The New York Institute for the Humanities is a genteel think-tank nestled within the foreign-languages department of New York University. At this particular moment -- a spectacularly cool and sunny October day -- the institute is sponsoring a visit by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and responsibility for coordinating the numerous writing seminars and literary luncheons falls to Edmund White, the novelist-critic-teacher who this year serves as executive director of the institute. It is a paying job that, like his stint teaching Proust at Columbia this semester, allows him to make a living while writing his books, the latest of which is the elegant "portrait of the artist as a young man":
A Boy's Own Story. During our interview about the book (the night before he has given two SRO readings from it at Three Lives bookstore), White is interrupted by phone calls from Susan Sontag (they decide to sit together at the dinner for Borges that night) and Blanche McCrary Boyd (confirming an invitation to speak to her writing class at Connecticut College). Lunches with Borges, dinners with Sontag, readings, lectures, interviews -- all part of an author's own story.
At 43, White has a boy's dancing eyes, which contrast almost comically with a professor's rimless glasses and a dowager's double chin. He speaks in a voice that is erudite and world-weary but never far from a giggle, and he has a habit of quickly running the tip of his tongue back and forth across his upper lip, as if preparing to spill a juicy bit of gossip -- which he can dispense as fluently and delightfully as he does literary chat, meditations on gay politics, and self-revelation.
Q: It seems to me that the object of A Boy's Own Story
is to explore emotionally the question that people are always wanting to have explained psychologically, which is "How does one become homosexual?"
A: I think when I started the book, I resolved informally not to give an etiology of homosexuality, because I don't know if one exists. But I do think that what all gay people know is what it feels like to discover that you are gay and that there's a kind of phenomenological progression. You know what goes on in your mind, what things your eye goes toward, what you observe, how it feels, how you begin to feel yourself being separated from the tribe. That was something I wanted to describe but only as it felt, not with any superior knowledge about what it means or what it comes from.
Q: Are we to take the book strictly as autobiographical?
A: Oh no, it's a novel. To some degree it is autobiographical, but I would say it's in the category Proust created, which is "creative autobiography." I like that term because it's like another word for lying, which is another for fiction. For instance, I was a rather precocious and artistic child; I wrote plays when I was very young that were put on, I sang, I danced, I wrote novels, I composed an opera which I wrote down, and I studied orchestration. I was also very forward, and this child is extremely shy; I was extremely precocious sexually, whereas he is not. Many people think having sex at all when you're 13 is precocious, but others, particularly those who are gay, would say, "Oh, I'd been to bed with 50 people by the time I was 16." Well, I had been to bed with about 500 by the time I was 16. I had sex with anybody who would have it with me. One of the greatest problems for a youngster is how to get people to have sex with you.
Q: Buying a hustler seems to play a major role in the boy's sexual education, but the actual encounter is never described in the book. Why is that?
A: It just felt right to stop there. The really erotic part of dealing with any hustler is paying him, not sleeping with him. I remember once hiring a hustler who couldn't get it up. He then said to me, "Hand me the money." I did, and he instantly got an erection.
Q: Why don't you run down your real biography for me?
A: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both my parents were from Texas. When I was 7, my parents got divorced. My sister and I lived with my mother; we went from city to city in the Midwest and Texas. When I was 15, I went to a prep school in Michigan called Cranbrook, and I went to college at the University of Michigan at Ann
Q: What did you study?
A: Chinese. I thought it would be a good gig for a writer. I would get a PhD and teach, have two or three students, a nice sinecure, and I'd be able to write my novels. But it didn't work because I fell in love with a boy and pursued him to New York and lived with him for five years (we're still best friends). And I started working for Time-Life Books.
Q: What were you doing?
A: I was a staff writer. I would write picture essays on every subject from the giant molecule to Japanese gardens. And I did reading-program novels. I would do an essay on Louis XIV's court masques in which I would have to translate French poetry into English poetry and use it as cartoon bubbles above the characters' heads. While I was there, I started writing book reviews for the
New Republic. Then when I was 30, I realized I would be at Time-Life for the rest of my life if I didn't leave, so I arbitrarily quit, took my profit-sharing, and went to live in Rome for a year, where I just goofed off. I came back and scrambled around doing freelance assignments and ghostwriting for US history textbooks and psychology textbooks. In 1972 and '73 I was a senior editor of the
Saturday Review when it moved to San Francisco. Then I came back to New York, worked for
Horizon, and started teaching -- first at Yale and then at Johns Hopkins.
