INTERVIEWS January 1, 2021

A Conversation with Edmund White

Revolutionary and vital—those were the words the National Book Foundation used to describe Edmund White when he received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. In a career spanning nearly half a century, the “widely acclaimed chronicler of gay American life and culture” has written twenty-nine books, including novels, memoirs, biographies, travelogues, and works of cultural criticism. His first book was the 1973 novel Forgetting Elena. It was followed in 1977 by the groundbreaking handbook The Joy of Gay Sex. White’s biographies chronicle the lives of Marcel Proust, Arthur Rimbaud, and Genet; the latter book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels: A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony. White has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (now GMHC) in 1982 and remains an ardent social activist. His latest work is the 2020 novel A Saint from Texas. In April 2018, White sat down with Booth to discuss Nabokov and Shakespeare, the history of LGBTQ liberation, and the importance of destabilization.

Ashley Petry: As someone who has written both autobiographical novels and memoirs, how do you draw the line between the two? Pam Houston, for example, has said that both her fiction and her nonfiction are 82 percent true. How does the contract with the reader differ? Or does it?

Edmund White: I think it does. I would say my autobiographical fiction is 60 percent true, and I hope that my memoir is 100 percent true. I think the contract with the reader is that you’ll tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, although obviously people can misremember things or fail to understand something. In a similar way you can have a narrator in a novel—Nabokov has quite a few—who fails to grasp the reality around them.

AP: You’ve expressed a lot of admiration for Nabokov’s work. What draws you to it?

EW: I think it’s irreverent, it’s always well plotted, and he keeps you spellbound. He likes inhabiting the mind of a madman or at least an eccentric, and that’s funny. In my new book [The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading], I have a long essay on Pale Fire, which I read as a gay comic novel. I don’t know why no one ever noticed it before, because there are hundreds of references to gay life. For instance, Kinbote describes pursuing a boy through the palace, and in each scene the boy is dressed in a different gay costume, like a leopard-skin loincloth or a black bikini. Kinbote goes through a whole catalog of gay looks from pornography.

AP: That makes sense.

EW: Nabokov’s own brother was gay and was killed by the Nazis, and his uncle was gay. Nabokov subscribed to a biological theory of homosexuality, which a lot of people do now, but when he did it was considered quite eccentric. But that made him a little bit nervous, because he thought, there were all these gays so close to him. Was his own masculinity unimpeachable?

AP: So tell me about the new book, since you mentioned it.

EW: It’s a memoir, but I’ve dished my life up in so many different ways that I tried to think, what would be a new way? And I thought, do it through the books I’ve read and were important to me in different periods. But I didn’t want to make it just a list of books, because that’s very boring, so I weave it into my life story. So I have a chapter about when you’re young, you fall in love with people and you adopt their literary tastes because you love them and you love everything about them. So in my case I fell in love with a boy and a girl, very close, one after the other, and she was very rational and had studied Aristotle and went to the University of Chicago and had a very cool intellectual side to her. And he, Charles Burch, was a heroin-taking, jazz-playing romantic.

AP: Bit of a difference there.

EW: Right. They were my muses.

AP: You’ve said that one of your goals is to destabilize the reader. Can you talk about why that is important and how that can be achieved?

EW: I think it’s important to keep the reader awake and challenged all the time. It’s like, if you are walking on a very unstable bridge, you’ll be extremely alert, whereas if it’s one that you’ve crossed a thousand times then it seems very safe.

One technique that the Russian Formalists use, and Nabokov and Tolstoy, is called defamiliarization. And the idea is that you describe everything as though you’re from Mars, so let’s say a girl’s first ball or going to the opera for the first time. Both of those scenes are in War and Peace. At the opera, there’s all these fat people coming on stage and screaming, and then everybody beats their hands together. It is described as though you’ve never seen it before and have no idea what it’s supposed to represent. It’s in some other language.

In my first published novel, Forgetting Elena, my narrator is an amnesiac who doesn’t want anyone to know that he can’t remember anything, so he’s always faking it. He’s modeling his responses on what other people do and say. So he’ll look at his face in the mirror and think, there are lots of laugh lines, so I must be a friendly person. And he has no idea what sex is, and he doesn’t know whether it’s painful or pleasurable or why people do it. He finds it totally baffling. He thinks it’s some kind of secret ritual. So that’s one way of destabilizing the reader. You describe something that’s familiar to the reader but that seems unfamiliar to the narrator. So it’s a way of perceiving all that in a fresh way.

