go for it.
LGBTQ NATION: One thing I love about the book, and your writing, is the degree of self-acceptance the characters demonstrate. Rather than drowning in the details of coming to terms with his sexuality, Nate’s just off to the races with their love story. Was there a lot of Sturm und Drang involved in your own coming out, or did you just roll with it like virgin Nate does?
PR: I pretty much was out since birth, and I very much wanted to write a book that was celebratory, even though I think, Lord knows, there are people who encounter violence and equally terrible obstacles in becoming who they are. But I thought, there are also people who have somewhat of an easier road. Their troubles in life may come from elsewhere.
But I swear to God, I don’t know where I got this particular mix of confidence and sheer pigheadedness, but from a very young age, I initially assumed everyone was gay. Which means I assumed everyone was like me. Which was really outrageous when I think about it in retrospect, but also insanely healthy. So then it dawned on me, as I got into maybe 3rd or 4th grade, that, “Oh, there are straight people out there. Good for them.”
There was never the slightest sense of shame or displacement. I gradually encountered straight people I found interesting, and I was very gracious about them. But I didn’t find it fearsome. Where I grew up in the Jersey suburbs, I think you’d have a much tougher time being Black or Italian in certain neighborhoods than you would being a gay Jew because you might as well have been a spy balloon.
LGBTQ NATION: In a discussion of college majors at Yale, where the characters are both freshman, Nate says, that more than being equal, being gay is just better. He calls it “an innate and utterly sublime prejudice.”
PR: He also says that it’s a completely lunatic and indefensible conclusion, but he still swears by it. I share that sense that he wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve encountered almost no one who ever says, despite what prejudice they’ve encountered, that they wish they were straight. People love being gay, I think, even with the troubles attached, and that was very much how I felt. I thought, this was the most wonderful gift and something to be treasured. And it was with a certain superiority involved, which I think is just shameful! Because no one should feel superior to anyone else, but I couldn’t help it.
LGBTQ NATION: Gay history anchors the story in time. You’re 65 and you’ve lived through basically all of it since Stonewall. As you told that history, were you writing for your own generation of readers or did you have a younger gay audience in mind as well?
PR: I think all readers. But one of the benefits of getting older is that you have lived through your portion of history. And I felt that that was something I had to offer, that I knew how this works. Also, when you’re living through tragic times, when you’re living through the AIDS crisis, and then when you get somewhat past it, which no one ever will be, but there’s a sense of, “Okay, there’s a placement, that this was this particular chapter in gay history.”
There was a very celebratory, very open period that preceded it. And then a horrible sense that, oh, AIDS was going to end all gay lives, not simply through death and illness, but through a need for absolute silence and change. And that wasn’t true, and you only get that sense of history by living through it.
So that was part of the pleasure for me of the book, that it was something I could share. I thought, “‘This is what it felt like, and it may not be what you think.” Sometimes, there’s a certain sense of “decorum” or “received knowledge” about different stages of gay life that is true for some people, but certainly not for all. So I thought, “Okay, here’s my take.”‘”
It’s also for the people who were lucky enough, for the gay men who were lucky enough, and everyone else, to survive the peak of the AIDS crisis. Oh my God does it give you a certain perspective. The way if you were in New York on 9/11. This is another horrid personal prejudice, but I remember there were T-shirts at the time saying “I Love New York More Than Ever” and I’m thinking, “Then get the f**k out if you didn’t love it enough!” It shouldn’t take a terrorist catastrophe to make you love New York. Big events shape all of us, whether we like it or not.
LGBTQ NATION There’s some very explicit sex in the book, which reminded me of a historical gay romance novel I just read, which of course was full of it. Do you think sex plays a greater role in the lives of gay men than it does among people generally, and how do you feel about writing those scenes?
PR: I would never generalize about the place of sex in anyone’s life, but for these characters, it was very central to their early lives, and to their sense of self-definition. It was something they enjoyed immensely, and I thought, “This has to be an integral part of their romance because this is going to be an epic romance. And this is going to be a love story that endures.” And certainly sex would be a powerful element, although far from the only one.
It’s funny, I hadn’t written sex scenes quite this explicit before, and it was fascinating. Because there’s a whole sense of, especially when you’re also a comic writer, as I am, to realize: Okay. Sex. We all know it can be hilarious in every possible direction, but you also want some genuine heat and a sense of real passion. I thought, “Okay, how much description is necessary? How much do you leave to the reader’s imagination?” I thought, “Nope, let’s really go for it.” And also, because it was about people falling in love and having sex for the first time, I think that it was a necessary puzzle piece and would feel like a cheat to avoid that.
Also, I think, because in the 70s in the pre-AIDS era sex was so joyous and at times frenzied, that it was a very necessary part of the historical picture, as well. This was the first time that gay people were living quite openly, especially in urban areas, and were able to express their sexuality, sometimes relentlessly, so that it seemed important.
LGBTQ NATION: In the acknowledgments, you share that the book was written “after I’d lived a good long time and I wanted to at least begin to make sense of things.” Did you, and how so?
PR: I did. It was about a lot of subjects that I’ve been dealing with, or wanting to deal with, actually, for many years, for decades. And I wanted to do them justice. It was why it became so necessary to write these stories as a novel, to be able to dig into them as emotionally as possible, as a way of honoring the times I’ve lived through, the people I’ve known, the people that we’ve lost.
So it felt very satisfying by the end, especially because once I started to write the book, it was one of those rare experiences where it began to kind of pour out of me, and I’ve been around enough to know how rare that is. You need to not get in the way at those points. You have to say, let it rip.
Read more from Paul Rudnick in Part 2 of our interview, where he details his “life in the theater,” how to trigger your parents with pronouns, his fascination with Twitter, and what’s really motivating those 100 Million Moms.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity