Will Schwalbe, WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship

Will Schwalbe, WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship

Zibby interviews bestselling author, editor, journalist, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Will Schwalbe about his moving, funny, and wise new memoir We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, which tells the story of his unexpected and life-changing friendship with Chris Maxey, a jock he met at Yale. Will describes Maxey (a nationally-ranked wrestler/frat boy turned Navy Seal turned eco-warrior and school founder) and shares the stories of their extraordinary forty-year friendship. He also describes what life was like as a gay man in the early eighties when AIDS struck, and lastly, he shares what it’s like to switch between his writer and editor hats.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Will. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your amazing new memoir. Tell us all about it.

Will Schwalbe: Thank you so much. I’m really excited, Zibby. First of all, I’m just so excited to be back on your podcast because of all the book conversations I’ve had with all the people about — it’s a very different book. Yours is one of the most favorite conversations I’ve ever had because we connected so deeply about issues of friendship and loss. I think friendship is about as important a topic as there is. In this, my new book, We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, I wanted to explore one of the things that’s given me great joy, which is my forty-year friendship with someone totally different from me, this obnoxious jock I met in college. I was this perm-haired out gay AIDS activist. He was a nationally ranked wrestler, lacrosse player, rugby player, frat boy. It is fair to say he was a little prejudiced against me, but I was way more prejudiced about him. What I never could have predicted is that this guy has a heart of gold. He’s smart. He’s turned out to be an educational leader. He’s been one of the most important people in my life for forty years, Chris Maxey, founder of the Island School, Navy Seal, awesome guy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Your story about him was crazy because it also seemed so unlikely. For the whole first section or the first third of the book or something, I’m like, I don’t feel like these guys are really going to be friends. Maybe this story’s going in a different way. I don’t know. You obviously had wonderful conversations in your rooftops talks and all of that. You even had times when he would come to New York and not even call you. I’m like, what?

Will: I think we’ve all had friends like that. The beauty of a long friendship is if it has a deep foundation, and ours did, and if there’s desire on both parts to be friends, you can sometimes go a decade without talking. You can hurt each other’s feelings and have misunderstandings. If you both want to be friends and you both work at it a little bit, it can be one of the most rewarding things there is. I wanted to make it clear — I love Maxey. He’s not my best friend. I have several best friends. He’s just someone I admire deeply who plays an incredibly important role in my life.

Zibby: I have a lot of people I admire deeply and play nice roles in my life, but I haven’t written books about them. Why did you write this book about him?

Will: I actually admire Maxey so much. After serving six years with the Navy Seals, he founded that incredible school I mentioned, the Island School. I just like him so much. He’s such a great guy. I proposed to my publisher, the legendary Sonny Mehta and Dan Frank, that I write a biography of Maxey. They took me to lunch. Sonny was famous for his long pauses. There was a long pause at the end of lunch. He said, “I think the book you really want to write is about your friendship with Maxey.”

Zibby: And he was right?

Will: He was totally right. That was the book I wanted to write. I also felt it was really important now to explore being friends with someone very different from you. I think we’re so siloed. Even at a place like — we were both preppies. We were both Yalies. Yet we considered ourselves different. Go to any high school, and you’ll see the theater kids at one table and the jocks at another. I think we need to broaden our definition of who we can be friends with. That’s another reason I wanted to write this book.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. You had this one scene where you were in the cafeteria. Not the cafeteria. One of the colleges. I went to Yale, as I told you, and so this was —

Will: — We have so much in common.

Zibby: I know. It was amazing to go through. I’m like, there he is at Naples. There he is. I can see walking into — it was just amazing. Thank you for the memory lane factor of this book for me personally. You have one moment in one of the college’s dining halls where he’s with a bunch of his friends. Something happens. They elbowed you or something spilled. Your groups were just diametrically opposed. You almost didn’t even want to make eye contact with him because he was in that group, and you were in this group. You were like, let’s just let it go and pretend that our friendship is not cutting through these invisible barrier lines because we’re with all these other people.