And I think another way is, just on the level of language, to constantly switch things around—long sentences and short sentences, different grammatical forms, interspersing pure narrative with pure reflection. You’re not allowed to get into just one gear. Things need to be shifted. The nature of English itself is very much that way: we’re constantly switching the tone in English. It’s as if the nature of English is a very corrugated surface, and you’re always switching from high to low, demotic to hieratic. Wallace Stevens is a perfect example. In his poem “Sunday Morning” he says, “The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” In other words, one line is all Latinate, and the next line is all Anglo-Saxon words. And that’s typical of English, that you’re always trying to switch the register. But it’s not permitted in Romance languages. It’s considered a fault. I mean, Racine only uses four thousand words, whereas Shakespeare has fifty thousand words.

AP: I’m a big fan of Shakespeare.

EW: Me too.

AP: What do you love about his work?

EW: Well, he’s so fluid. First of all, the great characters—maybe the most memorable of all characters—and even the minor characters are very well portrayed. But the language is sublime, and there’s a very good example of going from blank verse for the noble characters to raunchy prose for the “rude mechanicals.” And the way one scene flows into another is so marvelous, and I like it so much more than Greek tragedies where all the important action happens off-stage. In Shakespeare it happens on-stage. People get murdered. Armies get defeated. 

AP: OK, we got off track. So A Boy’s Own Story was published in 1982. How do you think it would be received differently if it were published today?

EW: Oh, god knows. I had a session with grad students in creative writing, and they said, “Well, we wanted to teach Boy’s Own Story to our undergrads, but we couldn’t because of the sexual exploitation of the little boy by the older boy.” Wait a minute. One of them is sixteen and one is fourteen, and the fourteen-year-old is heterosexual and just wants to have sex to get his rocks off, whereas the sixteen-year-old is actually in love with, or at least sentimental about, this fourteen-year-old. Who’s exploiting whom? But that’s the way people are now. They’re always looking for some moral irregularity. I mean, Lolita couldn’t be published now. 

AP: In The Beautiful Room Is Empty, the narrator says “my plots are all scrapbooks,” and I have read several interviews where you’ve described yourself as a “weak plotter.” How do you approach plotting now, and what lessons have you learned along the way?

EW: Now that I’ve written too much about myself, I am writing stuff that’s entirely made up. It’s a very different process. If you write autobiographically you just try to remember as vividly as possible what happened to you, and you select only the moments to narrate that you do remember very clearly. Whereas if you make up a plot, you have to daydream for hours. It’s what Flaubert called the marinade. You lie on your couch and think and think and think—daydream about your characters and try to imagine what they’re thinking or feeling.

AP: You’ve shared a lot of details about your life in your autobiographical novels and also in your memoirs. We had Cheryl Strayed here a couple of years ago, and she’s written a lot of what might be called very confessional nonfiction. And so I asked her this question too. Is there anything you wish you had held back?

EW: In my writing but also in my interviews, I said right away that I was HIV positive. Now that doesn’t bother people so much because they don’t see it as a death sentence, but for years they did. So I turned myself into a pariah in a way. Let’s say I would chat somebody up online, and then he would google me and see right away that I was positive. Somebody said I was the first well-known person who admitted to being HIV positive. I saw it as a second coming out. I thought, if people aren’t honest about that, then what are we going to be honest about? And there was a political import to it. But I certainly paid heavily for that.

AP: In what ways?

EW: Mothers wouldn’t let me pick up their babies, and dentists wouldn’t clean my teeth. All that stuff.

AP: In The Farewell Symphony you write that “gay liberation . . . represented as much a loss in aesthetic duplicity as a gain in style-less integrity.” We’ve come a long way in terms of equality for the LGBTQ community, but do you think we’ve lost something along the way?

EW: When I wrote that I was more convinced of that than I am now. At that time a lot of gay writers were obliged to turn their personal experiences into heterosexual stories. Especially on stage, it was a little embarrassing to see two men or two women, but that kind of repressive force sometimes paid off artistically. I mean, Proust was 100 percent gay. He seems to have had no experiences with women. But Marcel the narrator is the one character who doesn’t turn out to be gay. The most frequently mentioned character in the book is a woman, Albertine, and Marcel’s obsessive love for her. All that was translated from his experiences with his chauffer, who was a man and who died during an airplane lesson—Proust paid for him to have airplane lessons, and then he went down in the Mediterranean. I think you could say that Proust has outstripped Joyce as the most admired writer of the twentieth century, but would he have been if it had been strictly 100 percent gay? The vast majority of people are straight, and they can read Proust and admire him, but I think they wouldn’t identify with the characters if they were all gay. So that’s what I mean about a slight artistic loss. But the gain—for people who aren’t geniuses like Proust—in sincerity and urgency and also as human beings, let alone as artists, has been great.

AP: You were born in 1940, and in The Farewell Symphony you describe yourself as part of a community that was “oppressed in the fifties, freed in the sixties, exalted in the seventies, and wiped out in the eighties.” Are you ever just stunned by how much progress has been made since then—although obviously there is still work to do?

