A Conversation with Edmond White By Edmond White

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1996, Vol. 16.3

In 1994, when Edmund White was asked to do an interview for this issue, he decided instead to interview himself.

Q: Could you describe your early unpublished novels?

A: But there are so many of them! When I was fifteen I wrote my first novel, prophetically about “coming out” and called “The Tower Window.” It was all about a boy very much like me called Peter Cross (a bit of Christ imagery there, for I saw myself as a martyr—strange, since I hadn’t read any of the pathetic gay literature of the period, in fact nothing gay except the life of Nijinsky by his wife). The story recounts how Peter falls for a handsome man he meets on the beach—the passage is described with elaborate orchestral metaphors, the first “sounding” of the musical “themes”in my later writing (all ridiculously inept, according to Ned Rorem, who can’t bear for amateurs to write about music). I was so swamped by my own thoughts and reflections when I started writing this novel that I decided on an absurd strategy to discipline the proliferation: my narrator would never have any access at all to Peter’s thoughts and would have to divine them from his facial expressions, etc. This novel I wrote in a sustained fever as soon as I arrived at boarding school. I did my homework in the afternoons when other kids were playing sports, which gave me nothing to do during the two-hour evening study hall except work on my book. My mother, ever indulgent to my wished-for talent, had her typist type my nearly illegible mss. While at Cranbrook (my prep school) I wrote a second novel, “Mrs. Morrigan,” for a senior honors thesis, a course I took with an eccentric we dubbed Mr. “Wombat.” I quickly discovered that I wrote best when I had an audience to read out loud to soon after the completion of my latest, hottest pages. And they were hot, at least by the standards of those times and that place. Even the Wombat said he found them a bit too “steamy,” which shocked me since I was a serious lad and had no desire to be provocative in a superficial sense.

The subject of that novel was my mother’s divorce, but I grafted onto her my own first revulsed feelings towards sex. Madness, puritanism, a fearless attraction towards the more extreme forms of sex and a simultaneous hatred of the flesh—these were some of the themes of this book. I liked it so much that ten years later I dramatized it.

At the University of Michigan I wrote another gay novel (remember this was in the late 1950s), this one a picaresque, would-be comedy about a rich boy who falls in love with his poor half-brother. I based the poor brother on an Italo-American teenage hustler I’d met at Bughouse Square in Chicago. The novel was called “The Amorous History of Our Youth,” an echo of Bussy-Rabutin’s L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaulles. I entered the book in the Hopwood Literary contest at Michigan and the judge, a woman, wrote that she found it particularly grating. I think I’d been influenced both by Gide’s Les caves du Vatican and by Mann’s Felix Krull, and I hoped to emulate the easygoing, amoral tone, but I was too serious to succeed and the epoch too grim to respond even to my muted effort.

I abandoned fiction for playwriting then for a number of years before taking it up again to write The Beautiful Room Is Empty in the mid-1960s. The published book of that title relates some of the same events as thisearlier mss. but in no way resembles it except for some dialogue between the narrator and Sean (Ed and Jim in the earlier version). This 1960s book was written virtually as a diary during my extremely unhappy love affair with Jim Ruddy (now dead of AIDS)—an intelligent, strapping blond from Ohio of Polish background, a comparative literature student at New York University when I met him. I didn’t get over him for many years and even in the 1970s, some ten years after I first met him, I was still capable ofsolemnly asking his hand in marriage. He refused, but seemed moved by my ceremoniousness.

Q: Were these early books stylized? Stylish?

A: Not at all. I think sincerity was my sole aesthetic and realism my experimental technique. I wrote almost unconsciously—outpourings ofdesperation. Oh, I forgot to mention another novel, another college effort about my aborted psychoanalysis and my bizarre love affair with a female patient of the same doctor—a book of such unmediated and boring pain that I finally abandoned it and never typed up the handwritten mss.

Charles Burch, a Chicago poet and advertising man I met while I was still in college and with whom I had an affair, criticized my “unconscious style” and my insufferable “doting” on my characters—two criticisms that really stung but that were merited.

The first version of The Beautiful Room Is Empty was the first mss. I’d ever submitted to New York editors. It was rejected by about thirty of them, partly no doubt because it was about middle-class gays in a period when people wanted to read only about low-life homosexuals, but mainly because it was unfocused. These rejections hurt me terribly because I felt it was my life that was being rejected.

The very next book I wrote was an entirely new departure for me, Forgetting Elena. I’d always been a big reader, I had a wide if undisciplined cultural sampling (I haunted art galleries, I was a regular at the New York City Ballet, I listened to some contemporary music and had even taken a course in college in Bartók’s string quartets from Ross Lee Finney), but I’d never somehow applied that knowledge to my writing. Perhaps because my personal problems were too pressing to be aestheticized or treated with ironic distance, or perhaps because the first artists I’d known and admired had been the abstract expressionist painting students of the Cranbrook Art Academy and I was striving, as they did, to avoid all conscious artistic strategies. Proust once said that one had to make oneself a bit stupid in order to write fiction—well, I certainly had gotten that part down pat.

