A Conversation with Hubert Selby By John O’Brien

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1981, Vol. 1.2

Hubert Selby has published four novels: Last Exit to Brooklyn (Grove Press, 1964), The Room (Grove Press, 1971), The Demon (Playboy, 1976), and Requiem for a Dream (Playboy, 1978). This interview was conducted at Mr. Selby’s home in Los Angeles.

JOB: With the possible exception of some of Stephen Crane’s work, your novels strike me as the most pessimistic ever written by an American.

HS: I have always been an incorrigible optimist. But I see the potential of what can be and then I see what is. The conflict is incredible. That is what causes me to write in what you call a pessimistic way. I think of it more as pathology. I feel that my books thus far, including the one I just finished, Requiem for a Dream, are pathological in the sense that they are looking at the disease, they are trying to examine the disease. Usually any cure or treatment for a disease starts with the pathologist isolating it, trying to find its nature, so that others can do something to make this condition better. So, I am looking at the disease. And the disease, as you see it in all my books, is the lack of love. That’s my precipitating force. When I write, my concern is the art of literature, but I cannot sit down and write anything until I understand the moral imperative behind it. When I understand that, the sense of morality, then I can write.

JOB: Would it be possible for you to write about a character who does love?

HS: I have. I’ve written two things. I’ve written a play that deals with sin and salvation, and I’ve written a movie on the Third Commandment. In both of those that takes place. I have notes for another three books where hopefully I will open up. These next books will incorporate the problem as well as the answer. These first four books have only been involved with the problem.

JOB: This new treatment must be very difficult.

HS: That’s the fun of it. Each of my books is different as far as I can tell, which is maybe one of the reasons I have difficulty selling new books to publishers. I wrote a Last Exit but I didn’t write a “Last Exit Revisited,” which is what they would have liked. The Room and Last Exit are different books in many ways. And The Demon is different from the other two. And Requiem for a Dream is different too. With one exception, which I’m sure you’ve noticed: all of the people in my novels fail because of lack of control. Not because they are immoral by anybody’s standards, but because they lost control. The lack of power is their dilemma.

JOB: Does this lack of power in The Demon mean that Harry White has no control over what happens to him?

HS: We all cause everything that happens to us, whether we recognize it or not. That’s a cosmic law, which I also know from my own experience. I know from my own experience that when I send out hate, my life is filled with hate. There’s only one source of energy for my hate and that’s me. And there’s only one ultimate destination for my hate and that’s me.

JOB: But there is so much in The Demon that suggests that Harry doesn’t have any choice or any control.

HS: I don’t remember the chapters, but Harry makes a very definite choice. If you read the dedication and the three epigraphs, you know everything. You don’t have to read the book, right? Harry’s going along all right; he loves his wife, as much as Harry can love. He’s got a wife who’s almost perfect; she’s almost unreal. Everything in Harry’s life is constructed in such a way that he cannot point to anything outside himself as the cause of his problem. His parents are nice, his wife is great, he’s got intelligence, he’s got drive, he’s got everything. He’s doing beautifully in business, he’s living on Central Park West, and everything is his dream come true. And he hasn’t been messing around with women for about a year; he’s been going home at night and everything’s fine. And he’s not going out with his boss after those business meetings. But then one night he stays a little late, and he makes his decision. Those famous words: one won’t hurt. Right? That’s what he says. He says, I won’t get laid, I’ll just get a little head. And from then on it’s all over. He chooses evil. And I’m not using evil in a theological or a moral sense. What I mean by evil is choosing the negative path that ultimately leads to your self-destruction. That’s what he did. And from that point on his life is over. His life just goes straight down. His descent is quite rapid. He made that conscious choice. That’s it.

JOB: But at the beginning of that chapter he’s gone for almost two years without picking up women. When he does wind up in bed with someone on the night you refer to, it’s almost by accident rather than by a conscious decision.

HS: But remember that just before that he’s become complacent. Up until then he’s been on his guard; he’s consciously on his guard. But he did not surrender his problem to God. He fought his problem with his ego and his will power, and it worked fine for a while. Then he became complacent. He was no longer protected. He was like a drunk who goes for a year without a drink and says, I’ll go to the bar and play some pool. And the next thing you know, “One won’t hurt.” And it’s the same kind of thing with Harry. He gradually became complacent about his position; he didn’t have to consciously fight these urges anymore. So once his guard was down, he just drifted right in, because the only protection he had against that was his ego. And that doesn’t do it, because it’s the ego that’s our greatest enemy. So it wasn’t accidental really; it was a gradual letting down of his guard. He was utilizing the wrong thing for his protection.

JOB: In that chapter too, it seemed almost incredible to me that Harry could be so profoundly affected by one lapse. How could his conscience be so disturbed by this one incident that lasts for only an hour?

HS: I don’t think of it in terms of conscience and I don’t think that word is ever used there. It’s not conscience, it’s just plain fear. It’s fear of repeating what he had done before he was married when he was in jeopardy of losing his job and everything. All those painful conflicts he was having to fight. He was almost losing his job because of them and he was jeopardizing his life. But when you have an obsession, when you’re fighting an obsession, it’s always alive; you may not be indulging it, but it’s still alive. It has its own momentum, its own life, its own energy, just as if he had been indulging it.When he finally awakens to the fact that he had indulged it the night before, then the old fear hits him. The fear of losing everything, the fear of losing control over his life. He wants to control his life. He felt that he had controlled it for two years. He’s a very one-dimensional guy by this time; he’s completely first-person singular. He has a hard time getting outside himself. When he’s able to get outside himself, as in the very beginning when he tries to make his parents happy, he feels marvelous. So he has the ability to give. He has that ability in him, and he enjoyed doing it. But the ego takes over with Harry. He has to control the whole thing. So when he becomes aware of having lost control, he is terrified of being back in that previous condition. He’s afraid of saying something to Linda, his wife, not because of conscience but because he’s afraid he’ll say the wrong thing and be found out. If he loses her, he knows that he loses the source of stability. And of course he isn’t aware of any of this. They are just feelings, disquieting feelings. So, I don’t think that he has any conscience, at least at that point. It’s just fear of losing what he has and fear of losing what he wants to get.

