Edmund White and Felice Picano Discuss Gay Literature
This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we'll feature intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discuss everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.
Our first conversation is between Felice Picano and Edmund White. Both men were part of The Violet Quill, a legendary writing group that produced some of the greatest gay writers of the late 20th and 21st century.
Picano is the author of novels, novellas, stories, poetry, plays, memoirs, history and other nonfiction. His most recent books are "True Stories: Portraits from My Past" and "Contemporary Gay Romances;" In 2012, a collection of dark stories, "Twelve O'Clock Tales," and a novel, "In the Wonder City of the West," will be published.
White is the author of many novels, including "A Boy’s Own Story," "The Beautiful Room Is Empty," "The Farewell Symphony," and, most recently, "Hotel de Dream." His nonfiction includes "City Boy" and other memoirs; "The Flâneur," about Paris; and literary biographies and essays. White lives in New York and teaches at Princeton.
Here Picano and White discuss their latest books, why they write, how their sexuality influences their work, and more.
Felice Picano: Edmund, we've both got new books out: Tell me, why do you write these days? Now? Today?
Edmund White: Partly for money. Also to experiment with different genres, with different forms. I like exploring different genres. What about you?
Felice: Less for money now. I'm still interested in telling stories no one has told before: as I was in the beginning. Only they aren't necessarily gay-themed and contemporary, laying out “the way we live now." They're about historical periods or people. I've completed a big Victorian novel, and a short novel set in 1935 Hollywood due out in 2012. I'm at work on a pre-Homeric novel and planning one based on an ancestor who I discovered -- a sculptor who lived most of the 18th Century in Naples.
But what about in the beginning, Edmund? Why were you writing then? For the same reasons as now?
Edmund: No. I wanted to be rich and famous. It was a little more plausible in 1962 to actually become rich and famous from writing than it is today. After all, that was the period of Normal Mailer and William Styron and John Updike, and they made money -- and became famous! So, as a beginning writer I could easily sort of imagine becoming one of them.
Felice: I had several best sellers, here and abroad, as did you Edmund. And both of us once were and may still be famous. But I think because neither of us wrote the same book with slight variations time after time after time we couldn't become that author so beloved of publishers -- the “perennial” best seller. So many mystery, thriller, and romance novelists today are more than that: they’re "brands” like Sara Lee or Green Giant.
Edmund, you clearly delineate your works by genre. "City Boy" was a memoir, but this newest book, "Jack Holmes and His Friend" is a novel. Don't you find that the genres blend? And aren't some of them also now history?
Edmund: They don't blend for me. Where people use fictional techniques to beef out their memory is wrong, I think. Your contract with the reader is to tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a memoir. But if you are writing as a novelist, you have a different obligation to the reader: to make the story coherent, and also to make it representative of something or someone, of say a gay man in that moment in time or that time of his life. So that if it's an autobiographical novel, and you yourself is the main character and you have eccentricities, you ought to suppress them to make yourself more generalized and more typical. You should be creating a representative portrait.
When I came to write "A Boy's Own Story," the boy in the book is an average student and is very timid about sex. But if I had written it about what I really was like, that same character that so many people identified with it, would have turned out as a sort of a freak show because he is definitely not who I was. By sixteen, the age of that character, I'd won all these academic awards and I had like five hundred sexual encounters by then. I was a toilet queen. I'd hang out in bus station johns and have sex there a great deal.
Felice: Really? The reason I wrote my first memoir -- "Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children" -- was the opposite: because I knew that my very early teen years were different than anyone else's. My partner and friends told me so. I was a pretty ordinary kid, not at all femme, smart, popular, even sporty -- I raced English bicycles and go-carts in the summer and lived on the ice all winter. But I had bisexual relations early and I was into pre-adolescent drug and sex games.
Edmund: Well in "A Boy's Own Story" and "Jack Holmes and His Friend," my idea was to take someone totally different from my real self and at the same time to assign to him my own life trajectory. I've done that often in short stories before this book -- in "An Oracle" for example, -- I took something that happened to me in Crete and wrote that as though it had happened to someone else who happened to have my own life history. Jack Holmes is different than I was in the early 1960's: he's very attractive and very well hung and he has no ambition and isn't very social either.
Felice: I've done that with a few stories I've written. In my new collection titled "Contemporary Gay Romances," two happened pretty much as told. I wrote those because, again, they were extraordinary incidents with resonance. I've got one more story like that, going back to my youth, about a bachelor party weekend in Connecticut, that I still have to crack.
Edmund, what was involved in you deciding to structure your extremely readable new book, "Jack Holmes and His Friend," as you did: from shifting points of view? And was that the reason for writing it?
