Interview with Edmund White
Edmund White just completed a novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. He has been a friend and mentor to the interviewer, Greg Pierce, for about a decade.
GP: I’m glad we’re sitting on the couch for this first question. When you were writing Hotel de Dream you told me you spent a fair amount of time sitting on your couch, thinking about the novel. How much couch-sitting did you do for Jack Holmes?
EW: Lying down on the couch. You know, Flaubert has this thing called his marinade that he would do, where he would just lie on the couch and think, and now I realize why he might have done that. Because if you write something that is genuinely imaginative and not a copy from your own life, then you have to think it out. I mean, you have to imagine it. And I think many people can imagine things while they’re writing but I’m not sure I’m too good at that. I like to picture it all in my head first, not the words so much, although that’s a different process that’s also going on almost simultaneously where I’m walking around the city or the apartment and I’m talking to myself, in my mind at least, trying out phrase after phrase.
GP: So you’re actually working on words at that point, not just storylines.
EW: Right. That’s a different process, that’s ambulatory. But when you’re lying down and marinating, then you can actually picture things. I guess it’s a difference between pictorial imagination and aural imagination. I never thought of that until this second but it seems to me those are the two processes.
Because I have this Adlerian theory—you know like Adler, the guy who believes in overcompensation?—an Adlerian theory of writers that writers are all slightly blocked on a level of language, that they’re less good than normal people are, and that they often endure stutters when they were young, they’re oftentimes guilty of malapropisms, especially when they’re tired, they oftentimes search for words, they’re uh-uh-uh type people and, uh, they’re not eloquent. I mean, of course there are huge exceptions but I think by and large that’s true of writers. And so in my mind, part of the aspect of that problem with language is that I have to actually work out even quite normal sounding phrases in my head before I can write them down.
GP: Did you always accept that as part of the process, that there’ll be time that’s not in front of your notebook, or do you ever have that guilty feeling of, “Ach, I should be actually writing”?
EW: I’ve never been very compulsive about writing. I’m the kind of writer that can go months between bouts of writing without worrying about it at all. I like writing. I mean, well, I guess like every writer I have tremendously divided feelings about it. One part I think is a terrible anguish and it makes me feel insecure and unhappy, though the other part is that it ties the days together. So it’s a project, it’s a long term project—a novel especially—that you’re involved in and it makes everything else seem like it’s either a distraction from that work or contributing inadvertently to that work. Because every writer’s had this experience where you’re searching for an incident that might serve your purposes and life provides it right away.
[We are interrupted. Edmund’s best friend Michael Carroll enters and hands Edmund a happy holidays card from Ann Beattie. Edmund grins. Michael waves to us and leaves.]
GP: Um … oh, you said you can go months without writing and not worry about it. I think since I’ve known you, once you get into a novel you keep at it until it’s finished. And then you take your break.
EW: Yes, that’s right.
GP: Rather than putting a novel down when you’re halfway there.
EW: No. Although I could, I don’t think usually with very good results. Because I mean Caracole, which is probably one of my least admired books, I wrote the first chapter over a period of about two years and then I wrote the rest of it three years later. I don’t know, I still don’t know what to make of that book.
GP: I’m thinking of you walking around trying out phrases and things. When you were writing your play Terre Haute, was it a similar process? Walking around trying out dialogue?
EW: Yes, very similar. When I finally saw it I thought it sounded much too stagey and too literary or, what’s the word, too much like an old-fashioned drama. I wished I had pitched it a little lower, at least the Timothy McVeigh character. I feel like they’re both a little too eloquent and their talk is too much on the money. They oftentimes say what they really think and they have real ideas and they really debate them. Which has its own allure, especially when you’re talking about real ideas that people do worry about in our day, like terrorism, but…it kind of made me uncomfortable, listening to it.
But I think that’s a typical problem of the novelist turned playwright, overwriting and making it all sound too literary. I remember sitting through two awful plays by Saul Bellow, ech!, The Wen was one of them—like that little thing you have on your face, W‑E-N—I can’t remember the other, I think it was a man’s name, but God they were terrible, and you never see them again even though he’s considered the best American writer after Faulkner.
