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Set in 1986, a year after Rock Hudson’s death brought the news of AIDS into living rooms and kitchens across America, author Carter Sickels’s second novel The Prettiest Star shines light on an overlooked part of the epidemic, those men who returned to the rural communities and families who’d rejected them.
Six short years after Brian Jackson moved to New York City in search of freedom and acceptance, AIDS has claimed his lover, his friends, and his future. With nothing left in New York but memories of death, Brian decides to write his mother a letter asking to come back to the place, and family, he was once so desperate to escape.
The Prettiest Star is told in a chorus of voices: Brian’s mother Sharon; his fourteen-year-old sister Jess, as she grapples with her brother’s mysterious return; and the video diaries Brian makes to document his final summer.
Wiley Cash: I was looking back through some old emails in advance of this [conversation] and I found where I had read The Evening Hour and reached out to you. I bought your book at Four Seasons bookshop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I was just so thrilled with the portrayal of West Virginia, the complications between the two main characters, the role of environmental degradation that you were writing about. It felt like you were chronicling life without the clear objectives that I know were pushing your pen forward, which certainly they were. But the first time I met you in person is because I saw you on an airplane [on the way to] AWP [the conference of the Association of Writers], if you remember.
Carter Sickels: Yes, of course!
WC: And I kind of stalked you. I was like, “Excuse me, are you Carter Sickels?”
CS: Yeah, and you connected me to Hub City Press, which I was so grateful for. I think they are taking on southern and Appalachian stories that may not always interest big publishers. But also, within that, they’re really taking care to publish diverse voices and authors of color, and queer people, and people who are writing different kinds of Appalachian or southern stories.
WC: As a writer, what do you say about those eight years in the desert, as it were, [between The Evening Hour and The Prettiest Star]? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I imagine you’ll say something like, “You’ve got to love the work. You’ve got to labor in the wilderness.” How do you stay in it? What was your mindset over that time?
CS: I think this is what we do, right? As we write, we’re compelled by the stories of our characters and making art. As you know, when you’re writing a novel, you don’t know if anyone will see it. I worked on The Prettiest Star for about five years and I didn’t know if it would get published or if I would have a readership, and the same thing with The Evening Hour. But the story and characters just pulled me along, and I think . . . it’s the hard work combined with the magic of creation.
WC: Mm-hmm. The power of these human characters. So [the character] Brian is obviously the emotional core of the novel in his journey to New York, his return home, and his struggles with his health and his fate. But you also have these incredible human characters [who are] obviously not necessarily in line with your worldview but you still give them this incredible humanity. So how did you get there as a writer and as a human?
CS: Brian certainly is the main character here. It’s his story, as you said. But it’s a larger story than just him. It’s a story about this community and about this family, and so I knew to tell the story I had to include other points of view. One of the questions I was kind of exploring is, how do we take care of each other? And how do we extend our compassion toward each other?
We have Brian, his mother Sharon, and then Jess, his fourteen-year-old sister. And Jess, in a way, was probably one of the earliest voices that I listened to. I had a pretty clear picture of her fairly early on. I was thinking of this kid who lives in this small town in rural Ohio, in Appalachia, and hasn’t seen her brother in six years.
What makes her engaging to me is [how] she has to navigate this world of adults who are telling her all these lies, or keeping these secrets from her– because Brian’s parents make the decision not to tell anyone why Brian had come back, or about his HIV status, or that he’s gay. And so Jess is this sort of savvy character who finds her way, I think, through the silences and in the adults’ shame that they carry. There are moments where she treats her brother really poorly, but she’s also this teenage kid. She’s also coming of age. She’s got her own story arc and she’s trying to figure out who she is.
WC: I think she’s so wonderful. And what I loved about her as opposed to her parents’ generation is she grew up in the church. She grows up in the public schools. She grows up in these civic public spaces where beliefs are codified, where behavior is decided upon, where the judgments have all already been made. And Jess enters those spaces and then begins to question them when her brother comes home.
Something that I really admired was [how] you kept moving your characters through various set pieces that were community institutions—the church, the schools, the healthcare system, and then public spaces like swimming pools. In each of those settings, you show [how] Brian’s sexuality or his health status is exploited, mischaracterized, and discussed incorrectly and dangerously. How were you positioning these social institutions as incubators of misinformation and hate, and were you meaning to do that?
CS: You’ve articulated it in a insightful way that I don’t think I had thought through so consciously in the early stages of writing it. But certainly I wanted to . . . I was looking at sort of the family unit, right? Brian’s family, and how that would shift when he comes back home [to Ohio]. But I think that I also wanted to tell the story about the AIDS epidemic, which is a story about this family, but also a story about what was happening in America, and how these public and social institutions were responding and failing people with AIDS.
So I wanted it to look outside of his family and look at the community itself, a small town. I did a lot of research for this book, and the experiences that Brian has are pretty standard, I would say, during the ’80s and even into the ’90s, of how communities responded. I mean, we remember Ryan White, who was the junior high student who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and was kicked out of school, not allowed to go to class. There was a story that inspired this novel, which was a man in West Virginia [with HIV] who went swimming in the town’s public swimming pool, I think in ’87, and was kicked out of the pool, and the pool was disinfected and he was barred from coming back.