JOB: If he doesn’t have a conscience . . .

HS: I don’t say that he doesn’t have a conscience.

JOB: I think that it’s at the beginning of chapter twelve that the narrator, who rarely comments in quite this way, says that Harry has compromised. I don’t see how compromise is possible for Harry because he is so consistently unconscious of what he is doing.

HS: We can’t be confused at those points where Harry says that one won’t hurt, or where Tralala is bouncing her boobs in the bar, or where Harry Black in “Strike” or Georgette in “The Queen Is Dead” is doing whatever; those things are all preceded by events and inner decisions that make that loss at that particular moment possible. You always have to go back. For instance, Tralala fails from her own point of view, not society’s. She could have married that Army captain, but because of her greed she just tore up his letter. That decision was made long before the end of the story. The same thing is true with Harry Black, Harry White, and Georgette. Their decisions were made long before, or those things couldn’t have happened to them. You have a series of inner compromises leading up to that. Just how much control any individual has, I’m not sure I know. I think that sooner or later we reach a point where we must say that I will no longer prolong this process, whatever it happens to be. One must say, I will not continue, I will stop here. One of the things I find insane is that we seem to believe in this country that if we change the society, then the individual will be changed. That doesn’t happen. The transformed individual makes a transformed world. All these people I write about are looking to outside forces to do something for them. Not one of them wants to know what he can do for somebody else. They go out and attack the world. These decisions are made a long time in advance. Of course the sociologists say, “Look at the society and what they’re born into”—which is true; but ultimately that doesn’t mean anything because that society is made up of individuals who have made those decisions. Sooner or later you have to be willing to accept the responsibility for your own life.

JOB: Then your characters “get what they deserve”?

HS: What they deserve in the sense of “What ye sow, so shall ye reap,” Sure. They not only planted the seeds, they watered them. They took very good care of them. Sure, deserved in that sense. Not necessarily in a moral sense, but in a sense of justice. In a sense of inevitability. There are balances in life that you just can’t avoid. Sooner or later it happens, it always does.

JOB: Are the characters in Requiem obsessed?

HS: In this new book Sarah Goldfarb ends up with shock treatments. Someone tells her that she’s going to be a contestant on a television quiz show. She’s all excited and she wants to lose weight but she can’t lose weight. She has these crazy conversations with her refrigerator. Then a lady tells her about a doctor who will give her pills. She gets all wired on the pills. She ends up in Bellevue. So Sarah gets shock treatments and she’s committed to an insane asylum. It’s the natural progression of American life, that cosmetic obsession. Right? Sarah gives up food in order to get her TV out of hock. She gives up eating and she’s addicted to eating.

JOB: Is television an addiction for her?

HS: Equal to everything else. The set is on all the time. And in her obsession to get on the show, she becomes a celebrity in the neighborhood. And that’s when she tries to lose weight. The last time you see Sarah, she has had eight shock treatments, she shuffles into the TV room in her paper slippers, and some people are laughing and some people are crying. Sarah is just staring at the screen.

JOB: What does it mean for a writer to have compassion for a character?

HS: I’ve discovered this about myself. I’m a frustrated preacher and a frustrated teacher. I fought for years to get that out of my writing. The most difficult thing for a writer to do is to get himself out of his work, but getting oneself out is absolutely necessary. The ego has no place there. But I have this concept, which I don’t fully understand, that is not realistic. Maybe it is realistic. I have the concept of the world being peopled with Christs. I see what is possible. I think that we are all capable of incredible love and compassion, because I believe that the kingdom of heaven is within us. All we have to do is realize that. I see this possibility, and then I see the reality. That’s my conflict and I can see it within me. I can see what’s in me and what I am capable of; and then I see what I do, the terribly destructive things I do. I see the things that come through my head, the thoughts that come through my head, and I’m convinced that come through everyone’s head. And you wonder, Where did they come from? I just can never reconcile these two things. It’s like being the battlefield for the hounds of heaven and the hounds of hell. When I create these characters and I look at them and I see their circumstances. . . for instance with Harry White, when I finally killed him. Christ, I cried. It just tears me apart. Half way through I found myself saying, “Come on Harry, smarten up. Don’t you know what’s going to happen to you?” But it’s inevitable. The same with Harry Black. You get to love them and you want to make it better for them. But it doesn’t happen. I don’t understand my feelings, I don’t understand the depth of the feelings I have for the people I create. I write primarily about their emotions. Very seldom is there any physical description in my work. Occasionally it might be necessary, perhaps for ironic reasons. But physical description is unimportant to me because we don’t live and die on the outside. It’s not so much what I do but what I feel about myself. That’s where I live and die on a daily basis, inside of me.

JOB: How then do you like a reader to respond to these characters?

HS: My ideal as a writer is to get to the point where the reader doesn’t even have to read the words. The story should just come right off the page. I don’t want you to read a story, I want you to experience it. I don’t want to tell you a story, I want to put you through an emotional experience. I want those characters to be so real to you that you can hate them. One of the greatest compliments that I’ve gotten was from my mother. She is a Sunday school teacher and a choir singer. A very lovely, proper lady who doesn’t like bad language. I used to get my mouth washed out with soap for saying things like “lousy.” When she read Last Exit, you know what her initial reaction was? “Oh those poor people.” That’s lovely. If a lady like that can have that kind of reaction to that book, then I’ve succeeded. That’s what I want to do. I feel for people. I’m sure there’s millions of us in the world who feel for people. We feel other people’s pain. I’ve been like that all of my life and that’s what I want to try to transmit. Those feelings. Because if I can get you to see how someone like Harry Black is not that despicable thing you see on the outside but that he dies on the inside too, then maybe something will be accomplished. The guys I used to hang around with down at the Army base, the people in Last Exit, really did not know that the person they were beating was feeling pain. They didn’t empathize with that. They are unaware of the pain. So it’s very easy to live that way when you’re not aware of the pain of somebody else. And I guess that’s what drives me to write the way I write.

