When You Call My Name (Henry Holt, May 3) revisits New York City in 1990, when activism, partying, loss, queer bashing, ACT UP, Keith Haring, hospital visits, Madonna, Sound Factory, etc., were all part of everyday life. The Chelsea Piers were in glorious disrepair, testing for HIV involved using pseudonyms like Nancy Reagan and John Johnson, and losing friends and partners happened with tragic frequency. Tucker Shaw’s portrayal of an important part of New York and LGBTQ+ history—told via the alternating points of view of two young men trying to figure out love and loss—is, according to our reviewer, a “beautiful story that comes close to touching the stars.” Shaw spoke with us about his debut novel via email; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When You Call My Name immerses the reader in 1990 New York City. Did you plan for the novel to function as both a remembrance and an introduction? 

If I had an overarching mission for the book, it was to convey the feelings in the air at a particular time, for a particular group of people, in a particular part of the world. I wanted to honor the memories that I (and so many others) still carry from those days but also to introduce younger readers to the complexities of queer life in 1990. To the feelings.

What did it look like to be a gay teenager back then? What did it mean, in a pre-internet era, to seek and find kindred spirits? What were the dangers specific to queer people, and what did it feel like to encounter them? How was it possible to experience joy and optimism in an atmosphere so thick with sorrow?

When You Call My Name represents only a tiny sliver of the overall experiences of those days. The whole story is infinitely bigger. But I hope, in the rendering, that this story offers at least a hint of what things felt like for some of us.

Which resources best helped you reimagine New York as it was?  

I spent a lot of time digging through the shoe boxes I keep under my bed. They’re filled with old photographs, mixtapes, and other mementos from the 1980s and 1990s. I’m also a big believer in tacking things up on a wall where you can’t miss them. For this project, my bulletin board was covered with magazine tear sheets of Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, party flyers from Sound Factory and Save the Robots, action announcements from ACT UP, news clippings from the New York Post and the New York Times, and more. My little writing corner was immersed in relics from those days.

That playlist! The Beloved’s “Hello”; Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart”; Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” etc. How did you whittle it down?  

The period straddling the late 1980s and early 1990s was such a great time for music. There was so much experimentation and redefining of what makes a “pop” record, what makes a hit. I wanted to include music that really saturated the air during that time but also had specific resonance for me. I wore out The Beloved’s CD in moments of yearning, I heard Jomanda and LNR out at the clubs, listened to Erasure and The Cure and Sade on the mornings after, kept myself going with Janet Jackson and En Vogue. And of course, Madonna was everywhere.

What surprises me today is how enduring some of that music has proved to be, like Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart.” Everyone seems to know that song, even today.

Your novel is haunted and buoyed by so many of those we’ve lost to AIDS. How did they guide your storytelling?   

Writing is always a bit of an emotional act for me, and creating this story was especially so. When we speak broadly about the early and middle years of the AIDS crisis from the vantage point of 2022, we tend to talk in platitudes—we lean on numbers (this many afflicted, this many dead) or inaccurate hyperbole (HIV “wiped out an entire generation of gay men”).

But in quieter moments, when I think about those early and middle years, I think about the names and faces and small, intimate expressions in the eyes of people I knew. When I set out to write this story, I drew fuel from those tiny reflections, happy and sad and in between. I learned that a haunting doesn’t always have to be dark. Sometimes the ghosts bring light.

Ben and Adam have very different family lives, and through them, we see the ways biological and chosen family members can affect the trajectories of queer youth.

Family is a wonderfully elastic term, isn’t it? I think many people, but queer people especially, define family less in terms of blood and more in terms of connection, understanding, tenderness, unconditional loyalty. Adam is lucky enough to have many (though not all) of these familial elements at home with his parents, whereas Ben does not. The key for them is to find the support they need to fill in the gaps, to allow them to embrace their full and honest selves and offer their vulnerability to the world as a signal that says: I’m here. I’m imperfect. But I’m trying and I want to love you. Will you love me back?

Ben and Adam contend with coming-of-age during the peak of the AIDS crisis. They’re also just kids trying to navigate early love, so they feel both part of a very specific time and universal.

I’m so gratified to hear you say that. It was important to me to try and create characters who, even if they occupy a fictional world grounded in the past, still feel like people you might know today. The determination and resilience they possess are just the same as the determination and resilience that so many young queer people still possess, perhaps even more now. And a good thing, too, because we still require that determination. The problems may have changed, but the need for youthful fire is as strong as ever.

Your storyline and cast feel ready for a sequel. Just saying.  

What a thrilling opportunity that would be. I’d love to know what’s next for this crew, too.

Karen Schechner is the president of Kirkus Indie.