GP: Mm. And it doesn’t translate into a stylized kind of … ? Like Tennessee Williams, a lot of his work doesn’t sound like real people talking. You could say it’s poetry or you could say it’s just a more “literary”—
EW: But it’s very dramatic, even if it’s kind of phony sounding or poetic. Mary McCarthy wrote a horrible bitchy review of A Streetcar Named Desire saying it’s called poetic realism which means that it’s realistic and then every once in a while he drops the needle down on his poetic LP and lets them talk poetry for a few bars and then, boom, back to realism. Well, I don’t know, but he’s a wonderfully exciting writer. But most novelists who turn to plays are not exciting because they’re not outrageous enough. Tennessee’s so great because he’s outrageous.
GP: Mm, yeah. I’m skipping around a bit here because I don’t know how to interview someone but … we read our work aloud to each other quite a bit and you’ve always liked reading your work to friends. Why?
EW: First of all, I hear things that make me wince and then later I go back and take those out. There’s a kind of wince factor that I think is built into reading out loud. I’m very very attuned to the reader’s response and … there’s a brand of criticism that I know absolutely nothing about that’s called reader-response criticism and I must read about that someday because I’m sure that’s what I believe.
Because I read sometimes statements like in The Paris Review interviews where writers will say, I write for myself, I never think of the public, and I find that a complete head-scratcher because to me the whole thing is to touch somebody, manipulate somebody, move them towards something, make them think something is going to happen and then give them something entirely different. It seems to me that almost every sentence I write is designed to mold the reader’s response and by the same token I think I’m constantly modeling this little clay figure in my mind which is the ideal reader and he or she is made up of lots of elements of real friends that I have and to whom I’ve read.
I mean for instance, if I were only writing for men and if I’d only ever known men in my life I’d probably be a lot dirtier and even more sexual than I am in my writing. Because men actually don’t mind that. They usually like it. But women don’t like it. They really don’t like cocks and balls in writing. And so I think every time I try to write sex scenes because they interest me so much but I try and keep out the, kind of, bare facts that irritate women readers. Anyway, that’s just an example of how I’m always worrying about the reader. I mean, I’m willing to displease the reader but at least I want to know how I’m doing it.
GP: So reading aloud is: wincing and gauging the reader’s response. So it’s better for you to read your own work out loud than have your work read to you?
EW: Yes. [thinking] Yes, definitely. Although with a play, it’s thrilling to hear it read out loud by actors because they’re so intelligent, usually, and they bring so much of their own creativity to it.
GP: Yeah. Sometimes when I’m reading a novel I think, It’s too bad there’s not a great actor to read this passage to me right now, like my partner, because he could probably make it sound amazing.
GP: Um … we both tend to travel a lot and write in a lot of different places. In the last few years, you’ve written in New York, Florida, Maine, Italy, and some other places I’m sure I’m forgetting.
GP: Spain, yeah. Is writing in a new place good for your work?
EW: I think the best thing for work is a situation that’s really boring. Like the countryside in Florence is really boring because I don’t have a car and there’s no place to go and you’re just stuck there in the country with two or three people who are interesting enough but you only see them at mealtime. And then I think Maine is great because zero is happening there and we don’t have internet or telephones or anything so that’s great. But it’s the same thing that makes me go wild with boredom and frustration because I’m either very interested in social life or sexual life and when you can’t have either of those then you tend to write as a last resort.
EW: What about you?
GP: When I travel I always say I’m gonna write a story that takes place here, like when I was traveling in Sweden last summer, but then I get there and I want to go to museums and meet people—the last thing I want to do is be in my hotel, writing.
EW: Right. My nephew used to do things like go to Paris for the first and only time in his life and sit at home writing stories that took place in Ohio and never go to anything in Paris and I found that so irritating and frustrating about him, but then maybe he was right, I don’t know. But then usually you think, Well you’re twenty-six years old and you’re wasting your one time in Paris writing and will any of that writing that you do at age twenty-six ever be salvageable? No. No, it won’t be.
EW: You know, Elizabeth Bishop has a book called questions of travel and basically the question is, is it better to stay home and imagine Brazil or go to the real Brazil? And she says it’s better to go to the real Brazil, that there are so many fascinating things there that you could never have imagined. The imagination’s not that great. I think that’s true.
GP: I have this friend, Rex. He’s not a writer, he’s a painter, and he’s never been to Mexico and he says he doesn’t want to go because he always wants it to be his ideal—like, if everything else in his life goes to hell, there’s always Mexico.
EW: Does he paint Mexico?
GP: He doesn’t, no. It’s just a concept.
EW: Yeah, I can understand that. I mean, I majored in Chinese and I never had the tiniest desire to go to China.
GP: And you never went?
EW: I never did. Well, I went for one day to Hong Kong and that was in transit, on my way to Australia.
