“You don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks”: an interview with Edmund White

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the acclaimed gay author Edmund White.

Edmund White

Before my interview with Edmund White, I walk along the High Line in Chelsea. I do this partly because it is my first time in New York City – and a stroll along the High Line is the kind of thing one does on your first time here. But partly, too, because I’m gnawingly nervous: looming ahead of me is a conversation with one of the greatest gay writers on the planet and I’m not sure I feel up to the task.

I first discovered White in the Cape Town Central Library, when, as an 18-year-old, I was hungrily searching the stacks for gay sex scenes. Some thoughtful (and presumably queer) sod had labelled the spine of every vaguely homoerotic book in the fiction section with a pink triangle – this helped my quest inordinately. Under “W”, there was White’s luminous, exquisite (and incidentally not-very-explicit) novel, A Boy’s Own Story. Much later, I read his personal memoir, My Lives, and what was then his most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Since our chat, an even newer one, Our Young Man, has been published.)

Weaving between the tourist throngs clogging the blustery spring afternoon, I feel woefully underprepared. Because aside from more than a dozen works of fiction, White has written essays, journalism (for American Vogue, Time and plenty of other titles), plays and biographies (including ones about the legendary French writers Genet and Proust). He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was made Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French. Only three books in, I’ve barely scratched his oeuvre’s surface.

It turns out, though, I needn’t have worried. Within seconds of my arrival at his Chelsea apartment, White is pottering about in his cramped kitchen fixing me up with some tea, chattering all the while like he’s a great uncle I’ve known for years. I take the giant cup into the living room where books burst from shelves and crowd the dining table. The room’s rather like a literary cocoon – a bookworm could stay wrapped up in here for days. It all has a rather soothing effect – somehow it now seems most unlikely that I’ll be laughed out of the building for asking a silly question.

I scan through a set of scribbled questions, inhale, and begin. Has the reason why he writes changed since he was young? I ask.

Until he turned 30, his writing mostly flowed from “a confessional urge” – a form of therapy, he says, “to keep my head above the water because I was kind of always about to go crazy.”. After that, “I began to write just from, I think, love of the craft; also, love of the truth. I’m always shocked when people talk about creative non-fiction – that just sounds like an expression that means lying, to me. I don’t think you should be creative when you write non-fiction; I think you should write all the truths, and nothing but the truth. Of course you keep trying to hone on different things – like I’m now writing a memoir about a life of reading. [This has] kind of unlocked something for me, because all my life I’ve been reading.”

Reading has been intrinsic to the development of his craft. “I never knew any really good writer – except for Tennessee Williams – who didn’t read all the time,” he says. “Read a lot, but not to the point of letting your own impulse to write be overwhelmed. If you develop such a brilliant little critic in your head, then you’re going to not like anything you’re going to write. I think in a way you have to clear your head once in a while – maybe go through several months of not reading, and then start writing.”

As he became aware of his own sexuality, gay literature was nascent at best.

“People say, ‘oh, you poor thing, there weren’t any positive role models’,” he scoffs. He believes readers don’t look to books for those: instead, “I think that sometimes the things that the author does almost inadvertently are more useful to the reader – for instance, showing gay men living amongst other gay men.” While Larry Kramer’s Faggots was “sinister and destructive”, at least it “he presented his self-hating characters as all living amongst each other in a kind of gay ghetto. And that was news to me, and I think to a lot of people. They had never seen that portrayed before.”

While he types all of his non-fiction on the computer, White writes the first draft of novel in longhand then dictates to someone: “Usually it’s another writer I admire, someone young, who needs the money”. Reading out loud is a form of editing: “There’s sort of a cringe factor – some things are so stupid that I’ve written that I suppress them when I dictate it, and other places I can see need filling in.” It also means he gets to hear how the book sounds, enabling him to catch false rhymes.

This “performance piece” is oddly resonant with his childhood and with theatre – the first art form he was ever drawn to. When he was a kid, he would stage adaptations of works written by others and claim them as his own – “but since I lived in dim places like Texas, nobody ever caught me,” he chuckles. As a playwright in his 20s, he recalls “trying to second guess the market, which is fatal to a writer because you lose your whole inner gyroscope: you don’t know what you think anymore”.

He wrote his first published Forgetting Elena “because I thought ‘Well, I’m never going to get published, so why don’t I just write a book that I would enjoy reading?’.” The fifth or sixth he had written since he had first put pen to paper aged 14, he had submitted it to 24 publishers over a three-year period; it was published when he was 33.

A Boy’s Own Story, his third novel, came out into 1982. In the UK, where it was marketed as a teen novel, it quickly sold 100,000 copies. In the US, where it was marketed purely as a gay one, he estimates it sold only 5,000 in its first year.

That didn’t surprise him: “I just can’t picture straight teenagers who are so self-conscious crossing the aisle and going to gay studies and buying a book and standing in line in a bookshop,” he says.

“I think that publishers, for a while, thought that gay books would be like black books – like Toni Morisson – that there’d be a huge crossover audience. But there wasn’t, because whereas heterosexual white people can read about heterosexual black people and identify because everything’s the same – childbirth and so on, and marriage and divorce – that gays, until recently, were so strange, they were really a race apart, and the things they did in bed, and the things that they did with their friendship circles and everything was so strange for straight people,” he says. “In other words, people really loathed gay literature, so it didn’t sell.”

Unlike France where “a notion of universalism” ensures reductive labelling is discouraged, White says that in America, “We have lobbies, we have special interest groups, everything is ghettoised.” He believes this is responsible for a much bigger profile abroad than at home – something which I had only realised after receiving a couple of blank looks from Americans (including one from the editor of a major NYC-based gay magazine) when telling them I had an interview scheduled with Edmund White.

