An Interview with Edmund White
The name Edmund White conjures up a number of images. There’s the Midwestern boy fumbling his way to a gay identity (A Boy’s Own Story); the ultra-libidinous, ultra-liberated gay cruiser (The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Joy of Gay Sex); the erudite man of letters, as comfortable in Europe as America (Jean Genet; Fanny: A Fiction); and also the clear-eyed and stricken chronicler of the devastation of the AIDS crisis (The Farewell Symphony; The Married Man). His latest book, My Lives: An Autobiography, investigates all of these identities, casting new light on his seventeen previous books and also marking a vital new turn in his career. The power of My Lives is derived in great part from its unusual structure: ten chapters that cut crosswise through his life by subject, including “My Shrinks,” “My Father,” “My Genet,” “My Hustlers,” and “My Master.” The last of these, which details his very, very sexy and very, very graphic love affair with a much younger man identified as “T.,” prompted him to write, “I can imagine some of my friends reading this and muttering, ‘T M I -- Too Much Information,’ or ‘Are we to be spared nothing?’”
Well, no. We’re not. And it’s White’s refusal to spare himself and us that makes this book so remarkable, offering a meditation by turns witty and elegiac on White’s numerous lives -- lives charged with sex, loss, and friendship.
I sat down with White in his Chelsea apartment to talk about the book. My laptop recording device immediately went on the fritz, but, fortunately for posterity, White was kind enough to dig out his own mini-cassette recorder and some spare batteries, and so we began.
Why arrange My Lives by subject rather than chronologically?
I guess because I had written about that in my fictional trilogy, plus The Married Man, which was also autobiographical, plus having two books written about me, plus having written numerous autobiographical short stories, I felt like I had kind of worked this vein. And I was trying to come up with a different approach that would come up with new material for me. I felt if I delved into the stream of my life by topic rather than chronologically, that a couple things would happen. One would be that I would have to group everything together and finally have a summary, a conclusion about it. And secondly, I would probably come up with thoughts I’d never had before. For instance, in the first chapter, “My Shrinks,” I don’t think there’s anywhere in all of my writing where I talk about what psychoanalysis meant to me. And here there’s about a two-page summary where I weigh the pros and cons of having been on the couch for 25 years.
Mostly cons, I’d say.
Mostly cons. But thinking about a life, even if it’s your own life, with such intensity, does bode well for a novelist. That is, to scrutinize anything that much is probably kind of what we do.
My Lives is more chatty and discursive than your previous books, yet it’s still focused and full of beautiful sentences. Where do you think the style came from?
I feel like my writing in general has become more relaxed. I have this theory: in feminist writers of the 1920s, such as Virginia Woolf, you always feel this strain that they must write beautifully and perfectly. In the same way, gay writers like me and my generation really had to work overtime to prove that we were real writers. And somebody said to me the other day -- somebody maybe my age -- that what was striking when my writing first came along was that it dealt with sex, but it was very literary, it wasn’t pornography. It was kind of “fancy writing,” and it also dealt with sex. Whereas gay writing had been either very, very fancy and nonsexual, or sexual and pornographic. And to combine those two was something he felt was sort of new. I think when I first started writing I was very uptight, very eager to show that I could really write the hell out of every sentence. That’s a young person’s thing, too, probably to do with the marketplace -- trying to establish that you’re a real writer. And also my idol was Nabokov, and he could write very well. So I think all those things made me right in a very elaborate, controlled way. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more confidence and I’ve relaxed more. Which may not be a virtue, I don’t know.
I’m curious about the Nabokov thing. He had a blurb for you early on. How did that come about?
I had been an editor of Saturday Review Magazine in 1971. I worshipped Nabokov, so I thought, well why not have a cover story on him? The book he had out then was Transparent Things. And I asked him to write a piece for us on inspiration, and he did. I actually had the temerity to edit it; he was very nice about that. I got William Gass and Joyce Carol Oates and several other people to write little homages to him, and I wrote one. And then I sent Lord Armstrong-Jones, who was married to Princess Anne, to photograph him. Everyone said, “Oh no, send Cartier-Bresson.” But I said he’d had enough of artists, he was more interested in aristocrats. I could feel that in my bones. And I was right! Jones and Nabokov spent a week together, and Nabokov was quite a clown. He pretended to be Borges, and he pretended to be all these things…
How do you pretend to be Borges?
