Conversation with James Magruder on Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall

WUSSY MAG is super excited to partner with Charis Books to host a reading of James Magruder’s sexy, funny, and drama-filled novel Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall.

he story serves as a testimony to a memorable time in America’s history, recounting the first outbreaks of AIDS in the States as well as documents the misadventures of young grad students’ love lives. We were able to speak with him about how he started the book’s 20-year creation, how to write a good ol’ epic romance, and how to use a 120-year old ghost as a reliable narrator.


Let’s start with the title. What’s the definition of a love slave?

A love slave would be somebody who puts sex ahead of love. You know, love is absolutely everything and they haven’t really thought it through. They sort of set their sights in one direction and then their eyes all lock and suddenly they’re enslaved until something terrible or wrong happens and it doesn’t work anymore. And they live for love and in the novel they’re these brilliant fools because they’re really really smart grad students but they’re idiots about their hearts and where they want their lower chakras to go.


The book has a lot of humor, usually near dramatic or erotic moments that harmonize well. When it comes to storytelling, what would you say is the relationship between comedy and sex or intimacy?

JM Well, I think sex is funny, I think it’s essential. I actually write a lot about sex in all of my work, but I think a comic outlook on life comes from (my) childhood humiliations. I think sex, if you take it too seriously doing it and writing about it, it has the danger of sounding like a romance novel or porn. And I think my stuff is very sex-saturated but it’s not pornography, It may get you aroused, but that’s not the point. Because actually sex reveals a lot about characters, who they sleep with, when they sleep with them. I remember thinking when writing a story ‘did I ever write about that person I slept with?’


One of the unique features of this story is the range of language you have at your fingertips as an author. The narrator is over 120 years old but has picked up words like bootylicious and problematical over time. Furthermore the characters are mostly scholars and actors who can act out whole scenes of Shakespeare spontaneously and can quote Oedipus on the spot. What was it like to be able to wield such a large lingual palette for this project?

What a lovely question! I’d say the large lingual palette actually got me into trouble. Nobody would touch the book for years. This is just the most fancy pants high falutin stuff I could think of or that happened to me. Before I discovered that Helen Hadley was the narrator, the ectoplasmic emanation, the narrator was an omniscient person or Randall at one point. Agents and editors would wonder why I would lavish such ornate language on such silly characters and, you know, I actually thought that was the point. Helen solved two problems. One is that I can get away with using problematical but also she can get into the minds of these characters. I come from the theatre where every character is his/her own narrator. But then how can Randall know what’s going on in Silas’ or Becky’s mind? It’s basic point-of-view 101.


She was an excellent character for that, I thought. You wouldn’t question her omnipotence.

It was fun to create her biography. You know, the book is almost entirely based on real people. Helen Hadley did exist and there’s still a dorm at Yale called Helen Hadley Hall but I know nothing about the real Helen Hadley so I actually made all that stuff up.


What is it about graduate students in your own life or that time in particular that drew you to them as subject matter?

When I started I just kind of wrote in a way I knew I wanted, to celebrate that time in my life, it’s so funny the way history works. It’s a historical period that when I started writing in 1996 I didn’t know it was going to be so historical. You, Nicholas, always had the internet, cellphones and cash machines. There was something so innocent even though the gay plague had started up about the 70s and early 80s, before Reaganomics moved this country to the right and people began dying. On a very personal note,  you know, I’ve had HIV since 1985 and I started this book two weeks before I found out I was gonna live. I was one of the first combination therapy miracles in 1996 and weirdly I thought it was such a strange year. I did a reading in New York at the Gay Center and the older people in the audience remembered the scene where they were saying ‘you only get AIDS if you sleep with old men’ or ‘you know, what I do is rest in between’ and that was the only way we knew how to deal with it because there were no facts. We didn’t know it was a virus, we thought it was poppers. We were young, we were Yalies, we thought we were protected, no celebrities had died or come out with it. It was this weird suspended time, it wasn’t until ’85 that people really started dying but I just wanted to honor this really crazy hilarious time in my life. It was very autobiographical. I think the character most like me is Becky. Her needs and wants and hunger are so familiar to me. That’s how I feel about it. And she just gets humiliated time  after time but she wins in the end.