A Boy’s Own Story is inspired by his childhood and adolescence; two later novels – The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony continue to trace an autobiographical arc. If his own life is the raw material for fiction, then why bother to write proper autobiographical works too?

“A novel’s first obligation is to be entertaining and interesting. So, if you had 12 lovers, you reduce it to two,” he chuckles, “unless you want to do a portrait of a slut. You just sort of shape things. With A Boy’s Own Story, I was a very precocious child – I must’ve been to bed with 500 people by the time I was 16, and I was smart too – I also got good grades so I thought, no, I’ll dumb him down a bit, and I’ll make him very shy sexually, because that way he’ll seem more representative. Because I think in fiction you have kind of an obligation to show representative characters. Maybe only minority writers do – you don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks.”

He adds: “Nabokov said he wanted to show not the genus, not the species, but the aberrant variety – like [Lolita’s] Humbert. But I don’t subscribe to that. I do want to show the genus and maybe the species but not the aberrant variety. When you write a true story years later in a memoir, then you can put yourself in warts and all and just describe how strange you really were.”

I ask him about “My Master”, a chapter of My Lives, which with tender and shocking precision captures the flaring (and demise) of a brutally intense S&M relationship.

“My agent said, ‘Too much information!’ and a lot of people were shocked by it, but I just thought ‘what the hell’. There is probably an element of exhibitionism and an element of truth telling which kind of dovetail neatly,” he giggles. It was also motivated by a desire to explore something new: “I don’t think any mainstream writers have written about gay S&M that much… And I was professor at Princeton and member of the American Academy and all this stuff, [with] all these honours heaped on me, so I was very eager to show that I was still a renegade.”

While books sometimes get commissioned, many others are the result of “a very long gestation period”. “I’ll probably have a spark of a thought and then 10 years later I think, ‘Gee I could do something with that maybe.’” An example of this is how an entry in the Dictionary of American Biography about Frances Wright (a beautiful, rich Scotswoman who established a utopian colony in Tennessee) that he read while working for Time inspired the novel he wrote about her decades later – 2003’s Fanny.

At Time magazine, “everything had to be so exaggerated” so “in my fiction I just wanted to steer of that and just be extremely precise and describe things visually and not make big windy claims about everything,” he says.

“This sounds vain and ridiculous – but when I do non-fiction I’m really good at taking lots of information and synthesizing it,” he says. “I think I got that as a journalist,” because it forced him to transform a pile of research into a succinct, interesting piece.

Journalism also ensures “you can’t be word proud because you have editors always editing you, and you can’t get blocked as a writer because you have to write if you’re a journalist”. When he was young, churning out so many pieces did mean he’d struggled to find the time to write fiction. He followed the advice of poet John Ashbery’s shrink – to wake up, make a cup of coffee, go back to bed and write in longhand for half-an-hour.

“I tend to be very self-satisfied – I like what I write usually, and I only write one draft.” He loves good copyeditors who can help him at the level of the sentence – “I never object to that stuff”. He has heard many other writers do. “But they’re the ones who weren’t journalists,” he says smugly.

He has taught at Princeton since 1998. Has that affected his own writing?

“I’m always trying to tell my students to not be monotonous formally – to alternate scenes of description with scenes of dialogue, to describe action and then meditation… [to] keep the reader off-balance all of the time.” Because of computers, he complains that people write “subject, verb, object” of the same length “which is horrible”. “Anyway, after telling them all that, I have to remind myself of all that too.”

“My students will write about their own experience and I have this voyeuristic fascination plus it gives me the illusion, at least, of being in touch with youth culture,” he says. At the Ivy League college, he says, “There are almost no gay people, but there all these straight people and they are always fucking each other all the time, and it’s fascinating to read about.”

Although a creative writing course gives “timid and confused” writers a deadline, a goal and “very good, almost rabbinical readers who go over every word”, he warns of the risk “that everything begins to sound the same and what is distinctive about somebody’s writing is often what the other kids will criticise because it’s visible; I try to be a force for the opposite.”

While he once described becoming “grouchy and ill” when he had to write, he says: “I enjoy it more now.” At 76, and with Our Young Man freshly arrived on store bookshelves, White says he’s been “cranking it out” partly because “I’m poor, so to get more money” and partly because ever since his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1985 “like everybody I assumed I would be dead in two years”.

“I guess I’m proudest that I can keep on renewing myself over a long career,” he says. “So many people just repeat themselves or just stop writing.” Every year he sojourns in Key West, a writer’s colony where he reckons the average age is 80 and there are plenty of writers who haven’t written a book in the last decade or two. “They’re not as poor as I am because they might have been more successful so they can afford to lie on their laurels, but there’s a lot of people who just aren’t inspired anymore.”

We have been chatting for almost 75 minutes – a lot longer than I’d realised. Beyond the room’s warm glow, the window-framed sky has grown murky. I stop the recording and thank him. We get up.

White mentions that he had been hoping a 20-year-old “mad guy” with a penchant for walking naked round his apartment would be visiting him a bit later, but that his parents had refused to drive him in from New Jersey. I nod, too shy to tell him that we had actually agreed over email to having dinner after our chat. I wonder if I should remind him about our arrangement. But I don’t. After all of that rapt listening (and having fielded a few courteous questions of White’s own: Am I Damon Galgut’s boyfriend? Have I been using Grindr while in NYC?), I feel exhausted. I suspect so does he. And anyway, there’s a guy of my own (admittedly not as young or as mad as White’s) with a stash of Broad City episodes waiting for me in the East Village. We shake hands warmly, before I start striding through Chelsea’s redbrick warren towards home.

Our Young Man is published by Bloomsbury. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew Fladeboe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *