David France has won the £30,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for his account of the plague years of the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague (Picador).
The book is a witness account of the years between 1981 and 1996, known as the "plague" years of the AIDS epidemic, where there was no effective medical treatment for an HIV infection and death was almost certain.
In the book, France, a chronicler of AIDS from the earliest days, uses his "unparalleled access" to the activist community to illuminate the lives of dozens of "extraordinary" characters. He describes the founding of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), the rise of an underground drug and the "gripping – and often heartbreaking" – march towards a lifesaving medical breakthrough.
In an interview given for the awards ceremony, France said: “How to Survive a Plague chronicles the work that was done largely by patients and activists who schooled themselves in science and then confronted this kind of lackadaisical research establishment, to help by joining in as partners; identify, test and bring to market the medication that has made HIV largely a survivable and treatable condition.”
France is the author of Our Fathers (Broadway Books), a title about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, which Showtime adapted into a film. His documentary "How to Survive a Plague" was a 2012 Oscar nominee, won a Directors Guild Award and a Peabody Award, and was nominated for two Emmys, among other accolades. France’s latest film, "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson", premiered earlier this year.
Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of the judges, said: “In our winner we were looking for something that is incredibly well written, enjoyable and also important. How to Survive a Plague is all of these things and also works on three levels: it’s the personal story of a gay man, the history of the prejudice that gay men faced during the AIDS epidemic and the worldwide scientific story of the search for a treatment for AIDS.”
The winner has been chosen by a panel chaired by Bazalgette, together with Anjana Ahuja, science writer; Ian Bostridge, tenor and writer; Professor Sarah Churchwell, academic and writer; and Razia Iqbal, journalist and broadcaster.
Sarah Whitley, partner of Baillie Gifford and chair of its Sponsorship Committee, added: "I am pleased to award the second Baillie Gifford Prize to a book that combines a very important piece of social history, unforgettable to those of us who were young adults in the early 1980s, describes collective action in the face of official intransigence and also outlines the ultimate achievement of controlling a modern plague.”
Alongside How to Survive a Plague the other titles on the shortlist were The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue (Bodley Head), Border by Kapka Kassabova (Highbridge Co), An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn (William Collins), To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (Granta) and Belonging by Simon Scham (Bodley Head).