It took a guy from Indiana to write a definitive novel about New York City during the AIDS crisis. As Rasheed Newson, whose debut is My Government Means to Kill Me (Flatiron, Aug.), tells me: “I’m Black and I’m gay, and my whole life I heard about civil rights, gay movements, women’s rights, AIDS activism. It was a world I felt familiar with. I grew up in the shadows of it.”

It’s 1985, and 17-year-old Earl “Trey” Singleton III hops a Greyhound bus in Indianapolis bound for New York City, leaving behind privilege and a six-figure trust fund. On the very first page, Trey lists the things he wishes he’d brought with him: “a working knowledge of how to operate a laundry machine; experience writing checks and balancing a checkbook; familiarity with padlocks and dead bolts; the rudimentary cooking skills to fix a grilled cheese sandwich without setting off a smoke detector; and the ability to sense when I was being hustled.”

His first stop is the Chelsea hotel, where he meets Gregory—“gorgeous. Haitian. Six foot two”—who becomes an integral part of Trey’s introduction to queer Black New York, from bathhouses to political activism. Real-life characters, like Larry Kramer, appear as the story of 1980s New York unfurls with both gravitas and hilarity.

Newson’s pitch letter immediately resonated with Jim McCarthy of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret when he spotted it in the slush pile in September 2020. “I asked to see more, and within a month I was Rasheed’s agent,” McCarthy says. “Everything was as easy as it could possibly be. He accepted representation within 24 hours. It was so refreshing. We hit it off right away; I was profoundly delighted.”

Newson mentioned he was a screenwriter (his credits include The Chi, Narcos, and Bel-Air), but McCarthy notes that TV doesn’t necessarily translate to fiction. “It was the query letter and the subject matter that drew me in,” he says. McCarthy signed Newson in November 2020, sent him editorial notes a month later, and in three months the manuscript was ready for submission. McCarthy sent it out widely the morning of Feb. 2, 2021.

The easy factor continued. Flatiron executive editor Nadxieli Nieto received My Government Means to Kill Me at 11:29 a.m. By noon she had contacted McCarthy saying it was “definitely in her wheelhouse.” At 2 p.m. she told him “I may be in love,” and asked to have a conversation with him and Newson. There was an offer the next day, and the six-figure deal was sealed for North American rights.

“Nadxi was overwhelmingly effusive,” McCarthy says. “She poured out her heart and made a preempt. On the first call, she told us about growing up on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and said that no book about New York in that period captured it like Rasheed’s book did. Amazingly,” McCarthy adds, “it took an outsider.”

Newson, though, did have his connections to the city. He tells me about his uncle, a lawyer, 13 years older and gay, who lives in New York and whom he would visit. “I went to see him in 1994. I was 15. My parents imagined me touring museums, but my uncle gave me a MetroCard and said, ‘Meet me for dinner.’ I got a great welcome in New York, starting with the flight attendant who sent me off with a beer and said, ‘Have fun!’ ”

Newson started writing for TV in 2008 but says he always wanted to write fiction. “I had some false starts, books that didn’t work out, that I never finished,” he recalls. “It was the pandemic that made it finally happen. Lockdown meant I could control my time. And I was always fascinated with the time of AIDS in New York and all the political movements.”

He had a literary agent before McCarthy, but Newson says the agent’s response when he received the manuscript for My Government was a clear no. That was when Newson decided he was done with novels; he had his TV career and that was it for him. “My husband calmed me down and put together a list of agents,” he says, noting that he kind of sent out the manuscript to show his husband the novel didn’t work. “But then Jim wrote back, and when he sent it out and Nadxi got back immediately and we had a deal... Well, it all happened. ‘This is going to spoil you,’ Jim said.”

Nadxi and Rasheed did a few rounds of edits over eight months. “It was interesting,” he says. “She would send notes and say, ‘See what you think and get back to me.’ In TV, they send you notes and say, ‘Tomorrow!’ ”

Nieto says she found working with Rasheed “a pleasurable experience. I’d never worked with a screenwriter before. It’s a different muscle. Roll up your sleeves and get it done. We met every two weeks and it was sweaty, fun, sexy. I fell in love with the character Trey and would follow him anywhere. He’s engaging, compelling, the kind of friend you always have a good day with. This story felt new to me. It’s character driven, coming-of-age. While there was so much suffering during these years, there was also so much life and vibrancy and Rasheed has captured both. The time defined an idea of family and community. Trey leaves his wealthy family in Indianapolis and is trying to figure out family and community. We see New York through Trey’s eyes; we learn alongside him: his experiences in the bathhouses, his first protest, his becoming political. The book is fast-paced and presents a time in history that’s underrepresented in fiction.”

Nieto has high hopes for the book, believing it will attract 20-year-olds figuring out their place in the world and also people who want to remember New York in that period. And there’s her personal connection to the story: “I grew up over the Two Potato [described in the New York Times as a “dingy gay bar”]; the Pride parade ended in front of my house.”

But best of all is her final comment: “My sister and I wanted to be drag queens when we grew up!”

I tell her I get it. I was there, too.