Q: When did you start writing novels?
A: I have always written fiction, since I was 13 or 14. I must have written 10 novels before this one; only two have been published. The others were pretty good, but I wouldn't care to publish them now. The problem was that they were about gays, and nobody wanted to do that in the '60s. There was a kind of naivete on my part. I always imagined that people would gladly welcome a book about gays, but I was looking at books like
Last Exit to Brooklyn, City of Night, and Genet's books, and the one thing they have in common is that they're about low life. Middle-class gay life makes people uncomfortable; it's too close for comfort. I think that's why I couldn't get fiction published in the '60s.
Then I wrote a cryptic, not particularly gay novel called Forgetting
Elena, which -- after it floated around for three years -- was published by Random House, only because Richard Howard (a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and generous man of letters) intervened on my behalf. Then I wrote another realistic novel about middle-class gay people, which was turned down by everyone. Then I wrote another cryptic novel called
Nocturnes for the King of Naples, which was published.
It seemed as though no one wanted the more explicit and accessible fiction I write; people only wanted things that were mysterious. Between the two novels, I wrote
The Joy of Gay Sex, with Dr. Charles Silverstein; though it did not make me rich, that book gave me enough money to live on for a couple of years.
Q: A Boy's Own Story, on the other hand, is a remarkably clear and straightforward novel. Does that mean things have changed in the publishing world?
A: Definitely. My editor at Dutton is a wonderful guy named Bill Whitehead who's very open about being gay. He doesn't publish lots of gay books, but when he takes one on he really goes around and twists people's arms to make sure they take it seriously and give it their best shot. That just didn't exist in the '60s when I started writing gay novels.
Q: The boy in the story progresses from the self-hatred and confusion typical of homosexuals growing up in the '50s to acceptance of a "homosexual fate." In your writing, you seem to have gone through those two stages and beyond to an exquisite ambivalence -- embracing the tribe of gay people but also criticizing it on political, social, and sexual grounds.
A: Well, yes. I don't know quite where I am right now. When I wrote
States of Desire, my book about travels in gay America, as a socialist I kept feeling uncomfortable with how materialistic most gay people I met were. It seemed to me that the whole purpose of gay liberation turned out to be not what Guy Hocquenghem and others promised -- a kind of permanent revolution or wonderful unleashing of anarchic power -- but in fact a dreary consumerism of the most banal and conformist sort.
The other thing I started feeling is that gays are the coming thing in terms of the real needs of late capitalism. They are the perfect singles who are totally self-contained, develop strong loyalties to the corporation, and can be transferred anywhere. A typical gay male WASP in his 30s is well educated, has everything going for him, and is all the more motivated to be successful because of his desire to show that he's as good as his straight counterpart. Furthermore, he has already had the basic experience of leading a double life, hiding his sexuality and passing for straight within the corporation, so he is well attuned to the most important modern phenomenon, which is living in drag. He can divest himself of his personality and acquire a new one instantly, and he is well trained to do this.
This seemed to me an important skill for modern corporate life -- also a dangerous one, in the sense that it's a way of saying goodbye to ethics forever. That is, you accept from the beginning that your performance at the office will in no way be coherent with your real life, whatever that might be, so it's a life of play-acting, which more and more straights are learning to do. There's a whole generation coming into power now who grew up in the '60s, who were all pot smokers and hippies but are also corporate businessmen. They also lead a life in drag; they also are quite willing to never oppose anything mentioned at the office on an ethical level because they have an utterly cynical view of it from the very beginning. Their life is a gig. Whereas somebody who belonged to an earlier stage of capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, was in fact a coherent person. He dressed at home the way he dressed at the office. He had the same views at home that he had at the office.
