Edmund White is one of the most influential and celebrated gay writers of all time. From his seminal autobiographical novels such as A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty to his biographies of writers including Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, to his travel writing, essays and memoirs, a new book from Edmund White is an event eagerly anticipated by his fans and the publishing world at large. His latest novel, Our Young Man, is set in the decadent bubble of the 1980s New York fashion world, which the stunning French model, Guy, is taking by storm.
Soon becoming the darling of Fire Island, Guy is an object of desire for men wherever he goes; men such as the rich but twisted Baron, or the film producer Fred, just out of the closet at 60 years of age, and desperate to look younger. As the years pass youth is not something that seems to evade Guy, like a modern Dorian Gray, he is still modelling at 35, enjoying lavish gifts and attention from men who believe he is far younger.
In this eloquent, witty and insightful novel Edmund White explores the capacity that physical beauty, that currency of gay culture, has to enslave and obsess us. Pride Life’s book reviewer Uli Lenart talks to Edmund White about his new novel, male models, getting older, writing and the history of Gay Pride.
Uli Lenart: Edmund White thank you so much for talking to Pride Life about your new novel, Our Young Man, I love it.
Edmund White: Oh, I’m glad you do. Great, I think it’s good but it has gotten some bad reviews, mostly from politically correct people.
UL: I loved it. It completely transported me. I find your honesty and perceptiveness quite forensic. I feel that your writing really gets under my skin.
EW: Well that’s always very important.
UL: Can you tell us a little about the choice of title?
EW: Well in the very first lines of the novel I talk about how, when Proust died, Colette said ‘how can he be dead? He was always our young man’, and since Guy almost never gets older he is everybody’s young man.
UL: So there is this play with the enduring youthfulness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that’s referenced throughout the novel.
EW: Well, I actually know quite a few models who never get older. Like Brad Gooch, the writer. He’s 65 but he looks probably no more than 45.
UL: He’s a very handsome man.
EW: Very handsome. He was a model for Armani.
UL: Did you speak to Brad about his modelling days when you were writing this book?
EW: Yes, I did. His downfall was that he posed for some ad that had a gay theme and that ruined his reputation.
UL: Really, that stopped him getting work?
UL: Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?
EW: Well, I worked for [French] Vogue for 10 years so I’ve always been interested in a mild, non-participating way, in fashion and I’ve also known a lot of models. I think physical beauty is sort of a theme of mine. It was very influenced by a novel by Alphonse Daudet called Sapho and that was not at all about lesbianism in spite of its name, but it was about a woman who turns 40 but who looks 20 and who has been kept by every rich man in Paris and finally she decides to have a young lover of her own. So she picks up a penniless French aristocrat and tells him that she’s 20 also and only slowly does he discover the terrible truth. By that point he’s too hooked to do anything. In the same book there is a forger who goes to prison for her. Anyway, I follow the storyline fairly closely but I modernise it, homosexualise it and Americanise it.
UL: So you transplant this relatively obscure 19th-century French novel into New York’s gay scene of the 1980s and Fire Island. Why did you want to set the novel then and there?
EW: Well 1980 was the year when models became supermodels, largely thanks to the photographer Bruce Weber, the male ones, and Fire Island was just the place where beautiful people went.
UL: Can you tell us a little about Guy, the central character?
EW: Well, I think I heard so many times the story of a person who was good looking and who went with a girlfriend when she was trying to get her pictures taken and the photographer was interested in the guy not the girl because the guy was the handsome one. So I sort of recreated that and I thought it was funny to have him go to Paris on a Christian mission. In a way it follows the trajectory of several lives I’ve known but unlike Dorian Gray I don’t think he is evil at all. He may hurt people but not intentionally.
UL: At one point in the book Guy is described as being like ‘a black hole’ but it’s more to do with the way that people ascribe their desires on him which I suppose it part of the talent behind a long career on modelling. It’s about projection.
EW: Exactly! I think it is true of beauty in general that people, like with actors if they are good looking, people think that they are very deep, or very shallow, or very narcissistic or very generous and big-hearted. People ascribe wildly different things. I’ve lived with quite a few different lovers, I’ve see what they’ve gone though.
