Assume The Position: An Interview with Edmund White
By Michael WolfeFebruary 20, 2012
EDMUND WHITE'S INFLUENCE ON contemporary fiction is formidable. His nonfiction works, including The Joy of Gay Sex and his autobiography My Lives, pierce truths many writers are afraid to touch. More recently, City Boy chronicles his early years in New York in both nostalgic and grim detail; its final pages strikingly reinvigorate and affirm that the life of a writer is one worth living. Last year, his book of essays Sacred Monsters was published by Magnus Books, followed by the novel Jack Holmes and His Friend, published last month by Bloomsbury.
In a departure from such autobiographical fiction as A Boy’s Own Story, The Farewell Symphony, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, Skinned Alive, or Chaos, Jack Holmes and His Friend explores the relationship between Jack and Will Wright, a straight man with whom Jack falls in love. Their friendship covers the same trajectory most of White’s writing does, beginning in the 1960s and concluding sometime after the onset of the AIDS epidemic. It’s further proof that White continues in stride to offer the strengths his writing always has: effortless humor, deceptively casual observations, and razor-sharp interiority for characters drawn compassionately, with and without their pants on.
We spoke in his hotel room in Los Angeles, where he had come to be part of Mona Simpson’s “Some Favorite Writers” series at the Hammer Museum. All quotes are from Jack Holmes and His Friend.
Jack thought he was the one who was pathetic, mooning over a secretive straight man who wasn’t even all that attractive. Sometimes Jack thought that he and Will should live together, that he, Jack, should make Will dinner and suck his cock every night, that he should listen to Will’s novel once a week and praise him every time, that he should keep a low profile at work and push Will ahead — and that he should recognize that at most he’d get two good years out of Will before the young author met the right girl: witty, nearly virginal, rich, fragile, feisty on the surface but essentially yielding.
EDMUND WHITE: What was fun for me was to use the trajectory of my own life, but to assign it to someone who was quite unlike myself. I write so much autobiographically, and I enjoy doing that, but this was a way of extending that. In one of Nabokov’s novels, Look at the Harlequins, he assigns a lot of his life trajectory to another, totally made-up, very vulgar version of himself — somebody who really does like little girls, who really is a white Russian and who mourns his lost fortune — all these things that the real Nabokov would have been too elegant to do. So I thought that was a very good model. Jack is not ambitious, he’s not creative, he’s quite passive in his life.
People find Jack quite attractive, complex as a character, and several readers have told me they’ve fallen in love with him — maybe because he has a big cock. There’s something very engaging about him, so it’s not like he’s a nullity, but he is certainly a muted version of me, if he’s a version of me at all.
I came to New York following a lover; I lived with him for seven years. I’ve always had a lover in my life. I was usually quite passionately in love with that person and it was often a hopeless love, like Jack’s love, but never with a straight man.
Jack moved down to his lower back, which joined his tailbone in a more intricate way than usual, and dug deep with his thumbs. Then Jack’s big, octave-and-a-half hands fanned out over Peter’s high buttocks and molded them into Silly Putty shapes. But from time to time Jack was forced to stop and sit back and look at what God and the individual will and institutional discipline had wrought. He remembered that a philosophy professor in Ann Arbor had said that vision was the most spiritual sense and smelling the most animal; Jack went back and forth from gazing at Peter’s ass with angelic indifference to spreading his cheeks and grazing his hole with his thumb and bringing it up to his nose with canine rapture. He thought that this blend of patchouli and boy mud was the most intoxicating scent, the true smell of modernity. Jack knew nothing about hippies, incense, or drugs, but he suspected that dozens of skinny, bearded guys on the Lower East Side were stretching out their male friends at this very moment, burning doss sticks and working their thumbs into unwashed curry-chutes. He could picture the imprint of an oily body on the bedticking thrown onto the floor … the smell of the sixties: ass and incense.
Contemporary writers tend to avoid sex, certainly straight writers do. Very few people write about the body, or about sex, so it’s become sort of a novelty. I think, of course, that it’s the realistic way of rendering life: that people really do think most of the time about sex; or they’re capable of reverting immediately to thoughts about sex with almost anybody they meet. Maybe because I grew up in the seventies. That really was my heyday, and that was the golden age of promiscuity, so you could meet almost anybody and, if he was gay, within seconds be having sex with him. Picking people up on the street, if you weren’t repulsive looking, you could have an awful lot of sex, like three or four times a day. It was a kind of natural progression.
I remember the first time I met Bruce Chatwin; he’d been sent over to my apartment by Robert Mapplethorpe, and he walked in the room and within seconds we were kissing each other, fumbling with each other’s belts, and that’s how we met really and then we became friends after that. It’s sort of like dogs who have to sniff each other first and then run with the pack.
There were no consequences either. It was before AIDS and after the invention of the antibiotic, so you had cost-free sex with no dire consequences. Only later did people find out that maybe that was the beginning of AIDS, and at the time you didn’t know because AIDS wasn’t diagnosed until 1981. You had people in the seventies who were not religious, gays who had no sense of getting married and having one partner who they’d be faithful to, that would have seemed very old fashioned to most of us — you had a consciously hedonistic philosophy.