He put on a poncho and blind glasses.
Yes, it was very hammy and funny. So then, soon after that, my first novel to be published, Forgetting Elena, came out. And I sent it to him, and he sent me a charming letter. Two lines: “Dear Mr. White, My wife and I both enjoyed your book very much. Everything is teetering on the edge of everything.” And the first line was: “This is not for publication.” So I had this fan letter from Nabokov, but I couldn’t say anything. But then, maybe three years later, 1976, Gerald Clarke, who eventually wrote the biography of Truman Capote, was doing a piece on Nabokov at the Montreaux Palace Hotel. He finally got fed up of Nabokov’s hyper-anal control of everything. You had to submit the questions and [Nabokov] wrote out his answers and put them in the box in the morning. So Clarke blurted out a question like: “Who are your favorite writers?” And Nabokov said, “Edmund White, he wrote Forgetting Elena.” And so Gerald Clarke put all that down, even though he wasn’t supposed to, because it wasn’t controlled by “the master.” Clarke called me up and said, “Will you talk to me about your friendship with Nabokov?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really know him. I only talked to him on the phone once when I was doing this issue.” And that’s the whole story.
If Nabokov is an author you’re frequently compared to, the other big one is probably Proust. I have this sense that critics use him as an easy critical shorthand to talk about you. But at the same time, your writing is Proustian. And I’m curious, in the way you conceive your writing and go about your writing, how strongly you feel that pull.
I read that book lots of times. I wrote a little biography of Proust. I wrote a paper on the Madame de Sévigné theme in Proust when I was sixteen-years-old in high school. So I’ve really read him many times. Only maybe the last two times in French, before that in English. He’s somebody I’ve lived with a lot. But I’m not an obsessive person, except about sex -- and food, probably. I don’t obsess about literature much. You know how some people obsess about Marvel Comics and read them all the time? I’ve never done that. I’ve never done anything over and over. I used to go to Fire Island again and again, then I stopped. I used to go out dancing every night, then I stopped. I used to live in Rome, then I stopped. I used to live in France, now I don’t think about it. I don’t seem to be able to build up habits. I have no work habits. So anyhow, I just teeter around and try different things. And forget about most of them. Last night I had dinner with Phillip Roth, and he said to me, “Don’t you remember me? We met in the seventies?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” But how could I have forgotten this? When I met Claude Picasso, Picasso’s son, he said, “You don’t remember? You gave me a job once? And we used to be friends?” “Uh, no.”
That’s a fascinating thing to hear from someone whose work is so intricately involved with memory.
Right. But there are these terrible lapses. So I think I just focus on certain things. But anyway, back to Proust. Somebody once said that Proust had a bad memory.
You write about that in your biography of him. He needed endless notes and letters from his friends to jog his memory.
I think I mentioned in my biography that there was a guy who wrote a book of anecdotes who was in high society more securely than Proust was, who wrote Trente Ans de dîners en ville [Thirty Years of Dining Out]. There he tells a lot of the same anecdotes Proust tells, but independently of Proust; this book came out before. And he gets the stories right -- they’re actually funny and they have a punch line and everything. Whereas Proust meanders around, and by the time he gets to the punch line, it’s sort of fizzled. Because he’s too busy doing other things -- developing character, describing general principals of life -- to actually tell a story properly. Or he didn’t know the story, so it’s constructed in this funny way, or he had a bad memory. Stravinsky sometimes said, “If you want great melody, go to second rate composers.” Bellini had great melody. “Casta Diva” is the longest single unrepeated melody you can remember in the entire repertory. Whereas Beethoven could never think of any melodies, and if got one, like da da da DUM, he’d work it to death. I suppose you could say that talents who are naturally fertile aren’t finally the ones we like. It’s the ones who have to struggle to develop the ideas they like that are the more impressive ones. I think Proust belongs to that category, and maybe I do.
In The Fugitive, Proust writes, at a moment of particular torment, “it is a mistake to speak of a bad choice in love, since as soon as there is a choice it can only be a bad one.” I was curious about the extent to which this Proustian version of love -- as something grand and tragic and doomed from the start -- influenced your work and maybe your life.
