An Interview with Andrew Holleran
Andrew Holleran was born and raised in Aruba. He graduated Harvard in 1965, was drafted to the army during Vietnam and posted in West Germany. He dropped out of law school at the University of Pennsylvania, went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and from there to New York, where he spent nearly a decade temping and bartending until his first novel, Dancer from the Dance, was published in 1978. A satiric story of an eternally kind, eternally gorgeous saint in hedonistic '70s New York, it became one of the most popular novels of the then relatively new genre of gay literature.
At the end of his collection of essays, Ground Zero (1988), he says that most of the hard reporting of AIDS failed to account for the epidemic’s “suffering” and its “lack of meaning.” With the exception of his second novel, Nights in Aruba (1983), Holleran’s subsequent work can be read as a devastatingly grim, but comical attempt to grapple with both those aspects of the great plague. A character in The Beauty of Men (1996) admits that his friends’ deaths don’t horrify him on the same level as his own rapidly receding hairline. A character in Grief (2006) says, "I used to think that the eighties were like a very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating."
Andrew Holleran (the pseudonym of Eric Garber) is 62. He splits his time between rural Florida, the setting of The Beauty of Men, and Washington, D.C., the setting of Grief. He teaches at American University. At the moment, he’s revising Ground Zero for a new edition and working on a novella and short stories. We spoke by telephone first on Feb. 4 and again on Feb. 13.
You haven’t really done anything like Dancer from the Dance again.
(laughs) To my misfortune.
You use camp talk in Dancer to describe an exciting urban world. Since then, particularly with your last two novels, The Beauty of Men and Grief, you’ve moved toward a bleaker realism. Is this just a product of getting older?
The language I can explain very easily. You’re right in saying [Dancer] was an exercise in camp. I was here in Florida. I was away from New York. I was writing letters to friends who were in New York. It was the time before computers and people would write seven, eight page letters and going to the mailboxes was really an exciting thing. And I had friends who were writing in this very campy way and I noticed when I went to gay bars that there would be these giveaways often with columns by drag queens. And I said to myself, “I really love this language. I wonder how you could write it. How could you use it in a book?” So I started Dancer by writing those letters in that campy way. And the rest of the book kind of extruded itself from those letters.
Why haven’t I used camp language since? I don’t know. I love camp language. I’d like to be able to use it again, but I just haven’t. As for the bleak thing… I don’t know what that’s about. It’s not just about getting older because the book that immediately followed Dancer was Nights in Aruba and that was written in a completely different tone and that was a serious book. I feel I have been atoning for Dancer, like I had glamorized things and that I must do the opposite.
You felt guilty for glamorizing hedonism?
In my mind Dancer is a critical/satiric book. It’s not a glamorization of gay life. It was a younger person’s book so it came out with a certain element of romanticism that has something to do with temperament and false ideals. I do feel I’ve been in the grip of bleak realism for a long time now. I really got to let it loosen because that’s not the only viewpoint in life and I feel like I’m stuck in it. Grief, I think, was the end of that. Grief, I think, was about as far as I could take it.
Dancer has often been compared to The Great Gatsby. Both books have a way of intellectually dismantling a society, but with such exciting language.
The line that came to me as you were saying that is Fitzgerald’s famous saying about his face being pressed to the window. It’s criticizing something at the same time as making it so alive that you want to be part of it.
The Great Gatsby is my favorite book, and I’ve virtually memorized it, so it helps to compare mine to that one. And I’ve read as much about Fitzgerald as I could. Maybe it has something to do with Catholicism, I don’t know. But a lot of writers are describing a party and telling you why it’s bad. Proust does the same thing. Proust is very critical of the world he goes out to, but we read him over and over again, because he’s just so marvelous and enchanting. Actually, I don’t think it’s Catholic as much as it is a writer’s temperament. It’s probably more common than we think if we started to look around at it.
In Nights in Aruba, the character based on you comes across as very pious at a very young age, though his parents don’t take religion seriously at all.
Well my father was very agnostic. He was raised a Lutheran, but he really evinced no religious opinions or activity of any kind. My mother, because there was nothing to do in this little town, started going to church more for a social opportunity. There was just less opportunity for worldly life in this little town in Aruba. I was the religious nut in the family. I was the only one who caught the virus. My sister escaped it totally.
So you’re parents didn’t impose religion on you at all.
Not at all. I was the one who engulfed it and went a little nuts over it.
Nights in Aruba felt like a second novel. To be honest, of all your novels it’s the least well-structured.
It falls apart in the very beginning when the flashback happened. There’s no reason for that flashback. And that book drove me to write the column for Christopher Street because after that book I asked myself, “Why wasn’t this a memoir? Why wasn’t this nonfiction? What’s the difference between autobiography and making up?” And I just said, “I’m just going to write a column, a nonfiction column. Let’s see if there’s any reason at the end of that to write fiction." The differences between the two, it’s taken me a long time to figure it out.