JOB: This compassion is evident in your narrative technique. In “Strike,” for instance, you do not permit the narrator to condescend to Harry Black, to “talk about” him, to explain him. In fact, by merging the third and first person, you make the narrator sound and think like Harry. You thereby avoid sentimentalizing your characters by letting the characters present themselves. You could have very easily created a narrator who is superior to the characters.

HS: That tendency I had to work very hard to get out, that of being the sentimental, sensitive artist. People are people. I am trying to give you individuals. I’m trying to give you their hearts and souls. We’re all the same, and yet we’re all different. To differentiate characters only by their names . . . That’s something that bugs me in fiction: “Harry said” and “Tommy said” and “Shirley said.” Who can read a book like that? “She said comically” You know? If you really know what you’re writing about, then you create individuals. And you really don’t have to go through all those gimmicks because each individual will present himself. So I finally realized that the major problem for me as an artist was to completely squash my ego. It has no business being there. But who wants to do that? Everybody wants to show what he knows. They don’t want to take the risk of being called a “primitive.” “The guy can’t even speak English. Untutored. Unlettered.” You have to get rid of the ego. I have no right as an artist to interpose myself between the people in the book and the reader. They should be able to communicate directly. They should not have to go through a middleman. The most difficult job is to get me out of there as much as possible. I can’t succeed completely, but I think I’ve succeeded to some degree.

JOB: Why aren’t the stories written entirely in the first person?

HS: Each work makes its own demands. I had to learn to develop techniques that I had never come across in my life. The work itself demanded it. As an artist I have to understand the demands that the work makes and meet those demands. So, it came out with a combination of the third and first person. You can get into more areas through the combination. The first person can be far more restrictive, and yet there are certain advantages in the first person. So, I just combined them. I’ll take liberties, though. I’ll change tense in the middle of a sentence if that’s what’s necessary to get across the emotional reality. And of course, as you pointed out before, the narrative is written in the language and style of the character, so that you don’t have to get involved in all the “writer’s” words.

JOB: The transitions from first to third person and back again are so smooth that, unless one is intentionally watching, they go unnoticed.

HS: And that’s the way it should be. I think Gil [Gilbert Sorrentino] said something in the interview with you which is really pertinent. People’s inner thoughts and fantasies don’t coincide with their outside actions and the way that other people see them. Right? Everybody’s a Walter Mitty for God’s sake. To say that such and such a thought or action is illogical is utter nonsense. That just shows ignorance of yourself. That just shows that you’ve never looked inside yourself and seen the dichotomy of feelings and thoughts. Maybe some of the thoughts aren’t even your own. I don’t know where some of my thoughts come from that float through my head. In order to project that fact about people, it’s necessary to make those changes in person. I think that in respect to The Room, if you wanted to analyze it carefully, you can tell quite easily what’s fact and what’s fantasy, what’s first and what’s third person. You can see that the language changes. You can tell what’s fantasy and what’s actually memory by checking the rhythms of the line and the language. The temptation is to let the reader be aware of how much you know. And you have to keep holding back. And I love to make jokes; I love to play on words. I do that now and then, but I have to cut them out later when I’m rewriting.

JOB: Like “eggs a la Sorrentino” in The Demon?

HS: Yeah. That’s an old personal joke. It sounded all right. I left it in.

JOB: Or the “Splendide Hotel”?

HS: Yeah. Why not?

JOB: But it’s hard to keep that third-person narrator from commenting and interpreting?

HS: Not any more. It took me years to realize how I had to write and how it should be done. But once I had accepted that I had no business in there, that I am an artist and not an actor, that I am not in there to display my abilities, and when I had surrendered my ego to my art—then it wasn’t that much of a problem. The temptations are there, but now it isn’t that much of a problem. I spent six years writing Last Exit when I was learning to write. I had never written anything before. But by the time I had finished Last Exit, I had learned a lot of lessons. I had learned how to utilize a lot of techniques. From what they tell me, I developed some techniques, though I don’t think “develop” is the right term. I don’t think we invent new things. Each artist just expands what exists. But it ended with techniques that weren’t around before, let’s say. Once you’ve used something, it becomes a part of you and becomes much easier to do. As a matter of fact, as time goes on, I worry myself because it seems so much easier than it did the first time. But now I’ve learned it and I can utilize it much easier. So it’s really not so much of a problem.

JOB: When I first read The Demon, I thought that there was something basically wrong because of all the cliche’s. The story itself is a kind of inverted cliche’.

HS: That’s right. The subject matter is a cliche.

JOB: The cliche’s are obvious.

HS: I bet they’re not to a lot of people.

JOB: They were obvious to some reviewers.

HS: They assumed that I didn’t know what I was doing. That is what’s amazing about people like that, especially editors and publishers; they will not accept a book on its own value. They will not assume that a writer knew exactly what he was doing, each and every word. If it doesn’t fit their preformed idea of things, then they assume that the guy made a mistake. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.

JOB: Why were the reviewers of The Demon so vicious? They seemed to use this novel as an excuse to attack the other books as well.

HS: I didn’t read all of them, so I don’t really know. Evidently there were those people who were waiting to attack me. I think that one of the reasons that they feel the need to attack this book is that in Last Exit it’s easy enough to “appreciate” the book because it’s easy not to identify with those characters. You can say, “That’s terrible! What circumstances they were born into! It’s a pity! Thank God it’s not me!” In The Room you’re not so sure, but you can still say, “Hell, this guy’s in jail.” But in The Demon there aren’t those kinds of barriers between the reader and identification with the character. I think that’s the big thing: the fear of identification with Harry.

