CityBoy

My friends and I have a snarky name for a sub-species of hyperbolic homosexuals who are always regaling everyone with tales of having participated in every important cultural moment known to man: Pivotal History Queens.

These are the gays who spin tales of escaping the  Titanic with Molly Brown, doing acid with Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore, making out with Candy Darling at Max’s Kansas City, doing coke with  Bianca Jagger  at Studio 54, and being on the last elevator out of the World Trade Center.   The sodomite as a zeitgeist!

Luckily—and this is a rarity like witnessing a lunar eclipse, or meeting a guy named Brad who isn’t gay—the fates deliver us a homosexual who really is pivotal.  Author Edmund White really did witness true cultural flash-points.

For the last 30 years, Edmund White has not only registered our wayward culture, he has also chronicled his own individual highs and lows: his lovers; the sexually-repressed 50s; the sex-soaked seventies; the AIDS-ravaged eighties; Stonewall to Foucault to Susan Sontag; back room leather bars to ornate grand symphony halls—Edmund White saw it all and relayed it in a prose style that is understated,  lucid,  beautiful and sometimes brutal.

Known for his famed semi-autobiographical novels A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony.  White currently has a new memoir out, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s.

White met with MARY to talk about his new book, the popularity of memoirs, and his foray into Black power politics:


In the late seventies and early eighties when you embarked on writing more gay themed novels, did you realize that your writing would be considered so revolutionary?

You know Stonewall happened in 1969, and it had a huge effect on gay culture. There were not that many gay books for gay readers at that time.  It took almost ten years after Stonewall for these books to be published.  I wrote my second book “Nocturnes for the Kings of Naples” in 1978, the same year Andrew Holleran wrote “Dancer from Dance,” and there seemed to be almost a ten-year gap between those books and Stonewall.  Writers are sometimes slow to respond to these things.   In addition, you had all this gay bookstores popping up, so you had a whole system in place to support these books.  There were 75 gay bookstores all across America; now there are about ten. You also started to have gay literature magazines like Christopher Street Press.  After Stonewall, suddenly, there were institutions in place to support gay literature.   After Stonewall, you also started to have gay editors—there were always gay editors, but after Stonewall, you started to have out gay editors.  I wrote some gay-themed work in the early seventies, but no editors would endorse my work.  Some editors would tell me, “Oh I really loved your book, but I would not dare speak up for it, because then they would know I was gay.”  Gay Liberation and Stonewall changed all that.

You were part of famous group of gay writers, The Violet Quill, which included writers like Andrew Holleran and Robert Ferro.  This group was groundbreaking because it focused on writing books about gay lives that were un-apologetically written for gay readers, but there was some criticism about the books being more about aesthetics than politics.

Actually writing a gay book in those days was a political act because no one else was doing it. I think we were often accused of a sort of New York elitism more than anything else.  I was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, and I remember Essex Hemphill attacked me because I had written the introduction to a published catalog for a show that Mapplethorpe had done in Amsterdam.  Essex was angry, because he felt Robert’s work objectified black men.  There was no one else at the time using Black models in art photography, and I would say a third of the people who collected Robert Mapplethorpe’s work were black themselves.  The subject of those initial photos was Robert’s lover, Milton, whom I knew.  Milton would let Mapplethorpe take pictures of either his face or his body, but not of his body and face together in the same picture, because he did not want his mother to know he was gay. He was from a very religious family, from either Kentucky or Tennessee.  I know there was this idea that it was whitey exploiting the black man.  In truth, they were his lovers.  It was the models that were setting the tone.

How did Essex respond?

He made a career out of this particular attack, so, of course, he did not want engage me on the facts. I really do like Essex’s work, but I just felt he was wrong on this point.

Where is Milton now?

Milton went off the deep end.  He is in Prison now.   He was arrested for some violent crime and was sent to prison, where he is to this day.

Did Robert give Milton any of his work?

Oh, yes, Robert gave him some of his work.   I do not want to say that Mapplethorpe was always a wonderful person, because he wasn’t, but he was pretty fair.  He would name the models if they wanted to be named, and would not if they didn’t.  He would always give the models prints, which of course are now worth thousands and thousands of dollars; back then, they were worth about $500.00   Almost all the guys he photographed were his lovers or people he slept with. He would go to Keller’s on the West Side Highway to meet guys.