We’re still very dualistic in terms of the spirit and the body, and I don’t see that distinction, maybe because I’m not religious at all, but I don’t believe in the spirit. To me there’s the body, but of course sex is constantly molded by affection, attraction, desire for novelty. You discover a lot about yourself in sex, too, and in the seventies I saw sex as something really transcendent. It was an art form.
We’re still quite puritanical in our culture. One sign of that is that people will say, “Writing about sex is boring.” Or, “It’s always the same.” Or, “It’s pornographic.” Whereas I don’t think my sex scenes are at all pornographic. Susan Sontag wrote an essay about it and she said that sex writing has to be very formulaic, that it’s one-handed writing that has to follow an exact rhythm and formula in order to work as a sex aid, a masturbatory aid. I don’t intend my scenes to be that way at all in their expressive hope of character. In real pornography the people have to be ideal and interchangeable, whereas I feel like my characters are not ideal looking, and they’re certainly not interchangeable.
For instance, Jack’s encounter with Rupert is typical; he really represents the meeting of two generations, because Jack wants to be the top always, and Rupert wants to reverse roles and be more playful and exploratory. Jack won’t accept that; he tries to mock Rupert out of that position unsuccessfully.
“Shut up and assume the position.”
This kind of rough talk had always worked in the past with other men. Rupert, however, was offended and got up and dressed. “I do have my own apartment,” he said.
“That dirty little room in Brooklyn? You’re not comfortable there. Stay here and we’ll jerk off together.”
“I can do that alone.” Rupert was pulling on his sweater. “We need a break. You’re living in an earlier decade — in love with a straight man, closeted at work, rigidly macho in bed.”
“That’s cruel of you — to take the things I’ve confided in you and turn them against me.”
“So … but you haven’t told me these things; I’ve observed them.”
I was just writing along and suddenly I got bored writing from the close third person, from Jack’s point of view, which I usually enjoy because it’s the storytelling voice; you know, fairy tales are told in that voice, he did this, he did that, it’s a classical way of telling a story. Plus it creates a certain distance, and I think you can also characterize the character in a way that would be ludicrous. A first person narrator can’t say, “I was charming but shallow,” or “I am charming but shallow.” But the third person narrator can say, “He was charming but shallow.” So it allows you a lot of freedom.
If I have an aesthetic it’s partly to destabilize the reader. To frustrate expectations and change them, but not in a way that’s totally whimsical. I enjoyed switching the points of view. It rebooted the whole novel. At first, since I don’t label it very clearly, you don’t even know who’s talking, you just assume that it’s Jack. I didn’t overdramatize the difference in their voices; I was conscious of them.
I think that I knew, fairly early, that I wanted to go back to third person from Jack’s point of view, then I thought it would be good to end it with Will’s son being gay. I suppose I base that partly on my friendship with John Irving, who has a gay son who’s 18 or 19. It’s a late child from a second marriage, because he has two grown sons who are super macho — who are wrestlers like him and very athletic, with wives and kids, they’re pretty normal — and then John has this son named Everett whom he absolutely adores, and John’s become a great convert to homosexuality in the sense that he’s a defender of gay rights and he’s very interested in gay people. I think Everett opens his eyes to lots of things. I do think Palmer is an homage to Everett.
I tried to collect my thoughts: It’s true that a gay friend is different, maybe better, because he’s not a rival. He’s not part of the whole dismal system. He’s not one more pussy-whipped churchgoer who’s learned to keep his head, the big head and the little one, in check. Everyone thinks gay guys are sissies and mama’s boys, but they’re actually people who’ve chosen their sexuality over all the comforts of home. They’re bravely obsessional — but at a price.
In real life these ghastly right-wing politicians who’ve been fulminating against gays for decades suddenly have a gay sister or a gay child. It’s happened so many times. I mean, Charles Socarides, the leading antigay psychiatrist, refused to accept that homosexuality was in any way a natural variant of behavior and he thought it was a terrible sickness and should be cured, even by violent means like brain surgery. He was really one of the most repulsive. And he has a son who’s gay and who’s very pro-gay, and who’s in government and who has his name. In a way it’s perfect.
Will says at a certain point that his ideals were two buddies who were sitting and looking at some third thing, not at each other, but sitting next to each other looking at the world, and you see a lot of straight guys who do that. You’ll see straight guys who watch a game together and who make comments about the game, but in a very desultory, unsocial way. I mean they’re sharing the experience but it’s not intimate. But you do see guys walking down the street together who are constantly bumping shoulders; in other words, they are attracted to each other, and they can even admit that they think the other person is attractive, and maybe they would even have a four-way with two chicks or something and that would heighten the excitement, but they wouldn’t ever want to have sex with that person alone. They wouldn’t want to kiss him. That would be too much, that would ruin it in a way. Alex says to Will at a certain point, “You’re so remote that I don’t think anybody except a gay man who was in love with you could have possibly become your friend.” Because Will had to do all the work, you wouldn’t have done it. You’re just happy to live in your own world and not make any effort.