Will: It’s exactly what happened. Our friendship at that point was so tenuous and so fragile.

Zibby: That’s a better way to say it.

Will: I was with this marvelous character, this incredibly eccentrically dressed, another out gay kid at Yale who dressed like a young Roman. He had sandals and vambraces on. Maxey was with his pack of jocks. I was worried on both fronts. I didn’t know what the jocks would make of us and what that would do to Maxey. I knew my friend, quite rightly, loathed a lot of those jocks. I just hoped we hadn’t seen each other. We went to different parts of the dining hall. Crisis averted.

Zibby: It’s sort of like Sandy and Danny in Greece. They can’t make eyes at each other because they’re in the wrong group. Obviously, it’s not really like that. Moving on.

Will: It’s actually very, very much like that. It is a kind of platonic love story.

Zibby: As all friendships really are.

Will: As all friendships are. Friendships are love stories. Yes, it has a lot to do with something like Greece. We met under forced circumstances; in our case, a secret society that we were thrown into. Otherwise, our paths never would’ve crossed. I never would’ve known him. My life would be much less rich.

Zibby: I love reading friendship stories like this one because, yes, it’s about the friendship, but they also tell you so much about each person in the friendship. I got to know you so much better through this book, which I loved. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. One, I would like to see a picture of this hairstyle that you referenced from your Yale days because I could barely picture it the way you described it. I just have to see that at some point. Also, you really charted for us, your own trajectory of being out and gay and what that was like and working through the AIDS crisis. It wasn’t that long ago. Yet the way you wrote it in the book, it’s like a different era or something with all this being illegal in some states and just so few people even being out at Yale at the time. Talk about the crazy difference. I bet people today can’t even imagine. It wasn’t so long ago. It was just a few years ago.

Will: It’s very hard to describe to people what it was like in a short form. That’s one of the other reasons I really wanted to write this book, is to convey what it was like to be a young, gay, out, active gay man in the early eighties when AIDS struck, when friends got sick and died of this mysterious thing, when no one knew how it was spread, what caused it, when there were all these crazy theories, when the homophobia, especially around AIDS, was so virulent that people like William F. Buckley were proposing that people with AIDS be tattooed. They were proposing, literally, concentration camps. Yet the rest of society knew nothing, didn’t talk about it, didn’t think about it. We had a president who didn’t even say the word for I don’t even know how many years. When I first became aware of it, it was under fifty, gay men, a rare cancer. During the time I write about in college, it was 1,500. We knew, some of us, that it was going to be a tsunami. No one would listen to us. I also really wanted to convey how long it was that we had that sort of Damocles hanging over us.

I really did think that there was an extremely good chance, based on people that I had slept with, that I had AIDS. If I did, it would be almost certain that I would die. That was really my entire twenties. I wanted to convey what that was like, but also — this is really important. There’s a writer who I love named Andrew Holleran. I’ve been lucky enough to be his editor for the last thirty years. I’m going to paraphrase him badly. He said the eighties were like a marvelous dinner party if you were a gay man, but periodically, one of the guests was taken out and shot. We were all supposed to go on eating. That’s the other part of it. We did. We went to movies. We saw our friends. We had jobs. People kept dying. We thought we were probably next. That’s the background of the book. In some ways, I really wanted to pair it, and I know they’re very different, with the fact that Maxey joined the Navy Seals and enlisted for six years as an officer in the Seals. We were both at war, just very different kinds of wars.

Zibby: So interesting. I was actually surprised when he got into the Navy Seals in the book. The way you described it, I was like, I don’t think that’s going to work out for him. Then he did. That was great. I was also really moved by when he started the school. He went to Eleuthera. Eleuthera, right?

Will: Yep.

Zibby: And talked about how when he was in the Seals, one of the things they had to do was bomb the coral reefs to get at whatever their target was. He was like, I don’t want to bomb reefs. I want to save reefs. I want to go down here and start a school and educate people. He was so at home in the water and just marveled at everything oceanic and decided to devote his life, despite hurricanes and everything that happened, to going down there and doing it. I loved that. Tell me about that. What did you think at the beginning?