Oh I remember Keller’s: it was basically a sliver of a bar. …Just one hallway, really.

Oh we used go there together sometimes.  Robert was really like the Harlem Renaissance photographer Carl Van Vechten.  He was a white man who really loved Black men, and some people will always think that is an exploitative relationship. Essex’s argument was that Robert was always objectifying these men.  I said to Essex, “You know the French word for the lens of a camera is objectif.”  It is very difficult to take a picture of someone with out objectifying them.  There are only a few ways around it.  You might ask the subject to write about it, or you can take a picture of them while they take a picture of you.  A writer or artist is always somehow objectifying the subject they are portraying.  As a writer, you could describe me as haughty and fat (laughs) and that is within your rights.

I know you have written a biography of Jean Genet, and that you are a big fan of his writings.  I read a Sartre quote in which he writes about Genet: “that his particular genius is not something that you are necessarily born with, but a skill you developed to get through a difficult situation.”  Do you think that is true of a lot gay writers?

Genet had beautiful style that was godlike.  I am not sure anyone knows where that came from. He was one of the great geniuses of twentieth century. He had the most beautiful and elevated style. 

So you don’t necessarily think it was a skill set he developed to pull himself out the muck?

Sartre might be right that he had every motivation in the world to write well. There is something magical about being a successful writer.  You can really be down on your luck, and then you can have a successful novel, and everything for you can change.  Well, that is not so much the case anymore (laughs).  There was once a time when a successful novel could help you achieve wealth and recognition.  It changed Genet’s life completely.  His first book “Our Lady of the Flowers” changed his life.  He came from a life of petty thievery.  He was hard up and in prison in France when he wrote that first book. It really saved him from the concentration camps…It was during the Germany occupation. He was in prison and scheduled to be sent to the camps.  Genet wrote this extraordinary book, and it was smuggled out of prison and published privately. It could not be published publicly because it was too pornographic for the period.  Eventually, it became world-famous; and it made him a lot of money, but I do not think that is really a model for anyone. I believe in Sartre’s idea that you might have all the motivation to become a great writer because you are in such dire circumstances, but that does not guarantee you are going to be a great writer.  I know so many kids who are trying to pull themselves together and write something, and their work is simply not that good.  My life was very different. I was from an upper middle class background, very privileged. I came from fancy boarding schools.  I was very lucky.

Your memoir “My Lives” was really raw.   It contains some brutal self-assessments.

I am glad you think that.  That was the  goal.  I wanted there to be no filter.  Have you ever read Rene Rousseau, the French 18th-century writer?  In his book “The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” he described being raised by this beautiful young woman.  At the age of eight, he did something bad and she whipped him to punish him.  While she was whipping him, he got an erection.  She noticed this and she was horrified.   Rene said after that he never had the ability to have sex with a woman unless she punished him; and since so few woman were willing to do that, he had to constantly imagine women were dominating him (laughs).   He goes on to say that anyone can write about the disgusting things they have done, but it’s the ludicrous things that other people might scorn you for that are the hardest things to write.  Once you get that out of your system, you can write anything.   “The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” set that example.  That was the model I was drawing from.  At this point in my career, I just want to be unbelievably frank.

I know you have written some semi-autobiographical novels, but with those novels always contained the sheen of slight fictional obfuscation.  What made you take this recently direct honest approach in both “My Lives” and “City Boy.”

Getting older and having already written all those novels…and then I guess not feeling too apologetic about my life.  Many of my friends are pretty open when talking with each other.  Why can’t you be that open with the reader?  I think the whole idea of literature has somehow been influenced by the bible, the holy books. In writing, you supposedly always have to be on your best behavior or moral.  I am atheist. I do not believe in any of that anyway, so I figured why don’t I just say the truth.

I read a quote from author Doris Lessing that said she could never write a third memoir because there were just too many people in her life she was afraid of hurting, that it would destroy those relationships.  Did you fear that fallout?

I feared it, but I did not heed that fear. I just decided to go ahead.  I feel that straight guys often never write honest memoirs because they are often worried about how their wives are going to feel. I feel like I am ‘un-blackmailable’.  I feel that I have said everything I can say.  My partner Michael knows it all anyway.