I learned about that when I was a kid because it was on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She did a show where she went to the community, and members of this man’s town were there and it was just so vitriolic and homophobic and hateful, the things that they said while this man was sitting there on stage. I think for younger people, who didn’t experience what the ’80s looked like for people who were gay and people with AIDS . . . a lot of the country felt like gay people are expendable, like they are being punished. That’s why they’re getting this disease. That’s why they’re dying. And so, yes, certainly I was thinking about that with how I constructed this book—the spaces that Brian goes to, how he’s treated.
WC: I thought it was so interesting that the places, like the church, that are supposed to give us spiritual comfort, do the opposite to Brian. Places like schools, which are supposed to give you intellectual honesty, do the opposite for Jess. The pool, which is supposed to give you recreation and a way to check out of society, does the opposite for Brian. And then the healthcare system, which is supposed to care for your physical body, refuses it. I mean, they have to really be bullied into caring for Brian, and then this doctor, who’s Indian American and wasn’t steeped in this ideology, is the one who cares for him. I don’t know. It gave me a lot to think about.
You mentioned the Oprah Winfrey story, but what kind of memories of public discussions of sexuality and public discussions of the epidemic were you recalling from being a child of the ’80s? Because I certainly have my own memories of things I heard in church, things I heard my family say, things I saw on television. But what were some memories that stuck out to you?
CS: I was a kid and a teenager during the ’80s and grew up in a small town in Ohio. I don’t remember people talking about the AIDS epidemic at all, except as a joke. I remember the jokes. I remember, “Don’t touch me, you’ll give me AIDS.” Like that kind of thing and just intense homophobia. Nobody was out in my high school. I mean, that just would not have been possible. Nobody was out at college. I didn’t know any gay people. I certainly didn’t know any trans people.
Those are sort of my memories. And that Oprah special—it really lodged itself in my brain. I didn’t know why at the time,but I went back to the episode when I was working on this novel. There’s a man who stands up and says, “This is nature’s way of getting rid of the gays,” and everyone in the audience applauds.
I don’t think I was surprised by any of that. But it was one of the first times I saw a gay man who was very out, who was from rural West Virginia [and] he just reminded me of family members and people I knew in my life. I’d never really seen any kind of representation of an out gay man before. I wasn’t able to articulate all of that when I watched the show back then, but I do think that’s one of the reasons the story really struck me and stuck with me all those years.
WC: What were some of your influences going into this? I know you’re in Kentucky now.
CS: Books about AIDS influenced me, like Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. And Sarah Schulman’s work—she wrote a lot about AIDS in New York. But I wanted to write a story that looks at the AIDS epidemic through this lens of rural America.
There are not a lot of novels about queer and rural experiences. Jim Grimsley has a book called Dream Boy that is beautiful. He wrote a few novels in the ’90s dealing with rural queer experiences. Of course, Dorothy Allison. Randall Kenan. And, there are definitely others out there exploring rural, queer experiences.
WC: So this is not a major theme in the book but it’s definitely there—the relationship between fathers and sons. I think all parents want their children to be braver and more just than they are. Brian is certainly braver than Travis, his father.
WC: [A feature of] the old story of fathers and sons is that the son has to prove something to the father. But I think by the time he comes back from New York, Brian doesn’t give a damn about proving anything to Travis. Lettie’s like, “Come love your son,” and Sharon says, “Come love your son,” and he can’t do it. And so instead of a story about sons failing fathers, you have a father totally failing a son who was much braver than him. So what were you thinking about? What kind of relationship dynamic were you thinking about these two having that either challenges or fulfills these traditional notions we have about fathers and sons?
CS: I think Travis is one of the saddest characters in the book. He cannot accept his son’s queerness, but he also cannot accept that he’s dying. He retreats from Brian. He retreats from the entire family. Early on, I considered including Travis’ perspective and there is one chapter where we get a brief view of him in third person. But at some point I just thought, “I’m really just not that interested in exploring his point of view.” I felt that I could convey his grief and his guilt by showing him through the other characters. I mean, I think he waits to face himself until it’s too late. As you said, he’s not brave enough — he cannot reach out to his son or move past these beliefs that he has grown up with [that have] inundated his life.
He’s also, I think, somewhat impenetrable. He feels inaccessible to Brian, to Sharon to a point, so that was another reason that I chose not to go into his first-person perspective.
You said earlier in one of your comments that Brian in some ways is everything that Travis would want his son to be. In high school, he’s a baseball star. He’s a jock. He’s very good-looking. Everyone assumes he’s straight. There’s no question of that. But Brian has known that he’s queer and he feels this loneliness that he can never express to his father. I think that he’s felt such pressure to please his father and live up to this impossible ideal of the masculinity that he can’t do. That’s not him.