Author Will Schwalbe discusses 'We Should Not Be Friends'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday February 28, 2023
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author Will Schwalbe (photo: Michael Maren)<br>
author Will Schwalbe (photo: Michael Maren)

Will Schwalbe is a gay writer who loves books. In addition to working in publishing, as an editor for Macmillan, Schwalbe is renowned for his two books about, well, books. "The End of Your Life Book Club" (2012) and "Books for Living" (2016) celebrate books and reading, while also providing readers with plenty of insight into Schwalbe himself.

"We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship" (Knopf, 2023) may be his most personal effort. Yes, books still figure prominently, but "We Should Not Be Friends" is a memoir about two people who couldn't possibly be more different yet became unexpectedly good friends while undergrads at Yale in the early 1980s and remained close comrades to the present day.

author Will Schwalbe  

Gregg Shapiro: This hasn't happened to me as a reader very often, but while I was reading your memoir, I realized that I had an experience similar to yours and Chris Maxey's when I was in college with a classmate named Peter. This made me wonder if you have heard from other gay men who have longstanding friendships with straight men with whom they should also "not be friends."

Will Schwalbe: I'm delighted that the memoir brought to mind a college friendship of yours that was similar. I'm very curious to hear from other gay men who've had friendships with straight men like Maxey. I've always had lots of straight men friends, but they were nothing like Maxey. If athletic, they played tennis or maybe soccer. They certainly didn't play rugby and belong to a frat.

Ultimately, it was the hyper-jock part of Maxey's identity — far more than the fact that he was straight — that made we think we should not be friends. That's why my biggest hope for the book is that it causes readers to reflect on all sorts of unusual friendships, not just gay/straight ones.

"We Should Not Be Friends" is a non-fiction book about a friendship that began in the 1980s and continues to the present. What is it about that subject that you think appeals to writers?
Maybe it's because when we are young, it's natural to wonder what will become of us, and our friends. And then when we get older, it's fascinating to contrast our hopes and expectations at that young age with what actually occurred. I think that's the reason that many people love going to high school reunions: to see how things turned out. Which, of course, is one of the great pleasures of reading a certain kind of novel: we meet a bunch of characters and want to find out what happens to them.

So, for a writer, friendships viewed over many years provide a great canvas, because so much can happen and change over a long period of time. Novels like "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara and "Crossing To Safety" by Wallace Stegner are brilliant examples of this kind of story: friendships chronicled over decades. But I do think the novelist interests in these relationships diverge from those of someone like me who is writing memoir.

First, I think of memoir as history, even if it's a personal one. And second, I view memoir as the record of a sociological experiment. That's because I think of life as a sociological experiment.

The "7 Up" films really changed how I view our time on earth; these were the nine documentaries that followed a group of seven years olds from 1964 to 2019. We can create our own "7 Up"s. We just need to remember to check in with one another periodically. As it happens, that's also a great way to maintain friendships, which are one of the great joys of life: chosen family. In this case, 40 years of check-ins resulted in a much richer life for me, and the material for this book.

Did you realize before you started writing it that the book would also be a kind of AIDS memoir, or did that happen organically?
I didn't realize that; it came as a surprise to me. The first chapter I wrote was about visiting Maxey in the hospital after he had his brain tumor removed. I was going to start there and include very little about when we first met. But a friend said to me, "Who cares about Maxey and his brain tumor or you, for that matter, if we don't know who either of you are?" So I had to, as Julie Andrews would say, "Start at the very beginning."

And so the book starts at the secret society where we met. The year was 1983 and my life was consumed then by AIDS activism. The more I wrote about AIDS, the more I wanted to write about it. I found myself partly driven by a keen desire to emphasize something that is hard for young people to understand, and hard for many people of any age who weren't directly affected to understand, and that is how very many years there were before we really knew what it was or how it was spread, before there was a test of any kind for it or any effective treatment.

I think that it's hard for people who didn't live through it to understand the incredible toll that took on a generation of us to live under the unspeakably wretched and sad shadow of AIDS year after year after year; to lose friends year after year, to not know if we had it but to know if we did it was a death sentence.

I realized that this book, with a time frame that took me from the early 1980s when I volunteered for Gay Men's Health Crisis and AIDS Project New Haven to the present, would allow me to tell that story. It also allowed me to address, even if only obliquely, survivor's gratitude, and guilt.

In the book, I alternate the AIDS sections with chapters about Maxey in the Navy SEALs training for war. And, as cliché as it may seem, I think it's worth emphasizing that AIDS was a war too, not just against the disease but against our own government and everyone who hated us and everyone who just didn't care. It still is.

There's something almost hopeful about the line "Jocks and theater gays love each other" in the second chapter. For a while that seemed like an impossibility, especially for people of our generation, But between your own experience, and the way the culture has changed, do you think this has become a reality?
[Laughs] well, it's said sarcastically but I love that you found it almost hopeful. Still, while I do think it can be true now to a much greater extent than it could when we were growing up, I fear that in most high school and college cafeterias the two groups still give each other a wide berth.