GP: So what was it about studying Chinese, was it just the language?
EW: It was the classical culture and especially Buddhism that interested me. But poetry too. All of the classical period, I mean seventh, eighth, ninth century. Nothing, sort of, nineteenth, twentieth century. It seems to me like twentieth century China is probably the biggest hell hole in all of history.
GP: Hm. [pause] I was just thinking … I was reading Middlemarch, that part where Dorthea and the, um, reverend go to Italy and she’s so miserable, and before that I read The Talented Mr. Ripley and Tom’s traveling all around Italy, and they could not be more different, the two Italys. And I thought, as a writer you want to think, I wanna go to Italy and capture it, and then you read these books and it’s like, there’s a million Italys.
EW: A million. I’ve written quite a bit about Italy and … I think it’s in The Farewell Symphony, the whole beginning section is in Rome and one of the biggest compliments I ever had was from a woman writer in Rome, a well known novelist, who said to me, Yours is the best account of Rome in the 70s that I ever read. Partly it’s because people who really live in a city don’t write about the city as a city. I mean for instance, French people oftentimes say they get a kick out of my books because I’ll actually describe neighborhoods as though no one’s ever been there before, you know, like I’ll start to describe the Trocadéro or the Champs-Élysées whereas no French writer would do that. They’d say, He went to the Champs-Élysées. Period.
GP: Yeah, “You all know what I’m talking about.”
EW: Yeah, right. And I think New Yorkers probably say, He jumped in a cab and went to Midtown, but a Frenchmen might describe Midtown. And in a way, that tendency to act as though you’re from Mars and that you’re the first person to ever see a place is closer to my idea of what a novel should be. You should render almost everything in a fresh and thorough way.
GP: Mm. I think that’s how you write about New York even though you live here. I’m thinking of the last few books…well, a former era of New York, I guess. Almost like you’re stepping back into an era after having been away for lots of years.
EW: Exactly. Because New York did in fact look quite dramatically different then than it does now. It was dangerous. It was so dirty. It was so piled up with garbage because the garbage workers were always on strike. There were always rats galloping across the street, you know, I mean it was just a nightmare.
This street, for instance now—I live on 22nd Street in Chelsea which is considered a very nice and upscale street—I had a friend who lived here in the 70s and you wouldn’t come here at night. There were all these Puerto Rican guys in their T‑shirts sitting on the stoops throwing beer bottles into the street, boom boxes everywhere, all the houses falling down. I mean, the buildings were actually always nice because they were built in the middle of the nineteenth century but you wouldn’t have guessed it in the 1970s. So in that sense, it was an entirely different city. I’ve been lucky because I’ve moved enough in my life that certain periods are sealed off in a time capsule for me.
GP: I’m thinking about Jack Holmes and…you seem very interested in eras. What is a chapter in a life and, not just the story of an event but the story of an era. Do you feel like you’re in an era right now, as a writer?
EW: Yes, I definitely do. I feel that there’s this sort of apocalyptic feel now, well, diminished expectations and the economy collapsing, globalization, the end of publishing as we knew it, and a sinking in the status of artists, no respect for bohemians and the tradition of honorable poverty—that’s finished.
It just feels very much like an era that has moved very rapidly, not to mention the biggest thing of all which is the cyber era. I mean, I spend hours every day cruising online and everything, and have these kind of sick relationships with people all over the world. It’s one reason why I’m making this trip to go to Europe to actually meet some of these guys that I’ve been having these, uh, love stories with because I think that one should actually see the actual human being at least once and [laughing] I don’t know, it’s just so crazy and…unimaginable in any other period.
GP: Mm. [long pause]
EW: I had sex with the most beautiful Israeli guy the other day, I think maybe the number one in my lifetime hit parade, I mean just unbelievable perfect and he’s somebody who likes old fat men and he’s twenty-eight and gorgeous and an athlete and he said, It’s so hard to actually pin these people down and meet them. He said, I have so much more luck in Tel Aviv. In New York, he said, it’s really almost like a sickness in that everybody … you get them about to commit and then they vanish.
EW: And…I think that’s quite true. There’s a real flakiness problem. And I think part of it is that people don’t want to test their fantasies against reality … or they’re terribly afraid of disappointing the other person.
GP: Maybe it just seems like there are so many options all over the place … if I’m looking at a thousand things, how do I know this is the one thing I want right now?