She struck me as the most flawed or delusional character, so that’s interesting that you identify the most with her.

Yeah, I’m very deluded.  I was much more deluded then. But I did leave, as did my friends, a lot of stepping stones. It’s so different for you Nicholas because you grew up post-AIDS so there’s always danger associated with sex so it’s probably much more complicated for your generation. Those were wild times and I’m glad I survived.


That sort of brings me into my next question. The bulk of the story takes place at the first outbreak of AIDS and to see how certain characters conduct themselves with this unknown shadow in the atmosphere felt like a reflection of how America reacted. As a new mysterious darkness takes shape, there is fear, compassion, hate, outreach, ignorance and misinformation. Why, for you, in 2016, is it important that this story continue to be told?

I think it’s because for the younger generation, especially gay men, who think they’re immune not only because they’re young and will never die, but also because (HIV) is considered a treatable chronic condition and more people are having unprotected sex. I wouldn’t consider Love Slaves a warning, but a reminder that there were some of us who made it through the plague, and I think for some things there’s a gap between when you can write about stuff and for this I thought I can lay in the gravity and enormity of the plague with a sense of humor about it just because we were deluded. When I started the book, I was 36 and now I’m 55 and the longer I’ve worked on it the more I realized it really was historical and the more I realize (Helen’s)  serious when she says Reaganomics and the treatment of unchecked business income is another plague we’re seeing play out right now with Trump and Brexit. He killed the middle class and our country’s been drifting ever-rightward ever since. There wasn’t such a disgusting inequality of wealth, everything seemed more possible and now I think it’s true right now economically at least that the system’s rigged. I’d like to think there is some serious things that Helen brings up because we still haven’t found a cure for AIDS and the election will only show us what the next step for this country is. It’s up to your generation to save it.


There are a few surreal elements in the book that strike me as employing a kind of Lacanian magic or a slight David Lynch twist on reality. Can you talk about the influences and background for some of the more uncanny moments?

There is this very magic moment where Helen, who has never tested the ectoplasmic divide and sends the brush into Becky’s hand, I just thought we should test her power because it’d be a delicious moment where she doesn’t want Becky to miss this opportunity to find out about herself. Now about the Katrinka and Lacan stuff, I did have a famous scholar who taught at Yale who I consulted with throughout the book, I took a class of hers and she was like a cult figure on campus. She really changed the way I read and have read ever since, through psychoanalytic theory. And with Katrinka, I was obsessed with the Netherlands as a kid, that was really true. I used to draw this little Dutch girl, like a weird graphic mania or obsession I had. I found that although I’m not sure if Katrinka works completely successfully, I couldn’t write her out. And all these years, most of my friends and I are writer-teachers and we wouldn’t bat our eyes twice if one of our students came in and said ‘today I identify as a nine-year old Dutch girl.’ I’ve had gender fluid students throughout the years and you learn not to bat an eye, so I think in this case I was ahead of the curve. There’s still a part of me that does believe that we only exist during the speech act and that’s Lacanian and that’s the takeaway from that class and that’s what Silas takes away from it. And when I teach theatre, I give my students a little Freud when I teach comedy. Freud had his enormous blind spots and we point them out but we can’t throw him out completely


Is there any projects that you’re currently working on?

I’m actually writing a musical about this gay novel from with Polly Pen. It’s a chamber piece and it’s set in Northwestern University in the 1910s. It’s called Bertram Cope’s Year. It’s worth a read as a book. I’m also finishing a book on Summer Stock reliving my love of being in plays in Summer Stock in upstate New York. It’s a book of novellas about Ithaca, New York called Save Yourself. Yale University Press has commissioned a book from me commemorating the first 50 years of the Yale Repertory Theatre.


Lastly, What’s three words you would use to describe what people can expect from the reading?

I’ll give you five. Lots Of Larfs, and Sex!


For more information on this event, visit