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At 76-years-old, Edmund White has become extremely adept at mining his world for material. His first novel was published in 1973 and he has since “written 25, just out of desperate poverty.
“Even in my real life – over here they say ‘IRL’ – I think I’m always already imagining my experiences being fictional,” the American author told GRAZIA while lying on his bed in the Manhattan neighbourhood of Chelsea, the New York enclave where he moved in 1962 and has lived for most of the last half century – save for a prolific 16-year period lived in Paris.
“The process of translating things from actual experience into writing isn’t very difficult when it’s autobiographical. If it’s like this new novel, Our Young Man, which is entirely made up, and all the characters are imagined, not imitated from life, it requires a thing that Flaubert called ‘the marinade’. You have to lie on the couch a long time and daydream.”
Our Young Man, out now, follows a similar trans-Atlantic trajectory to the one enjoyed by White. It follows its Dorian Gray-like central character, a seemingly perpetually ageless French male model named Guy who moves from Paris to the heart of New York’s notoriously fickle fashion world, set against a backdrop of the hedonistic 1970s.
It’s a world White has observed (and thus mined) very well, having worked as a cultural writer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, also counting amongst his friends the iconic designer Azzedine Alaïa.
“I had lots of amusing experiences,” he recalls of that time living in Paris surrounded by titans of that industry. “I went to Yves Saint Laurent’s house in Deauville and wrote about a Russian dacha that he had designed. He was very sensitive, and very shy, and a little bit drugged. He would always nod off.”
Below, White reflects candidly and charismatically on his formative years, how he found mentors in literary giants and why everything he has done, he has done for love.
Credit: Ethan Hill on Instagram
You mentioned that you always knew you wanted to be a writer. When did you first have that realisation? “I was very interested in all the arts as a child, and I would try my hand at painting, and composing, and playing the piano, and the harp, and the recorder, and the harpsichord. But the only thing I was any good at was writing. I had an eighth grade teacher who said she thought I had a small talent. That was like the first break I ever had so I decided to pursue that. I wrote lots of sonnets when I was 14 and they were accurate formally. I knew how to do it, and I think somebody had given me a book on poetry, and so it gave you all the forms, and the meter, and the rhymes. Like most people I wrote poetry first, and then when I was 15-years-old I wrote a novel, my first novel about a boy coming out as gay. This was in 1955, so it was quite unusual. I’d never read a gay novel. It was called, The Tower Window.”
And had you come out by that stage? “I think I had told my mother, and I was going to a psychiatrist hoping to get over it, but very slowly.”
Do you think writing that novel was your own way of working through those feelings? “Yes I do, it was definitely therapeutic. I went to a boarding school, and I didn’t play sports, so I had my afternoons free to do all my homework. We had an enforced two hour study hall every evening, and I would use that period to work on my novel.”
What was your relationship like with your mother? Were the two of you close? “Yes, but I started at a very early age to see a psychiatrist and psychiatrists, especially then but even now probably, are always trying to make you hate your mother. I would be spiteful of my mother every once in a while, but I basically adored her.”
And your father, what was he like? “He was a monster. The biggest bore who ever lived, and he was a cigar smoking, Texas cowboy who looked and acted like John Wayne.”
What is the most resounding thing that you learned from your mother? “She was relentlessly optimistic, and cheerful, and I am too. Maybe that’s just a genetic I don’t know, it probably is, but I’ve always been very optimistic, and happy by nature.”
Are you hopeful for the future then, especially for America’s future? “Oh for America? Oh dear, poor America. I don’t know, I heard Obama give a speech the other day, it was a commencement address that he gave at Howard University, which is a black university. He was arguing that people today were so much better off than they were 20 years ago in terms of employment, in terms of higher education and so on. I guess most Americans feel that everything is going downhill, and it’s partly because our pundits are always telling us everything is falling apart.”
What’s your prediction for the election then? “Well I’m hoping Hillary will win, but I imagine Trump could win.”