EW: Oh, I know! It’s totally strange. I mean there’s this man in Brussels who writes me maybe twenty e‑mails a day. I am going to actually meet him for the first time.
GP: He’s part of the Europe trip?
EW: Yeah, he’s coming to Paris. Anyway…
GP: Yeah, um … I wanted to ask you, when you were working on your piece about Christopher Isherwood for the Times, you told me when you were reading about his process, how meticulous he was in his rewriting, you said something about how it was making you feel … I can’t remember the exact word you used—
GP: Inferior, yeah. Is that a reaction you have a lot when you hear about how other writers work?
EW: Well, it seems like almost every writer takes themselves more seriously than I take myself. I mean takes the book more seriously and themselves more seriously. Joyce Carol Oates, who is one of my two or three best friends, chewed me out the other day, she said, You really have such contempt for yourself and your writing and you should remember that at least other people admire you even if you don’t like yourself or your own work, so just for their sake you should take yourself a little more seriously.
I think it’s part of this thing I’m talking about, the diminished prestige of writers now. I think that when I was young there really was the feeling that you could be a great writer and that you would then be remembered forever. All that seems unbelievably quaint to me now. I just don’t think any writers will be remembered for more than ten years, if that, now. And even though Time magazine is still trying to put Jonathan Franzen on the cover and say he’s the great writer, that seems like trying to push him into this Procrustean bed of some model from the past that they used to crown Updike or Bellow, but I don’t think that model really applies anymore to what we’re living through, which is much more fluid and evanescent.
Anyway, do I—well, actually this book, Jack Holmes, I am sort of taking seriously and I am trying to rewrite it and I am trying to make it all hang together in a more serious and polished and thought-out way than I’ve ever done before. Partly because I think the material’s good, and worthy of it. Also partly because I feel like in the first draft I didn’t get everything out of it that I could, that sometimes it’s too vague and sometimes it’s too subtle. But in any event, I feel like I have to punch it more, to make it clear to the reader what the heck I’m talking about, thematically.
GP: In the work you haven’t rewritten as much, did you not rewrite it because you thought it might diminish what you were after?
EW: Well I guess so much of my writing has been autobiographical and I think that there are a lot of pitfalls with that kind of writing but one of the strengths of it is it’s very vivid, usually. And especially if you’re good, as I think I am, at choosing the vivid moments of your life, it really comes across to the reader as being authentic experiences whereas this book is not at all autobiographical. I mean Jack Holmes is not at all like me except that he’s gay and he lives in New York and he sort of follows the same general trajectory that my life took, but it’s almost like an alternative life, you know, like had I not been ambitious, had I been much better looking in a conventional way, had I been a much more traditional kind of person with traditional values, what would I have been like? Do you know what I mean?
Nabokov wrote a book late in life called Look at the Harlequins! in which he kind of proposed a comic and baser version of himself but following the general outlines of his life…but making the guy a real pedophile. It’s very funny. So I thought it’d be fun to follow his example, in that regard.
GP: In Jack Holmes, the shifts in point of view I thought were fascinating because you reveal different aspects of your characters but you also give the reader a fresh take on the whole narrative—backing way up and then coming in close—I guess I should mention that it shifts between first and third person. Is that something you wanted to do right off the bat or did you find that out as you were going?
EW: I found it out as I was going. I always like to do whatever’s the simplest thing. I like to write books that aren’t tricky in any way. So I like to have the chronology start at the beginning and go to the end. And I do that in this book. But I also like to have a unified point of view and just tell it from that point of view from beginning to end. But I think that because this book is partly about the difference between straight life and gay life, I felt like I could write the beginning and the end of it from the point of view of Jack, who’s the gay character, though it’s in the third person, though it’s closely allied to his point of view, and then write the middle section in the first person from the straight guy—Will is what I call him now—Will’s point of view.
GP: You changed his name?
EW: I did, but for legal reasons.
GP: Oh, got it.
EW: So … and then you could say why didn’t you write the beginning and the end in first person from Jack’s point of view? and the reason I didn’t is because I wanted him to be mysterious in some way. I mean, I find it interesting to have a character whom you’re on very close terms with and yet there’s a lot about him you don’t really know.
I think Proust manages to do that with Swann, for instance. It’s written really close to his point of view but it is third person. And there are huge areas of his life you know nothing about. Like his childhood—where does all that money come from? I mean, there’s all kinds of things you don’t really know. How did he become the king of society if he’s Jewish, you know? And Proust doesn’t embark on explaining any of that, he keeps it all quite mysterious and just focuses on the few elements like compulsive love and the love of the arts that he wants to construct Swann out of. [pause] But you’re writing a novel. How are you doing it?