UL: What did they go through?
EW: First of all they are very anxious about maintaining their beauty at all times. So they’ll try on three different outfits before going out to buy a loaf of bread. Secondly people do ascribe a whole wide range of feelings to them which they don’t necessarily have at all. Some people say ‘oh yes he’s beautiful but very stupid’ because that is a balance they have to maintain in their minds. Other times they ascribe virtues to the beautiful person that don’t really exist.
UL: There are both positive and negative elements associated with that. The book meditates on vanity, security, bitterness and longing, but at the same time it explores friendship and fraternity and love. In a sense there is a negotiated exchange around access to beauty. I’m thinking of Guy being encouraged to be a ‘clever whore’ to ensure he isn’t left with nothing at the end of the day.
EW: In [Guy’s agent] Pierre-Georges’ stage managing of it all from behind the scenes that happens but I think Guy just stumbles into a lot of the good things that happen to him. I don’t know, if you hang out with models they never pay for anything. They are insulted if someone gives them a tourist-class ticket instead of a first-class ticket. They just have a different set of expectations. I used to live with a remarkably beautiful boy who looked like Paul Newman.
UL: Wow, lucky you.
EW: Yeah, and one time a car screeched to a halt and out leaped a famous man who gave him tickets to Egypt. A stranger. They do live a different life than we do.
UL: In our beauty-, celebrity-, perfection-obsessed time that also has a psychological and emotional effect on those of us not as similarly blessed. There is a striving, a yearning which can foster insecurity. But I suppose that’s what is being exploited to get us to buy something.
EW: Yes, absolutely. You know the thing is that I was the very good friend of an old American photographer who lived in Paris called Louis Stettner and he showed me these fantastic photos that he took in the New York subway in the 1940s and 1950s. I said ‘what is different about these people?’ They look really different. And he said ‘that was before the age of self-improvement’. If you were fat, you were fat. If you had white skin you had white skin. If you had a mole on your forehead, you had a mole on your forehead. It’s true that now everybody thinks that they should improve their looks and they oftentimes know some ways to do it. When I was young if you were beautiful it was god given.
UL: We could talk more about postmodernity and vanity and plastic surgery but I think I’m more curious about this sort of pressure to belong. You get that quite strongly in contemporary gay culture, this pressure to be desired, that have the right property in the right location, decorated in the right style, just so people will esteem and desire you.
EW: Well I always say that being gay is twice as hard as being straight because you have to be as successful as a man and as beautiful as a woman.
UL: Another theme that comes up in the book is this notion of pain as pleasure, and the notion of masochism.
EW: Well the character of the Baron is actually a masochist. I think that there is self-denial and discipline that is required even in Guy’s very frivolous life. Like starving himself heroin thin [because the look is in]. I think it is a very rough life in a way because you’re endlessly being plumped and primped. Like in Down and Out in Paris and London where Orwell talks about having worked in a Paris restaurant and just before the food would go out the chef would sit at the kitchen door and plump the food with his greasy fingers to make it look beautiful. I think there is something like that, certainly in the world of runway with models where they are spraying them and poking them and pinning them; doing the whole thing to make the food look appetising.
UL: In the book I also picked up on this thread of a kind of gay vampirism, this notion of feasting on the youth of younger lovers and of them, in a way, feasting on the wealth of older men to remain financially solvent.
EW: Yes. Well, as I say, I don’t think Guy is really evil so if he preys on Kevin it’s with Kevin’s full cooperation. But he does misrepresent himself to Kevin, at first at least, and with the older men he’s got a European respect for the masochistic Baron. But that’s his downfall because he says, ‘Ça va, Monsieur le Baron?’, after they’ve had a hot scene; he is solicitous towards the Baron and it makes that Baron dissolve all interest in him.
UL: The illusion of the fantasy scenario they are in evaporates at that point.
EW: That’s right. I used to live with a very beautiful hustler who said that he was called to give his services one night to Tennessee Williams and he said I can either ruin his night by saying ‘oh, Mr. Williams, you are my favourite playwright’ or he can say what he did say which was ‘get on your knees, pig, and suck this dick’.