Now for the first time I was changing things around a bit. I had been reading Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book as well as Lewis’s The Splendid Century about Versailles. This reading about court life inflected my experience of gay life on Fire Island. I didn’t make a decision to exclude homosexuality—and indeed Herbert’s love for the Prince, the narrator, is central—but I wanted to tap the energies of homosexuality without drawing an explicit portrait of its folkways. Mind you, Forgetting Elena certainly has its sociological side, but it’s a sociology I invented—much as I would later do with Caracole. It would be a mistake to say, as some gay critics have suggested, that I turned to “straight” fiction because my gay work had been rejected. To be sure, some gay editors such as the late Peter Kameny later told me they’d read and liked the first Beautiful Room but they’d been afraid to speak up for it lest their colleagues suspect them of homosexuality (Peter later committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway, a death surely linked to his inability to accept himself). Yet to call Forgetting Elena a “straight” novel would be stretching everyone’s definition of that pitiable category, since for the ordinary reader, straight or gay, Forgetting Elena is surely more difficult to follow than my earlier (or later) fiction.

Q: What was it like to write that book?

A: I wrote quite a bit of it on Fire Island, probably in 1969 (hence the reference somewhere to bellbottom trousers). There had been a fire in The Pines that inspired the first chapter. I was sharing a house with a pedantic and very beautiful Swede named Kaj Areskoug who was the model for Herbert; the Japanese habit of composing poems “spontaneously” on every occasion (as recounted in The Tale of Genji) gave me the idea of including poetry duels. . . . I think the first page owes something to Camus’s The Stranger, of all things; I was reading a lost Chinese classic known onlyto the Japanese in an early translation (the title is now “lost” to me as well,I fear), and that book provided me with certain curious details I cribbed. Descriptions of Australian aborigines chasing after clouds, hoping to beunder them when it rained; the ghostliest whisper of an affair I’d had with Marilyn Schaefer (the Maria of The Beautiful Room Is Empty) and with Sigrid von Hoyningen-Huene (she was the one who introduced me to the Italian turn-of-the-century café song misquoted in the last chapter)—these are all elements in the book, as was the Harlem use of the emphatic “back!” (as in “You swept that chile back!“) which I learned from Jimmy Rivera, a young Puerto Rican friend. Another trigger was Marilyn Schaefer’s passing remark, “I wonder why cerebral artists like the first Cubists thought it was necessary to use such a grey palette. There’s no logical reason not to use a gaudy one”—and that remark stuck in my mind, as did so many things she would say, and dictated the “gorgeousness” of my fictional “palette.”

But if all these things were the bits of tinsel and straw I made my nest out of, the way I felt while I worked was strangely different. I felt as though possessed. There was a certain hum that would be generated by the book when I was writing well; I’d stop working the instant that hum snapped off. People assume I must have been on acid while writing Elena, but in factup to that point the most I’d ever “done” was grass. Yet it was as though I were stoned or entranced. I remember thinking I wasn’t fully aware of all the implications of my book but that didn’t matter so long as I mastered the tone or rather obeyed it. The book is perhaps more visual than my others—the Mirror Dancers, the Fire, the Little Stroll, the shrimp on Maria’s stomach, the Royal Arrival—these are all composed like paintings. Yet I think the book would make a bad movie (I’ve written all my novels to be movie-proof, a strategy that has succeeded all too well up till now). Bad because everything depends on the reader’s questions about the narrator’s reliability. As in “The Turn of the Screw” or The Good Soldier, to choose exalted examples, the reader never knows how far to trust the narrator. My narrator, moreover, is seriously impaired since he remembers nothing—a selective forgetting that serves his moral cowardice, as it turns out.

There is a moral dimension to the book (it’s “about” replacing ethics with aesthetics), but there is also this pictorial dimension, much more ob-vious in the mss. preserved at the Beinecke Library at Yale. I say pictorial but I mean something close to the spirit of abstract expressionism, which influenced me so much. That was a school of art that was embattled, romantic, reliant on a high sense of integrity, of moral struggle, that envisioned art-as-performance (in those days people spoke approvingly of aborigine painters who abandoned their completed canvases, since the only magical efficacy came from the act of painting, not the finished product). With my gaudy, exotic material I wanted to create large, dreamy constructions that would not be decorative but powerfully expressive. I’d admired Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, but I thought her abstractions depended on pitting word against word, whereas I felt that language was necessarily symbolic, unlike paint or musical notes, and that the writer must pit page against page, story against story. Stein herself said she thought on the level of the paragraph, but I felt even that unit was too small, too discontinuous; I wanted to exploit the traditional structures of fiction such as characterization, dialogue, suspense, but in order to pile up dream castles in cloud landscapes—or like Escher to fabricate artistically plausible but realistically impossible perspectives.