Q: Why is this "play-acting" a gay phenomenon?
A: Because gays have no family life. It occurred to me that for lower-middle-class and working-class Americans, the family represents the last refuge of private life. It's the one place where they can have intimate relationships free from the complete penetration of the society-at-large. Therefore it's synonymous to them with their own individuality. Now, we from a gay or feminist point of view see it quite differently. We see the family as the incubator for capitalism and the paternalistic system; we see it s a miniature version of all the things we dislike in society. I wonder if we are one of the instruments for bringing about the decline of the family and whether finally that is a good thing or not. I wonder what we'll replace it with. What will stand between the ordinary individual and the demands of society in general?
Q: Where do you fit into this critique of gay society?
A: I include myself; I see these same qualities in myself. But I must say this: it seems to me that gay male society is threatened on two sides just now, by disease and by the New Right. The sexual revolution, both straight and gay, has come to a temporary halt because of our inability to cure these particular diseases, including herpes. Ultimately, I think these health problems are technological, they will eventually be conquered, and the sexual revolution will continue. On the other hand, gays are being temporarily threatened by the New Right. Gays turn out to be one of those groups of sinners who are unusually useful to the Right, which is not unified in any real way except morally -- that is, in its moral ignorance. Rich people on the Right and poor people on the Right have nothing in common, so they can only be unified through inflammatory, ridiculous sexual or moral issues like homosexuality or abortion. Because of these two problems at this particular historical moment, I feel reluctant to criticize gays at all, because I feel we're still an endangered species. If I were talking to the
Chicago Tribune, I wouldn't mention this at all. But since it's for the
Q: Are there writers who are useful models for you?
A: One of my favorites is Gide, who said once that he liked to lose with each book the fans he'd gained with the last. I think that's a good model to have -- that is, to never repeat yourself. I've always been inspired by Nabokov. He's so full of magic. No matter how repellent his characters may be, his prose is always beautiful, so there's a constant dialectic between the foibles of human nature and the shimmering beauty of the sensuous world that surrounds those people. I think he's the greatest writer who ever lived. There are many writers I adore: Proust, of course, Genet, Garcia Marquez. I like Firbank very much.
Q: I love Firbank.
A: Oh, me too. I think he's just divine, and so underrated. The English are the least likely to understand Firbank, just as the French are the least likely to understand Colette.
It's only us americans who can appreciate these authors. The English assume that Firbank is a silly nitwit, a naughty boy who couldn't quite get through Oxford, whereas he's actually a serious modern artist like Gertrude Stein -- that is, someone who totally changed the modern novel. Likewise, the French think of Colette as somebody their grandmothers read sitting under the hair dryer, a "ladies' writers," whereas we see her as one of the great poets of the century. It's true that Colette had her own cosmetics firm and line of perfumes and that she appeared constantly on the radio talking to ladies about their menstrual cramps or whatever. Luckily, we didn't have to know about that whole side of Colette and don't have those associations.
Q: How do you actually write? Did you write A Boy's Own Story continuously?
A: I started at the beginning and went through to the end, but there would be great long periods between chapters. I write very little, and I don't like writing. It's very painful, and it even makes me sick to my stomach to do it.
Q: What is it that makes you sick?
A: Fear of failure. Total lack of confidence, which is well placed, I think. I have written some of the most mindless drivel anyone has ever written. I have boxes and boxes at home full of thousands of pages I've written that is pure garbage. I don't seem to have very sound critical judgment when I'm writing. So I am terrified of wasting time again. I write extremely slowly in longhand, and if I write a page a day, it's a lot. I've never had a long period of time off to write a novel, so I proceed microscopically from page to page. I don't think I have the skill or confidence to think in large units, although a lot of people have said they wished the story would go on, and I've been encouraged by that. I may do another two volumes of it, continuing the story through the boy's college years and then into adulthood. But that won't be the next book I write. I'm already into the next one. It's another fantasy novel, in the style of
Forgetting Elena, with a made-up country and made-up language and made-up everything. It's about a straight boy.
Q: Total fantasy?
A: Total fantasy, exactly.
Boston Phoenix, 1982