Central PA's LGBT News Source
Called “his eminence grise” of gay male literature, Edmund White, 77, is now part of the well-respected University of Mississippi's "Conversations with…" series.
A Broadway of bold face names – Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal – the series is craftily edited by Will Brantley and Nancy McGuire Roche who selected 21 interviews. White has been formally interviewed more than 100 times, making selection a daunting task in order to properly reflect his life, times, and all the nuance over which readers will argue for years to come.
Central Voice publisher and editor Frank Pizzoli’s second White interview (2012) was selected for inclusion in the book.
Known for chronicling gay life, White is a novelist, memoirist, and an essayist on literary and social topics. Much of White’s writing is on the theme of same-sex love. His 28 books include The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) (written with Charles Silverstein), his trio of autobiographic novels, A Boy's Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), States of Desire: Travel in Gay America (1980) and his biographies of Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, and Marcel Proust.
The interviews range from a 1982 discussion of his early works to a new and unpublished interview conducted in 2016.
Pizzoli has interviewed White three times. One of those times was also with Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano. Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, a wildly successful 1978 gay novel still in print about gay men in New York City and Fire Island was published in the same year as White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Larry Kramer's Faggots.
Dancer is regarded as a major contribution to post-Stonewall gay male literature. Kramer founded ACT UP in 1987 after having founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981 in his living room across from Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. Pizzoli, along with Rodger Beatty and many others, was instrumental in the early 80s in helping to establish what is today Alder Health Services (first operating as South Central AIDS Assistance Network, then AIDS Community Alliance). Beatty and he were hosting meetings in their living rooms in order to address the region’s AIDS crisis.
“I’ve interviewed White in 2007, 2012, and in 2013 as one of the three surviving members of The Violet Quill, the cis-gendered, white, gay male literary Mafia that reigned in the 80s,” Pizzoli says. “We recorded the interview, almost 20,000 words.” Pizzoli underscores, “No, they were not, and are not, the first and last word on everything gay or everything AIDS”.
White was in the initial group that formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis. As Stonewall author Martin Duberman said in his first of two interviews with Pizzoli, when asked about the underreported role of women and minorities: “And thus far the history of those years is mostly focused on all those fine looking, upstanding white men, all of whom, except for Spencer Cox, survived. And why not? Everybody fights for his or her own life. Who can blame these guys? I don’t blame them. It’s just that they don’t represent all of what was going on in those years of the early AIDS struggle.” To which Pizzoli says, “Amen. I was there. I know who’s been included and who’s been excluded from AIDS history. We need to do better as the AIDS Canon moves forward.”
Speaking of exclusions, “There’s a delicious story from my third interview with Ed but I’m saving that one for a collection of interviews,” Pizzoli says. Big name interviews – and he’s done screeds of them, including Salman Rushdie, Joni Mitchell, Vickie Lawrence, John Waters (four times), Lipsinka, and iconic gay writers John Rechy, Christopher Bram – “are simple. You find out who’s real, who’s ridiculous. Most are real,” he says.
White is real. “He’s like a kid with a new toy when you show up at his NYC Chelsea flat to conduct your interview," Pizzoli says. At the end of his first interview with White, Pizzoli included an end section he called Meeting Edmund White.
Meeting Edmund White
Sometimes fate is kind. I’d wanted to interview Edmund White for some time, and wondered how to bring that about in an impromptu IM to Key West friend Chris Tittel, writer and playwright (A Live and Lusty Matter, Mammy’s Pantry, True North, about the Boy Scouts, currently working on The Chip System). That was 2007, and Tittel answered that he was having dinner with White the next evening. He’d ask on my behalf. The dinner fell through, but not the interview (LLR, Summer 2007).
Although I’m not a starchy guy, I do rely on antiquated manners no longer taught. So off went a warm but respectfully formal email that White answered in less than 35 minutes. His simple lower case, one-line note contained a date, time, location, and kudos on my writer’s resume. We were strangers.
While turning a corner in White’s apartment building, not sure of my direction, he stuck his head out the door, beaming a huge smile. Once inside, he offered to make us a pot of tea with a blend sent from a friend he made while living in Paris. “And some dried fruit?” he asked. He made me feel like if I’d said, “No thanks, but how about a grilled cheese sandwich?” he’d have made me one and asked how dark I’d like the bread grilled.
I moved to his living room to set up a recorder, with him talking to me from the kitchen. His partner Michael scurried in and out with plastic baskets. “We’re doing laundry today. If his passing through will be a bother, we can wait,” White asked. It wasn’t. When he brought out the tea and dried fruit and then sat down in his chair I realized he was just as excited as I was. My Q&A was next to me on the couch. White said he’d glanced at but hadn’t read the questions. “I like these things to be fresh,” he explained.
Fumbling with the recorder, I finally got it working. “I’m sitting here in the apartment of Edmund Wilson…” I said, and then froze. “We’d both be in trouble if that were true,” White quipped and we both laughed. He is human and still very much alive unlike Wilson, an American critic and writer, who died in 1972.
Despite the lacerating criticisms he’s endured—he’s this, he’s that; he’s not this or not that; he’s not every mother’s dream, as if any one of us is. And who among us wouldn’t want his writer’s resume?
I can’t possibly know if what he’s written will endure. Neither can White. I am glad he wrote what he did, when he wrote whatever he wrote, especially his novels. That was my time, my city, in the many ways NYC was, and remains, for so many others. If journalism is the first draft of history, novels written while the clock ticks away on current events may be the second draft. As far as writing novels, I’m with Somerset Maugham: There’s three rules to writing a novel but no one knows what they are.
Conversations with Edmund White has been published by University of Mississippi Press (2017) and is available in most bookstores and online.