Many queer kids do still contend with genuine malice from too many jocks. And I'm sure there are tons of theater kids today who — just like I did in the 1970s and 1980s — make all sorts of judgments about jocks, without bothering to get to know them.

One thing that's incredibly important to me to stress is that while Maxey was prejudiced against me, I was way more so against him. He's a phenomenal person, a truly good person who strives to be good, and I was ready to write him off.

Your book "SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better" was a kind of etiquette guide for online communication. In chapter two, you make reference to the "unwritten rules of friendship," which also takes an etiquette tone. Do you think, in our current environment, that there is a chance for civility and etiquette to survive?
I sure hope so. When I wrote "SEND" with David Shipley, we joked that it actually was a book about how to treat one another in every setting, with email etiquette as the Trojan horse. I'm a big believer in the platinum rule, not the golden one. That is, treat people as you think they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated.

In chapter three you write about feeling like you didn't have good marriage (and divorce) advice to offer Maxey, despite being in a relationship for 17 years. Has your attitude about that changed since then?
My husband and I have now been together for thirty-eight years and I still don't think I have any good advice to give! Part of it was and is that I think straight marriages and gay marriages are different. Part of it was and is because Maxey and his wife have four kids and we have none. And part was because they were in the middle of a divorce and we never have been. Finally, though, to quote Tolstoy, "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I had an emotional response to the section in chapter four where you wrote about Maxey's hugs and expressions of affection toward you. And then it makes a powerful return at the end of chapter seven.
I wrote about this in my last book, "Books For Living," as well. I don't like being touched by anyone but my husband. I'm not a hugger; not a cheek-kisser; barely a hand-shaker. I like to nod in people's general direction and leave it at that. I think when it comes to touch, human beings are across a spectrum. Some love big hugs; others are like me; and most people are somewhere in between.

I think what you are referring to in chapters four and seven, and throughout, is the ease with which Maxey is able to tell me he loves me as a friend, going back decades, and how it took me until just a few years ago to be able to say it back to him.

As I try to make sense of this in the book, I realize that my reticence is a kind of defense mechanism built into gay men of my generation. You simply did not say, "I love you" to a straight man, ever, no matter how safe you felt, and even if it was totally clear that you meant platonically — because of the constant threat of physical violence. The "He Came On To Me" defense was used to justify straight men not just beating up gay men but killing them.

During my young adulthood, this defense in all sorts of highly publicized trials seemed to succeed more often than not. The logic was: of course, a straight man was justified in killing a gay man who came on to him! Old habits die hard, especially when they are ones you develop to stay alive. But Maxey is patient and persistent. Like I said, a really good person.

Chapter five includes a passage about Maxey's daughter Tyler coming out as a lesbian to him and his wife Pam. How much impact do you think your longtime friendship with Maxey had on his accepting Tyler's coming out to him?
I think my favorite story in the book is from a time long before Tyler came out to her parents, and that's when Maxey writes me to tell me about how he formed a relationship of real trust and friendship with an out gay kid at his school. This kid had made all the same assumptions I'd made about Maxey.

Maxey wrote with real pride about how shocked the kid was to discover that Maxey accepted him unconditionally. And Maxey very sweetly credits me in the letter for being able to accept and celebrate the kid, unconditionally, and for being able to convey that to this kid.

I also admire the way that you wove music into the book beginning with mentions of Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, and Hazell Dean, and continuing with Jason Mraz and Traffic.
When I was growing up, my best friend and I would spend hours listening to records: Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Beatles, Bobby Sherman, Bob Dylan. It was something we did together. Then as a moody adolescent, I would listen on earphones to songs that made me feel less alone, finding true salvation in "Glad to Be Gay" by Tom Robinson Band, who was the first hugely successful out gay rocker. That was when Sony introduced the Walkman and then it became possible to score my life with tunes as I wandered around.

And then there were the gay clubs I went to in LA when I was 20 where music became social again, and songs like Hazell Dean's "Searchin'" were what bound me to hundreds of other gay men on the dance floor.

Music has always helped me validate my feelings, distract me, and discover what I'm feeling. Music is always there for me when I'm alone, but it also connects me to others and brings memories of others, including people who have died, come rushing back. I really wanted this book to come with a kind of virtual soundtrack. I may have to add one on Spotify.

If there was a movie version of "We Should Not Be Friends," who would you want to play you, and who should play Maxey?
Well, for Maxey, it's Mark Ruffalo; wrestler, environmentalist, brilliant actor. Ruffalo even had the same kind of brain tumor Maxey had. As for me, I know I'm supposed to want a gay actor, but I would really love Paul Rudd to play me. So, that's as adults. But I actually hope they make a movie out of the secret society where we met and just focus on Maxey and me in our early twenties. I'm not at all sure who the right young actor should be for Maxey. But I would love Troye Sivan for me.

"We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship" by Will Schwalbe, Knopf/Penguin-Random House, $29 hardcover.

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