This book, after being rejected by some twenty editors (including Bob Gottlieb at Knopf who kept it a year, tentatively accepting it before definitively turning it down), was finally accepted by Anne Freedgood at Random House, three years after I’d finished it. Richard Howard, the first known writer I’d ever met, brought it to her attention and always championed it. Anne asked me to rewrite it to make the mystery story aspect of the book “pay off.” This revision surely made the book slightly more accessible,although one curious result was that the New York Times Book Reviewdiscussed it as a mystery story and it was stocked under that rubric in bookstores for a while.

Q: What was your next book?

A: I hate to sound lugubrious, but for five years I worked on the next book, which was entitled variously “Woman Reading Pascal” and “Like People in History.” But it was roundly rejected by everyone and has yet to see the light of day. It’s the only mss. of mine I would like to see published posthumously. It’s a sort of homage to Portrait of a Lady and is about a straight blonde heiress (loosely based on Sigrid) who becomes involved with a lesbian (Marilyn again) and a gay man (an amalgam of Richard Howard and me). The rejection was totally crushing. I was in my mid-thirties, I’d quit the only steady job I’d ever had (Time-Life Books staff writer) to devote myself to fiction, but in fact I was spending most of my energy ghostwriting college textbooks to pay my rent. It was at this time I wrote two entirely different works, The Joy of Gay Sex and Nocturnes for the King of Naples. I wrote the sex manual mainly for money (I was supporting my nephew by then and needed the extra cash), yet I was very wounded when I saw Anne Freedgood at the ballet and she laughed when I told her of my current project: “Oh, that’s perfect for you,” she said loftily. My partner Charles Silverstein and I did feel that it was an important book to be do-ing, though now it looks like the quintessential “gay assimilationist” effort (see, we gays are just like you straights). But at the time it was still highly provocative to suggest (this was 1977, I believe) that a book about gay or lesbian sex could be sold in a uniform edition with The Joy of Sex tout court. Because we felt that this might be the one book to penetrate the hinterlands, Silverstein and I packed into it everything we could think of that might be useful, which is why it’s much more about coming out than about getting laid, more a survival kit than a queer Kama Sutra.

Nocturnes for the King of Naples, which was published by Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s, could be called “The Despair of Gay Sex”; at least it is more in tune with my melancholy if lyrical vision than is the bromidic, comforting tone of Joy. I wrote it during a time when I was living with—and was hopelessly in love with—the young, handsome Keith McDermott, then the boy in Equus on Broadway with a succession of co-stars including Richard Burton and Tony Perkins. My “Albertine strategy” was fairly elaborate: my narrator was supposed to be a repentant Keith writing along love letter to me after my death as he now realized too late that Ihad been the great love of his life after all. But the older man, the “you,” was also based on my idea of Frank O’Hara (whom I’d never met) and (just to add to the mix) none other than God. I’d always been something of a mystical atheist; miserable in love once again (as I’d not been since Jim Ruddy), my transcendental longings were reawakened. The book is riddled with references to the Sufi poets, to St. John of the Cross, to Dante, even Cavalcanti’s Una donna mi pregha. . . . I wrote out as prose and buried into the text a sestina, rhymed couplets (based on Rumi) and a sonnet (based on “Aux yeux de Mme de Beaufort” if I remember correctly). These literary or religious references were not supposed to alarm or impede the reader; I was following Nabokov’s lead, not Joyce’s, in burying my allusions beneath a seemingly innocent surface. Baroque art of all sorts in all languages influenced me because I was impressed by the baroque discovery that sensual love could express divine love—and vice versa. But what didn’t influence me? The Isis-Osiris legend is central to my tale as is the Song of Songs of Solomon (I was chagrined later to see that Solomon’s songs had already been used by a novel that curiously resembled mine, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept).

But I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bore you with an account of all my “creative efforts” as we used to say in Miller, my grade school in Evanston, Illinois, a progressive public school based on John Dewey’s ideas, a brilliant native American educational experiment that rejected grades as well as all comparisons of one student with another, that started with the student’s immediate environment and built out from it and that stressed something called “creative dramatics,” an improvised and imaginative appropriation and re-creation of other people, other cultures, other stories. . . . I played King Charles in our adaptation of Shaw’s Saint Joan. All of those noble experiments were chucked, of course, when Americans panicked over Sputnik.