And what do you think that would mean for the LGBTQ community? “I think he’s a fairly sophisticated New Yorker who probably has lots of gay friends, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the whole question. I think though he’s pretending to be a churchgoing conservative, I don’t think he’s either conservative or churchgoing. He doesn’t seem to know the least thing about the Bible, and I don’t know, in America every four people has had a personal conversation with Jesus Christ. There’s no other country in the Western world, certainly not Australia, that is like that.”
Credit: Ethan Hill on Instagram
Our Young Man deals with themes of endless youth and the inevitability of old age. Having been writing for over 60 years, what stands out to you as a lesson you wish you’d known when you were a young man? What has this career taught you? “Oh, I don’t think very much I’m afraid. as I say I’m fairly optimistic and happy by nature, which I think is a question of temperament rather than any sustained arguments. It’s just some people wake up happy, and other people wake up sad. I think that when I was younger I was desperate about being successful as a writer, and I still want to write well, but I don’t have any illusions about becoming rich and famous.”
Have you worked alongside any other writers from whom you’ve taken a great deal of inspiration? “Yes, one of them was Christopher Isherwood. You might have seen the movie [adaptation of his novel, directed by Tom Ford], A Single Man? I knew him fairly well, and he was a great mentor because A Single Man is the first really modern gay novel. It’s unapologetic, it doesn’t attempt to give a diagnoses or an ideology of how the character came to be gay. It shows him in a social world. Isherwood himself was a great laugher, he just laughed all the time. I got to know him when I was in love with a painter out in Los Angeles and I would go there a lot, and Isherwood’s lover, Don Bachardy was a painter, so I thought, ‘Well this is good, if we have double dates, maybe this boy will think that it’s a good idea to be a painter and have a writer as a lover [too]’. It never worked out.
Then my second mentor, whom I never met, but who I exchanged letters with was Nabokov, who wrote Lolita. I met his wife, his widow after he died, but I talked to him on the phone several times, and he said that my first novel, Forgetting Elena, was his favourite American novel. That was the first thing that put me on the map.”
What has being a writer taught you about rejection? “Well my first novel, Forgetting Elena wasn’t really my first novel. It was about my fifth novel, but I had submitted maybe three of them, they had all been rejected, and then this one, Forgetting Elena, which I thought was actually good was rejected by 22 publishers. In those days you couldn’t multiple submit, you had to wait until one person rejected it until you submitted it again. Anyway one of our best publishers Knopf was considering that book for maybe six months, and then they finally rejected it.
I was living in Rome, and I remember going to American Express and getting my mail, and reading the rejection letter, and I just sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed. I was walking along through the forum, and I was saying, “I can’t speak, I can’t speak, they won’t let me speak.” I was sobbing away, and then I decided although I’m in atheist, I always make bargains with God, and so I made bargain God that if he sent me a beautiful angel, or a man, that I would not commit suicide.
The next thing you know this really handsome blonde Venetian came up to me and said, “Oh why are you crying? Can I help you?” We went to bed, we had a little affair, I was 29, but what did I learn from it? I guess I learned from it that God exists although I’m an atheist.”
Credit: Ethan Hill on Instagram
Do you think happiness makes for great material for a writer? “No, well, I think it must for some people, like a woman I used to know called Laurie Colwin who was quite a popular novelist in the 1960s. She wrote a book called Happy All The Time and my uncle wrote a memoir called Happy All The Time, so I guess it is interesting sometimes. They give you a glimpse into the lives of mature, happy, functioning people. Those kinds of people so rarely write.”
What’s the greatest obstacle standing between you and being ‘happy all the time?’ “Oh, I think probably my health. I’ve had two major strokes and a heart attack that put me in hospital for 40 days. Then the other thing is that I’m 76 now and a lot of my friends have died. People I’ve known since I was 16, they’re all beginning to die, and my best friend who was a woman I was engaged to when I was young, she died just a year exactly a year ago. She was the witness to my life, so those things make you sad because when something amusing happens, or somebody does something crazy, or you hear some absurd thing, and you want to call up your friend and share it with her – well, she’s not there anymore.”
It seems as though you’ve made a lot of decisions throughout your life and career out of love, and often on a whim. “Almost every decision I’ve ever made has been governed by love. It never works out, but why not keep trying at least?”
Our Young Man by Edmund White is published by Bloomsbury, $27.99, out now.
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