FACETIME- On Decker: To the virus go the spoils
Being born with hemophilia? Bad break. Diagnosed with HIV at age 11? Another bad break. Getting your first book picked up by a top New York agent and sold to a top publishing house? Good deal.
All these things have happened to AIDS activist Shawn Decker, a man who's beaten all the odds.
Decker's first book, a memoir titled My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure, will be released on September 21– something no one might have thought possible seven years ago, soon after he'd met Gwenn Barringer, the woman he eventually married.
Though Barringer, a beauty pageant contestant and AIDS educator, knew how to prevent transmission of HIV, Decker says she worried about their long-term future together, and whether Decker– who was healthy when they met– would be around.
"I alleviated those concerns by being diagnosed with AIDS shortly after we fell in love," Decker jokes wryly, showing a hint of the dark humor that helped win him the book deal.
Decker, now 30, describes the book's beginning: "Like any good movie, it starts with a bloody episode," he says, referring to his circumcision as an infant– the moment doctors realized he was a hemophiliac. Later chapters cover "the shenanigans my friends and I partake" in their rural hometown of Buena Vista, and continue well into Decker's adulthood.
Though his illnesses are a part of the story, Decker says they're not the stars.
"My medical conditions are floating there in the background," he says. "It's kind of how my life has been shaped by them."
Though the subject matter could be depressing, Decker says that's far from his intended effect. And he apparently achieved the right balance. Of the 20 or so agents to whom he submitted the manuscript, nearly half wrote back expressing interest, Barringer says.
Decker eventually settled on New York-based agent Christopher Schelling, who also represents well known memoirists Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) and Haven Kimmels (A Girl Named Zippy). Schelling quickly found a good home for Decker's Pet Virus with Tarcher/Penguin publishers.
Schelling says Decker pulls off something few writers can.
"His comic timing is perfect," he says. "He really knows when to give you the emotional and then reel you in with the perfect punchline."
It's a skill Decker attributes to his family, who used humor to get them through the hardest times of his illness.
"I was taught at an early age not to feel sorry for myself," he says, "that life is to be enjoyed, and that there are some twisted things about the human experience, but that 's what makes it fun."
It's an example Barringer says he's set for her– and that comes through in his writing.
"One of the things I love about being in this relationship with Shawn," she says, "is he taught me to loosen up so much, to live the life you want to live."
Shawn Decker and Gwenn Barringer
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO