This section contains 5,621 words
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Interview by Edmund White with Kay Bonetti
SOURCE: "An Interview with Edmund White," in The Missouri Review, 1990, pp. 89-110.
In the following interview, White discusses the autobiographical nature of his work and what he thinks about literature.
[Bonetti:] Mr. White, can you fill us in on some background about yourself? Do A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty follow your own chronology?
[White:] The books fairly reflect where I was and what I was doing. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents got divorced when I was seven and my mother began to move from city to city while my father remained in Cincinnati. I was sent to a boarding school in Michigan, near Detroit, a school called Cranbrook, which appears as Eton in my books.
And you went to the University of Michigan?
I studied Chinese there, and when I graduated I moved to New York and worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 to 1970. Then I moved to Rome for a year, and when I came back, I became a freelance writer and editor, then worked briefly for Saturday Review and Horizon. I started teaching in the mid-seventies, first at Yale, then at Johns Hopkins, finally at Columbia and New York University. In 1981 I was the executive director of The New York Institute for the Humanities, which is an organization of smart people attached to New York University. Then in 1983, I moved to France, where I've been living ever since. Beginning in spring, 1990, I will be teaching at Brown University, where I've just been named a Professor of English with tenure.
There's a story in The Darker Proof about a couple that move to Paris in an oblique response to the gay community and AIDS. Did you move to Paris for similar reasons?
In a way I gave some of the events of my life to those characters, but the reasons were different. In my case, I won a Guggenheim, which allowed me to go for one year. I worked for Vogue and other Condé-Nast magazines as a journalist, so that allowed me to stay on. I could stay forever I suppose. I have a nice apartment and I make a decent living as a freelance American journalist writing from Paris.
Then why are you coming back to teaching?
I like teaching. I like the idea of a secure position. I'm positive for AIDS, and the statistics are rather grim, but if by some chance I do go on living I would like to have a retirement plan. I support my mother now, and if I weren't there, she would really be penniless.
Does your fiction sustain you economically?
If I weren't such a spendthrift and if I didn't have other people to support—my mother's not the only one—I could live very well from my fiction, but I'm a terrible spendthrift. I like to travel, and that takes money.
Is the narrator's job in The Beautiful Room Is Empty similar to your job at Time-Life Books?
Absolutely. In the sixties, which was the heyday of direct-mail sales of books, we were vastly overstaffed and the books made enormous amounts of money. I was accepted in a writer's trainee program where I learned lots of useful journalistic things—to change, edit, rewrite. We were so encouraged to say everything was the best, the biggest, the most, that it gave me a permanent horror of overstatement, which I think is also a useful tool for a serious writer. But I stayed too long. When I was thirty I thought, "If I continue here, I'll be here the rest of my life." So I just quit, took my profit-sharing, which was seven thousand dollars, a lot of money in 1970, and moved to Rome, where I lived for a year.
Were you working on fiction at that time?
I wasn't working on anything. I was just being a lazy bum. I write very little. I can go a year or even two years without blinking.
Yet you've put out quite a body of work.
Yet, but I write quickly when I write. Most writers write too much, they work too much, they live too little and they anguish too much. Especially American writers, who seem to feel guilty about being writers at all. It doesn't seem like a real job to them. In order to justify their existence in their own eyes, or in their friends' and family's eyes, they feel they must sit in an office and write eight hours a day. I don't think anybody writes well after two hours a day—really one—and anyway I tend to be a very old-fashioned writer who writes from inspiration.
During the years at Time-Life when did you write?
At night. After work. I wrote many, many plays and they were all very, very bad. The writing was dry, voices talking in a void, endless chattering dialogue. Then I wrote three or four novels, and they were all very bad. I think it's because I worked too hard in my twenties that I now don't believe in working hard.
Is that what you tell your students?
