Greg Pierce

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.

EW: Yeah.

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.

EW: Spain.

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.

[Greg laughs]

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.

[Greg laughs]

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: Really?

EW: No.

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.

GP: Hm.

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—

EW: Inferior.

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?

GP: Okay.

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.