Will: Maxey told me that he got into the service, got into the Navy Seals because he wanted to be of service. He wanted to do something useful. Also, he was a physical guy. He loved the water. He loved teamwork and sense of purpose and challenges. In the book, he finally tells me why he did leave the Seals. Among the reasons was he said, I want to save reefs. I don’t want to blow them up. He’s become this awesome eco-warrior. He founded an amazing school to help educate kids and really make them scientists. When the students are there, they’re not studying science. They’re doing science. It’s so exciting. It’s just a fun place too. I hope, in this book, that there’s a lot of poignant moments. It chronicles forty years. I wanted to put it all down. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years. Maxey is one of the most fun human beings I know. I’m like you, Zibby. I’m so happy curled up on a sofa with a book. We’re what I used to refer to as indoor kids. Maxey brings me out of my shell. He’s that chaos element that some of us have in our lives with our friends, the one who makes us laugh and gets us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise have done.

Zibby: I love that. I know. Even when I’m in LA, people are like, do you want to go on a hike? I’m like, no, I want to just walk up and down my sidewalk. If you would like to walk up and down my sidewalk, we can call it a hike because it’s steep, but no. Audiobook is an added bonus for the walk. Another thing that was really interesting is how you described both of your longer-term relationships over time and the ups and downs and starts and stops of his own relationship and your relationship and his having kids and your not having kids and how those all kept weaving through as an undercurrent of both of your stories. Pam and Maxey’s relationship, I kind of wanted to watch a movie just of that and get a little deeper in what was going on there. Tell me about your co-flowing relationships.

Will: That’s one of the other joys of a forty-year friendship. If you’re lucky, your friends find wonderful people with whom they want to spend their lives. If you’re really, really lucky, you do too. I wanted to tell the story of how I met my husband David in a bar in Hong Kong at a time when the penalty for homosexuality in Hong Kong was life in prison, how Maxey was lucky enough to meet Pam in a dive bar when he was pure an officer and a gentlemen situation. She really surprised him because she wasn’t at all who he first assumed she was. The ups and downs of both of our relationships over almost forty years, it was a really fun thing to write, but really meaningful to me too. The final dedication in the book is, of course, to David and to Pam for putting up with us for all these years.

Zibby: Is he going on tour with you? I haven’t looked. Are there appearances? Did I miss them already? I’m sorry.

Will: No, you haven’t missed anything. Maxey and I, on pub date, are going on the road. We’re doing a big event at Barnes & Noble on pub date, which is the 22nd. The day before, actually, I’m doing a thing at RJ Julia. Then Maxey and I are going on a road trip to Florida together and doing a couple other events. There’s one especially important character in the book, this guy David Singer. He’s the bridge between us. He’s a lot of me and a lot of Maxey and incredibly smart, accomplished, gregarious, wonderful human being. When Maxey and I would fall out of touch, he’d always bring us back together. Singer is hitting the road with us as well.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I have to get to one of those events.

Will: It’s a college road trip.

Zibby: That is so cool. I even loved when Singer convinced you to just drop everything and take two days off of work and go down to visit Maxey when he was having a tough time. You wanted to see the school. I could feel you being like, I can’t take off work. You just went. I feel like that scene in particular, for anybody who’s working hard and is reluctant to take time off, it’s just a reminder. If you don’t take those trips when they come and land at your feet, look at all the stuff you could miss. Those become the key moments of your life if you just do them.

