Paul Monette writes about love.

It is his natural subject -- but one that eluded him for years. Because for most of his life, the 46-year-old author separated himself from his homosexuality. For him, his sexual orientation really was the love that dare not speak its name.

Then, at 28, he left the closet -- and he's been talking about it nonstop ever since.

"I had to explore the love that it had taken me so long to find," he says, "the love that is my subject and has always been my subject and will always be my subject until I die."

A decade into the AIDS crisis, Monette's writing has a special poignancy. He has been an AIDS widower twice, and five years ago tested HIV-positive. He follows a fierce antiviral regimen, and so far is healthy. But he knows what lies ahead.

And yet he is upbeat, funny and, in a measured way, even optimistic. Instead of just living with AIDS, he has managed to love with it, to love despite it. He has been with his current companion, a general contractor he met at a lecture Monette gave at UCLA, for six months. "I'm trying to live full throttle as long as I can," he says.

He has also managed to pursue his normal life in the Hollywood Hills: writing, continuing his political activities, traveling. For years he made a good living as a writer of movie novelizations, most prominently "Scarface," which sold about 700,000 copies. But in the literary world, he is best known for his powerful responses to the personal devastation of AIDS: "Borrowed Time," a memoir of one lover's battle with the disease; "Love Alone," a cycle of love poems; and several volumes of critically praised fiction, including the recent "Half-Way Home."

Promoting that book was Monette's reason for being in Washington recently, but it's a city that throws him off kilter. "To come to Washington in 1991 is to come to the center of the homophobic controversy," he says. "For us the main hate criminals -- Jesse Helms and Dana Rohrabacher -- are here. The NEA controversy is centered here. All our threats to the First Amendment are here."

In black and white, words like that sound pretty combative. But when they issue from Monette -- who has just completed an unintentionally hilarious repartee with a sympathetic room service waitress, explaining that virtually everything sent up for lunch was not what he ordered -- they come out as simple facts of life.

In his view, Washington, with its secretive "suited" homosexuals and powerful right-wingers, is just not a great place for gay people.

Not that most places in America are.

New England -- where Monette grew up in a blue-collar family with a brother confined to a wheelchair, because of spina bifida -- wasn't too welcoming either. He knew he was "different" but kept quiet about his desires -- although he was experimenting sexually with other boys when he was as young as 9. Eventually he won scholarships to Andover and then Yale. And in that world, given the atmosphere of the time, the closet door closed.

"I went off to school, and all of that got cut off," he says. "My years were spent in confusion and self-hatred. Until I was 25 I lived in a kind of coma. I was utterly desexualized."

Love and Intimacy

"When I finally connected," says Monette, "I turned out to be really good at intimacy."

There he was in Cambridge, Mass., in the early '70s -- an English teacher and poet, glamorous and eccentric. "It was a good cover for being gay," he says. "Nobody knew how unhappy I was."

Ironically, women finally broke through his defenses. "I wanted to love, and women were much less afraid of it than men," he says. "I loved being in love. I finally had a subject for my heart if not for my pen."

At first, he tried to go straight, and spent some time in therapy seeing if he could change. "It was a difficult couple of years, and I learned a lot from it," says Monette, recalling the noisy Byronic figure who was trying to gather courage to embark on his real life. "But it wasn't who I was."

When he finally came out, he cast off his earlier trappings, poet persona and all. ("I felt the world of poetry was too self-involved and precious.") Instead, what he wanted to do was to be out there and write about who and what his world was. "The gay revolution was in my heart, and I believed that we were going to make enormous inroads."

Finding love wasn't far behind. "I decided to seek it out," he says simply. "There are no accidents."

Within months of his coming out, he met the man he hoped would be his life partner, comparative literature scholar and soon-to-be lawyer Roger Horwitz -- "my life's best reason," Monette describes him in "Borrowed Time." After a couple of years, the two headed to Los Angeles.

Says Monette: "I started packing to go to California when I was about 7, because I saw it on television. It was about as far away from Massachusetts and the cold politeness of the WASP aristocracy as I could imagine."

For 10 years they lived together happily amid a large circle of gay and straight friends, unaware that an unknown virus would forever alter the shape of their lives. Then a relentless late-night cough signaled the future: Horwitz's 19-month struggle with the disease, his death and "the first widow Monette."

The ordeal devastated him. He gave up trying to work on a novel he had started, finished a screenplay solely to pay the bills, but managed to continue the personal journals he had always kept. Later on, they would be essential to "Borrowed Time."

He found some solace in nightly hourlong phone conversations with his brother. And nightly conversations with his therapist.

Then in June 1986, just months before Horwitz's death, Monette learned that he too carried the AIDS virus.

That he managed to emerge from the experience with any optimism at all is amazing. That he came out of it able to have another committed relationship with another AIDS carrier is a tribute to his determination to lead a full life.

Monette was struggling with "Afterlife," a novel about three AIDS widowers, when he met film executive Stephen Kolzak. The connection helped him write.

"He was a hero for me," he says. "I watched him go on disability, I watched him become a full-time AIDS activist, I watched him heal up his family, I watched him find me. He had a longing to love."

Kolzak died very suddenly, two years and two months after they had come together. Monette entered his second widowhood. "People said, 'How can you go through this again?' " says Monette. "But it was a wonderful two years.

"It could have been me who got sick, and it wasn't."

Two months after Kolzak died, Monette met his current companion. (They are good-humored about the emotional baggage -- and celebrity -- that Monette brings to the relationship.) Although it was a while before they began to live together, many of his friends worried it was too soon. But Monette's need to connect, to make up for the 28 years of denial, allowed him to move on.

