In Conversation With Tucker Shaw



We readers at times find ourselves fortunate enough to come across a memoir or novel, and to be so completely immersed and captivated by it that we simply can't stop thinking, or talking about it. It's been almost three months since I read Tucker Shaw's When You Call My Name, a poignant and powerful tale that took me back in time and swept me off my feet. 

It's a book that's come up in conversation with many of my fellow book friends, on and off the internet, a recommendation passed to those within the LGBTQ+ community, and one I will surely return to.

Described as a heartrending novel about two gay teens coming of age in New York City in 1990 at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Shaw's novel is without a doubt one of the most moving books I've ever read.

When You Call My Name was in fact so well researched that it read like nonfiction.

I connected with Tucker last month to discuss the writing process, one of his main characters, Ben, and where we stand today with HIV/AIDS. 

Tucker Shaw by Andrew Janjigian

When You Call My Name felt deeply researched and the portrayals of both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fashion industry were incredibly accurate. Tell me about the writing process.

Much of When You Call My Name reflects a very important time in my own life. I am just a few years older than the main characters Adam and Ben (I turned 22 in 1990), and the late 1980s/early 1990s were foundational years for me. Incredibly exciting ones in some ways — music, fashion, pop culture—but also fraught, especially in the LGBTQ community. The urgent impacts of HIV/AIDS saturated our lives, and the emotional aftermath continues even now. I didn’t have to reach very far to access the feelings of those days. They lie very close to the surface for me.

Still, three decades can muddle the recollections of the specifics, so I spent a fair amount time researching details. I dove back into old issues of newspapers, re-connected with old acquaintances in the activist and medical worlds, and rummaged endlessly through the shoeboxes I keep under my bed, which are filled with photographs, tear sheets, mixtapes, and other relics from those days. I filled my bulletin board with layers of inspiration. And to fill in the gaps, YouTube is amazing. You can watch endless runway shows from that period – Versace, Gaultier, Lacroix, Anna Sui, Patrick Kelly, you name it.

I grew up in the '90s, and while I don't remember much of it, what you wrote still resonated with me. Do you feel your DNA was woven into a lot of the book?  

Very much so. Writing When You Call My Name transported me, emotionally, back to that time. It’s amazing what you remember when you put on some evocative music and close your eyes. The details may be fuzzy, but the feelings are loud and clear, even (sometimes especially) the hard ones. The trick is to be willing to welcome them, and to allow yourself to feel them again.

Your character Ben reminds me very much of myself. We both fled our cities at eighteen and wound up working as assistants on shoots in the fashion industry. Where did the inspiration for Ben come from?

Ben is a character who I knew from the first keystroke. He is not me, but we share a lot in common (this is true for every character in the story). Like Ben, all I wanted at age eighteen was to escape into a better, more exciting, more beautiful world. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, so I searched for answers in magazines. For years, my best friend Jorge and I would spend hours paging through every issue of Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, whatever big fat glossies we could get our hands on. We’d inspect and deconstruct every page, studying them like textbooks, because we wanted to understand their mysteries. How could such beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful places, even exist, and how could we get there too? Sometimes, like Ben, we conflated beauty with commerce, or reality with fantasy, but we never lost our fascination.

Tell me about the excerpts spread throughout the book, the short questions posed and anonymous answers. I think those will resonate with many LGBTQ+ folks who felt the weight of rejection growing up.

I wanted to open up windows into at least a few of the complicated experiences and challenges the central characters may have gone through earlier in life, as gay kids in the 1970s and 1980s. My hope for these bits and pieces was to offer a little extra context for the story and characters; after all, no one exists without a history, and we all carry the residue of past experiences with us.

I wanted these little moments to be slightly mysterious, almost a conversation between me and the reader, until… well, I won’t give anything away. My brilliant editor Mark Podesta was instrumental in helping me design them.

The book as a whole was a love letter to New York City. Your prose guided me directly onto the streets, and flooded my mind with memories of my first trip, and many after. It's a city unlike any other. What does New York mean to you?

I don’t know a more exhilarating, more captivating, more confounding, more surprising place. It is, and will always be, my most complex and rewarding relationship, and my favorite place in the world. And it’s my favorite character in the book. 

Your author's note was tremendously moving. As you said, there is still so much work to do. Where do we stand today with HIV/AIDS? What are the barriers to treatment? And what organizations can readers get involved with? 

This is a big question. So much has happened in the past thirty years. Thanks to science and activism, there are treatments now that can help keep the virus in check, and help prevent its transfer. But there is still no cure. And stigma persists.

Too often, I hear people talk about HIV/AIDS as though it is a bygone chapter of history, something from the past. Far from it. It is still very much here, and inequity remains a very stubborn wrench in the works. While millions of people worldwide benefit from the medical advancements we’ve made, many millions do not. Access to care is profoundly unequal. It’s also fixable, if governments and drug companies felt compelled to fix it. But morality doesn’t often drive those sectors of society, and so we fight.

The most important thing is to commit. It can all feel overwhelming, or even hopeless, but the best medicine for combatting that feeling is action.

There are many multinational organizations to consider supporting with your time or money, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the International AIDS Society, amfAR, and others, but I strongly recommend getting involved on a local level. Most cities and communities in North America have local outfits providing HIV/AIDS-related medical care, legal advocacy, housing support, educational programs, meal delivery, and/or other essential services, and they can use your help and money. Hit google; you’ll find them.

When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw is available in hardcover edition at Indigo and in e-book or audiobook format from Kobo. My U.S. readers can check Macmillan for retailers.