I do. Of course everybody's rhythms are different, but I do think that people should approach the page with a certain fear and trembling and a feeling that it's an important encounter. The problem with student writers is not that they write too little, but that they write too much. They crank it out. The ones who enjoy writing enjoy it because they usually have rather neurotic needs to write. It's a real psychological defense, but unfortunately that kind of compulsive writing, though it can sometimes be absolutely gripping can also be extremely dull. It's an experience that only the writer is having, not the reader. Writers should have a kind of wary distaste for the page, a feeling that when you engage with it, you should really be doing something that's interesting. That's compressed. That's beautiful.
You're in Washington, D.C. tonight to receive an award and give a lecture. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It's the first Bill Whitehead award, given by a group of gay people and lesbians in publishing called The Publishing Triangle. They have three or four hundred members and they've only just started. Bill Whitehead was a friend and my editor at E. P. Dutton for several years, and he freelanced the editing of The Beautiful Room Is Empty after he'd become ill and retired. Before he died of AIDS he suggested the topic of the book I'm working on now, a biography of Jean Genet.
I'm going to be talking about gay liberation and what that's meant in terms of gay publishing. This is the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which was the first time gay people, when faced with arrest during a bar raid, didn't run away into the night. They stayed behind and fought with the cops over a period of about three days. I participated in the riot, and it was a very exciting moment in my own life. It seems fitting that a publishing group should be giving its first award on the anniversary of that important occasion, even though the gay publishing movement did not begin right away.
One important book was published in 1971, called Homosexual, by Dennis Altman, but it really wasn't until 1978 that three gay novels came out: Larry Kramer's Faggots; Dancer from the Dance, by Andrew Holeran; and my Nocturnes for the King of Naples. Those three books gave the impression of a new wave, of a new movement coming along. Especially the first two. Mine was probably the least important of those three, as a publishing event.
How do you place the books by John Rechy, and Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin, and others that came along earlier?
They're all very important. Especially Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man and John Rechy's City of Night, in the sixties. The difference between the so-called gay writers like me and those earlier writers is that there is a tremendous network now of gay and lesbian bookshops throughout the United States with an enormous mail order business. It's a highly packaged, self-conscious, self-declared culture. Those guys back then were writing about rather lonely individuals combatting society. They were isolated by the nature of things politically, and their position in publishing was always anomalous.
Do you see yourself as a writer who happens to be gay and deals with gay subject matter or as a gay writer?
It depends which country I'm in when somebody asks me. In France there is no such thing as a "gay writer" because there is no gay ghetto. Gays are so well integrated that nobody makes a fuss over his sexual orientation. In the United States we have nothing but ghettos. It's astonishing for a European to walk into an American bookshop and see books categorized by Women's Studies, Gay Studies, Children's Books. Literary fiction as such represents a tiny part of any particular bookshop, and even that small percentage is drifting more and more toward popular fiction. It all seems minimalist and regional and confessional.
I'm thinking as we talk that "gay literature" is more ghettoized than these other literatures.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty was number one on the bestseller list in England when it came out in hard cover last year. Here it would never be on any list. In England, I am a judge of the Booker Prize. Here I would never be asked to judge the Pulitzer. The Beautiful Room Is Empty came out first in England, then in Australia and New Zealand and only finally in the States. In those other countries I was interviewed by the major newspapers as a real writer who would be of interest to the general public, but when I arrived in America, the only people who were willing to interview me represented handouts distributed free in gay bars. In England I'm a famous writer, in America I'm a kind of funny ghettoized marginal writer. It's a peculiar experience.
Do you see yourself as writing primarily for a gay audience?
In my first few books I thought first of the general reader. With The Beautiful Room Is Empty I was more aware of writing for a gay reader primarily and then for general readers afterwards, because of AIDS, I think. In big cities, gay people have lost up to three quarters of their friends, which is an extraordinary experience for somebody who's not old to have to go through. Most gay people know they are HIV positive, which means that they have about a fifty percent chance of being dead within two years. It's an experience which gives an immediacy to your writing. That's something I tried to deal with in The Darker Proof, a collection of short stories that I wrote with Adam Mars-Jones, a very good young gay writer in England. We thought that AIDS had been treated too much from the point of view of experts, usually heterosexual, and discussed as though it were a kind of objective scientific condition, rather than an anguish to be lived through. We wanted to show the human side of this experience. We chose the story as a form, rather than the novel, because the novel has an inevitable trajectory to it. That is, you begin healthy and end sick and dead. We wanted to get into and out of the subject matter in a more angular and less predictable way.
I read that The Beautiful Room Is Empty is part of a tetralogy. The idea of a writer being able to hold that much material in his head amazes me.
Well, you can't claim that you know every last little thing, but the broad axes are clear. It's partly because I live my life as though it were a novel. As I'm experiencing it I see it in novelistic terms.
Now what do you mean by that? We're told that life is chaos. Art is discipline and order.
Yes, but I think everyone looks for the order in his or her own life. A novel is precisely that attempt to find a meaning or order. What is important to me is to find meaning with all the complexity left in. One of the things that makes a lot of new American fiction not very interesting is that though the books are shapely, they are shapely at the expense of complication. I like things to be complex.
A Boy's Own Story is basically straight-on, as is The Beautiful Room Is Empty compared to the lush style of Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole. Any comments on that difference?
In Nocturnes for the King of Naples I dealt with my youth in a rather fantastic way with an immensely rich playboy father who's not at all like my fairly dumpy and dour midwestern father. I dealt with some of the feelings of loneliness that I had as a child, some of my first longings for escape and sex and whatnot. All of that was in Nocturnes but given to an invented character, somebody who was small and blond and beautiful, whereas I am large and dark and not beautiful. It's as though I peeled away the fantasy layer, in a style that was extremely ornate and appropriate to that particular vision. Then I was ready to deal with the painful reality of my youth in a more direct way. If my goal now was to tell the truth, I wasn't going to disguise it with a style that was very rhetorical.
Are there any parts of A Boy's Own Story that serve as an example of how reshaping "real experience" can fit the needs of the book?
Of course the chronology itself—the real experiences were scattered over long periods of time, but I tend to group them in the book and shape them and simplify them. I wanted to have a boy who seemed believable, slightly shy, rather sympathetic and awkward. In real life I was much more self-assured. I was a very successful student, well liked by the other kids, and wildly promiscuous sexually. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen I had hundreds of sexual partners.
In secret or openly?
I don't think it was really secretive. Most people knew that I was gay, but I didn't realize that. Thomas McGuane was in school with me, and he mentions in one of his interviews that he always knew I was gay and so did all the other boys. They thought it was amusing and it didn't bother them at all. Tom makes a brief appearance in one of my books, you know, but I won't give away his alias.
Are most of your characters based on real people, or do you often make them up?
Sometimes I'll take a character like Tex, whom I actually knew when I was twelve, thirteen, and revivify my memories by grafting on memories of somebody who's been more recently in my life.
In the epilogue to States of Desire you say that you tend to examine people and individuals with a sociological eye as opposed to a psychological eye. Were you just talking about States of Desire or do you think that applies to you as a fiction writer, too?
I think it's true of me as a fiction writer, but also as a biographer. For instance, in the book I'm working on now about Jean Genet, what's most interesting to me is to think of him as a child of the welfare system, a person who was in reform school and then in the army. Looking at the shaping power of these major institutions of French life excites me much more than wondering about his possible Oedipal feelings. I don't believe in psychoanalytic motivations of that sort. I believe that we're shaped by our class position. In my own case my father was a small entrepreneur who made a lot of money and then lost most of it during the time when small businessmen were being superseded by big corporations. That had an enormous impact on the way I perceived the world. When my mother was married to my father, she was well-to-do, a kind of society matron. After the divorce she was declassed and basically poor, and I along with her. I shuttled between living with my mother and sister in one room in a hotel to my father's house where there were ten bedrooms. I would spend my last five dollars as a tip for the maid, you know. I was sent to debutante balls by my father, but never with the right clothes. I was between two worlds socially. That probably created anxiety in me, but from a positive point of view, it made me more observant of society than a person who is either purely poor or purely rich would have been.
I was struck by the psychological versus sociological question because after reading A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the conclusion I came to as to why the narrator is gay seems to be the standard absent-father explanation.
