|"There is this dumbing down of gay culture, and nobody reads or cares," says Edmund White.|
Bugs' interview with Edmund White originally ran in Xtra
Literary lion Edmund White is well known to gay readers as a novelist, biographer, memoirist and charter member of the Violet Quill, the legendary New York City writers group whose members – White, Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Christopher Cox and George Whitmore – are widely considered to be the trailblazing gay-male literary nucleus of post-Stonewall 20th-century America.
But on the eve of his much-anticipated arrival at the 2013 edition of Montreal’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, White told me, “You can make too much of the Violet Quill. I mean, we only met seven or eight times. But I do think it was very useful at the time, in the late '70s and early '80s, because without even discussing it, we figured out who would have which turf. For instance, Andrew [Holleran] would write about Fire Island, I would write about childhood, and Felice [Picano] would often write about the dark side of things.”
White — who suffered a stroke last summer (he has fully recovered) — turned 73 in January. In the interview below he speaks about the evolution of gay life, literature, barebacking and equal marriage.
Bugs: I was a young and terrified gay teen when I read your 1982 novel A Boy’s Own Story, credited as the first coming-out novel ever written. It changed my life. You get that a lot, don’t you?
Edmund White: People still say that to me all the time, and it always pleases me. I remember once this black guy from Zaire writing me that his life and my life were exactly alike, and I thought, ‘How could a 16-year-old in Zaire have a life just like mine in 1956 Midwest America?’ But if you go deep enough, it becomes universal.
Is the coming-out novel dead? Do we read them anymore?
I do think it’s time for people to move on to other subjects. There are so many stories about gay life that haven’t been treated, and to cover coming out again and again is a mistake. There are so many other subjects like that we can write about, like my  book Jack Holmes and His Friend, which is – to my knowledge – the first book about a gay man and a straight man who are best friends.
I [also] think the whole of society is interested in gay life right now. I mean, you can’t turn on [American] television right now without hearing a story about gay marriage. The thing is, if you’re not going to be straight, the most obvious thing to be is gay. People are turning the tapestry over to see the weaving and that’s gay life, and I think gay life tells you a lot about straight life.
When Felice Picano published his New York Times bestseller Like People in History in 1995, he told me his publisher wanted to subtitle it An American Epic. Felice insisted they subtitle it A Gay American Epic. Do you consider yourself an American author or a gay American author?
I pretty much accept the gay thing. There are as many good writers as I am who are straight who never got as much attention as I got, and I think it’s because I filled an empty ecological niche. So I am grateful for that. [But] I also like the way my books are treated in England because if you walk into a bookshop there, they will have a gay section, and my books will be there, but they will also [be in other sections]. That’s an ideal situation. In France, for instance, they don’t like identity politics, so there would be no Jewish novels, black novels or gay novels, though there are many novels written by Jews, gays and blacks. They believe in universalism. Whereas in America, I have a hard time picturing a straight man walking into his local Barnes & Noble and picking up a book in the gay section and then going to the cash register. I just can’t see that, and I think that’s a shame, and so I often think identity politics is a ghetto.
You, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano are the last remaining living members of the Violet Quill – the others have all died of AIDS. HIV and AIDS have so shaped your work and personal life. When you look back on the last 25 years of the pandemic, what makes you the most sad, or most angry?
I’m not an angry person, but I am saddened. I think about them all the time, but I don’t know if other people do enough. I feel like so many gay writers – especially those who wrote about AIDS in the '80s – many of them have been forgotten, and that’s too bad. I think people kind of roll their eyes now, since drugs are saving people’s lives, in the first world at least.
Somebody once said if all the authors we talk about had died before the age of 40, they would never have been famous. Many of my friends and colleagues did die before they were 40 and they didn’t get the chance to express themselves in mature work, and that’s a terrible loss. I also think in conventional gay life today there is this body fascism [where] everybody goes to the gym, and there is this dumbing down of gay culture, and nobody reads or cares. It’s not just the death of good authors, but the death of readers. You could always count on gays to know something about Wagner, about literature and maybe read a volume or two of Proust. But today? Forget it. Nobody cares. But that used to be the ticket to admission to gay life.
How do you feel about barebacking today?
Well, I’m positive and have been for years, and if I’m with someone who is also positive, I’m all for barebacking. It’s pleasurable. I don’t believe in reinfecting somebody. But if somebody is negative or doesn’t know, I practise safe sex. Barebacking is obviously more fun and more natural. But it’s not ethical with people who are negative.
Were you scared when you had a stroke last year?
I had that stroke in June. I couldn’t walk or talk and I was in the hospital for 17 days. My speech [still] is a little halting, but it didn’t really affect my cognizant functions. When it happened I was scared. It happened when I was having a normal surgical procedure – a heart catheterization where they stick a wire up your arm to see if your heart is okay, and my heart was perfect – but the wire dislodged some plaque. That’s what brought on the stroke. But I’m better now – I’m back teaching full-time [at Princeton University], I’ve written a new book, I’m living pretty much the same I was before. I’m taking care of myself, and I think I’ll live to be 100.
You will be headlining two French-language Q&A events at Blue Metropolis in Montreal. You lived in Paris from 1982 to 1990. Is that where you learned to speak French?
I studied French in boarding school, but I could not really speak it. But when I moved to Paris in 1982 – I was 42 years old already – I had a number of French lovers who didn’t speak English and a dog who only understood French. So I learned French.
Then when my Jean Genet book [Genet: A Biography] came out [in 1993], I was published simultaneously in French and English and [the French publisher] Éditions Gallimard brought me up to Montreal to do some TV and bookstore appearances.
Your 2006 West End and off-Broadway play Terre Haute was inspired by the essays Gore Vidal wrote for Vanity Fair about his correspondence with Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Vidal freaked out and threatened to sue you for suggesting he’d been physically attracted to McVeigh. How did that all resolve itself, and what are your thoughts of Vidal in his final years?
I told Vidal, ‘At the time I wrote the play I sent it to you and you faxed me back that it was fine.’ I think he forgot that because he’d gone in for hip surgery and he had lots of painkilling drugs after that, and he was drinking – he was usually drunk by noon – and he had memory lapses. So I pointed that out to him and that we [originally] had a good relationship before, that we had met through Peggy Guggenheim and then [again] through Christopher Isherwood in California and that he had even blurbed one of my novels, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, in 1978. I told him that we always had a pleasant relationship even though we barely knew each other. So he gave me his blessing.
In his final years it was a pity he drank so much because he came off as less than brilliant and came off [instead] as angry and incoherent. I think that’s just alcoholism of an older man. But I think he was a wonderful essayist, and he was very funny and very radical.
What do you think about same-sex marriage? Have we become just like everybody else?
Yeah, I think so. Gay rights become very popular when gays want to do something very binding and constraining, like getting married. Now they’re adopting children and going to the PTA. The typical gay couple now is two lawyers who are 35, have a Korean adopted daughter and who are very active in the community. In my old bohemian past, we would have sneered at that, either the straight version of that or the gay version. I’m all for gay marriage because it makes all sorts of people on the Christian right angry, and anything that makes so many people angry has to be good! It should be a universal option. Gay people should have the choice.
You were awarded the Pioneer Award alongside your Violet Quill comrades Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano at the Lambda Literary Awards in 2009. What was that day like?
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