Gay writer Paul Rudnick won’t let the book banners bring him down

Gay writer Paul Rudnick won’t let the book banners bring him down
Paul Rudnick Photo: Atria Books

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, and a rare combination of achingly funny and achingly tender. It’s a joy to read.

In Part 1 of our interview, Rudnick, 65, talks about what motivates his narrator Nate – who’s modeled closely on the author, himself – and the title character Farrell Covington, “a guy who is thoroughly confident, way too rich,” and “someone who will not repress his personality, no matter what the obstacles might be.”

“He has a certain dazzle to him,” says Rudnick.

As does the author, who explains in Part 2 of our interview 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.

LGBTQ NATION: One thread in the book is Nate’s pursuit of a “life in the theater,” based on movies like All About Eve and the backstage machinations and glamorous parties portrayed in that film. When did you say to yourself, “I am now a member of this tribe”?

Paul Rudnick: I had, early on in my life, a show on Broadway called I Hate Hamlet. I was surrounded by terrific people. But there was also a certain level of calamity attached to it because it starred Nicol Williamson, this deranged, Olympic-caliber alcoholic who caused constant havoc, so it was a wild ride.

It wasn’t until I worked on Jeffrey, which was my response to living in New York during AIDS, that I really felt connected to the theater, maybe because the play was turned down everywhere. Not a theater in New York, a theater in the country would touch it. It was considered far too gay. It was considered somehow “a comedy about AIDS.” It had all these red flags attached to it, or pink flags attached to it. And we ended up with this just amazing cast of people who just wanted to be there.

And also at that time, in New York and elsewhere, theatre became more essential than ever because there was so little media coverage of the AIDS crisis. You know, it wasn’t on television. It wasn’t in The New York Times. Theater was all we had. So when I would go see The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Jerker, so many great gay plays, that was the only place to get basic information about what was going on. It was a period of such heightened grief and panic, but also of real comradeship, that we were all in this together, and those plays were kind of town halls.

So Jeffrey was, because it was the first thing I’d ever written that didn’t embarrass me, that I didn’t think, “I should be much better at this” — and also, I was working with people I just adored, with a cast and director, designers, people I just cherished, and no one was there for the money because we weren’t making any money, and the play was supposed to run for three weeks and that was it, and then went on to have a much larger life — but that was the moment where I experienced the best form of theatrical glamour, the greatest emotion and the greatest appreciation of that community. I would not wish that on anyone, because it involved so much tragedy, but on the other hand, I cherished the connections that were made.

There’s a scene in the book of going to a sort of first show business party in a beautiful apartment on the Upper West Side. There is a magic to that, the first moment when you realize, “Okay, this world I’ve always dreamed of, these celebrities I’ve always followed, these artists I’ve always admired: They’re real, and I can be introduced to them, and I can embarrass myself in front of them.”

It’s a very special part of anyone’s sentimental education in theater and in the arts, where you say, “Oh, that’s what a producer looks like. That’s how a director treats an actor.” So it was thrilling, and horribly depressing, also, because, especially when you’re younger, everything is much worse and everything is much more exciting. Everything revolves around you.

LGBTQ NATION: In Italy, Nate hosts a journalist that represents the latest generation of gay youth. You call them Sten, and they’re ngc, or non-gender conforming. At one point Nate confides, “I refrained from asking Sten if their preferred pronoun was ‘bitch.'”

PR: Sten is a tough cookie, which I enjoy because it’s a conversation that I’ve had many times now. And I think the most important thing on both sides of any generational divide is to listen. Even if you think the other people are old, or young and stupid, and prejudiced and wrongheaded, pay attention, because there will be something of value that everyone usually has to offer. You have to stay open and you have to stay curious. Otherwise, you’re going to miss the best time, and also you’re going to miss the world’s evolution.

And that’s what’s going on when you talk to young queer people, or whatever they choose to call themselves. They’re amazing. Every generation wants to find something that will upset their parents, and from earlier times, it was hair, music, clothes, you name it. And I think for the current generation, pronouns have been the ticket, and I applaud them. I think it’s wonderful, because — to use a Gen Z word — it’s been such a trigger for older people.

I find it endlessly entertaining, because you think, why would anyone find that such a burden, or an ordeal, to actually acknowledge someone in the way they’d like to be acknowledged? I always think that’s the rule: Call people what they’d like to be called. And that’s what Nate deals with. Also because he’s been challenged. He’s been told, “You’re an old gay person, you’re over. You have nothing to teach us.” Sometimes all of that is true, but sometimes it’s not.

LGBTQ NATION: Where do you come down on using the asterisk to fill in words like f***ot and the N-word?

PR: I kind of prefer accuracy. And also, I think you have to trust the reader and the audience to understand why you might be using a particular word or portraying a particular character. Because to homogenize everything and protect some imaginary reader and morality is always a mistake. Most writers let you know what their point of view is. “No, I’m not approving of this horrible Klan member in this part of my story, but I’m trying to do it honestly and fully.”