Will: It was a turning point. I had all these excuses. I can’t afford it. Singer said, “Frequent flyer miles.” I can’t take the time. Singer said, “We’ll go for forty-eight hours.” Showing up for your friends, this book is a celebration of friendship, and there’s nothing more important than showing up. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve let go by. It’s never a bad time to pick up a phone or send a text or an email and just say, hey, you’re an important person in my life. I’m thinking about you. I’m checking in. I want to see how you’re doing. If I hadn’t gone on that trip with Singer, I don’t know if our friendship would have survived. We would’ve been cordial if we’d seen each other. That was the refresher, the jolt, the tonic we needed. That was also a time when we started getting much realer with each other. We really confided things about our lives that we don’t casually share, all of which I put in the book. One thing which is one of the many remarkable things about Maxey is when I embarked on this project, I said, “I’m going to show you the manuscript. Our friendship is more important than any book. You have carte blanche to take anything you don’t like. Just tell me what you don’t like. Out it goes.” He read the book. He said, “Don’t take out a word.”

Zibby: That’s so nice. That is so nice.

Will: One of the other things we bonded about, and it’s something that I hope strikes people deeply, is we both were in the situation in college of really not knowing what we wanted to do with our lives and being scared and anxious and feeling imposter syndrome. I know you have grappled with this.

Zibby: Oh, did you mean you and me or you and him?

Will: Exactly. I loved Bookends, by the way.

Zibby: That was so nice you read it. Oh, my gosh, when you emailed me that, I was so touched. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Will: You talk about that issue, that “What am I going to do with my life?” imposter syndrome. We really bonded over that, that fear of disappointing others and disappointing ourselves and of wasting the enormous privileges we’d been given. Going to Yale, oh, my goodness, how incredible is that? Yet that fear that, what if this opportunity that so many people would do anything for, what if we wasted it? I think it’s natural for young people to feel that, but it’s also a feeling that can come back at twenty, thirty, forty, fifty. When we meet up at sixty — this is not a spoiler. This is just a description. We actually are just so darn glad to be breathing, to be friends, and to have marvelous people in our lives. I look back on that kid who was so worried about what he was going to do with his life, and Maxey does the same, and we’re like, we’re still here. That’s enough. That’s great.

Zibby: Whenever anyone asks me one of those questions all the time, “What do you wish you’d told your younger self?” or whatever, I always say, this is will all make sense later. It’s one thing to say, I didn’t know what I wanted to do before too. Then when you read your book and you go through it, you don’t see the end. You know it because you know whose book you’re reading, but it wouldn’t be obvious. There are all these twists and turns. Who knows why life goes the way it does? It’s just all these decisions. They’re all leading you somewhere, even if they don’t make any sense. Your trip to Hong Kong, it’s like, what?

Will: I really wanted to put it all out there. The story of a forty-year friendship has a lot of twists and turns in it. It’s going to. It is very deeply informed by the people we lost along the way, friends of mine to AIDS, friends of mine to accidents, friends who died in other terrible ways, friends of Maxey’s in the military who were killed in action.

Zibby: Your mom.

Will: My mom, I write about again, my mother’s death from pancreatic cancer, which I wrote about in The End of Your Life Book Club. We lost one of the members of our secret society who was very dear to us, an extraordinary person. I hope the book really is imbued with a sense of gratitude. Again, I hope that it will help other people who are, by definition, still here — if you’re reading the book, you’re still here — look at their lives maybe through a similar lens if they are lucky enough to do so. One of the things, as you know, I also write about in the book is we both dealt with various illnesses, but we’re still here. We helped each other through it. Part of the way that Maxey helped me get through things is he never lets me take myself too seriously.

Zibby: That was a particularly moving and poignant piece of the whole story. When you sat down with Sonny and he said, “This is really the story that you wanted to write,” now that you’ve written it, what did you learn about yourself as you did it? What was really driving you? Why did you want to write this story so much? When you got to the end, was there a moment when you were like, “Oh, I had to work through blah, blah, blah. I needed to remember blah, blah, blah”? Was there anything like that at the end?

