Writer and dramaturge James Magruder has been a fixture in the Baltimore arts world for years. In his latest novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, he explores the ambitions, travails, and romantic lives of a group of students in Yale University residence Helen Hadley Hall during the early 1980s, while the news of AIDS and HIV (which Magruder dealt with personally) hovers ominously in the background. We chatted with him about finding yourself in your characters, starting a book on a legal pad, and why he doesn’t want to interview Meryl Streep.
There’s an autobiographical feel to Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, which begs the question—is this based on your life?
Absolutely. It’s embarrassingly autobiographical. I started fiction in my 40s, and I started Love Slaves before my other two books, before I really knew what I was doing. It wasn’t, in a sense, write what you know, it was write who you know. I started the French grad program in 1983-1984 at Helen Hadley. I defected to the drama school, which is why [in the book] I compressed my seven years at Yale into one year. But with the exception of two or three characters, everybody in the book is based on someone I knew. Some of them are still friends and some of them are no longer with us. At the time, that’s all I knew how to do, and I really wanted to commemorate that time because that was the year that HIV was discovered to cause AIDS. It’s a comic novel, but there’s this serious undertone.
Is it difficult to be extremely revelatory when you were writing some of the scenes? For example, some of the sexual encounters, or even the fights, especially if they happened to you.
I have no shame. At the same time as I was writing Helen Hadley I was writing these autobiographical plays that were being done at the Baltimore Theatre Project. My stories in Let Me See It are about daddy issues and survivor’s guilt. Writing my life out in plays and other books, it isn’t too tough. The danger is that now I believe everything in Helen Hadley really happened. The characters are based on real people, but the plot takes over, and it’s hard to convince me otherwise. There actually wasn’t a cocaine ring behind the donut sales.
So which character in the book are you?
The one who most corresponds to me in raw facts is Silas, even though I’m not Native American, I’m not a foundling, I don’t have green eyes. When I was re-conceiving Silas the last time around, I thought, ‘Let’s make him as far away from me as possible.’ I can’t say I wasn’t a total slut back then, and was really smart and clever, and deeply, deeply insecure, so those parts really ring true. But I thought, ‘Let’s not have him have a family he has to interact with, so that’s what I did. Actually, there’s so much of me in all of them.
You talked about starting the book on a legal pad while you were on a train. What prompted you to start writing it?
I started it two weeks before I got the news that my immune system was recovering miraculously [from HIV]. It was a long train ride, and I was going up to New Haven, Connecticut, because my musical, which had been performed at Center Stage, was being done at Yale. I thought, ‘Well, I’m bored, and I’ve always wanted to write about New Haven.’ Whenever I go there, it’s just filled with ghosts. Even though I write plays and enjoy writing plays, I somehow feel like fiction is the highest form of all, because it’s so hard. So I just started with Becky, she was called Edith then, Edith Stumpenhorst, which ‘they’ said was too ridiculous. I remember coming back and listing everyone who would be in it and coming up with funny names for it and I just persevered. I can’t say I don’t have any training because I’m a constant reader and I know how stories work from my work as a dramaturge, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was just a crowd of people I loved and things that made me laugh, because I’ve always proceeded from well, if I can make myself laugh, I can make others laugh. Clearly, this book is not for everyone’s taste and humor. Plus, there’s all the sex.
And you worked on this book for 20 years?
I started in November 1996 and it’s come out in May 2016. I finished the first draft by 2001 and it was double its length. I set it aside and started writing other things and I think I got better at it as I went—I feel like I had a 12-year MFA. I really picked it up in earnest after [my book] Sugarless came out, and I finished it while I was in Africa, but then, as I say in the acknowledgements, everyone always loved the title, but no one would touch it. My agent said, ‘I can’t sell this.’ University of Wisconsin Press, which had put out an earlier book, said, ‘You’re going to have to justify this ornate style.’ Fortunately, this woman in Plano, Texas, who’d published friends’ books, really took a chance on it. So composition soup to nuts it might be 18 years?
So the book then really showcases your evolution as a writer during that time.
And what I didn’t expect is that in those 20 years, start to finish, the world has changed so much that the book really is a historical novel.
What drew you to write fiction?
I guess being a reader. I’m not interested in non-fiction, I’ve written features and things, but I could never be a journalist because I’m as much more interested in my spin as the who, what, where, why. That would be too confining for me. Plays feel easier, and because they seem easier they seem less worthy. But that’s the Catholic in me. I know lots of writers who say, ‘I try not to write dialogue, I’m so terrible at it,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Dialogue, are you kidding??’ We always diminish what our strengths are. Whereas the things I can’t do, for other people, it just roles out of them.
Did your purpose for writing the book change in 20 years, especially after your health improved?
It’s so weird. I started writing this two weeks after I found out that my viral load was 100. I did always feel like it was on my bucket list. I told my boss that I’d be satisfied to die if I had a long-term partner to list in an obit, and if I could publish one work of fiction. I was writing about a hilarious time in my past and so I guess it was just a way to recreate it. The very last section of the book takes place in the present tense, and as satirical and perhaps unkind the book is to some of the characters, I feel as if it’s a gift. When I first started the first couple of chapters, it was very satiric and mean, and it got nicer over time. It’s partly because I met my husband and he tenderized me and gave me such a great home life that it made it easier to write. I just softened. It’s still a comedy, but I love the characters so much more than I did in 1996. Some of them are not with us, some of them did die of ‘the plague.’ Sometimes people say, ‘You don’t look like you love your characters,’ and I really feel like you should love them all. In this case, I really do.
It sounds like it evolved into a memoriam for this part of your life.
Yes. Definitely. And it would be a different book if I wrote it now. And I could have saved eight years if I’d read The Lovely Bones and seen the posthumous narrator, like, ‘Oh, there’s Helen Hadley.’ That would have saved me a lot of time. It’s that POV shit that I never learned because I was writing plays and it’s all first person. I have a terrible time with third person and I have a terrible time with authority.
What else do you have in the works?
Yale Press has commissioned me to write an 80,000-word chronicle of the first 50 years of the Yale Repertory Theatre. So I have to call all these people on the phone, and art of me wishes they were all dead so I didn’t have to talk to Meryl Streep, to Diane Weiss, and others. That is so out of my comfort zone, but I’m going to do it. That’s one project. I also have a new play that’s going to be at Berekely Prep. My next fiction book I’m half way through and it’s a series of linked novellas that’s set in a summer stock theater in Ithaca, New York, in the 1980s. I’ve forgotten how much fun it is to be in a show. I became a dramaturge and a playwright, and an egg-head, and forgot how much fun it is to be in the chorus of Damn Yankees. That’s been an act of joy, remembering how much fun that was. But the Yale book . . . at least I usually finish what I start. It might take me 20 years.