JOB: That is, you’re safe as long as you write about the social outcasts of Last Exit.

HS: Right.

JOB: You can write that way about Harry Black in “Strike,” but you can’t write that way about . . .

HS: Harry White. Right. That’s the real reason. They don’t want to see themselves. Paul Vangelisti, when he was interviewing me, said that the book really disturbed him because he can see himself in it. And I think that’s what caused the reaction from critics. Then they pick up on things like . . . I don’t know what they pick up on. “People don’t talk that way,” or something like that. They just attacked, they were incensed. There’s another thing about The Demon. I am obviously attacking the American Dream. The old cliche’s. The very foundations of our nation. They don’t want to hear that.

JOB: What do you mean when you say that you are an “American” writer?

HS: I’m not exactly sure. I know that it means that you can’t mistake me for anything other than American and you can’t mistake me for many other American writers. They tell stories; they are not indigenously American. An American is different from an Englishman. All Europeans are different in many ways from what we are. Just like New Yorkers have nothing to do with the rest of the country. And I am not a “sophisticated” writer. I’m not cute. I just do not write the way that they do, nor am I concerned about the things they are. It’s not that I’ve made a conscious decision to be an American writer. It’s just that that is the way I am, and it comes out in my work. I hope that by the time I’m finished, my body of work will have created a microcosm, just as Last Exit is a microcosm. I think that I will give you a terrific picture of America.

JOB: I would say that the language and style are not only recognizably Selbian but also American. And I think that Last Exit and The Demon are, in terms of subject matter, quite American. But I wonder about The Room.
HS: Well, no, it’s not. Not as much as the others. I think though that if you were to look carefully, you would see that the whole concept of the legal structure within that man’s mind is peculiarly American. Only an American could have those kinds of fantasies—writing to the editor, starting a crusade, the famous legal man coming in. Only an American could have those fantasies. Now that I am talking about it and hearing myself, I think that The Room is as American as the others in a far more implicit way. Its undertones.

JOB: Most of the character’s fantasies seem to be drawn from movies, television, and comic books.

HS: Sure.

JOB: There’s nothing original about his fantasies.

HS: Right. He’s Everyman. That’s why he’s nameless. He’s Everyman. He’s like the flat area from Texas to the Canadian border. And that’s why he has the kind of fantasies he has.

JOB: I want to ask about the time frame in The Room. The novel seems to take place within twenty four hours.

HS: I’m not sure. I know it’s a short time. You’re right. It isn’t much more than a day.

JOB: I’m interested in this because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what actually happens in the courtroom and what is happening in his fantasies. But even in his fantasies, he seems to be losing.

HS: Right. Exactly right. He progresses further into his own hate. Hate is self-destructive. The price of hating others is loving yourself less. His self-esteem has gone down. Hate is chewing up any touch of humanity that’s left. Underlying his hate is guilt. Sexual, religious guilt, which you see in his fantasies. You also have a third thing in there where memory and fantasies intertwine and even he doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t true. Memory is like that after a while. What is real and what isn’t real begin to get intertwined with fantasies. Truth becomes almost non existent. The tragedy of this man is that he has found himself guilty. That’s why we don’t know whether he’s legally guilty or not, because he has found himself guilty. So, after a while, as I said before, the only source of energy for hate is oneself. And he is so chewed up with his hate, which comes from his guilt, that he is running out of energy. But I am not suddenly going to pop in the book and say, “Look, he’s found himself guilty.” What he does is that he runs out of his ability to defend himself because of that guilt, So that even in his fantasies he can’t continue the pose.

JOB: By the end of the novel he comes to accept the guilt, whereas up until then he has been blaming everyone except himself.

HS: Right. He has run out of sources to blame.

JOB: But in accepting the guilt, he destroys himself.

HS: That’s why when the jail door opens, you don’t know whether he’s going to prison or whether he’s free. It doesn’t make any difference because, even if they let him loose, he’s a prisoner of himself and his guilt.

JOB: But you do not see these characters, either the one in The Room or those in the other novels, as abnormal or psychotic.

HS: No. No. No. Every one of those characters is within me and everyone else. In you, my wife, my children. To varying degrees. I don’t see them as psychotic. I see them as tragic, but I don’t see them as psychotic. I think of them as people. And I am starting to understand them better now and am beginning to realize that they are just doing the best they can with what they have, And they believe that they are doing what they should. That’s the tragedy of it. The tragedy of these people is their lack of vision.

JOB: I’ve tried to find a relationship in The Room between the character’s past and present, but I cannot find one. What I am looking for are the causes for his present condition. Yet, he seems to have had nothing horrible happen to him; his mother loved him, he had a girlfriend, and so on.

HS: But it’s what he makes of these experiences that matters.

JOB: But why did you use these things from his past at all? They do not seem to set up the present.

HS: They obviously set it up because they’re his memories. Anything he manages to hold onto all his life and then focus on in a situation like that has something to do with him being where he is. Why doesn’t he remember being held by his mother? Implicit in his background are delightful memories, right? You just said that his mother loved him. So he should have a lot of happy memories, but what does he hold onto? The things that haunt him are guilt, the things he created guilt over. He wet his pants or something. I remember that the obvious implication was sexual guilt, which he made into a religious, authoritative kind of thing. Just like Harry Black: “GOD YOU SUCK COCK.” Now this guy has a fantasy, and we’re not sure whether this is a real memory or not, but it’s still in his mind. And I think it’s safe to assume that he really did find himself looking at some broad’s ass in church. And I’m sure that everybody’s done that. I don’t think that’s a big deal. But to this guy it’s a big deal. He couldn’t just accept the fact that he’s looking at some broad’s ass. He had to build it into this thing until he’s screwing her in a choir loft while we have a Greek chorus chanting the Lord’s Prayer. And he’s paraphrasing some dirty kid’s limerick which he’s interweaving with the Lord’s Prayer. So those are the things that the guy is holding onto. If you want to get Freudian, you can say, “Ah. . . .” But the thing is that this guy is stoning himself, that’s the real tragedy of it. The guy is stoning himself.