Maybe guys when they’re younger and they’re in sports together or they’re in prep school together can become friends and they can keep that friendship going over the years, but most adult men don’t really have very intense friendships with each other, unless it’s a gay man who’s supplying all the energy because he’s enamored.
Michael Carroll gave me Richard Yates to read, whom I had never read before, and he kept urging me to write in a way that was more scenic, with dialogue and action, not so much description, not so much meditation. When Isabel Fonseca, who is Martin Amis’s wife, overheard this she said, “Oh, thereby depriving you of everything you do well in writing.”
I think that it was a good influence, in that it opened up a whole new way of writing for me, which in a way is more like other people’s in the sense that most people who write fiction like to have scene-scene-scene, action-action-action, and not too much commentary on it.
People think it’s autobiographical, but I had to imagine characters out of whole cloth, like Pia, or assemble them out of different people the way I did Will, let’s say — because I’ve known a lot of blue bloods like him, but no one person who follows his whole trajectory. And imagination takes a lot of time. You have to lie on your couch for hours and hours and hours and — imagine things. You have to actually think about things. When I write in a straightforward, autobiographical way, like these memoirs that I’ve been doing, it’s almost like taking dictation from your memory and you don’t have to think about it much, you just write it. In My Lives particularly, because I chose to write about topics like “My Blonds,” “My Shrinks,” “My Mother,” I felt like there was something essayistic at the end of every one of those chapters. For instance, at the end of “My Shrinks” I had to ask myself the question, “Alright, I spent 25 years on the couch, but did it do me any good? What did it do to me?” So I had to think about that. I’m a great one for not wanting to think about things. But in this book I had to imagine; it took me longer to write this novel than most.
I don’t panic when I start out to write a novel, wondering what’s going to happen, because I think that will come to me as I write along, that you’ll sort of feel that it needs a change, so that’s why I switched to the first person, to Will’s point of view. And I wanted it to cover a long period of time, so I wondered: well, what would have happened in those intervening years? Because there are a couple of time lapses in the book.
That happens in real life: you break off with somebody and then you take up again, and you see that they have changed, and you’ve changed. That’s why it’s always frustrating, I think, for young people who’ve moved to the big city and lived on their own to get back with their family, because their family assumes that they haven’t changed. So they’ll say, “Oh, Eddie, you’re just the same person you always were, you’re just always the dreamer, so impractical.” And you’ll think: well, how is that? I’m very practical — I’ve earned a living and I’ve learned to drive a car (no thanks to you), I’ve done lots of things in the world … So you do change, but your family can never see it or accept it. And it sets up a tension because you’re afraid that’s going to be the case, that they might be right. So you’re always out to prove them wrong.
Idea for novel: queer finds mistress for beloved straight man. I was tempted to get out of bed and jot it down at the risk of disturbing Alex’s very light sleep. But then I realized I could never tackle that subject. A married man can’t write autobiographical novels, not if they’re based on truth.
It’s never a day job; it’s always a tremendous challenge. People always ask me, “Do you ever start a book and then put it aside and do something different?” And, unfortunately, no, I always write everything right to the bitter end. A couple times that has misled me, I suppose, in Caracole and Fanny: A Fiction — those were two experiments that didn’t work for most people, but I enjoyed writing them, and they were experiments, so they broaden your range as a writer.
In this memoir I’m reviewing, John Updike laments the fact that he didn’t have very much to write about, and I feel like that wasn’t my problem. People say to me, “Oh you’re writing another memoir?” And I say, “Well, yes, but nothing repeats.” They’ll be shocked that everything’s new in the Paris memoir I’m writing now. Whereas City Boy was very grungy and I was running around in ripped jeans having tons of sex, this book, which I’ll probably call Paris Gossip, I’m always dressed up in suits and ties, running around interviewing movie stars and going to the Cannes Film Festival and meeting crowned heads. So I’ve experienced different lives, you know, I’ve had plenty — unlike poor John Updike, who really basically had his childhood to write about, and adultery.
So many teachers of creative writing act as if there’s some Platonic ideal of a story that we’re all struggling toward, but I think the good teachers act as though there’s a story within you that only you could write, that no one else could write, and that what might be perceived as a fault by the other members of the class is really only seen as a fault because it’s visible, it sticks out, and maybe that’s precisely the thing that you should do more of rather than less.
Proust said at the end of Remembrance of Things Past that we each have a novel within us that’s already completely formed, and it’s just a question of having the courage to write it.
And we do. We each have a novel to write, which is the story of our life.
Michael Wolfe is a writer and freelance editor in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Phoebe, Bloom, American Book Review, Cool Thing: The Best New Gay Fiction from Young American Writers, and elsewhere. He has taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico, Southwestern University, and Cal State LA, and he was a founding editor of the online journal Front Porch.
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