EW: I am. For instance, I went to a very conservative boarding school outside Detroit called Cranbrook, which I describe in A Boy’s Own Story. I went back fifty years later to give a talk there, and they had a “gays and friends of gays” club there. Those things have changed so much. It is astonishing.

AP: If you could go back and talk to your fifteen-year-old self, what would you say?

EW: It gets better. The problem was that there was nobody, not even Proust, certainly not Freud, no biblical scholar, no preacher, no nothing, no psychologists, no moralists, no philosophers, not one who would say “It’s OK to be gay” in the fifties. Even Proust thinks it’s regrettable and writes quite a few pages about homosexuality and how it’s a kind of damned race. He thinks anti-Semitism and anti-gay feelings are very parallel, but he doesn’t suggest that they’re unjust.

AP: How do we as a literary community support the LGBTQ community, especially given the current political situation? What can we do better?

EW: I think straight writers should introduce more gay characters into their work. They don’t have to be heroes. They can be villains. Just make them more a part of the landscape. People are so afraid of being politically correct, and heterosexual men are so worried about being considered gay, that everybody avoids the subject. It’s like how very few white writers these days are willing to tackle Black characters. And I think that’s a loss, not a gain. When I was young, there was endless debate over The Confessions of Nat Turner, a very popular novel at the time by William Styron, who wrote Sophie’s Choice. It was about a slave and was told from his point of view, and people thought Styron had no right to write that. I think we should have a wider perspective on life. Men have the right to write about women, white people have the right to write about Blacks, straights have the right to write about gays and gays about straights. All we have to do is imagine them clearly and well.

AP: Your book Our Young Man has a sort of Dorian Gray take on aging and mortality in the era of the AIDS crisis. And I’m wondering, is there some survivor’s guilt for you?

EW: If I had been HIV negative, I might have had that. But since I was positive and I have to take medication and I have all kinds of secondary problems, I don’t. I just feel like a survivor. And I have an obligation to bear testimony. I recently wrote something for the New York Times about a guy called Allen Barnett who wrote only one book, The Body and Its Dangers. It was very well reviewed. Everybody thought he was the bright star on the horizon. And then he died. I saw him shortly before he died, and he was so angry because he thought he had—and he did have—such a great talent. And now he’s been entirely forgotten, but I try to remind people of his existence. So I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I feel guilt about a lot of things. That’s my main emotion in life. But not about that.

AP: Your character in The Beautiful Room Is Empty is there at the Stonewall riots in 1969. Were you yourself actually there?

EW: I was passing by with Charles Burch, the young man who was my first love. We could see all these cop cars and Black Marias where they were rounding up the people at Stonewall. I went there, but not all the time, because it was mainly a dance bar and I wasn’t that much into dancing. Anyway, for the first time people—especially the drag queens—were resisting arrest, and people were turning cars over and burning trash and shouting slogans like “Gay is good.” I remember running into some East Village hippies who were very excited because they thought it was the beginning of a revolution. And I think there was a revolution, a lifestyle revolution if not a political one. It became a big watershed in history. Soon there was the Gay Academic Union, which was a group of academics and intellectuals who were studying gay history, and nobody had done that before.

Before Stonewall, every time a new gay bar opened in New York the police would close it. In the pre-internet era, those bars were the only way gay people could meet. But I went away to live in Rome for a year, and when I came back in ’71 a friend of mine picked me up at the airport and popped some acid in my mouth and took me for a tour of all the gay bars, and I couldn’t believe it—all these go-go boys dancing.

AP: Other than your own books, what books would you include on a reading list for LGBTQ teens who are trying to figure all this out?

EW: Justin Torres, Garth Greenwell, Jeanette Winterson, Emma Donoghue, and Sarah Waters, who wrote Tipping the Velvet. Of the older writers I love Andrew Holleran, who wrote Dancer from the Dance, and I think his book Grief is a masterpiece. And I like Alan Hollinghurst. I wrote a review of his first book for the Times of London where I said it was the best gay book ever written by an Englishman.

AP: That’s a very specific distinction. You’ve been married now for how many years?

EW: I’ve been with my partner for twenty-three years, but he only made me an honest person like five years ago.

AP: He didn’t have much of a choice before then.

EW: That’s true.

AP: Some of your early books are disparaging about the idea of same-sex marriage, so how has your thought on that evolved over the years?

EW: Well, it’s not so much a matter of thought as of sentiment. After we got married, I did feel much more secure in the world. I’ve had quite a few health issues: two strokes and a heart attack. I’ve been altogether maybe three months in the hospital, and my partner, because we’re married, had the right to visit me, to make health decisions, and so on. And I find that a comfort.

