In the fall of 1980, young Casey Adair begins a year of postgraduate theatre research in Spain, then on the verge of a military coup. As he attends plays and dinner parties, visits gay bars, and becomes increasingly involved in protests, Casey’s correspondence reveals intimate confessions and new understandings. He falls in love with a man named Octavio, gets a role in a major theatrical production, and revels in the awakening of his own sexuality and social consciousness. Then, a visit from his college friend Poppy leads to an emotionally charged evening that changes their lives forever.

Three years later Casey is an educator in Boston, trying to balance finding his voice as an AIDS activist, dealing with an intolerant headmaster, and rebuilding a relationship with his daughter. As dear friends fall ill to the virus, he struggles to understand how his many identities—father, teacher, caretaker, dissident, lover, husband—can coexist. In a world that asks so much of us, what is our responsibility to others and ourselves?

As a side note, part of the story takes place in Toronto!

Available from University of Wisconsin Press

Ken Harvey is the author of the memoir A Passionate Engagement and short story collection If You Were with Me Everything Would Be All Right, which won the Violet Quill Award for Best Gay Fiction of the Year.

What’s True in The Book of Casey Adair

Ken Harvey

Anyone who knows me and has read The Book of Casey Adair will no doubt see some similarities between Casey’s life and mine. Most obvious is the how I’ve titled the three sections (Madrid, Boston, Toronto), the three places I’ve lived since graduating from college. In a way, however, these similarities are superficial: they provided me with a structure for the book but not the plot. Like many novelists, I used parts of my life that I then shaped into something quite different from my lived experience.

Like Casey, I spent a year in Spain on a post-graduate fellowship to study how the theatre changed after the death of Franco and the end of his fascist regime. Some of the actors and artists in the novel are real people I interviewed over the course of the year. José Luis Gómez, former Director of the National Theatre is especially important. I had a wonderful talk with him, and he asked me to audition for his theatre. But here is where truth turns into fiction. I was hit with a panic attack the day of my audition, and canceled. In the novel, Casey does audition and gets a small role in As You Like It, eventually taking over for the leading man, who has to leave the production. So, the scaffolding is real, but the meat of the story is not.

I also taught Spanish and theatre in a private school in Boston after my year abroad. I had some fun with the name of the school, ­which is Chadwick Academy, Chadwick’s being the name of a great ice cream parlor I frequented while teaching. Like the name, the school where Casey teaches is far from the one, I experienced. The characters at Casey’s school are pure fiction, even if some of them are some types of people who I’ve known in education. I was at the school when the AIDS crisis started, and remember well the fear, ignorance and homophobia it released, not necessarily at my school, but certainly in many schools and communities across the country. I wanted to incorporate that experience into the novel. There are some wonderful young novelists who are brilliantly addressing AIDS in their fiction, but these novelists, for the most part, weren’t around at the onset. As someone who was around, I felt I had something to contribute.

After teaching in the Boston area for over 25 years, I moved with my husband to Toronto, where we now reside. We are permanent residents of Canada and have recently submitted our application for citizenship. Toronto plays an essential role in the novel, but it’s the Toronto of the early ‘80s, a city I don’t know. So, while I’m familiar with the landscape of Toronto, I did have to do research to create a believable Toronto of the period. I talked to friends who were involved in the gay community at the time.

I listened to news reports on the bathhouse raids. I talked with an actor who worked with Fruit Cocktail, a queer performance group, and then used what I’d learned in the novel.

I’m not interested in merely recording my life and calling it fiction, although there are many writers who do this superbly. Some of Edmund White’s novels are very close to his own life, yet his work doesn’t read like autobiography. I find relying too much on my own experience quite limiting. The closer I get to a character I know in real life, the less free that character is to chart their own path. I’ll sometimes latch on to a physical trait of someone I know, although I rarely use the traits of someone I know well. I’m far more likely to use the druggist at the local Shoppers Drug Mart, a bartender at Woody’s, someone I’ve met in the dog park while I’m walking our basset hound, Lily Tomlin. What I like about writing is creating a character and then ask, “So, how would they react if this happened to them”?

For me, writing is hard work. I don’t always have fun while writing, but when I do, it’s because I’m having fun with my imagination. To use my imagination, I need distance between the lives of the characters and my own life. The details of my experience serve merely as a clothesline on which I hang make-believe characters, plots, and dialogue.

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.