JOB: Which is what he does with the pimple.

HS: The pimple is a personal symbol to the character. If I can just get the poison out of here, everything is going to be better. If only they find I have a brain tumor and they take it out, then everything will be better. I’ll move to California, everything will be better. Everyone has his secret little thing: if only this, then that. This character thinks that if he can just get the poison out of the pimple, then he will be out of the situation he’s in. And he was trying to rush it along; he wouldn’t let the pimple take its natural course. He had to fantasize about it. He was always involved in the future and the past. You see, when you’re chained to the guilt of yesterday and the fear of tomorrow, life passes you by. Because there’s no today. There’s absolutely no today. And that’s the tragedy that most people exist in, yesterday and tomorrow, the past and the future. And today just goes zipping by. “Jesus, where did the week GO!! MY VACATION’S OVER ALREADY!!” Everybody’s living as if it’s a dress rehearsal for life. They don’t know that they’re living now, not tomorrow. Most people let life pass them by.

JOB: Why not have him remember his father beating him?

HS: Then all I’m doing is giving the reader a way out. “Ah-ha, here’s the Freudian justification!” No, that just doesn’t do anything, because the cause of his problem was himself. We see the pain that he is inflicting upon himself. So obviously, if he stops inflicting the pain, he’s not going to have pain. Happiness is a process of elimination. You eliminate the things that you do that make you unhappy and you end up being happy. That’s all there is to it.

JOB: Do you realize how differently a reader would react to the character in The Room if you had- among many possibilities—made him a novelist or a political prisoner? You would have then built in a certain sympathy for him.

HS: No, you see Christ didn’t come for the righteous. Who did Christ commune with? The sinners. We are all children of God. That’s what got me started with those epigraphs in Last Exit—the attitude that people have toward fags. If you have nothing else to do on a Saturday night, you go uptown and beat up a fag in order to prove you’re a man. That’s why I have the epigraph there—”God created man in His own image.” If you’re going to rap that poor fag, you’re going to have to deal with Him. Sure I could have made him a novelist or a political prisoner, you’re right. I’d be a millionaire today. I’d get the Nobel award if I had made him a political prisoner in Russia. But the world isn’t made up of these extraordinary people; the world is made up of little people like us. And that’s whom we have to love. That’s whom our heart has to go out to. If I can’t love the guy in The Room, whom am I going to love?

JOB: Why don’t you let other characters view him, make comments about him, describe him, and so on?

HS: But that wouldn’t tell you more than what you already know. It would tell you what they see. But I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in his destruction. And his destruction isn’t caused by any outside influences.

JOB: What I have in mind, to use a ridiculous example, is having a jailor pass by his cell and say, “He’s talking to himself.”

HS: Then you would say, “Ah, he’s crazy. That’s what he is.” No, he’s not crazy. He’s Kafkaesque in many ways, his guilt and his self-acceptance of it.

JOB: Why don’t you describe him physically?

HS: Why physically describe him? It’s completely immaterial. What he looks like is unimportant. Description would be necessary only if he were ugly or had a scar on his face that caused him to be the way he was. But such is not the case. I’m not concerned with the outside. I think that Gil said that one of the reasons that critics don’t want anything to do with me is because I don’t give them any handles like that to grab hold of and with which they can feel safe.

JOB: The absence of such externals is what makes it hard to read your fiction in long stretches. The walls start closing in.

HS: The walls start closing in. Oh, yes, it’s very claustrophobic. Because every one of my characters is locked in his own particular prison. There are no open spaces. They’re all very self obsessed people, which is why they’re so miserable and unhappy.

JOB: That claustrophobia intensifies as a story or novel progresses, because the prose accelerates and the repetitions become more frequent as the characters begin to disintegrate.

HS: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. Those repetitions are musical in nature. I use them in various ways—words, phrases, or various rhythms. So the reader isn’t necessarily aware that there are repetitions, but emotionally he’ll react. Emotionally he will bring back something from twenty pages before.

JOB: And yet that prose is very flat.

HS: I attempt a “styleless” style. As I say, each work and each line makes its own demands. And I try to fulfill those demands. I want to load the surface of a prose passage to make it so obvious that the obviousness attains subtlety. My only conscious influence as a writer is Beethoven. There is nothing more obvious than his Fifth Symphony and its obviousness attains subtleties that go on ad infinitum. That’s my ultimate goal in writing. As I say, you don’t have to read it, it comes off the page, it surrounds you. The way I write is that first I feel something. Sometimes the gestation period may be years. I feel it. Then when it’s ready to be done, I hear it. I write by ear. I always write by ear. I’m a frustrated composer, among other things. And then I visualize it. I visualize each thing I’m writing. Then I have to find each and every syllable that will, as perfectly as possible, fit what I see and what I hear and what I feel. That’s how I write. In other words, if I am writing about somebody who’s feeling depressed and locked in, I have to create that feeling, so that even unconsciously that feeling will be imbued into the prose and the reader will feel it.

JOB: My students have the same reaction to your style as they have to Hemingway’s: anyone can write like that. In your case, they think that the obscenities are effortless.

HS: Two things. Number one: Yeats said that a poem should seem as though it took five minutes to write. Number two: I’ve realized that it takes a strange kind of courage or insanity to sit down and write a book like Last Exit because everybody is going to think, unless you write it perfectly, that you’re a primitive. Because you can’t hide behind anything. It is not easy to make profanity work because you know the psychological block you’re coming up against with the reader. To edit profanity and to utilize it properly in a book is very, very difficult. People talk about Last Exit as naturalistic or realistic, but nobody actually talks the way those characters speak. It would be incomprehensible. It’s really quite difficult to use profanity properly. In Requiem I’m dealing with dope fiends in Harlem or in the Bronx—”Hey man where the fuck ya going?” “Hey muthafucka.” That’s the way it is and it’s not easy to have all those “muthafuckas” falling in the proper rhythm.

