"My office looks like a place where a writer would work in a murder mystery,” says Paul Rudnick, speaking via Zoom from his colorful and cluttered writing room in his apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. “It’s a little on the Gothic side and a little Dumbledore, and it’s got stacks of papers going back decades. As a writer, I like to have a lot of visual activity around me. I love the distraction. Some people have gotten so self-conscious about their backgrounds in video calls. They like things to be blank and untraceable, so I thought, well, I’m going to give them full throttle here.”
The versatile Rudnick has been writing at an impressive pace for decades, producing groundbreaking plays like the Obie Award–winning Jeffrey, about life during the AIDS crisis; comedic screenplays (Sister Act, Addams Family Values, In & Out); and adult and YA novels. Rudnick’s latest novel, Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style, out in June from Atria, concerns a love affair between the wealthy son of a prominent conservative family and a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from New Jersey. The narrative follows their relationship over 50 years as they enjoy the freedom of gay life in 1970s Manhattan, cope with the AIDS epidemic, navigate homophobia, and witness the strides made by the LGBTQ movement.
“History is one of the great subjects for any writer, and Farrell Covington is very much a work about history,” Rudnick says. “I would call it a comic epic. It has a huge central love story but it’s larger than that. One of the advantages of getting older is that you live through more, you have a certain authority. These are events and times I’ve lived through and I know something about them. I didn’t want to write a book of gay despair. I wanted something larger, more pleasurable in a way. The book was influenced by everything from Brideshead Revisited to The Great Gatsby. It’s a big American story, one that I don’t think has been told before, certainly not with a gay couple at the center.”
The novel celebrates being gay, and its elegant, witty prose calls to mind Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Auntie Mame, and the fiction of P.G. Wodehouse. The character Farrell Covington was inspired by a man Rudnick met on a train when he was in his late teens. “This elegant man started giving me advice about my future, and no one had ever offered that to me before,” Rudnick recalls. “He had the single most dazzling piece of luggage I’d ever seen—it was this leather, custom-made case. Everything about him seemed stylish, smart, and fun, and I thought, I want to be where that can happen.”
Rudnick was born in 1957 in New Jersey and raised in a tract house in the suburbs, a kid with opinions. “I was probably insufferable because I was stubborn,” he says. “My parents had to put up with a lot. They were funny. There’s a tradition in Jewish families of humor as a balance and a resource. When you’re part of a tradition that’s suffered from so many pogroms and so much hate and death you better have a sense of humor, and that was really valued in my house. My mom and her sisters were hilarious. They were like the Marx brothers. I absorbed that as a kid.”
After graduating from Yale in 1977 with a degree in drama, Rudnick moved to Manhattan and forged a path as a writer. His early plays include I Hate Hamlet, about a TV star who struggles to take on the role of Hamlet; The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which presents scenes from the Bible from a gay perspective; and Jeffrey, a comedy that, according to Rudnick, tried to capture “the insanity of the AIDS era,” and that, for a time, no theater wanted to produce because of its subject matter.
“AIDS was its own education,” Rudnick says. “All right, so this is what it’s like when 50 of your closest friends die and aren’t given a chance. It’s a helpful way, in the most tragic sense, to learn to take nothing for granted. Don’t sneer at tragedy or dismiss happiness.”
“Paul is a rare talent,” says David Kuhn, co-CEO of Aevitas Creative Management, the agency that represents Rudnick. He’s known the author for over 30 years. “People might not be aware of how significant his contribution to the culture has been. Between Jeffrey and In & Out”—a 1997 film starring Kevin Cline as a Midwestern teacher who questions his sexuality—“he helped put gay stories and characters into the mainstream by leading with humor.”
Peter Borland, Rudnick’s editor, adds, “Paul explores the uniqueness and specialness of gay life. Farrell Covington was the first novel I read in a long time that felt so appealing in its humanity and its affection for its characters. It’s a book that made me happy, even though there are some very sad moments. It’s about finding happiness and love and holding on to both.”
Love abounds in Rudnick’s work, and in his personal life, too, thanks to his relationship with his husband, a doctor whom Rudnick met at a nightclub in 1992. “He’s the best man who ever lived!” Rudnick gushes. “He was immediately adored by my friends and family, many of whom asked for free medical advice and prescriptions. He was willing to supply one of those. Being with a writer isn’t easy and he’s adapted superbly. It’s a New York love story.”
Esmond Harmsworth, Rudnick’s agent, says, “Paul is an incredibly warm person, and he makes the most outrageous wisecracks. His voice on the page, that’s exactly who Paul is. He’s had success in so many different art forms and so many areas of life, and he’s totally sweet. I’ve never heard him not be gracious. That sounds like an infomercial but he really is like that.”
Having an amiable personality has served Rudnick well as a screenwriter. “If you have a tendency toward anxiety you’ll drown in Hollywood,” he says. He started writing scripts in the ’80s after a chance meeting with producer Scott Rudin. “I love it, but it’s a recipe for constant nervous breakdowns. You think, Oh my god, what do I do? Who do I please? When you write a novel you’re hoping to please yourself and the reader, and there’s a purity to that that I live for.”
Rudnick hopes readers will love his new novel as much as he enjoyed writing it. “If I ever had a manifesto, this book is it,” he says. “It about the possibility of human happiness. If you read it, I can almost guarantee you’ll have a good time.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.