A Conversation with Edmund White

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Award winning author, gay activist and cultural critic Edmund White– perhaps best known for the seminal coming out novel A Boy’s Own Story and the original Joy of Gay Sex which he co-wrote with Dr. Charles Silverstein—recently announced he will be reading from his forthcoming memoirs entitled My Lives at the Watkins College of Art & Design in Nashville.

His repertoire also includes novels such as The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Married Man. Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples and a book of short stories, Skinned Alive to name a few. While living his life as an author, White has added many more facets to that prodigious calling over the years: world traveler, ersatz detective, scholar, award winning author, playwright and many others.

This is no more apparent than when Edmund White recently spoke with O&AN in a phone interview during a break from his daily writing regimen. Forthcoming and always willing to share a good story and a laugh, White’s eloquent banter belies his background as a scholar as he seemingly compulsively interrupts his train of thought periodically, though only temporarily, to spell the names of any and everyone he names as we speak. It is really a quite endearing habit that gives an instant feeling of familiarity– like that shared with a favorite teacher in school as we chat about his work past, present, and future

O&AN: The book that you will be reading from has not yet been released. Is that right?

EW: That is correct. The Memoirs will be released a year from now and is entitled My Lives. I decided to arrange it according to topics rather than chronologically, so there are chapters like “My Blondes”, “My Shrinks”, and “My Hustlers”.

O&AN: What inspired you to start writing to begin with?

EW: I always dabbled around in all of the different arts as a kid. One day I thought I wanted to be a painter and the next I wanted to be a singer or dancer or something else. I actually had an Eighth Grade English teacher who praised me for something I had written so that was enough for me. I was off and running. I had never really been praised for much of anything else so that seemed to me to be quite a good thing to keep doing that.

O&AN: Who do you consider to be your biggest influences on your writing?

EW: Vladimir Nabokov who wrote Lolita, and Christopher Isherwood who wrote the thing that Cabaret was based off of. He was a good friend of mine. Those are the main two. I also quite admire the French author Colette. I have lots of friends who are writers and I read all of their writing and I think about that. Recently, I’ve been under the spell of my colleague at Princeton Joyce Carrol Oates.

OAN: What is it about her work that entrances you so?

EW: She has a very dark and tragic vision of life. She writes about a lot of gritty situations usually involving working-class people. I haven’t really written about that too much because I’m not from that world. I don’t know much about it. I admire it so much in her work. I also admire her productivity. She writes on average two or three books a year and I feel that my own productivity has gone up since I’ve known her.

OAN: You are best known for A Boy’s Own Story. I know this work was mostly autobiographical in nature. How did you feel when it took off like it did?

EW: I had no idea that it would or why at the time. I stared to get an inkling that it might happen like that when one day I went to give a reading and I was a little bit late for my own reading. So when I got there the line went all the way down the stars and into the street. I had never before had more that ten people at a reading before. It seemed to me so weird and mysterious.

OAN: Why do you think it resonates so well with people?

EW: When it came out in 1983 there hadn’t really been any coming out novels and it was kind of a first. It was almost as if people were just waiting for it. When a book becomes a bestseller usually it is because there is a sort of empty ecological niche that no one ever thought to write about before that is a perfectly obvious thing to write and someone should have done this long before. That’s what I think A Boy’s Own Story was. Now we have thousands of coming out novels, but then there was only the one about a boy struggling with his sexuality in the Midwest in the 1950’s. If you go deep enough into that kind of subject matter it will appeal to everyone. It amazes me that I have 19 year old black guys from Guiana saying to me “Oh your story is exactly like mine” and I can only reply with “What?”

OAN: I understand that you wrote a biography of the notorious homosexual French writer and dramatist Jean Genet. What drew you to him?

EW: * chuckles * Well, it actually was a commission. I had an editor as k me if I knew anyone who would do a biography of Jean Genet and my reaction was something like “You mean there isn’t a biography of Jean Genet?” So, needless to say I said that I would do it. I thought it would take a couple of years to complete. It took seven! It was tremendous labor and I would never do anything like that again.

OAN: Genet had a fascinating life. Was it hard for you to fit everything in that you wanted to cover?

EW: I actually put in everything significant that I know about. I just wrote a chapter in my memoirs called “My Genet” and it was about all of the adventures I had getting the story and all of the crazy people I had to meet and court and flatter. It was probably one of the most difficult literary biographies that you could write about a Twentieth Century figure because most writers that one would write about are middle class and are very willing that you write about them. Their mothers saved every scrap that they ever wrote. Their friends are all middle class writers who save every piece of correspondence. Genet was totally different. He was a foundling abandoned by his mother at seven months old and he was put up with a foster family in a tiny village. He would never tell anyone what the name of his village was and no one ever knew where he was from. I had to find out. It was all very exciting. He didn’t keep records or letters. Most of his friends were criminals and the type of people who can’t be found easily or died early. If you do find them they don’t want to talk to you. If they do talk to you they want to charge you and if the do talk you can’t believe them. It was very difficult sifting out all of this information. When I won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Biography it was more for the research than for the writing.

OAN: You are getting ready to publish your memoirs. What else are you working on?

EW: I am doing a lot of playwriting now. I wrote a play about Gore Vidal and his friendship through correspondence with the Oklahoma Bomber Timothy McVeigh. The play was performed by the BBC with Sir Ian McKellan performing as Gore Vidal.

OAN: Why the shift from straightforward literature to drama?

EW: When I first started out I wrote plays so I have some history in theatre, but I always thought to myself that it was sort of futile to write a play because I always thought “Who will ever put it on?” I wrote the McVeigh play for a boyfriend who is an actor and he looks like Timothy McVeigh. The play was even approved by Gore Vidal himself. It’s really fun when you have someone in mind for a play.

OAN: That’s quite a stamp of approval!

EW: Quite, yes.

OAN: So what are you working on now?

EW: I’m writing a new play now for an Irish actress named Fiona Shaw. I feel that she is the greatest tragic actress in the English speaking world. I plan also to write an historical novel about the author Steven Crane who wrote Red Badge of Courage. It is about his discovery of gay life in New York in the 1890’s. He was not gay. He was in fact 100% straight but he was very interested in gay life and tried to write a novel about a boy prostitute in New York in the 1890’s. I have just received a grant from the New York Public Library so I won’t have to teach next year and I’ll have an office in the library with about 20 other scholars. It’s a very cushy deal where they give me money and all I have to do is research and write.

OAN: How does it feel knowing that your work has touched and meant so much to so many people?

EW: You don’t think about it much because if you did you might become inhibited about doing anything new. I think you just have to plunge on. It’s gratifying to know that somebody will read your writing and that it won’t just be put in a bottom drawer but if I think that if you give too much thought to what everyone will think you would never be able to do anything else.

Writer Edmund White will read from his forthcoming memoirs at Watkins College of Art & Design at 7:00 p.m. on April 14 in the Watkins Theatre at 2298 Metro Center Boulevard . There will be a question and answer session following the reading, and White will be available for autographs. This event is free and open to the public.