I’ve been a superfan of Carter Sickels’s work ever since I was a baby queer who came across his first (gorgeous) novel The Evening Hour in the Philadelphia bookstore Giovanni’s Room. Somehow that book—so queer, so Appalachian, so hard yet so soft—came into my life at exactly the right moment, the moment I was beginning to ask questions about how Appalachia could be so queer and so red at the same time and about how my queer friends could be so committed to anti-classism in name and yet so anti-rural in practice.
Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, extends and deepens his commitments to these themes, following gay male artist Brian as he learns he is HIV+ and chooses to leave the city for the Appalachian Ohio family and community that raised him. It’s a story that holds huge contradictions with rigor and generosity and that expands our image of what the familial struggles and final days for men living and dying with HIV in the 1980s looked like—they didn’t just live and create and love and die in New York City and San Francisco, but also in small towns and mountain communities across America. To some, this technically intricate and structurally innovative book might be considered historical fiction and in some regards it is; yet the concerns of illness, queerness, secrecy, family and the urban/rural divide are more relevant today than ever.
I spoke with Sickels about this book’s origins and futures, what it’s like to write illness in the time of COVID-19, writing fiction with multiple points of view, and writing a book about AIDS set in Appalachia.
The Rumpus: For me this is a book most about queerness and the unhappiness of one particular family that lives in Appalachian Ohio. What is the book most about for you?
Carter Sickels: Yes, it is about queerness—about what it means to grow up in a conservative family and rural town, to leave that town and come out, and then to have to come back to that space. It’s also about the intense homophobia during the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic. The family is a microcosm for what was going on in America—how they fail to fully accept and protect their queer son.
Rumpus: This book seems profoundly American to me, not only in its history and setting which reveals so much about larger America but also in the way it talks about leaving and returning, migration and emigration. I heard you say in an interview I believe that the book was inspired by a true event involving a young boy and a swimming pool—was that where the book started or did it begin for you somewhere else?
Sickels: Yes, that was the impetus. A man in West Virginia went swimming in the public swimming pool in 1987, and he was immediately kicked out of the pool and barred from returning. Oprah Winfrey did a show on this—she took her show on the road and went to the town in West Virginia. So the audience included around two hundred people from the town. I saw the show when I was a teenager, and it stuck with me. You can still find clips of it online. A man stands up and says AIDS will eradicate gay men, and everyone in the audience cheers—meanwhile, the man who was kicked out of the pool, Mike Sisco, is sitting on stage, stoic, listening to this. It’s terrible to watch. I didn’t know any gay people when I was growing up, and had no understanding of myself as queer or trans. This show left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think I was surprised by the vitriol, which was so typical of the 80s, but maybe the show stuck with me because here was a gay man on TV, who was out of the closet, and who was from a small, rural town.
Rumpus: WOW. Ugh. That hurts viscerally to think about, and the scene in the novel inspired by that story hurts just as bad. One thing I loved about your book and that I think it does so well is talk about community, the ways that Brian’s family is both a microcosm of their larger place-based community and also its own smaller community that is (somewhat) more empathetic and supportive of Brian. I was also struck by the epigraph from Robert Frost about how home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Were you more interested in exploring Brian’s relationship to the town community or to his own family or both?
Sickels: In very early drafts, I zoomed in on the town—and part of that was maybe just a way of understanding this place and visualizing the setting. Setting and characters take shape for me as I’m writing in scene, place details pulling me deeper into the narrative. Brian’s relationship to the town is critical for revealing the isolation and violence he experiences—as a queer man with HIV, there is really no safe or supportive place for him. Church, the swimming pool, restaurants. The negative way the town reacts to him fans out to the family as well—Jess is ostracized at school, for example. But, Brian’s relationship with his family is the primary focus. I wanted to show how complicated and damaging familial homophobia is—they take him in and are somewhat supportive, but they are also limited and stunted by their shame, denial, and silence.
Rumpus: For sure, I felt this so much. It’s fascinating to see the moments where Brian’s identities and disease implicate his family members in a way they didn’t anticipate and they have to make choices about whether to align themselves towards or away from Brian, i.e. to accept that they are being ostracized and feel that feeling or push it away and continue to tell the story that the problem is Brian and Brian alone. You choose to use several first-person points of view in the book in addition to a third-person point of view, so let’s talk about point of view for a minute. How did you decide whose story it was in a given chapter and who would tell what sections? How do you think about the use of third and first person in the same book?
Sickels: I wanted to challenge myself by writing a book that used multiple narrators. I knew Brian would be at the center of this novel, that he would have a voice (I didn’t want to write about a queer character who didn’t get to tell his own story). But, it’s not just his story—it’s the story of this family, and how they evolve and change (or don’t). Brian’s mother Sharon and his little sister Jess quickly developed as the other two central characters, and three was an interesting number to work with because of the triangulation structure and the tension between them. As far as deciding who would narrate which part of the story, that took some time—I tried to pay attention to propulsion and the progression of the larger narrative, but also to the individual character arcs. I hit some dead-ends, and threw out the pages of repetition—I didn’t need each of the characters telling their version of every single event.