At least intellectually I reject the idea of there being any explanation of homosexuality. Just as there is no explanation of heterosexuality, and no one looks for one, so once you begin to look for an explanation of homosexuality, you're already involved in a medical discourse. It's true that I had an absent father and a domineering mother, but my father, when he was present, was extremely domineering too. He was not the usual feeble father that homosexuals are supposed to have. Whether that made me homosexual I have no way of knowing, and I certainly didn't choose those elements in order to illustrate a theory. I chose those elements because they were the ones that happened to have been allotted to me.
If you read Forgetting Elena in the context of all of your other books, you can see oblique references to a homosexual culture, yet it's not a "gay book." Was that a conscious decision on your part?
No. What happened was I had written a very autobiographical gay book in the sixties and I stole a few passages from it and the title for the book that was only recently published as The Beautiful Room Is Empty. That early book was very long, very self-analytical, very uncritical. It went to twenty-five publishers and was rejected by everybody. One reason it was rejected was because it was about a middle-class homosexual, and I think in the sixties, before gay liberation, publishers were prepared to publish books like those by Rechy or Jean Genet or William Burroughs about freaky people, drug-takers, pimps, prostitutes, marginal gay people. Such characters were colorful, they were strange, and they were certainly not you, dear reader. But it was more threatening to write about a person who was really quite like the presumably middle-class reader, except that he happened to be gay. Having had that book, which I believed in at the time, rejected by so many publishers, I thought, "Oh, the hell with it. No one's ever going to publish me. I'm going to write something purely for myself." So I wrote Forgetting Elena because it reflected my own taste in a way that nothing I had written up to then did. The idea of writing about a culture that had a surface democracy, but an actual hidden hierarchy, and where morality had been replaced by esthetics, where people no longer troubled themselves about what was good, but only about what was beautiful, fascinated me. It seemed to be true of how a certain group of highly privileged gay men were living in the seventies.
Yet homosexuality is never overtly mentioned or referred to in that novel.
There's very little that's explicit at all in that book. It's implicit.
Forgetting Elena also ties into a theme that runs throughout your work, the position the homosexual is put into by the world of having to invent his identity because within the system there is no role model.
All my books are about initiation into a society. I don't seem to be able to get beyond that as a theme. Although perhaps in recent stories I have begun to tackle other subjects. In Caracole I did deal with that initiation from both the point of view of the boy who's being initiated, Gabriel, and from the point of view of the adults who are doing the initiating. It's a painful process on both sides.
Gabriel is a figure that recurs in your work, essentially an amnesiac because he has no frame of reference for where he is and what's going on. He and Angelica are feral. They're strays, eating fried bread while their mysterious enormous mother drinks in the bedroom. Gabriel has no idea what they are doing to him until he finds himself locked in that blackened room in the cage.
I suppose these extreme experiences that I like to put my characters through dramatize a feeling that we all undergo, maybe in less evident forms. Everyone models his responses on the other person's cues, and social life is a kind of theatrical reciprocity and a constant improvisation. The self is a much more fluid thing than we imagine. If a psychiatrist nods while a patient is saying certain things, the patient will talk more about that subject with more enthusiasm. Whereas if the psychiatrist frowns the patient will become uneasy and talk less about it. You can shape and mold behavior by these Skinnerian techniques.
At the time that I wrote Caracole, I was also under the influence of the ideas of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. I'm sure I didn't understand his ideas very well because I'm not really intelligent enough to, but what I gathered was that there are these large social codes that transect and shape all of our lives, and that the individual is only a locus where these lines of force cross. With Gabriel and Angelica I wanted to show two children who were as close to a state of nature—that is uncoded—as possible. They are brought to the city, and there they are very consciously and elaborately scripted with the ideas of our society, the codes, the laws of behavior and so on.
You have said that the unity of personality is a "useful illusion" for a novelist. Could you sort that out for me? What is meant by "unity of personality?"