But Michael is not prominently featured in any of your memoirs?
No, he is not; and maybe that is for the Doris Lessing reason.  Also, I think maybe when I write about someone it is often the kiss-off. It is over.

How do you feel about all the trauma memoirs that are really popular right now?

When I first started writing, the only people who wrote memoirs where famous people with huge achievements: Generals or Presidents or Movie Stars. Nobodies like us did not write memoirs.  But now you have a father who beat you and, oops, you’re in business!

Do you have a dividing line between memoirs that are just pure sentiment versus ones that are literature?

In a novel you can say anything you want. I think with a memoir you have one obligation to the reader: To tell the truth to the best of your ability and not varnish it in anyway.

How did you feel about the James Frey controversy?

I thought what he did was bad. I also thought Oprah went out of her way to be cruel.  She just retracted it. Oprah said she felt she overreacted.  I just read it in US weekly magazine (laughs) while I was under the dyer at the hairdresser.  I think she overreacted, but I do think she was right.  Especially because he was writing for a vulnerable community: people in recovery.  That was his target audience.  I have a very close friend who is a recovering crystal meth addict, and that book was his bible.  He would take that book around with him everywhere, and then when it blew up, it devastated him.  People mocked him, “Ha-ha there goes your idol.”

Well what do you think the point of a literary memoir is? Is it to be simply well-written or some sort of self-help tome?

I think in Frey’s case it was for self-help. I do not think mine would really help anybody. (laughs)

How about JT Leroy? People championed her because they felt her writing was good, but then they felt betrayed when they discovered that she was not a young transvestite prostitute.  Should truthfulness matter if the writing is evocative?


People say her work was a very powerful imagining on what it is like to be a transvestite prostitute working the trucks, so it turns out it was written by a middle-aged woman, who had no experience with peddling her ass. I can understand why people were upset.  They felt duped.  Now: Is her work truly a great piece of literature?  Time will tell.  In a hundred years if it is good, people will turn to it. It will stand on its own.  Robert Crusoe and Moll Flanders were initially sold as memoirs.  People at the time thought these books were important real-life accounts.  These novels were written so convincingly, people thought they were reading something about the real world.  So time will tell with JT’s work.  I understand the anger of finding out a memoir is a novel. It is like the ground being pulled from beneath your feet.

Why do you feel memoirs are more popular then novels right now?

I am not exactly sure: I have my theories. As a culture, we watch Oprah and other talk shows that involve a lot of testifying; and to testify really goes back to that old born-again Christian tradition in America. Going to revivals and camp meetings and getting worked up and testifying.  It is cathartic.

Can you tell me little about your newest work “City Boy”?

It is about my life in the sixties and seventies, and it has a gay aspect to it.  I talk about Stonewall, which I observed and slightly participated in, and just my own changing attitudes towards my own sexuality.  It is also about being in extreme poverty and not even knowing it.  I remember living in a little roach trap in on Horatio Street…and I had a friend who visited me from England.  When he went back to Europe, he told our common friends “Oh Edmund has the most miserable existence I have ever seen.  It is the shabbiest most improvised setting you can imagine.” (laughs)  It is also about trying to launch myself as a writer.  It was such a big long struggle—it still is.

You don’t feel like you have made it yet?

Nooo. I’m working on a novel now, and I just started. I had to write a long twenty-page proposal to the publisher, because nobody would buy a book just because it is
“The Next Edmund White Novel.” All this stuff I never had to do in the past, I have to do now. I have to spell out exactly what is going to happen in the novel to the publisher. The publishing climate has changed. The market is so bad now. Even established writers who have had hits have to spell out exactly what there are going to write before a publisher will touch it, and they are getting paid a third of what they used to in terms of advances.  The market has collapsed. It is a disaster.  Even famous writers are only selling about 10,000 copies, max.


What do think contributed  to the decline in sales?

There are just so many titles out there.  It is not that people are reading less.  I actually think they are reading more.  I just think that there are so many titles out now…which is both good and bad.  The bad side is that there is not a big national discourse about novels anymore.  When I was young, my mother might get a the-book-of-the-month-club novel, and it would be  “The Good Earth” or something, and everyone would be talking about that book.  There would be a cultural discourse around a widely-read novel…probably what people do now for movies, but I think even that level of discourse is waning. Every thing is falling into a million different niches.