AP: OK, a few more questions. You’ve written some biographies.

EW: Three.

AP: How do you approach the research for that kind of project? 

EW: With Genet it was immense. It was seven years of research, and he was not a typical literary subject because there were no archives. He’d pledged all of his friends to silence. There were to be no biographies. I think, because he had written books that were semi-autobiographical, he didn’t want a competing version of what had happened. His version was extremely romantic about his life and glamorous in a seedy way. So just getting a list of his arrests was enormously difficult, because you had to comb through miles of little newspapers from the provinces in France and find tiny little notices. And I interviewed thirteen people in his village, including his godmother, who was 101, who couldn’t speak French. She only spoke the dialect of the region. So her granddaughter had to translate for me into French.

And I had to learn about all kinds of things, like the army, the prison system, the rules governing adoption and foster children, the school system, and so on. I had lived in Paris at that point for thirteen years, but I didn’t know anything about France.

AP: And the other two biographies?

EW: The other two are short, and they had already been very well covered, Proust especially. Thousands of books have been written about him. So the only thing necessary was to read, which is the easier way if you’re shy.

AP: You went through a lot of rejection early in your career, in terms of having your first novel, Forgetting Elena, rejected quite a few times.

EW: Twenty-two times.

AP: So what motivated you to keep going? And what advice would you give to writers who are going through that now?

EW: Probably do something more sensible. I said once, “Oh, I made so many sacrifices to be a writer.” And a friend of mine said, “So what else would you have been? An electrical engineer? An expert in cuneiform?” I didn’t have that many other options. When Beckett was asked why he wrote, he said, “I’m only good at that.” And maybe that would have been my answer too.

AP: When did you feel like you’d finally “made it”?

EW: With Boy’s Own Story. Forgetting Elena had been praised by Nabokov, and I had gotten interesting to good reviews for my first few books, but suddenly boom. My theory is that there’s an empty ecological niche, and any book that fits into that niche will suddenly do well. In Boy’s Own Story, the boy betrays the only person who’s really nice to him, and he’s not exactly a positive role model. But it was a gay novel about coming out. I’d written fairly experimental fiction up to then, but suddenly I thought, history has handed me this great subject. Why make it complicated by making it avant-garde? Just tell it straight. And I was a heavy drinker in those days, so if I would finish a chapter it would be a big deal. I took maybe three years to write it.

AP: My understanding is that as a teacher you forbid your students to talk about the marketplace. So you accidentally found this niche that hadn’t been filled, but you wouldn’t necessarily encourage people to go looking for those niches?

EW: My feeling is that the market is constantly shifting, and you can’t really anticipate it. I mean, who would have imagined that Harry Potter would sell—that a medieval saga with thousands of pages would sell to eight-year-olds? It’s completely counter-intuitive. And yet now that it’s sold it creates a marketplace, and a lot of people have tried to imitate its success. So the real successes are always unpredictable. It’s a waste of time to talk about the market.

AP: Makes sense. You lived in Paris for sixteen years, I think? And you’ve traveled extensively beyond that. How do you think that shaped you as a writer?

EW: Well, the second novel I wrote in France was my most American novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty. There’s not one French word, not one reference to France. Before I moved to France I was always daydreaming about France, and I’d put in lots of French words and mention my travels. But once I lived there that appetite had been satisfied and I was more nostalgic about America.

AP: What’s left on your travel bucket list?

EW: I’d especially like to go to South Africa, but my favorite city is Istanbul.

AP: I was there a couple of years ago.

EW: I spent lots and lots of summers there. Did you ever go to Büyükada? It’s one of the Princes’ Islands right near Istanbul. And there are no cars. There are only horses and carriages. 

AP: Sounds like Mackinac.

EW: Exactly like Mackinac. With very rich people. With huge, beautiful, white wood houses. And because all the people who live there are rich, it’s like the Saint Tropez of Turkey. I rented an apartment there, and they thought that was so peculiar. And then eventually I rented a house. But I had to keep pretending my wife was about to arrive.

Ashley Petry is an Indianapolis writer and editor with fifteen years of experience covering Midwest travel, food and drink, and the arts. Her freelance work has appeared in USA Today, Condé Nast Traveler, Midwest Living, AAA Home & Away, Indianapolis Monthly, and the Indianapolis Star. In addition, she is the author of three books: Secret Indianapolis: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure; 100 Things to Do in Indianapolis Before You Die, now in its second edition; and Indianapolis: An Illustrated Timeline (forthcoming May 2021). She also serves as associate editor for the literary magazine Booth. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and English from Indiana University and two master’s degrees—an MBA and an MFA—from Butler University.