Like the narrator in The Beautiful Room Is Empty and A Boy's Own Story, as a young person I read Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East. One of the Buddhist ideas that seemed very true to me is that the "I," the self, the unifying principal that holds this collection of attributes together, is an illusion. What we really are is just a collection of random psychological states, predispositions, emotions, sentiments, and so on, not to mention bodily organs, more like a pile of objects than an actual unity of self. Buddhists feel that the most useful thing a person can do to escape pain and rebirth and suffering is to return the various elements to their origins, separate them out. Although I believe that philosophically, it's not a very easy way to write a novel. What makes a novel seem vivid to a reader is bright and easily recognizable characters.
The narrator of The Beautiful Room Is Empty not only rejects the notion of unity of person but also says that he's come to distrust ideas: "every enthusiasm if genuinely embraced turns into folly or fanaticism." Some critics have taken you to task for that, but I wonder if the confusion might be in how people understand "idea."
What I like about fiction is that it shows events as history does, but they are shaped by certain principles, certain ideas, but only ideas that are well implanted into actual experiences. They're always concrete and contextual. When William Carlos Williams says, "No ideas but in things," that is something I would agree with, and I think most writers would. The philosophical novelist, like Thomas Mann, is someone I tend to loathe and the very concrete novelist who has very few ideas, like Colette, is someone I tend to admire.
Yet you refer to yourself as being a very opinionated person. Now what is the difference between being opinionated and having ideas?
An essayist is someone who has thought about a subject deeply and knows what he thinks and reflects that in an essay. A novelist is somebody who has very divided feelings, but both sides of those feelings are held very strongly on particular questions. Fiction is finding which issues obsess you, but those obsessional issues are usually unresolved problems rather than neatly typed out position papers.
I'm interested to know how at this point in your life you feel about the "baggy grownups" that the narrator talks about in The Beautiful Room Is Empty, especially in light of the homosexual community's response to AIDS. That response seems contrary to the attention to youth and physical beauty, the dread of growing old described in your books.
The generation that came out and was liberated through Stonewall twenty years ago is now in its late forties. When AIDS came along a lot of gays in leadership positions suddenly had a whole new set of problems to deal with. It's true that there's been an extraordinary amount of discipline and courage and dignity in the way the gay community has responded to AIDS. Once the viral nature of AIDS was understood and the means of transmission were fully clear, which was not until 1984, then the gay community made a very rapid change to safe sex behaviors, and if you think how hard it is to change sexual patterns, it's quite remarkable that people have been able to show this degree of coherence, discipline, and versatility. So, yes, I agree with all these things. On the other hand though, I don't regret the stand I appear to be taking in my books, in favor of youth and beauty, because art is about beauty, and young people are more beautiful than old people. I respond to physical beauty, and I agree with the Platonic notion that physical beauty, at least in the mind of the perceiver, is close to spiritual beauty.
Many readers have pointed out that one of the things you learn from reading an Edmund White novel is how alike gay men and straight men are, and how similar the dynamics of couples. Yet in the heterosexual world, the perception is that men become more handsome as they age, more vivid and more interesting, and women don't. How do you account for that?
I think almost all the differences can be accounted for by saying that the homosexual world is one in which you have basically male attitudes interacting with other male attitudes. In other words you are getting a kind of a laboratory-pure sample of how men act when they are both the subject and the object of desire. Just as lesbianism represents the laboratory-pure sample of how women would be if they weren't interacting with men. There was a study a few years ago of straight couples, lesbian couples, and gay couples, and they found that if you took a certain age group, the gay male couples were having sex three times a week, the straight couples were having sex twice a week and the lesbian couples were having sex once a week. So you can really see heterosexuality as a compromise between female and male psychology. In the same way, I think that women have been socialized to admire power, and older men tend to be richer and more powerful than younger men. Men have been socialized to admire a kind of flashy, youthful beauty that has a high status as an object. Thus the gay youth cult really has nothing to do with anything mysterious and unique to the gay community. All it has to do with is the nature of male socialization versus the nature of female socialization.
At what point in your life did you shake off the self-loathing about your homosexuality that you write so fully about in your two autobiographical novels, A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty?