Nights in Aruba really felt like you were trying to write your memoir and didn’t know where to go.
That’s exactly it. And I tell you the sad thing with Nights in Aruba is that there are parts of it that I read that I say to myself, and forgive me for saying this, “My God, this is as good as I can write.” There are just scenes and passages that I really love and are so well done. And I think it’s so sad because it’s just wasted because you got to have structure. You have to have structure.
One of your characters in Grief says, "I used to think that the eighties were like a very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating."
Is that in Grief? I’m glad you told me. I was about to use it again [laughs].
It struck me, because I think Grief and The Beauty of Men are very funny books, but the jokes are hard to laugh at.
Thank you! It worries me that people don’t get the humor of the books. If you can’t get the humor, I don’t think you can get the books. I once saw Lily Tomlin doing a thing on TV years ago. She did these sketches that you could only describe in the way you just did. They were right on the line. I didn’t know whether to laugh or not to laugh. And it annoyed me at the time. I just wanted to laugh. But I fear that’s how I’m ending up. When I was on tour for Grief and I read aloud, I read the passages for the dialogue and for what I thought were the jokes. Eventually I would get a laugh. And afterward someone would come up to me and say, “I didn’t realize that was funny.”
Philip Roth said in an interview about Everyman that he had written the book because he had gotten to a point where something was happening to him that he didn’t think would ever happen: that all his friends would die. He’s in his 70s and his friends are mostly dying of old age. You came to that realization in your 30s.
I was thinking that that was where you were going. And that’s what I was thinking as I was working on my essays today. They are about nothing more than not being able to go back to New York and go to a certain building or knock at a certain door. One of the essays I just finished is just about me wandering around New York and going to corners and me looking at the windows of people I couldn’t visit anymore because they had died. And at some point I realized the number of people I couldn’t look up outnumbered the number of people I could.
There aren’t that many great works about the AIDS experience. Edmund White covered it a little at the end of The Farewell Symphony and in The Married Man. Alan Hollinghurst looked at it at the very end of The Line of Beauty. But there’s no great work of the experience in and of itself. And a lot of the attempts are actually pretty bad, like the film Longtime Companion.
Well, there are people who consider Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time a good book. And another book a friend of mine holds in really high regard is Alan Barnett’s The Body and Its Dangers. But you are right for the most part. You’re saying no one has written the great AIDS book. Maybe not a lot of time has passed, even though some time has passed. Ed’s [Edmund White] theory is that gay writers are, in a way, lucky to have AIDS as a subject, because it is a big subject. And straight writers don’t have that.
Maybe the best writers were killed.
I thought there was an awful Faustian bargain with AIDS when it began. I thought the only people who had a right to write about AIDS were the people who were infected. And yet, as you say, those were the people who died.
You allude to AIDS in Nights in Aruba, which was published in 1983, and then you don’t write another novel for 13 years until The Beauty of Men.
For very obvious reasons that you’re leading up to. There was nothing you could make up during those years. That’s what was happening and there was no point in treating it fictionally. And I felt, absolutely, when AIDS started that that was it, that there was no point in writing now. And yet I was able to write about it because of the columns in Christopher Street for which I was very grateful. It would have been obscene to fictionalize it at the time.
It’s extremely interesting to look at gay writers at that time and to see how they wrote about it. And how they started writing about it. Edmund White said that you could only write about AIDS in a short story form because you could dip in and then dip out. You couldn’t write about it in a novel form with a beginning, middle and an end, because [at the time] there was no structure to AIDS. We didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
There doesn’t seem to be much about homophobia in your books. If it’s there it’s on the sidelines. Your books seem mostly to be about gay people in a vicious cycle of hurting themselves and each other. They don’t need straight people to do anything to destroy them.
That’s good. That’s true. I think I’m writing for an enclosed world. I’m writing for a primarily gay audience. Either I’m lying to myself and it’s their (heterosexuals) view of me that is influencing my own view of me or I really don’t care about them so I would rather deal with issues in my community. I just hope I have more time to write because I feel I’m coming more to questions like that. It is coming down to a question of shame and why was I obsessed with writing about my gayness.
But didn’t you have straight friends? Were you living in a world where being gay was the only subject?
Well, this goes back to a writer’s obsessions. It has been clear to me at many points in my career that if only I would write non-gay books I might have a wider audience, I might be taken seriously in a way I wasn’t. If only I introduced straight people into the mix, to make it more than just a gay book. But I couldn’t. I had to write about something that mattered to me and that’s it. For whatever reason, my literary energy, whatever makes me write is somehow bound up with my sexual orientation.
But does that reflect your life as it’s lived on a day-to-day basis?