Edmund: Yes, the first and the last short sections are told from Jack's point of view but it's not told in the first person. I wanted the third person tone, that very storytelling tone, because first, using that, you can comment upon the character's strengths and flaws in a way you can't really do in the first person. For example, you can't write, "I was beautiful and well hung and everyone lusted after me." That’s ridiculous! Also I wanted to keep Jack Holmes mysterious, and to keep him separate from myself, and I think that when you write in the third person that's easier to do. The third person has a certain story telling tone to it also, and it has a way of characterizing a person.
I wanted to switch in midstream to Jack's friend, Will Wright's, point of view in the novel because I wanted to write what his life was like, since the reader only knows him through the gay character, who's in love with him. I think Will's unique and individual. Although he's anything but a caricature of a straight man, I did want him to look at Jack and to speculate about him, because that adds to the mystery. The other thing is that I was more intrigued with the Will character. He is timid sexually and socially, and he comes from a very uptight side of the world, but what happens is that Jack plays the role of initiator to Will. Jack's friend becomes Will's wife -- and then some years later, Jack's new female friend becomes Will's mistress. I guess you could say that in a way there is an exotic displacement of Jack's own feelings for Will onto those two women.
Felice: I've used shifting points of view in past novels. Many years ago in my novel, "Eyes," for example. That was told in third person from a young man's point of view, but in short alternating chapters along with the first person POV of a young woman who became obsessed and began stalking him. I did that to gain sympathy for her.
But Will Wright is a new and unusual kind of character for you, isn't he: the straight man?
Edmund: Well I believe that the straight men that I've known have these intense relationships with each other but they are not going to sleep with each other but instead they do often end up sharing women. There is something sexual to that, but it's not homosexual. It's all kind of curious.
Felice: In my story "Everyone Has a Shazam," two best college friends get together after several decades, one straight, the other gay, and reminisce about an incident with an glamorous boy/girl couple they met one weekend years before that neither of them ever quite understood.
Tell me, Edmund, were there editor/marketing/author meetings about what the audience(s) for "Jack Holmes" might and might not be? Or was that just not a consideration?
Edmund: It was never a consideration. Because a writer, if he is honest with himself, has to write what it is he wants to write without any interference. Especially if you are writing for what could be a mixed audience.
You've done that, Felice, in your very well-written and entertaining book "True Stories: Portraits from My Past." In your chapters there, like "The Bike Race" and "The Taystee Bread Man" which are about childhood, you were unable to count on the innate allure of big names in other chapters such as Auden or Tennessee Williams. How did you adjust to this change? What writing techniques did you use to create interest where there was none built in?
Felice: I guess I might be that "Natural Democrat" that Walt Whitman wrote of, because to me famous or not they were all equal. For example, I met the already quite famous poet Auden and twenty years later this rather ordinary guy, James. Both were similar in that I only knew them a few years before each died. In both cases I had "pure" friendships. No sex, no money, no business considerations were involved. Of course with Auden I was very young, whereas with James I was very jaded, having outlived some 95 percent of the people I’d known by the age of 48. But I didn’t know who Auden was at first, so I didn’t treat him differently. We had equally intense, brief, memorable, intellectual friendships, and each of them died suddenly. I didn’t do anything different writing about them. I tried to convey what happened and how intriguing it was, and I tried to get their voices heard.
Edmund: Well in another chapter, "The Taystee Bread Man" you seem to suggest that you were always gay, even as a nine-year-old, and that you weren't above turning your seduction skills onto an adult man. Does that mean you think we're born gay?
Felice: No, I was trying to show how some children are sexual, period. I wrote that he "excited me" but that we didn't have sex because he was shy or ignorant and I didn't know what sex was. It's not a question of homo or heterosexuality, I believe, just some kind of proto-sexuality. Of course, he became avatar of some men I would later on meet in life, whom I naturally found alluring.
Edmund: Regarding honesty in writing, a young writer named Dana Spiota said that I'm courageous because I write about what sex really is. For example, the idea of a gay man being in love with a straight man: my students will say, "Oh yes, I went through that for years. And how much torment it brought me." So I think it's an eternal theme. Partly it happens because young straight men have an awful lot of down time and they unconsciously spread their emotions to gay men without wishing to do so, or possibly without even intending to do so.
Felice: And yet in my novel "Onyx" I wrote about the sounds and odors of even very hot sex as honestly as possible and some readers were turned off by it. So who knows?
Edmund: Thinking about these straight men, gay man relationships, of course some of the straight men are aware of what they are doing and they do it a bit maliciously too, you know, keeping a gay guy hanging on. After all most people like to be adored, and if you have some clever, interesting, gay guy who is hanging on your every word and will do your term papers for you and introduce you to great girls and then blow you at the end of the day, well that's a pretty good life.