UL: [Laughing] Well, surely that didn’t ruin his night at all.
EW: [Laughing] No, no…that’s what he wanted. I think all of American culture is commodified. Martin Amis recently said to me that the trouble with America is that it’s all based on exchange of commodities.
UL: And Guy even refers to his own body as ‘merchandise’ at one point.
EW: Yes, right, exactly. I tried to think my way into the mindset of a model who probably would think that. It’s like something we all have, bodies, and yet your body has become a commodity. And Guy talks about his shelf-life. I tried to sink a probe into this whole complex of beauty, youth, money, that I think is such a big part of society in general but certainly of gay life.
UL: And I wonder about the effect of some of the media and the ideal representations of beauty and happiness and whether or not we are on some level creating an image for ourselves of aspiration that we can’t in actuality live up to.
EW: The golden calf. I used to say that about Fire Island. It is a race that everyone is running but nobody can win. Because there is always someone younger, better looking with a bigger dick who is even richer, or more prestigious, or from a famous family. I mean, there is always somebody round the corner who will outshine you if your whole life is based on commodification.
UL: Right. So surely the point is to try and have as much fun with this precious time we have here and enjoy it as opposed to being threatened by it all.
EW: Well, from my point of view that’s one of the advantages of getting older, is that you are no longer in the race at all. So you just admire the young winners [laughs], you don’t compete with them. I had lunch with a Turkish friend of mine yesterday, he was translating some of my books into Turkish. He’s gay and he’s 23 and he’s new to gay life in America and he was saying that he thinks the whole gym culture – this endless worrying about the body – is kind of homophobic in itself. The idea that you’re not valuable unless you have certain kinds of muscles which anybody can acquire if they do enough repetitions with weights. But you have to spend endless hours. He says when he sees somebody with big muscles he thinks, ‘oh you poor thing, you didn’t have anything better to do with you time.’
UL: [Laughing] Well, that certainly makes me feel slightly better.
EW: [Laughing] Well, you know the whole thing of somebody’s sweetness or honesty or even passion, all those things are discounted in favour of this image which is really finally photographic. If you read the beauty books of the 19th century they’ll talk about how to have beautiful laugh, how to have a beautiful walk, how to sit gracefully. But the 20th century beauty books are all about how to look good for the photographer. So the first level of reality has been replaced. Because some of these beautiful women in America squawk like Cantonese ducks, you know? They don’t care about their voice or their laugh or their movement, they just care about how they look in the picture.
UL: We are as a society so invested in appearance, with the influence of the internet and Facebook and imagery. People have speculated that the Instagram generation have begun to think about time differently; they see the present as a potentially instantly sharable memory, affecting how they participate in their lives. So it sounds shallow in one sense but it has potentially profound implications.
EW: I think so too. I think there is another aspect to Facebook is that nobody ever writes ‘I am miserable’ or ‘I think very little of myself and I wish I had more friends’. Everybody presents their lives as a total success story which is kind of cruel to those who are actually suffering from depression. It’s like you can never quite catch up with these ideal people that you see on Facebook.
EW: Well, thank you. First of all fiction is I think, in a way, the most comprehensive artistic form because it gives people thoughts, which is where we live, we live inside our heads. Like in movies, you can’t intuit or guess somebody’s thoughts, unless there is a voiceover, which is very un-cinematic, you never know what they are really thinking. Whereas with a novel, at least the main characters, you know what they are thinking. I find that so interesting, because people all have different reactions and insights and so on.
UL: It’s interesting because you are writing about, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you are writing about or perhaps drawing from your days as a younger man living in New York in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Does your novelisation of that time, you think, provide a portal for new, younger generations to access the smell and the feel of gay history? Is that what’s going on and is that important to you?
EW: Well, I think that now that there is the triple therapy and that most people are living, I mean that you don’t read so many obituaries from AIDS in the First World, so now we are being faced again with the same questions of a life entirely devoted to pleasure and beauty and partly the melancholy of it, which everyone who lived through the 1970s experienced. I mean, they might idealize that period but actually a life entirely devoted to pleasure is melancholy. And now we’ve sort of hooked up again with that problem, if you want to call it a problem.