JOB: The use of that rhythm is remarkable in “Strike,” where one can follow the changes in Harry Black by paying attention to the changes in the prose rhythms.

HS: Well, that’s my way of letting you know, my way of projecting the feeling. if you remember, when the strike starts there is a very claustrophobic feeling about Harry. He feels like there’s a snake wrapped around his chest. When he finally accepts his existence in the gay world, there’s a looseness about him, a relaxed feeling about the life. Or, I realized that what I had to do with “Tralala” was to reflect the psycho-dynamics of this individual through the tensions and rhythm of a prose line. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, there are no “he said” and “she thoughts”; I want the people to reveal themselves through their thoughts and through their actions and through their feelings. And I didn’t want to intrude upon the reader, which means that everything has to be right there on the surface. So I realized that I had to do something with the surface, with the prose line, in order to reflect this. So “Tralala” starts off with a very staccato beat. A very sharp, tight line. As the changes occur in Tralala, I don’t intrude as a narrator and say, “LET’S LOOK AT THESE CHANGES. LET ME SHOW YOU HOW OBSERVANT I CAN BE.” What happens instead is that the line opens up. The rhythms get longer until at the end you have a sentence that doesn’t end; it just stops after about three pages. On and on.

JOB: Do you think that Harry Black’s entrance into the gay world is credible?

HS: I remember a story by Doc Williams, where this truck driver was brought into the hospital. He was wearing women’s pants and had tried to castrate himself. If you were to read abnormal psychology, I’m sure you would find such things everywhere. What I’m saying is that there is nothing implausible about Harry’s actions given the reality of the world.

JOB: One critic says that Last Exit offers no “stylistic resistance” to the hellish conditions it creates, that you don’t show “the mystery in the web of it,” that there’s no formal satisfaction. What he’s saying, I think, is that one can write about such things but that you must somehow make them pretty through the language

HS: Lie, in other words. “He’s so sensitive, he makes the most ugly thing beautiful.” You know? And their idea of beautiful is cosmetically beautiful. He’s talking about cosmetics, not the inherent beauty of man. Make it nice. Hide the evil.

JOB: Williams has a quote that bears on this: “’Beauty’ relates not to loveliness but to a state in which reality plays a part.”

HS: That’s Doc Williams? It sounds like him. “No ideas but in things.”

JOB: This critic would like your prose to be elegant.

HS: That’s tantamount to saying, “Look at what I know! Look what I can observe! Look how beautifully I can tell you about it!”

JOB: Your prose style is inseparable from the “content,” and therefore inseparable from the very effect you wish to achieve.

HS: In addition to the pathology I was talking about, there is something “preventative” in my fiction. There are some people who can learn from other people’s mistakes, though I’m not one of them. If you can show them the negative quality of something, they can avoid getting involved with it. There are some people like that, though I don’t quite understand them. I have to knock my head against a wall to find out that it really won’t yield. In other words, if these kinds of actions lead to despair, then maybe I shouldn’t do these things. I don’t want to be like that son of a bitch. I want to be happy. As I recall, all these characters pursued these things for the sake of happiness. If Georgette got Vinnie, she would be happy. If Tralala got this or that, she would be happy. If she could screw up Annie’s life, she would be happy. They’re all looking for happiness. Everybody is looking for happiness. The guys who damned near killed the soldier in “Another Day Another Dollar,” they were looking for happiness. Their form of happiness. Everybody wants to be happy. But they have a strange way of going about it. A work of art is supposed to change your life in some way. I’ll tell you that I was amazed when I reread sections of Last Exit not too long ago; I was amazed at how much I knew while at the same time I was dying in my ignorance. I wasn’t aware of what I knew. I could construct it in a book but I couldn’t utilize it in my own personal life. But maybe there’s someone out there whose life can be saved. I’ve gotten a few letters from people about The Room. A couple of guys wrote to me and said that they got strength from reading The Room. They almost all said the same thing: they identified with the character. They no longer felt isolated because somebody else out there in the world knew what was happening to them and had survived. They knew that I understood what was happening inside of them, and I survived it and they could survive it. They didn’t have to feel alone in the world because they were filled with hate and because they would like to take God by the throat and kill Him.

JOB: Despite the problems that most critics have with your prose, Gilbert Sorrentino’s essay on Last Exit explains how remarkable that prose is.

HS: That was one of the things that helped sell that book and got it good reviews. Grove Press sent that out, if I understand it correctly, to all the reviewers along with the book, so that they weren’t walking on unfamiliar ground. The reviewers had something to refer to. A lot of them were lost, they didn’t know what to make of the book. Gill’s incredible. He’s an absolute genius. He’s my mentor. I’ve never written a word that he hasn’t read.

JOB: He shows what there is to talk about in your fiction.

HS: Because he’s not interested in his ego. He’s interested in the art of literature and the perfection of art. He’s not interested in projecting Gilbert Sorrentino on the world. He’s a pure artist. Pure, absolute artist. He’s brilliant. He’s the Ezra Pound of my generation. You’ve read my books and you’ve read his books. We’re diametrically opposed, even in concepts in some ways. Yet he can read my work or anybody’s work from their point of view and not his own. That’s what I mean by “the Ezra Pound of my generation,” That’s why Ezra Pound could chop out half of The Waste Land. He could read it from Eliot’s point of view. That’s what Gil does. He can read from your point of view because he’s gotten rid of that goddamn ego. He knows that art is supreme, not Gilbert Sorrentino. It’s because of the lack of ego that that brilliance is allowed to operate artistically. He sees it, he just sees it all.