GP: It’s going okay. I’m just trying to get the first draft finished and not worry too much until that’s done…um, it’s a man and a woman and it goes sort of back and forth between their perspectives .… [long pause]
EW: Do you feel, for you, the primary art is drama or fiction? I mean do you feel like you come to fiction as a dramatist or vice versa? GP: Yeah, I write a lot more stories than plays. But I can always see the playwriting in the fiction. I mean, part of it is probably an attention span problem on my part but my scenes aren’t very long and things tend to happen and…I think it’s good but I’m trying to allow for more space. In the second draft I’m gonna let the characters look around the room a lot. I’ll cut it later if it’s boring.
EW: Or even if you describe an action, let it take place in little mini-scenes. I mean like for instance in a Tolstoy novel, a man and woman will go to a ball together and as they’re handing over their cloaks to the servant they say one little bitchy thing to each other but then an hour goes by and then they finally come back and dance the quadrille with each other and by that point they’re in a better mood. Tolstoy’s very careful to dose out those emotional sequences over a series of little mini-scenes that aren’t more than a quarter of a page, half a page each. Sometimes he’ll have a great big scene but that’s much more characteristic of Dostoevsky who has these endless fifty-page scenes which I think seem totally ridiculous and hysterical where everybody’s shouting at each other and sobbing and throwing their money into he fireplace [laughing]. I mean, I hate his writing.
But I think that … I mean, I came to fiction also from the theater, in a way, I mean most of the first things I wrote were plays but I think one of the characteristics of that formation is that you tend to see everything in terms of long scenes and … fiction is really more cinematic than theatrical. You can easily do lots of jump cuts and mini-scenes and two lines of dialogue here and then have them jump into a car and go someplace else or whatever. I mean, in Jack Holmes I’ll have ten years go by between scenes and that’s fun. Whereas in a play, you might do that if act one was 1970 and act two was 1980 but you wouldn’t do it in a very free way.
But there are advantages to having a playwriting background. It’s a real problem for most novelists, how to make people sound like themselves and less like the other characters, in other words, how to create distinctive voices. And you don’t have that.
GP: Mm. I’m having this problem now where the girl’s voice emerged first and it’s pretty strong but her boyfriend’s voice kind of sounds like a watered-down version of her voice.
EW: Maybe you should base it on a real person and the way they talk. Elizabeth Bowen has these notes for a writer, there are only about ten pages worth, they’re absolutely astonishing, you can get them online, and one of them is that you can’t invent a face and you can’t invent a voice. You have to base it on real people. I’m not sure I … [thinking] yeah, that’s kind of right. It sounds like this is the case in your book, if one person is a really magnetic speaker then that tends to bleed over into the other ones around them.
GP: Yeah, yeah.
EW: It’s hard to have clean edges for that. But you know one thing that’s interesting about men and women that’s not like men and men is that they each push the other one, even though they will say—and I’m sure firmly believe—that they’ve never been so close to someone else and they feel like they’ve found their soul mate, nevertheless the woman will push the man into being more quote-unquote masculine and the man will push the woman into being more and more feminine. In other words, they’re not aware of doing it at all, but their roles are not fraternal like ours but are reciprocal. And so … and yet what’s interesting is that they experience that as total unity but it’s definitely a unity of opposites.
GP: You mean if they were soul mates, why wouldn’t they be encouraging each other to be exactly the same.
EW: Exactly. And you know in French, soul mate is sister soul, âme soeur, which I think Americans would feel uncomfortable saying [laughs]. It’s very strange. I think it’s endlessly fascinating. I always wonder what is going on in straight guys’ minds, like, how do they resist becoming feminized through such long exposure to women? I think it’s because they’re not—I remember once there was a very funny program that was on TV, I just saw one episode of it and it was supposed to be the opposite of Queer Eye and the idea was these are straight guys teaching a gay guy how to be straight?
EW: And so they’re looking through a one-way mirror at this gay guy whom they’ve coached very carefully and he’s trying to pick up a girl from the bar and she says to him, “So how long have you been gay?” and they go wah-wah-wah, and he says, “Fellows, what did I do wrong?” and they said, “You listened to her.” But anyway, all this stuff fascinates me. I’m always really interested in the anthropology. I guess that’s a larger point we could make for our interview, that I feel most like an anthropologist.