There’s been two French versions of love. The Racinean and the Corneillean. The Racinean is a loud, destructive passion. This is the one Proust subscribes to, and I do too, pretty much. The other one is Corneillean esteem love, where you actually esteem the other person -- I would say that my partner Michael and I have that esteem love, whereas the character that I call “My Master,” I’d say we had some esteem for each other, but not enough. I mean, now we don’t even speak to each other. I just feel like it all kind of vanished. You often hear about love affairs that are very too hot to handle and afterward the people don’t even speak to each other anymore. Which I don’t think is typically gay, because I tend to think that gay people have as the underlying metaphor for their relationship “the best friend.” It spurs up to star-crossed lovers or whatever, then that dies away and you go back to the best friend. Recently a friend of mine hired a hustler for his lover’s birthday. I don’t think too many straight people do that.
I suspect not. At least not since the seventies. T. -- what was his reaction to the book?
To the book? Bad. Well, not initially. I read it out loud to him. He liked it, and he cried, and he said, “Fine.”
Really? You read it to him before publication? Wasn’t that risky? Do you think if he had said “No, absolutely not,” you would you have cut it?
Yes, I would have. Of course. But he said no, go ahead. When I first met him -- and I think I forgot to put this in -- he said to me, “You must write about me. I want you to write about me.” Of course I did write about him. And by that point, I think he was feeling guilty for having broken up with me. But then the book came out in September in England, and by October -- still several months before it was going to come out here -- he said he didn’t like it and he felt betrayed, and he never wanted to speak to me again. I didn’t like that, and I felt betrayed. I said, “That doesn’t make sense. You approved it, you asked me to call you by your initial. At one point you were asking me to run your picture in the thing.” So he was obviously very ambivalent about it. And the truth is, there are two or three things. One, he’s a writer himself. And I’m sure he’s writing his rival version of all this. And secondly, he has a new lover who’s very possessive.
A different lover from in the book?
No, same one. What I didn’t put in the book is that he, T., went from being a top to being a bottom with this new guy. And that the guy’s quite tyrannical.
Stephen Crane. You’re working on a novel about him.
I finished it. It comes out in September. It’s called Hotel de Dream, which is the name of a house of prostitution that his wife had. She was a madam in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s short, about 200 pages. And I’ve written another book since then, which is a novella and a collection of stories called Chaos: A Novella and Other Stories. They’re all stories more in the “T.” vein.
More, as you said in My Lives, T.M.I.?
Not exactly. They’re all about aging and homosexuality. But they’re quite different. One of these stories is about a man, a self-contained little guy, who’s retired and lives on an island in Greece. He’s become an opium addict, and is remembering his past, especially this hot love affair he had in Turkey with an Ottoman. But the reader doesn’t know if it really happened or if it’s an opium fantasy. “Chaos,” the main story, I say in the dedication, “To Michael, without whom my life really would be this chaotic.” I never write about Michael, and he’s obviously the most important thing in my life.
So, why Crane?
There’s one anecdote that may or may not be true -- I now think it probably isn’t, but anyhow it was very suggestive to me -- which is that apparently one day Crane was walking down the street with a friend, Huneker, who was an art critic. And this guy says that they ran into this boy who they thought was a beggar, and then they realized he was wearing mascara and that he was soliciting. And Crane was totally shocked, he’d never heard of such a thing, but when he recovered, he started interviewing the boy; he got very interested in him. And he wanted to write a companion piece to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which would be called Flowers of Asphalt, about a gay hustler. He wrote 40 pages of it and then his best friend Hamlin Garland, this hairy-chested writer from Wisconsin, said, “These are the best pages you’ve ever written, and if you don’t destroy them right now in front of me, you’ll never have a career.” So he did destroy them -- this is 1895, the year of the Oscar Wilde trial. But, according to me, my fantasy is that on his deathbed, for the last two weeks of his life -- he died at 28 of TB -- he was dictating this book to Cora, his wife. And so it’s kind of interesting, because Cora is trying to figure out how she fits into it, as women will. It’s kind of fun. It alternates between chapters about Crane and Cora, and then on the other hand the painted boy.