JOB: Perhaps critics would be more comfortable with you were you clearly naturalistic, as some already think you are, especially when Last Exit is talked about. But it became apparent in your later work that environment is not the cause of your characters’ problems. Further, your characters are not victims of plot.

HS: There is no plot.

JOB: Among most naturalistic writers, the characters are . . .

HS: . . . victims of circumstances.

JOB: And if the circumstances changed, then the characters would have better lives.

HS: I don’t believe that. Obviously. I don’t pretend that I sat down and understood all these things and said, I’m going to project these ideas in my prose. I’ve understood a lot of things after reading my own books. As I say, lack of control is the thing, and I realized that after reading Last Exit. I noticed everybody failing from lack of control. Then I started to utilize that consciously and I still do that when I can; I try to find out what went in there unbeknownst to me. When I read Last Exit, I realized my obsession with control. I’m an old-fashioned writer really. If you look at my work carefully, you see a very old-fashioned kind of structure and approach, though I take liberties with space and time.

JOB: But there’s little plot.

HS: I don’t think there’s any plot in the intricate sense of the word. There are just actions, everyday actions. “Everyday” for those kinds of people. But there’s no real plot because I’m interested in people, in what makes them work, their feelings. Plots are false things. Plots aren’t real. And in an absolute sense, I’m involved with reality. Plots are man-made constructions. They’re gimmicks.

JOB: The Demon probably has more of a plot than any of the other novels, but I wonder whether you see it as melodramatic, especially the ending.

HS: Yes. I guess that would be a word you might apply to it. Naturally, I would not use the word in a pejorative sense. But Harry is caught up in his own melodrama. He rides the subway to Coney Island, he sits on the bench with the wind and the gray sky, and he’s caught up in his own melodrama. He’s a real introverted, self-obsessed madman who believes he’s playing a role. Two-hundred million people will be watching his assassination of the Cardinal. “Look, I’m going to be on television.” I think it’s a perfect ending. Two-hundred million people will be watching him kill Cardinal Spellman. It’s completely logical from his illogical point of view. By that time he’s completely mad. Part of the trouble with the people reviewing that book is that they were expecting rational actions from an irrational man. Gil just sent me a clipping about some guy who was sentenced to twenty years for pushing a guy off the subway platform in front of a train.

JOB: In a sense, what you did in The Demon was to hand out paychecks to the characters from Last Exit.

HS: Cleaned them up a little.

JOB: But having money doesn’t help them. You give Harry all the money that he will ever need, but it’s no help.

HS: He has everything. Everybody in this country has the idea that if you have what Harry has, you have it made. He’s got an estate in Westchester. He has everything. No, it’s an inside job. He’s destroyed from within.

JOB: There is something odd about the relationship between Harry and his wife. I don’t know whether it’s underdeveloped or whether you intentionally wanted it to seem unreal. Harry and Linda behave towards each other as though they are still dating rather than being married.

HS: I don’t know, I hadn’t thought of it. I know that Harry never really gets emotionally involved with anybody but Harry. Harry just doesn’t give. You’re right; he’s never really a husband. And he’s never really a father. But it wasn’t intentional to have them look as though they were still dating. My only explanation for that feeling is that Harry doesn’t give enough of himself in order to establish a true family. Harry’s real problem is separation. That’s the basic problem. That’s what obsessions do. No matter where Harry goes, there’s the feeling of separation. Although he really believes that he loves his wife and his children, there’s going to be a feeling of separation. That same feeling exists, I’m sure, between him and everything and everyone else in the novel. You can see that separation in all his relationships, whether it’s work, the house, his automobile, his family. There’s always a sense of separation.

JOB: But if there’s separation, Linda seems unaware of it. She too appears to be out on a date. The relationship does not seem to be a marital one.

HS: It tends to be unreal. That’s true. And I don’t know whether that was a flaw. I wanted to create an almost fairy-tale situation, so that there’s no way of missing the fact that it’s all an inside job. Maybe that’s a flaw, I really don’t know. I just felt that it had to be that way. Maybe I should have done it differently, I really can’t say. What I was afraid of and the reason I didn’t make it a “real” relationship is that in any real relationship . . .I don’t, for instance, think that any two people love each other more than my wife and myself. It’s an incredible love we have. Yet, there’s times when we’re screaming. Fighting. All kinds of things. So even if you just have a normal kind of relationship between Harry and Linda, I was afraid that it would take on different proportions. It would be misleading. Then the novel would be different. Then I would have to go into details about his work life in order to prevent people from saying, “SEE! It’s the fucking broad.” That’s what I was afraid of.

JOB: Why not let Harry stay at home with his “folks”?

HS: Well, if he stays unmarried and reaches the age of thirty and is still living with his family, then you’ve set up a whole psychological pattern. If he’s still at home at the age of thirty and he’s an executive vice-president . . . you know. You’ve opened a whole Freudian thing. You see, it’s a very unreal book in a way. It’s a morality play; that was my concept. I wanted to write a morality play. And maybe I made a mistake in putting it in a real setting. I don’t know. But I was writing a morality play which I was putting into a real and contemporary setting. If I were to give them a real relationship, then you would have something to point to. Harry’s relationship with his job isn’t real either. None of his relationships are real because there’s this barrier between Harry and the rest of the world. This obsession. In the beginning he’s kind of three-dimensional, he plays baseball, he goes out, he works, and so on. Then he becomes more and more one dimensional. And the barriers between Harry and his environment increase as the book progresses. As long as that barrier is there, he isn’t capable of a real relationship.

JOB: One of the amazing things about Harry’s torment, which I suppose is true of the torment of most of your characters, is that it’s not made overt. He’s falling apart and no one can see it.

HS: It’s an inside job. We all know people like that. “You mean he did that? I can’t believe it.” Right?

JOB: Why not make his destruction overt? You could have him lose his wife and his job, or have his kids killed in an auto accident.