UL: If we agree that the novelist fictionalises their reality to create art how does this affect the way in which the writer experiences their life?
EW: I always think that fiction is a cross between a newspaper article and a fairy tale. I think that a good writer maintains a good balance between those two extremes. I started writing this novel when I was in the hospital with a heart-attack, and I was in the hospital for a month, and it was sort of a low point in my life so I didn’t write about too much ugliness or misery. In other words I moved towards the fairy tale end of the spectrum and it is an almost entirely imagined novel. I mean, of course, every novelist uses bits and pieces of his own experience but I tried to invent it as much as possible. I mean, for instance, Fred who is the Hollywood producer who wants to look young and be an A-list gay, though he’s come out at 60, that’s [based on] someone I met only once in Hollywood who started telling me all these painful things he was doing to be young. It seemed so hopeless and yet sens pratique in a way too, you couldn’t help feel his pain. But he’d left a nice wife and children and run off into this really painful gay world…painful for a man his age.
UL: So going back, just slightly, having learned that you began writing this book in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, would you say that starting to write Our Young Man assisted you with your psychological recovery?
EW: Yes, I think so. I think that it cheered me up. It was like spinning a web, for me an iridescent web. Some people find it very grim, my book, but I don’t think so. I think it’s actually sort of glamourous.
UL: I wanted to ask a little bit about the aesthetic style of your novel. Do you feel like you’ve settled in to a favoured form or do you feel like your style needs to change with each book to suit the subject matter?
EW: Well, I read my reviews, unlike most writers who claim that they don’t, and I learn from them. There was a very good review in The Gay and Lesbian Review which said that I do this thing that very few American writers do, which he compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is this kind of rapid narration where you move though months and years in every paragraph and then you stop for a second for a scene and that’s something I’m glad that he wrote about, because I was sort of aiming for that, but groping toward it, and now he’s made it much more conscious, this critic. And another thing was people who don’t like the book, like those Amazon readers, I mean some of them, will complain about it being too cerebral and cool, the style, but I think that’s maybe my French side; that I like to analyse things. I admire a writer like D. H. Lawrence who’s so passionate but I don’t think I could ever really write that way. I tend to be kind of cool and analytic. So I guess you recognize certain features of your own style. But, on the other hand, I like to write about sex, but not pornographically, in other words I don’t want to get somebody off or write scenes which are like a marital aid. I want to be realistic and to describe what you actually think and feel whilst having sex because I think it is such an important part of life, that even if people don’t do it all the time, they think about it all the time.
UL: So talking about your French side, was it fun to, though the character of Guy to be able to interpret American culture from the perspective of a French person?
EW: Yes, very much. I lived in France for sixteen years and when I came back I couldn’t help but see things from a French point of view and then I’ve had French friends visit me and obviously if it is their first trip to America I’ll try to stop them sometime in the first 24 hours and say ‘okay, give me your impressions’ and they’ll say ‘oh, everybody moves down the street so unconsciously and recklessly that they’d be considered mad in France’. That people aren’t inhibited about movement and they sprawl everywhere and on the train they put their feet up on the opposing seat and do all kinds of things that Europeans would never do. That Europeans tend to be very tidy in their movements, so of self-conscious and you always see French mothers saying to their children, hushing them, telling them to be quiet, and if they don’t that people will look at you, while Americans want everybody to look at you. That was all fun for me to describe. For instance in Paris you are not allowed to ask ‘what do you do?’ for a living, at least not in the first meeting.
UL: It’s socially unacceptable?
EW: Yeah. So Guy will notice that people will say that to him right away or that he will say it to people straight away because he thinks he is being very American and brash. So little things like that.
UL: Do you think that describing a writer in terms of their sexuality, i.e. the gay novelist Edmund White, is that constraining do you think?