Will: There were a couple of real revelations. One was this overarching theme, which is, as I mentioned when we started talking, wow, I knew Maxey was prejudiced against me, but I was way more prejudiced against him. I really wanted to examine the way that I made snap judgements about people and decided whether they could or couldn’t be a friend based on something as silly as the fact that they were a sports hero and assumptions I made. Over the course of our friendship, Maxey would later, as you know from the book, share with me a journal that he kept where he chronicled the year we met and everything that happened to him. I was obviously a small part of it, but there it was. It was so fascinating. He shared it with me. I learned that things that I remembered, he remembered too and had a totally different view of. I had gotten those wrong as well. I started in the epigraph with several quotes. One is from Amor Towles, from A Gentleman in Moscow, which is a book I dearly love, where he talks about, you really don’t know a person until you’ve seen them in every different kind of situation. People really surprise you. At the end of writing this book, I thought Maxey really surprised me, and I really surprised myself. One other thing I want to mention because it’s just funny is — I also wanted to chronicle a friendship, totally platonic, between a gay man and a straight man over forty years. When I first showed it to one of my dearest friends and first readers, she roared with laughter. She said, “You’ve actually written something very similar to what it’s like to be a straight woman and have a friendship with a straight man that is entirely platonic.” I thought that was funny. I hadn’t expected her to say that.

Zibby: You were like, he’s just as girl crazy as I am boy crazy. I get it.

Will: Exactly. That was Maxey’s great revelation. I’m girl crazy. He’s boy crazy. I get it. I got it. It was fun to revisit various funny incidents throughout our lives. I also felt a responsibility to tell this story because it was a story forty years in the making.

Zibby: Being an editor at Macmillan and then having your book published by Knopf — for people who don’t know too much about publishing houses, just different sides of the field or whatever you want to say. What was it like working with — obviously, you have for your other books — a publisher that’s not yours and then not being the editor of your own work when you’re so used to editing other people’s work?

Will: I love it. I love just giving up control. Macmillan’s a great publisher. Knopf’s a great publisher. When I’m in writer mode, I’m just a writer. That’s what I’m doing. I’m busy being a writer. Jordan Pavlin, who took over the book, has fabulous lists and impeccable taste. I was able to put myself in her superb hands. I love not wearing my editor hat. In fact, when I’m reading books for pleasure, I don’t edit them in my mind. I just read them. I’m very able to go from one to the other. It’s also fun to see how a book hits different people and then what kind of life it takes on in the world. You’ve had that experience.

Zibby: It’s true, yes. I’m excited for readers to start reading this and to hear what their response is and what you learn about them and you. It’s going to be really fun.

Will: Thank you. One thing I wanted to mention, too, given the marvelous title of your podcast that’s given birth to so many things that you have done, is there’s a lot of comedy in the book over the fact that Maxey not only has four kids, Maxey and Pam, but is running a school full of kids. I was once quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “My husband and I are the last gay men in America who do not want children.”

Zibby: Yes, that was great.

Will: I don’t know what to do with small children. He has four. I can never remember their names.

Zibby: I know. I was going to say that was hilarious.

Will: I feel so terribly about that. I adore his kids. They’re awesome human beings, each one different, each one extraordinary. It’s been really fun getting to know them too. We’re very different people. We’re still so different. That’s what makes our friendship, one of the things, so fun. I hope people enjoy the book. I hope it causes them to celebrate their own friendships, usual and unusual. I also really hope it gets them to look around and say, who could I be friends with? Why shouldn’t we be friends?

Zibby: Totally. I think this would be a good writing exercise for those aspiring writers out there who are debating what to write today. Maybe they could try doing a short essay on a friend who’s not a best friend, but someone that’s had a lot of meaning in their lives for one reason or another. Just try writing a thousand words on that. I’m giving random people assignments, but there’s someone out there who’s going to do it. If you do it, send it to me. Send it to Will and me. We’ll take a look. Will, thank you so much. Thanks for the great book. It’s just so nice. I feel like reading someone’s memoir, especially yours, it’s this little peek into the soul. It’s so nice. I just loved it.

Will: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks for having me on. Thanks for all you’re doing for readers and writers.

Zibby: Thank you. You too.

Will: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Will Schwalbe, WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship

WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship by Will Schwalbe

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