Edmund White has written biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud. He has also written several novels; the most recent is Jack Holmes and His Friend: A Novel. Having lived in Paris for many years, he has now settled in New York, and he teaches at Princeton University. His memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, will be published in early 2014.
Interviewer: I’m interested in the way you blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction in your work. To what extent do you believe that a writer has the responsibility to tell the truth and whether you believe that the truth is fully knowable?
Edmund White: I think you have different contracts with readers in different genres. If you call something an autobiography or a memoir then I think you have a contract with the reader to tell the truth to the best of your knowledge and if you write a biography certainly you have the obligation. I was very dismayed to talk to a biographer recently who told me that in his biography of a famous writer he made up an episode where the guy comes up and smashes a car window and he said to me, “I just made that up.” I said, “But that’s not your contract with the reader. You’re supposed to have interviews and factual accounts.” I think it depends on the genre. I hate the word creative nonfiction. I think that sounds like a synonym for lying.
The larger philosophical question is: can you know the truth? I think the truth is always like a horizon that you’re walking toward, and maybe it’s not a point you ever reach but you can orient yourself toward it.
For instance, Jean Genet went through a period where he went from being very feminine, wearing makeup, and then in prison, he became very macho. I heard that late in his life in the 1960s, he danced in a pink negligee for the Black Panthers in America, and I thought this couldn’t be given all I knew about his struggle to convert from femme to butch. Then Davis told me, “I love Genet. He was the original gender-bender.” He was the second witness who claimed to have seen Genet dancing in a pink negligee for the Black Panthers. I finally accepted what I thought was out of character for him. It didn’t fit the trajectory of his life that I had made, but I felt the truth was more important than my version of it.
When you write as an adult narrator about your younger self. How do you negotiate between childhood truth and memory and an adult perspective? Which do you try to remain more faithful towards?
I’ve never thought about that question until this very moment. I’ve never written about my childhood in an autobiography. My Lives is arranged by topics, and I did that specifically so I wouldn’t have to write about childhood.
The tale I was telling about the child between the ages of five and sixteen was a very bleak one, and yet I wanted to suggest to the vulnerable gay reader that it all turned out all right. Even though he never tells his own story, I wanted to give the adult narrator a composed Olympian tone because I thought that would suggest to the reader that things did turn out all right. There’s a child protagonist and an adult narrator. I tried to recover as many childhood memories as I could without falsifying too much.
The thing is that we all mythologize about our own childhood. Our family especially does it for us. “Oh, you’re just like your father. So impractical. You’re always dreaming.”
They create a story for you before you can create one for yourself.
That’s right. Even when you’re older, they tell you what you were which falsifies your experience. I think most people who are interested in surviving, not in writing, tend to rectify their earlier memories in the light of what they now believe. For instance, I have a friend, she’s 86 now. I met her when I was fourteen and now, I’m 64. I remember distinctly when we were young, she was a Stalinist. But like most human beings, she’s rewritten her past. At the time, though, she was always defending Stalin.
I think of my own experience in water-tight compartments. I have that kind of memory. I try not to rewrite the past in light of my present beliefs. Not only about other people but about myself.
I was really struck by something you said in a Paris Review interview many years ago. “I think the truth is that novelists are not universal legislators of morality, they don’t set out to write about the most important issues; they write about the ones that have actually touched their lives.” In some of your work, the personal and “the most important issues”—I’m thinking specifically of your experiences living through the AIDS epidemic—are closely related.
I went from when I was teenager, thinking I was utterly unique, the strangest person who ever lived to later thinking I was generic, typical, a gay man of my generation, psychoanalyzed and oppressed in the 50s and liberated in the 60s and exalted in the 70s and wiped out in the 80s. There was this rapid spin cycle that was characteristic of me and millions of others in my generation. I guess I came to see myself in this everyman way, and I played to that as a writer.
In my novels, I try to make myself seem more representative or less strange.
Are you writing for a specific audience?
Yes, I think when you’re writing for a minority group, you’re very aware of writing things that aren’t too difficult for say, the average gay man to identify with. I’m always very thrilled when a sixteen year old boy from Ghana writes to me and says your life is just like mine. Wait a minute. I was writing about an over privileged white boy in the 1950s in the Midwest and this black boy in Ghana thinks his experience is just like mine. I love that.
How do you think you’ve achieved that?
I think by writing about inner thoughts, psychological processes, feelings of alienation and oppression, all the fears and doubts and not concentrating so much on what I call Coca-Cola Realism. Not just brand names.
Proust lived an enormously privileged existence during the Belle Époque in Paris, and yet everybody can relate to him. I think he’s eclipsed Joyce. It’s because he goes from the specific to the general. He very quickly leaves the immediate experience and tries to find some general principle, some reflection about life or love or the nature of time.
It seems to be the case in some contemporary fiction that narrative arc and plot are often privileged over the sensual detail and tactile emotions your fiction seems particularly interested in.
When I was writing Boy’s Own Story, I thought, “I should try to write well.” I think often times writers hide behind a kind of photographic realism. They don’t even know themselves whether their characters like this person or not, whether they believe in something or not. They just endlessly recount how things smell or taste. Irony and photographic realism are the two vices of fiction.
You believe they’re masks?
Do you think that’s a symptom of contemporary fiction/sensibility?
I think it’s very American. French writers write very short books. Something like a big fat novel by Jeffrey Eugenides can be very popular in France, but it still seems very strange to them, mapping out a whole world. Presently, I’m reading the number one best seller in France about a boy growing up as a sissy. It’s just so sparingly written and so beautiful. It really captures the sequence of emotions and the baffled reasoning of a teenager being ostracized in a new school for being too sissy.
Who else are you reading?
I love one French writer being translated now. Emmanuel Carrere. Though he no longer writes novels because he believes fiction can’t keep up with the oddness of life. Joy Williams. She’s so unpredictable. From the dead writers: Christopher Ishman. And one more. I love Lorrie Moore.