Do you mean, am I someone who lives in the gay ghetto, only does gay things, only has gay friends? No, obviously not. I’m the opposite of that. I can’t stand provinciality of any kind. I think the gay ghetto was wonderful when I was young because it was like going to college. You went there and you learned a lot and I loved those years, but I never want to confine myself to that world, because life is more interesting and bigger and various than that.
It goes to something Henry James once said about how we have nothing to write about in the United States because we have no feudal system, we have no history, we have no society, we have no social classes... It’s very hard for a writer anywhere to zoom in on a closed culture that is your little universe which offers a human scale and which you can then write about. Think of how many writers have tried to write about just America on the John Dos Passos sense. You can’t do it. And I felt lucky that I had that little gay society. It was small enough to be able to write about and to inhabit, to make one’s little court. And now as a “homosexual emeritus” I guess I am looking for ways to combine the gay theme with larger themes. I’ve seen other writers doing this. Larry Kramer is doing this huge book called The American People. It’s just that. It’s a huge history of the American people.
I have come to realize over the years that if you are going to be characterized as a gay writer you are going to lose readers. For very selfish reasons: People want to read about themselves.
In Grief you coin the term “homosexual emeritus.” Do you consider yourself one?
I do and I’m glad the craziness diminishes. It takes up an awful lot of time when it’s in full force. I don’t regret that. But I’m not one in the sense that I’m still interested in gay things, my friends are gay, I write gay books and I’m giving an interview where I’m talking about it right now. But in the sense that I don’t go out anymore looking for sex, the emeritus thing is true.
It leaves you much happier.
It’s a tradeoff. When you’re young and you’re in the hormonal cloud, it’s thrilling in a way. There are highs and there are lows that are very intense. I used to think while walking in New York some days that this is what the saints felt. It’s like I’m on a drug. Everything was eroticism and life was incredibly intense and such an adventure. But you get a very nice thing in exchange for it. There’s a terrible thing in gay life that you can’t get old, but that’s not true at all.
You have several scenes in your books in which an old single man looks at an older, practically married gay couple with envy. Do you have that experience?
I heard a doctor on Terry Gross today saying that loneliness was a form of suffering and I do think that ending up alone does cause a certain amount of anger and suffering at times. You wonder what did I do wrong to end up like this. On the other hand, there are times where it doesn’t matter at all and that it’s kind of what you want. I had a friend who told me he had a shrink who would always get patients coming into the office saying, “I don’t have a lover. I want a lover.” And the shrink would say, “No, you don’t want a lover. Otherwise you would have one.” And when I look at the friends of mine who are partnered I think, “They wanted this arrangement, it was important to them and they got it.”
Have you ever had a relationship?
Never to the formal extent of the friends of mine who lived together 30, 40 years. I’ve had three or four people I’ve been attached to.
How long was the longest one?
Not even a year.
It doesn’t seem to be an accident that you set Grief in Washington. The city looks like a mausoleum, a very pretty one. It looks like the kind of place where you would grieve. Gainesville does not strike me as the grieving city. Neither does New York. There’s just too much going in New York.
When I got to D.C., all I did was walk. I just found myself alone. Then I started looking at the monuments and then I got into the [Mary] Lincoln thing. In retrospect I can’t think it was a conscious decision. It all just crept up on me. Just before I came here in January, I went to my favorite place in Washington, which is the Robert E. Lee mansion in Arlington, when you get above the city and look down on it. And it looks like a huge cemetery.
But Washington is a cemetery. It is a city where the military dead are buried. It did come out of the Civil War. It is associated with death.
Where did the fascination with Mary Lincoln come from that takes up such a big part of Grief?
I just read these letters [of hers] and tried to figure out how I could splice it into my narrative. I didn’t want to write a historical novel about her. I just wanted her language. She’s very vivid and very theatrical. She would use dashes, commas and exclamation points. It wasn’t just her punctuation. It was her. She was high strung and emotional. And then she was in a situation that gave her a reason to be emotional. Even when she was in Europe, when she was obsessed with getting a pension and she was intense and heartfelt, it came out in the language. I would love to go on tour with letters.
I was at a gay party the other night and told people I was going to be interviewing you.
Yeah… And no one had heard of me.
Well, no one had heard of anyone. Edmund White, David Leavitt, anyone. Do you think gay culture lost something when it got more freedom and became more dumbed-down?
Well that’s the thesis of the Daniel Harris book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, that the ostracism and the oppression was the basis of our culture and there may be a lot to it. I don’t know if gay culture or the culture as a whole has dumbed down, just by moving from print to video.
It doesn’t bother for the most part, but it bothers me in the sense that it would bother any person who is in the arts. The idea that a song or a dress or a painting or anything they created is forgotten in favor of the generations that has succeeded theirs and their contributions don’t exist anymore. But that’s a complaint anyone can make.