HS: Then we could have blamed those things as the problem. The onus is completely on Harry. There’s no way to escape that. It’s an inside job.

JOB: Is Harry possessed?

HS: No. Not in the sense of being possessed by a demon that could be exorcised. I believe in that, but that’s not what’s going on here. That’s why the epigraph says, “A man obsessed is a man possessed by a demon.”

JOB: Why all the religious trappings? Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday, the murder of the Cardinal, the references to The Hound of Heaven.

HS: It’s the manifestation of what Harry’s answer is.

JOB: Like your other characters, Harry is tormented by sex.

HS: Sex is tragic in my characters because they have mistaken it for love, or because they are looking to it for happiness. But they are mistaken. They’re confused. Love is not sex.

JOB: You are the only writer I know of who can write so much about sex without being erotic.

HS: The closest I get to being erotic is with Harry White and Linda in The Demon but even there I don’t really have any sex scenes. They make love and it’s briefly noted. No details. The reason for that is that my characters are so tragic in the mistaken idea they have about sex.

JOB: Sex is usually an act of desperation in all of your fiction.

HS: Right. That’s the word-desperation. The perfect word. That’s right.

JOB: I’ve come across several writers who want to treat sex in that manner but can’t do it.

HS: If the ego is involved, then you can quickly be distracted. It’s very easy to get into an erotic scene when you’re writing about sex. You can get yourself very excited and keep going on for who knows how many pages, If you’re willing to surrender the ego to the art and accept what has to be done, then it really isn’t quite as difficult as it seems.

JOB: At the very beginning of The Demon, when Harry gets into bed with this woman he picks up at a baseball game, you don’t record the scene. You take him to the apartment, but then you end it. A little later Harry remembers a few things about it, but the scene itself is omitted.

HS: That scene in the park really shows you what Harry’s relationship to sex is. He’s leaping in the air, crashing into the fence, catches the ball, doubles up the guy at first, but at the same time he’s seeing every little hair on this broad. He quits in the middle of the game. It’s obvious what his life is like when his friend says, “You’d take a murder rap for a piece of ass.” What Harry is like is public information—Harry the Lover. I think that you are finding out more about Harry that way than by going into what I feel would be a gratuitous sex scene.

JOB: It would have been very easy to have included or created that scene and thereby destroy the tone of the entire novel.

HS: Those are the temptations I’m talking about that a writer must stay away from. It would be natural to take Harry to the apartment and really get the reader excited. But you don’t do it. In addition to that, I’m planting the seed that’s going to erupt later on. He doesn’t feel quite right about something and he doesn’t know why. He knows it’s not the broad; she’s the same old thing. He went up there and her kid went to sleep and he got out of there before her husband came back. But already that vague discontent is starting in Harry, to the point that he’s aware of it. He has no idea what it is, so he just forgets about it. He goes down and sees the guys, goes to a movie, and so on.

JOB: Are you aware of how frequently the word “game” appears in both The Demon and The Room?

HS: No, I’m not. I know that I use certain words over and over again, but that word is new to me. I wasn’t aware of that.

JOB: The character in The Room thinks of himself in a game which he is always losing.

HS: The guy in The Room thinks of himself as a victim. The dialogue is like that from a Warner Brothers movie and the characters in those movies were always victims. John Garfield, poor John Garfield. That’s how the character in The Room sees himself. Not as a criminal but as the victim.

JOB: It’s interesting that you haven’t noticed how often you use the word “game.”

HS: It makes sense now that you mention it. There are some words that I use over and over. There’s a favorite phrase of mine that I stole from Williams—”from time to time.” I just love it. That’s from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” He uses it so beautifully, and I think that he uses it only once.

JOB: Despite what I find to be an almost unrelieved tension in your work, I also find a certain humor. There are parts of The Room that strike me as funny, especially on reading them for the second time .

HS: There are a couple of guys who find me funny in that weird kind of way, I have my own personal sense of humor and it’s inherent in the actions, so it just kind of stays there because it’s organic. A lot of people don’t see the humor, although maybe the right word is “irony.” An ironic kind of humor. I think that you can sit down and read some parts of these books and laugh your ass off. Strange. Maybe a defensive reaction.

JOB: You mention Beethoven as your only conscious influence. Are there any modern writers who might have influenced you?

HS: My ideal is Isaac Babel. I still carry a picture of him around in my wallet. I have for more than twenty years now. He’s the closest thing I have to a literary influence. And maybe in some ways, Saroyan. I remember being very impressed when I first read Saroyan with what he does with an opening line. Quite often he just takes you right in with his opening sentence, especially in some of his wacky books. And I love Flaubert. Ford Maddox Ford I like. You see, I came to reading very late in life. I was in my ’20s. So when I started to read, I started to read everybody at once, which was fantastic because I didn’t have to work out of any influence when I started to write. I just sat down and started to write and, though it took me years to find out who I am as a writer, I didn’t have to spend time writing out of a Hemingway or a Faulkner. I guess that I was a real “primitive” in that sense. I have no formal education; I left school after the ninth grade. I had to find my own way, which is why I was able to develop or extend certain techniques. If I had studied writing, I would probably have been unable to find the way that I had to write. Or it would have taken me much longer.

JOB: What was the first story you wrote?

HS: The first thing that I wrote was the beginning of “Love’s Labor Lost,” which was later changed to “The Queen Is Dead.” You see, I’ve come close to death a number of times. I was out of the hospital a few years—I had TB, I had ten ribs cut out, a lung collapse, and a piece of the other lung cut out. A lot of complications. But then I got married and had a daughter, and we were living behind a barber shop in Brooklyn. Then I went back into the hospital, this time with asthma. One doctor said that I didn’t have enough lungs to live. Dying became a way of life. So anyway, I got out of the hospital, and I remember I had a vision of sorts. I realized that some day I was going to die and it wasn’t going to be

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