EW: Well, I’ve written two so-called straight novels, Caracole and Fanny, so I don’t feel particularly constrained about it. The thing that interested me in Caracole was that I had read a lot about 17th and 18th century dandies in Paris and they always seemed so gay to me but they were actually straight, so the idea of the straight dandy appealed to me in that book. There’s some peripheral gay action in Fanny because her son falls for a guy but she reports it, Fanny, but she seems unconscious of its significance. For me, I suppose, because maybe it’s my historical moment, it seemed very exciting to be a gay novelist in the sense that this whole new world was given to me, to explore and to write about. I wrote one the first coming out novels with A Boys Own Story. I [co]wrote The Joy of Gay Sex, all those things and those were the first in a genre, so it’s really fun for a writer to be able to get there first.
UL: Right, because there was no modern gay canon, if that’s not an overstatement. You were really at the forefront of creating that so that gay people had access to literature that reflected their experience.
EW: Well, yeah, that’s what I like to think [laughing]. One of the main differences was that, of course there had been gay novels before, like Gore Vidal’s and so on, but for the first time I think that The Violet Quill writers, my friends and me, we were writing for a gay reader rather than offering an apology to the straight reader.
UL: There was an affirmation of gay identity. It was literature that was by us, for us, with no apologies.
EW: That’s right, and you didn’t have to explain how somebody got to be gay, or you didn’t have to tell the reader what Fire Island was. But the other difference is that there were suddenly lots of institutions that supported this kind of writing. There were gay bookshops and there were serious gay periodicals like Christopher Street. People were able to write reviews, gay people were able to review gay books and even though that’s seen as terribly constraining in some ways it was terribly liberating.
UL: I wanted to ask you a little about your memories of Fire Island in the late 1970s, early 1980s.
EW: Well, one of the things that Guy notices, that was something I noticed, was that if you were in St. Tropez these very beautiful bodies would belong to gigolos, whereas on Fire Island they had beautiful bodies but they were also lawyers and surgeons. In [White’s novel] Forgetting Elena I also tried to show that status was not immediately obvious; everybody was in a swimsuit pulling a red wagon, and there was kind of a democracy of the body then. When you sat around having dinner one person might be a bank president and the other a starving artist. I just remember these long days that were marked by certain rituals like going to the disco or dinner but that basically you had so much free time, and it’s such a beautiful setting.
UL: I wanted to ask about your memories of attending Gay Pride marches in New York and elsewhere in the States around that period. What were those like and how would you explain their significance?
EW: I started marching in 1970 because I was actually involved in Stonewall in 1969 so all through the 1970s I think that those are fairly heroic events because there was an uncomprehending or hostile [reception] or religious groups looking on and hooting and so on. We had very mixed ideas. Some people, not me, but some people didn’t want there to be any drag queens or any leather queens because that was the wrong image for gays. You were supposed to be white and properly dressed and looking normal [laughs] and the excesses of the gay community, some people like me thought that was a good idea, but other people thought that was a losing combination. It was still very fraught. When you would walk down these canyon-like streets, like 5th Avenue, and people would be up at the windows looking down, and you worried, you know? You felt very vulnerable. But on the other hand there was a wonderful comradery too. I remember walking with all the leather boys once and [the poet] Thom Gunn was there and he put his arm around me and we were also sort of drunk and it was great fun.
UL: That sounds so beautiful. Can I ask if you have a favourite new gay writer, or if there is a book with gay themes that you’ve read recently that you’ve really loved?
EW: I like Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life.
UL: I interviewed Hanya in the last issue of Pride Life magazine actually.
EW: Oh, wonderful, she’s great isn’t she?
UL: She’s amazing.
EW: I love her. And I like Neel Mukherjee very much. And I think Damon Galgut is one of the greatest writers alive. I like Garth Greenwell. I have quite far reaching taste.
UL: You have great taste [laughs].
UL: Can I ask what you are working on now; what we are likely to see in the future?
EW: It’s a book about a life of reading. It’s called This Unpunished Vice which is something Valery Larbaud, he called reading, which I think is sort of funny. So I’m about half-way done.
UL: And what’s the future looking like for you, Edmund?
EW: Well I’m going to teach one more year at Princeton and then I might teach part-time at NYU. I love writing fiction so I’ll probably be doing that before long.
UL: Edmund, I just wanted to say it has been incredible talking to you. It has been an absolute joy, thank you so much.
EW: Oh, thank you, Uli, it has been so nice to talk to you.