A Conversation with Edmund White by Gavin Atlas

Edmund White is the author of over twenty books including twelve novels
such as A Boy’s Own Story and The Farewell Symphony.  He has
also written biographies of Genet, Marcel Proust, and Rimbaud as well as two
personal memoirs, My Lives and City Boy.  In 1982, he won the
Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1994,
his biography of Genet won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.  He is
an officer of the French order of Arts and Letters, and he is now a professor
of creative writing at Princeton University.  White’s new novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, has just
been released by Bloomsbury.

Hi,
Edmund!  Thank you so much for doing this interview.  First, your
books, particularly ones like A
Boy’s Own Story
,
have meant so much to so many people.  To turn
that around, is there particular feedback or commentary that you’ve received
from readers that has meant the most to you? 

Often
I’ve heard how that book helped someone come out—even people from entirely
different backgrounds.  I remember an African who wrote me to say that he
was just sixteen and his life was exactly like his.  That’s the
astonishing thing about writing from the heart—you can reach someone of a different
color from a different culture and epoch.

 

Congratulations
on your new book, Jack Holmes and His Friend.  Could you tell our
readers what you’d like them to know about this story?  Also, were there
aspects of the book that made it particularly enjoyable or particularly
difficult to write?

It is about the friendship between a straight man and a gay man, which is
a common enough phenomenon in urban life but which has never been the main
subject of a novel to my knowledge.  I was trying out a new way of writing
using nothing but action and dialogue and avoiding lengthy description or
meditation, my old way of writing.  I wanted to create a page-turner and
some of my critics have been kind enough to say I did just that.

 

 I’ve
read that your novels are often heavily autobiographical.  For example,
both you and your character, Jack Holmes, went to the University of Michigan
and studied Chinese.  When you created Jack was there anything you did to
make him distinctly “other” from yourself?  If you were in his situation,
where your most significant relationship is with a straight man, are there ways
you might handle it differently than Jack?

It amused me to create a character quite unlike me and have him lead my
life.  I think I got the idea from Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!  In other words, I was from the
Midwest like Jack, I studied Chinese and he studies Chinese art.  I came
to New York in 1962 and went to work as a journalist, as he does.  But I
never fell in love with a straight man.  Jack is more handsome and more
passive and less ambitious than me.  I had the pleasure of both imitation
and invention.  I could imitate some of the backgrounds I knew intimately
but invent new characters.  I suppose I
would avoid falling in love with a straight man.  I’ve been hopelessly in
love in my life, but at least it was with gay men.

 

If
you don’t mind, let’s look at a passage from your book:

Jack
didn’t think he was a nonconformist; he simply loved Will. If he could have
magically turned himself into a girl whom Will would want to marry, he’d have
done it without hesitation. He’d have converted to Catholicism, become a woman,
borne Will’s many children, shopped for dresses at Peck and Peck, learned to
cook Rice- A-Roni—where was the rebellion in any of that? Not that Jack was
interested in being a woman. He’d never daydreamed about a sex change. He
didn’t secretly experiment with makeup or window- shop for dresses or fold his
towel into a turban and study his steamy reflection in the mirror…He liked
women and had more female friends than male, but if the price of marrying Will
had been banishing all other women from the face of the earth, he would
gladly have paid it.

I
suppose with over 90% of men identifying as straight, it’s part of the
experience of most gay men to be attracted to someone utterly unavailable, and
that will probably never change.  However, as shown in this passage,
Jack’s feelings for Will are incredibly profound. What did you draw upon to
create such longing?

We used to joke that so-and-so was so butch and so attractive that it
would be worth it to live in a trailer with him and cook meatloaf for him every
night.  I tend to fall in love very hard; in My
Lives
I talk about my crazy love for a guy in the chapter called “My
Master.”  It wasn’t hard to invent the details necessary to flesh out
Jack’s feelings for Will.

 

I
won’t ask you to pick a favorite novel from among your titles, but when
considering your entire body of fiction, are there characters that mean the
most to you?  

I loved the character of Cora in Hotel
de Dream
and I was sad to say goodbye to her.

  

When
you were a student beginning to hone your writing skills, were there authors or
professors who stand out in your mind as people who encouraged you and inspired
you to succeed?  Conversely, are there students you’ve taught whom you
feel especially proud of?

Louise
Erdrich
, Mona SimpsonJohn
Fox
and Stephen McCauley
were all students of mine who went on to publish great novels. A writer friend
of mine, Alfred Corn,
encouraged me when we both young.  I belonged to a writer’s group in the
late 1970s called the Violet
Quill
that was very nurturing.

  

What
makes you laugh?  Are there books or films you turn to again and again for
their humor?

Henry
Green’s Nothing
is a book I’ve
read ten times and that always makes me laugh.  I love Waugh
and Nancy
Mitford
as well.

In
California, they are instituting education about various minorities, their
histories, and their contributions.  If you imagine a text book discussing
your work (perhaps as an activist as well as a writer) fifty or a hundred years
from now, what do you hope it would say?

I hope it would say that just by presenting the world with quirky, fully
rounded gay characters we were already being daring and progressive. That we
had no need to show positive role models—those can only be provided by life.

For more
information about Edmund White and his books, please visit edmundwhite.com

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s