Okay this is my ‘pivotal history’ question and answer moment.  I want to get your comments on some cultural touchstones, or people you might have experienced through out your storied career.
Stonewall?

I was there. At the time I didn’t get what was going on. I did not want trouble.  I was so middle-class. I wanted them to stop. I was like “Come on guys, those are the police!” (laughs).


James Baldwin?

I never met him.  We talked on the phone.  I interviewed him for my Genet biography, but we only talked on the phone.  He was drinking heavily at the point and I think he was sort of falling apart.  He had a very protective brother who was really a gatekeeper, so I never got to meet him.


Did you ever talk about the gay liberation movement?

I think his first obligation was black liberation not gay liberation, which is understandable. I think you can see him in Just Above My Head trying to deal with both movements—and it’s not easy.  I mean, E. Lynn Harris did it years later, but so few people at the time really dealt with both.

George Whitmore

He was a boyfriend of mine. Very cute, very sweet, but very fucked up. He was very paranoid and he always thought every one was scheming against him.  I met him early on   in 1973, at the onset of gay liberation. We both gave a reading together, and that is how I met him. He was charming; I think he had a screw loose.  He wrote a whole book trying to prove that Nathaniel Hawthorne was gay. Well, that is a tough one.  He had affair with Jack Heifner, the playwright who wrote Vanities; and they lived up on Columbus and 86th, an area where I lived for awhile.  George was very cultured and very sweet when he was not going through a spell of paranoia.

You also worked with Cicely Tyson and Billy Dee Williams, which is an interesting little historical curio.

There were both in a play I wrote in 1964 called “Blue Boy in Black.”  It was a play about black servants who turn against their masters. It was not very popular with white critics because it was during the height of the civil rights movement, and everything was supposed to be solved. I, of course, was inspired by Genet’s “The Blacks,” which was filled with all sorts of rage. I don’t think Billy was that good in it: He was not a very good stage actor.  He had problems memorizing his lines; but Cicely was superb.  The play is not worth reading: It was not very good.

So was that your Black power piece?

(Laughing) You know, by the time the Black Panthers came along in 1969 and 1970, a White person would not dare touch that subject, but at that time you could still do it.

You’re really good with summing up characters and surroundings.  Do you find that people are actually weary to hang around you? It is like “…if anyone is going to see the pimple on my nose it’s Edmund White.

As a writer, you have to be sharp.  That kind of acuity is part of being writer.  You cannot be lukewarm or vague, because that kind of writing makes for dull copy.  Often during my daily life, I walk around with the same general vagueness as everyone else.  I have people who I have dated who have said “Oh it’s hard to be around you because you are cataloging everything….”  I’m like “Hmm, not right now, I’m not.”

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COMMENTS / ONE COMMENT

Interesting interview. Would it be too much to say that his words about Essex Hemphill ring problematic to me for a couple of different reasons?

I mean, you asked him about his being apart of the The Violet Quill and how the books were criticized for seemingly being more about aesthetics than politics. His response about aesthetics versus politics launches into a discussion of blackness, particularly Essex’s responses to his and Mapplethorpe’s works. What is so intriguing is how White mines the dichotomy between aesthetics versus politics while trying to assert that all of the writing being done by VQ was essentially political (as well as aesthetic).

He reduces Hemphill’s critiques to “being angry” about how black men were objectified but then asserts that because Mapplethorpe dated/loved black men, he wasn’t really objectifying, which is sorta dismissive /wrong in my opinion.

And I find it literally ironic that he uses an aesthetics of blackness/blackfolks to charge that his writing and the writing of the VQ wasn’t merely aesthetic but also political. Like, he’s saying that because no one else was using black models (in/as photographic subjects, no less) that Mapplethorpe should be absolved of any possible wrongdoing, or at least of Hemphill’s particular brand of critique.

I guess I’m bothered by how his discussion of the VQ’s writings dovetails into a critique of the critique of the objectification of blackness. It’s weird.

ashon added these pithy words on May 04 10 at 11:32 pm

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