Where do you see Crane fitting in terms of his influence on the 20th century novel? Conrad, for instance, called him an impressionist -- which is an interesting characterization of someone who I think we now feel is a naturalist.
I think Conrad said that because what he was picking up was the reflected glory of the early Tolstoy, whom Crane read. I mean, Tolstoy wrote these battle reports of the Crimean War, and he wrote these extraordinary newspaper pieces that were, I suppose, in turn influenced by Stendhal’s description in The Charterhouse of Parma, of the Battle of Waterloo. It begins with Fabrice del Dongo going to the battle of Waterloo, and he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Of course Tolstoy would later apply that same method to his description of battles in War and Peace. Crane had read those early battle pieces of Tolstoy, which were translated, and he was terribly impressed. And I think that’s the most important influence on the style of The Red Badge of Courage. In other words, Tolstoy will talk about walking into a tent, and seeing a drain on the floor with blood running into it, and then he sees this pile of legs. And it’s a surgery where they’ve cut off all these gangrenous legs and they have them piled high. That kind of description is so shattering, and very coolly recounted. Beryl Bainbridge in our own day does that, again about battle. She has a book about the Crimean War called Master Georgie. It’s a technique that I love. I think it’s called defamiliarization by Russian critics. You write about something that everyone knows about and thinks they’ve made up their mind about, but you describe it as though you’re from Mars. I think Crane has another aspect to his style, which is that he’s sort of Hemingway avant la letter -- he really wrote very simple sentences in a very simple way. And he even had this kind of hardboiled journalist approach to writing, which was so different from the European approach. Camus said Americans are the only writers in the world who aren’t also intellectuals, and it’s true. We think nothing of someone like James Dickey writing poetry, or someone like James Jones, who’s barely literate, writing big novels, which we admire. It’s not the usual.
You situate yourself squarely in that tradition in My Lives when you talk about not getting Foucault -- having read volumes and volumes of fancy French theory, and retaining nothing.
Well, I was drunk all the time, so I was always holding one eye shut.
In your book you call Melville a crackpot and a man of genius with no talent. Harsh?
No, I don’t think so. Because when it all comes together, as in “Billy Budd” or Moby Dick, it’s the most important writing that any American did. But when it’s bad, as in Pierre: Or the Ambiguities, it’s stinko. And you wouldn’t say that most writers who could write a masterpiece like Moby Dick could also write Pierre. He didn’t go to creative writing school, he doesn’t know how to fashion a good, reasonable story with a beginning, middle and end. He knows how to write these incredible homemade Rube Goldberg monsters.
At the beginning of your career, how did you decide between writing as Edmund White vs. Edmund V. White?
Well, I’m the third -- I’m Edmund Valentine White III. The first thing I ever published in a national publication was when I was in college -- a publication called New Campus Writing. I had a story in there and I published it under “E. Valentine White.” And that sounded too pretentious. The story had gay subject matter already -- that would be around 1960 -- which was very early for an openly gay story. Later I realized that my father was mortified not by that story, which he didn’t even know about, but by a play I did in ’63 off Broadway with Cissy Tyson and Billy Dee Williams. It had a lot of black anger in it, and a lot of homosexual content, and my father was pretty embarrassed by that. My father, being a cowboy when he was young.
Yep, a Texas cowboy.
The cowboy thing didn’t make it in your book.
No. I didn’t mention that.
Did it have too much, uhh… metaphorical heft? Like, too many Wild West associations?
I think I just forgot it. It was in Sweetwater, Texas. The famous “Rattlesnake Roundup.” He was a real cowboy, a very John Wayne sort of guy. Certainly very disapproving of homosexuality. And very racist, in a kind of paternalistic way toward black people. Anyway, I realized that was always going to be a source of shame for him, that we had the same name, but I could at least minimalize it by leaving out the “V.”
You know, Dale Peck is another person in a line of three people with the same name, and he also writes about that. I wonder if there’s some dramatic or aesthetic pull that comes from being in a long line of people with the same name.
I don’t know. I have a theory that a lot of writers are nouveau pauvre. That is, their grandfathers were big successes and their fathers lost everything. That’s true of Thomas Pynchon, who’s from a very, very old family. And I think the Fitzgeralds, to some degree. It seems like there are a lot of writers who are the end of the line. You know, fin du race.