A big turning point was when I decided to sign my name to The Joy of Gay Sex. It was a way of committing myself to gay life and to becoming a "gay writer." Another turning point came in my early thirties, when instead of choosing a straight woman therapist as I had oftentimes done before with the idea that I would eventually be able to go straight, I chose a gay male therapist, accepting the fact that I was probably going to stay gay and male and that I simply wanted to become better adapted to that position in life. I must say that AIDS reawakened and reactivated some of the long-buried feeling I had of self-loathing, and I think it has for many gay men. We live in a sex-phobic society, one that doesn't approve of pleasure in general, and of sex in particular. Something that seems a scourge directed towards people because of their sexual behavior certainly can't help—especially for a Puritanical society like ours—reawakening feelings of self-loathing that I think can be resolved but never extirpated.
Your books deal with love as passion, as obsession, and as an illness, yet love takes on a deeper and different dimension in concert with death and grief in Nocturnes for the King of Naples.
A lot of my own unresolved childhood and adolescent feelings of wanting to actually have sex with my father and live with him as a lover were reactivated in the writing of this book. It was an extraordinarily unhappy period of my life. In order to support my nephew and his girlfriend, I was writing college textbooks, including a thousand-page history of the United States, which I worked on every day—the whole thing had to be done in a year. I thought, "Well, I'll never write another word of fiction at this rate"—my expenses had gone from about ten thousand dollars a year to about forty thousand dollars a year because I suddenly had these two kids to send to private schools and so on.
Then John Ashbery told me that he'd been going to a Jungian psychiatrist who was supposed to help writers, and she suggested that he stay in bed and write longhand for half an hour every morning. I don't think he followed that advice, but I did. That's how I wrote that whole book. I wrote it out of a desire to find some small thing for myself, some small place in my life for myself and it was that little half hour in bed in the morning.
Quite a bit of criticism about this book picks up on the "I and thou," the philosophical and the theological implications.
I was interested in writing a book that would be Baroque in the literal sense of the word. The Baroque period was one when physical and spiritual love were mixed up with each other. It's hard to tell with the statues of Bernini whether Saint Theresa is having an orgasm or a vision. It's hard to tell whether certain poems addressed to God are ecstatic or visionary. I was also interested in the Sufi poets, and Saint John of the Cross. The original edition included a comment by Mary Gordon, the Catholic writer, who said that she felt that this book was a reinvention of devotional literature. I was quite pleased that she said that because I did want to suggest that this kind of wild, unreciprocated passion that I'd been talking about and the soul's longing for God are similar emotions. They are both emotions that lead you away from life and the world, that are life-denying in a sense.
The resolution seems to confirm that notion, yet it's the most ecstatically sensual and sensory book that you have written.
It's funny because it's one of those books that I feel goes beyond me. I know when I wrote the last chapter especially, I never felt quite so released as a writer, as though everything was available to me and I could touch on so many different things. I think I was really more interested simply in creating patterns which I knew were drenched with meaning than I was in sorting out what those meanings would be. It's as though you are flying blind, without signals, but aware that later maybe you'll understand it all. That old idea that the artist is a flute being played on by divine breath is a good metaphor for the puzzlement that I oftentimes feel when I'm writing, a kind of sureness about technique, but an unsureness about what it all is going to be interpreted to mean.
Do you see yourself as an American writer or a European writer?
I don't know. When I'm in Europe, I feel like I'm an American, and when I'm in America I feel like a European. Stendhal complained of Byron that he wanted the nobles to treat him like a poet and the poets to treat him like a noble. There's a way that you can waffle on this and have a kind of international schizophrenia, but I think there's a rich way in which you can use it if you're honest with yourself. The Beautiful Room Is Empty and "Running on Empty" are the most American things I've ever written. They are rather simple, straightforward, and seem to take a pleasure in the Americanness of America, and both of those I wrote in Paris. When I move back here, I don't know whether I'll be feeling as nostalgic for Paris or whether I'll have a kind of new and ecstatic enthusiasm for America. I imagine what I'll have is both an ecstatic and a critical response to America. That should be interesting.
This section contains 5,621 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)