Felice: Now that's what I call being honest about it.
Edmund: It's odd, but women in my class who write about boys and men never write about how cute the guys are, whereas gay students always do. Is the wiring of the genders so different?
Felice: So everyone says. Aside from sex, I've had zero interest in straight men. Before AIDs came along, I used to sleep with plenty of allegedly straight or bi guys. Down in Key West where I lived a few months I had construction workers coming and going. My gay roommate marveled. I did it by being casual and by not caring about them once they were out of bed -- NSA.
Tell me, Edmund, how much of it is honesty and how much is getting into someone's face (real or metaphorically) in your work?
Edmund: Well, I don't like the reader to fall asleep and I do enjoy shocking readers if that will keep them awake. My ideal reader, the sixty-year-old straight, European or European educated woman, I believe that she will read this book. I'm hoping women will read this book because there's a lot about me inside it. Women and gay men have something in common after all: in that they are trying to deal with this goofy egotistical monster called a man. And this book is set in the past, so things have changed a bit: the relationships and how men and women deal with each other. But there are still men around who are caught in the moment of history, typified by Will Wright in this novel.
Felice, you seem to do something similar in your "True Stories." I'm thinking of the chapters on your business partner Terry Helbing, and on our colleague, Robert Ferro, which are blunt, and often shocking in their revelation. Robert Ferro was one of your best friends and a significant writer in his own right, not to mention a decisive influence on your own life and work. I knew Robert also and he was a complex, sometimes capricious person, not above frightening manifestations of revenge for real or imagined slights. Have you been haunted by his ghost? If so, has it blessed or cursed your portrait of him? Have members of Ferro's family contacted you with praise or criticism?
Felice: Not yet, no to those last questions. I think that Robert would have been pleased by how rounded a portrait I tried to paint of him. Like some of the other people in this book that I came to know either quickly or after a long time, Robert opened up to me in ways he didn't to anyone I believe but maybe his life partner, Michael. I'm not sure why, perhaps because like those straight men I shtupped, he recognized that I had no stake in him: I didn't care. It was only later that it all kind of came home to me. Of course, Robert left a mixed legacy with his family. One sister said to me, "it's been so quiet since he died." I wanted to ask, "Quiet? Or just really boring?"
Edmund: In some cases in "True Stories," especially with the chapter on Charles Henri Ford, you are one of the few living links with a nearly mythic (but mostly under-explored) figure of American surrealism and cultural history. Did you feel an intimidating responsibility in writing this chapter?
Felice: As with Auden and so many others in the book, it was so surprising a friendship to happen at all, and it came at such a busy time in my life, that I didn't question it. I first began writing about Charles Henri Ford, in my book about the founding and then operation of the Seahorse Press and Gay Presses of New York, "Art & Sex in Greenwich Village." It turned out that we were the first American publishers of his 1933, seminal book, "The Young and Evil."
I wanted to expand on that portrait because Charles was such a character! He did such odd and funny things with me that even then I knew he wouldn't do with anyone else. I just wanted to get it all down in print for others to try to make sense of. Like, how he happened to "rediscover" those watercolors his lover Pavel Tchelichev made for the book, just when I was about to go to print -- art no one had seen in sixty five years! Recently at a Lit. Conference, a scholar of the Paris in the '20s period told me that Charles and his sister, the actress Ruth Ford, lied about their ages from the beginning so they would appear to be prodigies among Gertrude Stein's set. He died at 89 she at 99: so how old were they really? In his final decade Charles was scrambling for money. Yet Ruth left an estate over 8 million dollars -- to Charles's assistant, Indra! But the siblings saw each other daily. How nuts is all that!? And yet, somehow, how typical!
Edmund: How did you decide on the sequence of these chapters in "True Stories?" Is there something progressive in the effect if read straight through from beginning to end? Or did you want comic relief here and there -- or a return to everyday people and concerns (getting a driver's licence) after your brushes with greatness?
Felice: Are you sitting down? -- I couldn't decide on an order, so they're alphabetical! Or almost: one is out of order. I had been thinking about the collection for several years and when I added the chapter about me interviewing fashion dictatrix, Diana Vreeland, it all fell into place. She'd be the penultimate -- and Tennessee the last one.
But tell me about the end of your "Jack Holmes," which I loved. It is so French! So... dare I say, sophisticated? Your ideal reader should love that.
Edmund: You know there's a technique I've used in this book different than any other previous one: I'm aspiring for it to be a page turner and I'm trying to limit it to action-dialogue-action, without much description.
Felice: Well, it does read marvelously fast. So you succeeded. And while the changes of point of view take a few pages to get used to; it pays off in various dividends to make it quite worthwhile.