I read a lot of novels that use multiple narrators. Louise Erdrich’s novels, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, and Stacey D’Erasmo’s A Seahorse Year were all very helpful. Sometimes, I worked on one character at a time, trying to stay close to that character’s voice. For example, I’d spend a couple weeks just writing Jess’s chapters. Or, I’d read and edit all the Brian chapters. Then, I would pull all the chapters together, and arrange them in chronological order, focusing on building tension and movement, so that the narrative wasn’t stagnant. Sometimes I tried writing scenes from another character’s perspective, to figure out who would tell this part of the story. For example, there is a pivotal scene where Brian goes to the swimming pool narrated from Jess’s perspective. I tried to write the scene from Brian’s perspective, but it just wasn’t going anywhere; it was too emotionally heavy and too close. I landed on the first-person point of view early on—this added intimacy and immediacy—but I used a third-person narrator with Travis, the father, because he’s a character who’s emotionally distant. I wanted the readers to experience the weight of his distance and silence.
Rumpus: I love that—”it just wasn’t going anywhere.” I also love the idea of point-of-view triangulation, that three is a powerful number that can tell us more than two or four. It also seems like a very bold and potentially risky thing to do, to write from all of those points of view and in general the book is extremely ambitious—and accomplishes a lot.
What are the things you were afraid of in writing this book and how do you feel about those fears now?
Sickels: So many things, Emma! I wanted to write about Brian and his family, but I didn’t want to tell a queer story or an AIDS story that’s only palpable to straight audiences. I wanted to write from these different characters’ perspectives and to think about the familial themes, but for it to still be a very queer book. And, I was anxious about telling a story that wasn’t mine—I was close to Jess’s age during this time, and I didn’t lose my friends or community or lovers to AIDS. As a queer trans man, I understand homophobia and rejection, and that helped me write Brian’s story. But I worried about getting it right. This is such a complicated issue, about who’s telling the story, and one I know you have grappled with, too—the outsider/insider binary, and how we can complicate that (which you do so amazingly in The Third Rainbow Girl).
Hearing from readers has helped alleviate some of those fears. I’ve heard from people who grew up in Appalachia and rural towns, who had a friend or brother who was queer or who died of AIDS, but I’ve also heard from queer men and AIDS activists who survived that time. They’ve reached out because they see a part of their story in this book. We have to tell the story we’re compelled to write, even if it’s terrifying, or maybe, especially if it’s terrifying. I love what Dorothy Allison says about writing—that if you haven’t broken out in “that sweat of fear,” then maybe you haven’t gone far enough.
Rumpus: Yes to all these fears and the fear of being viewed as trying to claim insider status when you know you don’t have it. Though the book is Brian’s most fully, there’s a part of my heart that belongs to Jess. Her experience in the novel in some ways complicates the insider/outsider dynamic you speak of because she’s young enough to be implicated in the future and to change but is still the product of this conservative place—though she hasn’t lived through what Brian has lived through she’s still profoundly affected by it and that is also a valid experience worth writing about. I wondered about what you say though, about being anxious about telling a story that wasn’t yours, and that you were young in the 1980s, too young to have seen the AIDS crisis firsthand. Do you consider this book historical fiction? Is it possible to write historical fiction about the 1980s? Where do we draw the line between history that feels part of the “now” and the history of our “past”?
Sickels: Thank you for the kind words and insight about Jess. I don’t know, honestly. Many readers are calling the book historical fiction, and I’m not bothered by the label but it is strange, as someone who grew up in the 80s. Am I that old?! I was just talking with someone who graduated high school in 1987 and experienced the AIDS crisis firsthand, and also found it bizarre to see the book labeled as historical. But for many of my students, who were born in 2000 (!), they knew nothing about the AIDS crisis. When we talked about it in class, and I showed them David Weissman’s incredible documentary We Were Here, my students were outraged—that this part of queer history, and American history, had been ignored or glossed over by their teachers and parents. Queer voices are so often distorted and disappeared, and I think telling these stories is one way to shed light on marginalized voices and to stop the erasure of queer voices.
Rumpus: Absolutely. I wonder if the reason both your friend was surprised that the book was being labeled historical and the reason that your students had not heard much about the AIDS crisis has to do with the way that we think of “history” (and thus books written about these moments as “historical fiction”) as something that is completed, behind us, somehow done, and the AIDS crisis is in some ways both profoundly “over” and profoundly ongoing. It’s a specific part of our history that can’t be easily categorized—though capitalism is gonna capitalism and is always gonna want to put labels on our work! Before we wrap up, I do think it’s important to ask about Brian as an artist, a writer, and a videographer. Why was it important to you to have Brian’s story being told directly to the reader, and/or how did Brian emerge as an artist to you?
Sickels: Yes, that’s a great point about “history” as something that’s finished, and that is not the case with AIDS. AIDS is still very much here, both globally and in America. It’s not over. There is no cure. AIDS is a public health crisis in marginalized and vulnerable communities, and especially across the South and in rural areas, there is a lot of disparity. It’s important to recognize that, for sure, and thank you for bringing that up.
The 80s was such a rich, exciting time for queer visual artists and queer writers—in the midst of all the pain and loss and rage, people were making incredible art and documenting their lives. Brian, as an artist and as a videographer, gave me a way to let him speak directly to the reader and create that intimacy, but also this is a way for him to record his life and possess control over his own story. Later in the book, his voice drops out, and I wanted the reader to feel that loss, to miss his voice. Maybe this was a way to show even a glimpse of how much our world lost—all the artists, writers, activists whose lives were cut short by AIDS.
Photograph of Carter Sickels by Amie LeeKing.