How to Survive a Plague – David France

David France. Photo courtesy of Ken Schles

During this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, Waverley Care Patron, Sheena McDonald, interviewed David France, author of ‘How to Survive a Plague – The Story of how Activists and Scientists tamed Aids‘.

Here, Sheena reflects on her discussion with David, and on the book, which chronicles the early years of the Aids epidemic, and the activists who campaigned for action in the US.

I volunteered to interview David France because I was intrigued by the title of his book: ‘How to Survive a Plague – The Story of how Activists and Scientists tamed Aids’.

You have to be of a certain age to remember the adult world before HIV and Aids were known about, or even named. I am old enough(!), as is David France.

When the 600-page book arrived, I wasn’t daunted – but I was sobered. What I read was a page-turner.

David arrived in New York in 1981 from Michigan, just one of many gay people seeking freedom in liberal-minded Manhattan from the prejudice and small-town hostility they’d experienced at home.

San Francisco, too, was a seen as a safe haven for the gay community, with Fire Island quickly achieving a hedonistic reputation.

Four weeks after he arrived, the New York Times ran its first ever article on the mysterious spike identified within the gay community – and it was short: ‘Rare Cancer seen in 41 Homosexuals – Outbreak Occurs Among Men in New York and California – 8 Died Inside 2 Years’.

Over 25 years later, and almost half a million HIV or Aids-related deaths in New York alone, David decided to try to chronicle what he had lived through. The facts are stark – and meticulously researched.  The individuals we meet are human (so flawed) and many of them utterly inspirational.

When I met David France in Charlotte Square, I was completely charmed. He gave an informative hour to a tent-full of interested paying punters, answering their and my questions with grace and honesty.

Why did you write this book? – I asked. “Because nobody else had. There was – eventually – literature aimed at and contained within the gay community but nothing that would tell the wider world how that community rose up through new pressure groups like ACT UP and, using civil disobedience and persistence and ingenuity, finally persuaded the political and medical and research establishments to include them in the fight against this plague – because they were living and dying in the frontline!”

He told us that he had such difficulty finding a publisher that he gave up and instead set about making a documentary with same title, using amateur footage shot over the years by activists.  “I’d never made a film but the camcorder appeared around the same time, and there was lots of ‘archive’ footage.”

I do recommend that you watch this film, as well as read the book. You can watch a trailer on YouTube.

Once the film was screened, the publisher followed. The book is an important and definitive chronicle of those dark, painful, angry years. Today HIV and Aids remain global challenges, but a diagnosis now is not necessarily the accelerated death-knell that it was for almost twenty years, thanks to many of the people celebrated in David France’s book.  A good read, a good man.

Photo of David France, courtesy of Ken Schles