Also, I think people over-worry that, especially when it comes to young readers. When I was a kid, I read voraciously. And I read way above my level of sophistication. It did not in any way deform me or mislead me or corrupt me. No. As you grow older, you start to understand more of the world, but it doesn’t mean any of those books should be prohibited. Kids are hungry for sheer information. And so I’m always on the side of more: more books, more detail, more history, more light.

LGBTQ NATION: I wrote a story recently about the American Library Association’s new list of the most challenged and banned books in America. Do you anticipate Farrell Covington will be banned in any libraries, and if it was, what would you say to the local Moms for Liberty activists that made it happen?

PR: I adore those women, and the 100 Million Moms, which is really just two moms and a box of wine. Most of those groups, and the Ron DeSantises of the world, who are busily banning books, have never read those books, haven’t come anywhere close to them. So I wish that they might read Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style and have a great time. I doubt they ever will. It will appear so far off their radar, when the books they’re banning are Judy Blume, and these acknowledged classics, and Toni Morrison. I think Farrell Covington would bewilder them in the best way possible.

You know, it’s as if the internet doesn’t exist when they ban books. You think, those are going to be the books kids head for first, and that they can order today on Amazon and download onto whatever device they choose. It’s so nuts to imagine banning books is even possible. You know, it’s horrifying.

LGBTQ NATION: Were you ever verified on Twitter with a blue check? Do you still have a blue check, and where will you go if Twitter implodes?

PR: I was verified and it has been removed, you know, like a kidney, or my appendix. I sense the void.

Twitter is one of those things that people have been predicting its demise constantly, long before I even was on it. But there’s something kind of irresistible about it. It’s just that combination of, you know, a global back fence and a Mean Girls party. I do, I find it fascinating. So yeah, I’m still tweeting.

LGBTQ NATION: Jared and Ivanka are a frequent subject of your tweets. Was there ever a time you thought Jared Kushner was cute?

PR: Bite your tongue. My one Jared Kushner story is I had a dear friend who’s no longer with us. He was a straight guy who was an editor and he was the most genuinely decent man I’ve ever come across. He would not say an unkind word about anyone. And he had dealings with Jared Kushner for many years, pre-Trump presidency. And it was when Jared had bought the Observer, I remember I ran into this guy the next week, and he looked genuinely shell-shocked. And I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “Jared Kushner is the stupidest human being I have ever met.” This was coming from a man who was the dearest soul and the most generous, spirited guy.

Jared just feels like the soul of dullness. And that marriage seems like a business arrangement in which people wanted to merge. The fact that Ivanka needed to convert to Judaism to seal the deal, because otherwise Jared would not marry her — that’s romantic. So I never found Jared cute. He does seem a little bit like a line drawing, or like a fountain pen in a tight suit. He doesn’t seem sexual in any way. He seems, you know, like his mom still has to remind him to shower.

LGBTQ NATION: What are you watching on TV these days?

PR: During the pandemic, my husband and I became addicted to every possible Scandinavian police procedural. So we’re still a little bit hooked on whatever murders are occurring in Finland. Mostly which always seem to somehow involve wind turbines. So we’re still keeping abreast of the crime scene in Norway and Denmark, as well. We’ve also been watching Somebody, Somewhere. That show is just superb. Of course, we’ve been enjoying Indian Matchmaker, and we’re suckers for the Night Agent and Rabbit Hole. We just started watching The Diplomat with Keri Russell.

LGBTQ NATION: I’m liking that.

PR: Very much. Also, I will admit there’s nothing like any version of Law & Order, because of the stories being completely resolved, always for the best, in well under an hour, especially when the world itself is more fraught. 

LGBTQ NATION: What books are on your nightstand?

PR: I can give you some of my most recent favorites. There’s a wonderful book by Thomas Malin called Up With the Sun that came out a few weeks ago. A book that’s been out for a couple of years, but it is spectacular: Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, who’s a transgender author and just a world-class writer, and it’s just the most delicious and touching and sort of extraordinary book. And Andrew Holleran’s latest, Kingdom of Sand. Holleran is one of the truly great American writers, and Kingdom of Sand is astonishing because everything about it should be impossible, should be dull, should be a trudge and instead it is just thrilling. I don’t know how he does it. I read his books compulsively. You know, it’s why you don’t try to imitate someone that gifted. You just thank them.  

LGBTQ NATION: I’m looking forward to Edmund White’s new book The Humble Lover, as well.

PR: Oh, yeah.

LGBTQ NATION: I’m supposed to pursue an interview with him, but I’m a little intimidated, to be honest, because, you know, he has the “great man” reputation as the dean of gay writers. Should I be intimidated?

PR: I mean, I don’t know him personally. But I think what’s so great about people with slightly fearsome reputations, the ones who you do get intimidated by, they usually, once you’re talking to them, have an even more powerful weapon, which is a certain personal charm. They know you’re afraid of them, and then they sort of disarm you by being absolutely, you know, delightful and casual and welcoming. I don’t know if that’s true of Edmund White, but I think so. I mean, he’s just a great. I think you can lower your anxiety level, because I’ve been in those situations where you walk into the room with the lion or the monster, the king, and you think, “I’m gonna be demolished!” And then suddenly, they’re bewitching you and you realize, “Oh, my God, I would give them all my money.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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