"I was a child of Hollywood," he laughs. "I thought my life would be a Bette Davis movie. And it has been."

Reaching Out

Like most of his other books, Monette's newest novel has roots in his own turbulent life. And mirroring his attitudes, "Half-Way Home" is told from the point of view of a character who manages to grow and love and even deal with unfinished emotional business in defiance of limited time.

"I felt as if I'd written so much about grief and loss that I had to try to write a book about the joy that was possible within those borders," he says.

The book reflects Monette's belief in the power of intimacy, and the difficulties people have achieving them. He thinks that one of the reasons intimacy is so difficult for gay men is a lack of self-love.

"Even those people who can triumph and come out of the closet and achieve self-recognition nonetheless feel unlovable," he says. "Because if a {gay} man is told that he must act like a man, and yet feels that acting like a man and being a man is a kind of fraud, then it's very much about his not being in touch with intimacy."

"Half-Way Home" is the story of two Irish Catholic brothers -- one gay, one straight -- and the way their lives connect at points of crisis. The gay brother, Tom Shaheen, a performance artist in the later stages of AIDS, is holed up in a beach house in Southern California. The straight one, who bullied and tormented his younger brother throughout childhood, is fleeing his New Jersey life and the murderous wrath of a former business partner and has sought refuge at the house.

It is also the story of Tom Shaheen's finding different kinds of love when and where he least expected it: with his brother, with his nephew and with the owner of the beach house.

Populated by a cast of gay and straight characters, the book takes Monette in two directions: to his regular readers, who are predominantly homosexual, and to what he hopes will be a crossover audience. Each is important to him.

"The reason I talk so much about gay and lesbian illiteracy is that even if you come out at 20 or 25, and that's a great liberating gesture, you don't know anything about the history of your people. ... And you don't have a real portrait of your story that fiction can give you."

But reaching the larger reading public is a goal as well. Not only is it potentially more remunerative ("I make a quiet living from my books," he said, noting that his advance on this novel was $40,000 -- not an enormous sum.) But, more important, he feels that the two worlds need knowledge of each other, and that books like "Half-Way Home" provide that.

"It's so important to me that the books cross over to a mainstream audience," he says. "If there's any book that might help a straight brother heal the rift with a gay, and make him understand what the divergence was, I wanted this book to do that."

But he seems to wish it weren't necessary. "After all, I've been reading straight novels for 40 years, and I can understand those people. So why can't they identify with my books?"

Comfort in the Darkness Paul Monette's conversation is full of the language of AIDS -- the T-cell counts, the familiar abbreviations OI, KS and PCP in place of the more fearful "opportunistic infection," "Kaposi's sarcoma" and "pneumocystis carinii," the names of drugs. Becoming familiar with the enemy has always been a way of getting through the night.

"I have no illusions about the darkness of the human condition," he says. "What moves me about courage and the life force is the capacity to make change, to make comfort in the darkness."

That's what the characters in "Half-Way Home" do, and that's what he tries to do.

Continuing to seek out nurturing love is one method he relies on. (He frets like a parent/spouse/lover, for example, about the health of the man he lives with now, who has never been tested.)

Being politically active is another. "It's not enough to come out, as joyous as that is," he says. "It can be narcissistic. It doesn't make you a social and political being."

So, apart from the autobiography he is working on, much of the rest of his time is taken up with political activism: on boards, giving speeches, spreading the word. After all, "I live in a holocaust," he points out. "I have to live hand in hand with fear -- or bitterness -- because I have watched all the people I love taken.

"Homophobia is not just this slur," he says, "but a way of keeping people oppressed. It has to do with hate and fear. ... It's deeply, deeply rooted."

Staying as healthy as he can and monitoring each new drug is another way Monette handles his situation. He describes his condition as "very healthy, stabilized" and hopes he has two more years of health in front of him. He is adamantly in favor of HIV testing and has been on an aggressive combination-drug antiviral therapy for several years (AZT and DDI, a not-yet-approved drug that attacks the virus at a different stage than AZT). He is currently ahead of the curve because this combination of drugs, which costs about $1,000 a month, is working for him.

"I am a really good example of what most {HIV-infected} people should be doing. They can have two or three more years of life," he says, knowing it's not quite that simple.

"There is crime upon crime here," he says. "There is nothing forcing people to be tested, no influence in Washington to push to get people to get on combination antivirals."

Least of all, there is no push from drug companies. Burroughs Wellcome makes AZT and currently holds the patent for it, although recently the National Institutes of Health said it was considering legal action to invalidate that patent. And DDI is controlled by Bristol-Myers Squibb (which is giving Monette the drug on a "compassionate use" basis).

"They're not interested in having you take each other's drugs," he says.

"AIDS will ultimately be solved," he continues. "We will make it manageable by making drugs that will interfere at several stages of the life cycle. But will gay and lesbian people have their souls? I sure hope so. We have to liberate a whole world that has been oppressed."

From where Paul Monette stands, he is still a part of that oppressed class because of the blame and punishment he inflicted on himself during all the years before he came out. "I have an enormous amount of trouble forgiving myself for the guilt of those years," he says. And if he can't forgive himself, how can anyone else?

"I learned who I was by writing," he says. "Writing really is a matter of going into a deep space in yourself to find a tale to tell, a space that knows more about yourself that you do. What can come out will be your truth.

"And if I am ever going to ultimately forgive the incarcerated child that I was, it will only be by peeling off every layer of truth that I can," he says.

"Until I was 25, everything was about secrets. Since then too much has been about bourgeois sensibility. But I'm in the truth business, and the best truth I know is my own. The more I can say, the more I can understand."