Q: I’m afraid your speculations on education are taking us far afield. Do you see your autobiographical series—A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty and now The Farewell Symphony—as more, well, “commercial” than your earlier novels?

A: I sometimes feel I’ve encouraged in my minor way two or three meretricious tendencies, especially—the cult of the writer, the ghettoization of literature according to minority group status. Of course the success of A Boy’s Own Story took me utterly off guard. I think that there are empty ecological niches in the literary landscape crying to be filled and when a book more or less fills a niche it’s seized on, even when it’s a far from perfect fit. . . . In the case of my book, I don’t think it’s really the coming-out gay novel that everyone really needed, even though it was received as such. The boy is too creepy, he betrays his teacher, the only adult man with whom he’s enjoyed a sexual experience, etc.

If Boy’s Own was anything but “commercial” in intention, I must admit I was a bit worried after the critical and economic flop that Caracole represented. Although I may think it’s my best book, as Edouard Roditi said to me, “With another success like that you’ll not have a career.” As a result, when I undertook Beautiful Room I decided to take all the creative writing advice I’d been giving for a decade seriously and write a “tightly-paced page-turner,” as we say in the business. It also happened to be the way to handle that material, I trust.

The short stories I’ve written over the last few years that have been collected in a volume called Skinned Alive as well as the novel I’m working on, The Farewell Symphony, are things that I regard as daring both formally and thematically, at least for me. But I dare not put a jinx on it except to say that I still feel that sincerity and realism are avant-garde, or can be, just as I did when I started out.

Q: How would you compare writing biography and fiction?

A: Some critics said they were disappointed that I didn’t use a fancier style in my biography of Genet, but frankly I would have found 800 pages of anything but the most straightforward prose perfectly agonizing, not to say stupefying.

Whereas fiction is a continual discovery of what one wants to say, what one feels, what one means, and is, in that sense, a performance art, biography requires different skills—research and organization. I didn’t want to write a biographie romancée especially since I already write novels, nor did I want to challenge the rules of the biography game, arbitrary as those rules might be. I mean I didn’t want to insert myself into the tale as a character nor did I want to jumble the chronology or indulge in lots of speculation about what Genet must have been feeling or whether a life can be narrated, etc.

There is one traditional aspect of literary biography I did avoid, however. Some English critics were disappointed that I didn’t draw up a moral tot sheet for Genet and say whether he’d been a “nice person” or not. Biography can be the most middle-class of all forms, the judgment of little people avenging themselves on the great. One English critic took me to task for not saying that Genet was “afraid of intimacy” all his life because he’d been abandoned by his mother at the age of seven months. All the evidence needed to make such an interpretation is in my book, but I don’t myself draw the vulgar conclusion. Since most literary biographies ignore the work except for potted plot summaries, they strip the biographee of everything redeeming and leave him or her subject to this spiteful revenge, this half-baked Freudian-Christian-bourgeois moralizing. It’s pathetic that someone like Genet, who spent his whole life reversing ordinary values, should end up as fodder for such rusty, blustery cannons—not even loose ones, but ones thoroughly grounded. Genet’s military career was scotched when he built an emplacement for a cannon in Damascus and misjudged the requirements so that the tower crumbled after the cannon fired its first shot. Genet later said that when he saw his tower had been undermined by the weeds that had sprung up in the cracks in the cement, he learned the power of small things (the Palestinians) to destroy something big (the United States).

Whereas I rejected any importation of fictional technique into the biography I wrote, I did try to abstain from moralizing as much in Genet as I had in my earlier novels.

Q: Finally, how has living in Europe affected your work?

A: In very material ways, since Caracole is based on those thirteen summers I spent in Venice with David Kalstone, just as Genet required I do research for six or seven years in France.

But I suppose you mean have I lost touch with my roots? Have I been cut off from the vitality of New York? Have I lost contact with the evolution of English?

Q: Well, not exactly . . .

A: But exactly enough, I see. Hmnn . . . I find that the European partsof my new novel are far more vivid than the New York ones since New York became too familiar, whereas in Rome and Paris I had to make new friends, master new languages, learn new customs, eat new food, encounter new attitudes. Given how eager I am to please people, these adaptations constituted real work that has left indelible memories, and since vividness of recall is the most important thing in this kind of fiction . . .

I’m now neither an American nor a European but an American expatriate in Paris, which puts me in the best company, along with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway,Mary McCarthy, James Lord, James Merrill (if one substitutes Athens for Paris). And of course Henry James (if one adds London to Paris).

If I take a less defensive tone, I’d admit that I couldn’t write today a very jazzy, contemporary look at America as I did in 1979 in States of Desire. Of course my age would also keep a distance now between me and most young visible gays in the American provinces (ageism is very provincial). But now I’m interested in finishing my new novel, wholly international. . . .

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