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Gay straight through

Philip Hamer talks exclusively to the American writer Edmund White before his Manchester event

Published on May 11th 2007.


Gay straight through

When you suggest to the distinguished American writer Edmund White that at the age of 67 he is the consummate survivor he doesn’t disagree.

Diagnosed with HIV in 1985 - he offers the opinion that he might well have acquired the condition a decade earlier when he was a New York bath house regular - he has lived to become the acclaimed chronicler of a doomed generation. His semi-autobiographical trilogy - A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony - has become one of the definitive explorations of a modern gay life.

After 16 years in Paris, he returned to the States just as his country shifted to the right with the arrival of George Bush Jnr in the White House. He thinks the subsequent years have been catastrophic for his homeland. He calls the US both “reprehensible and fascinating” but asks that we never forget “the other America that has given us so much great literature and music and much that has made our lives better.”

White says even the most intelligent people baffle him sometimes with their extravagant affirmations of the most illogical religious belief.

For so long not a politicised writer like Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe he changed when he wrote the play Terre Haute which recently played in the Royal Exchange Studio here prior to its London opening. Intrigued by a series of letters between the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and the writer Gore Vidal which have never been published, White’s play is based on a fictitious meeting between the two in the bomber’s Terre Haut prison cell“My homosexuality,” says White, “seemed to place me outside the mainstream right and left of political debate. To me growing up in America it seemed to me that I was living in another country. Timothy McVeigh has always intrigued me as a character. His motives for the Oklahoma outrage were never established apart from the fact that he claimed to be influenced by the Waco killings. At his trial he hardly spoke about what he had done. What is fascinating about McVeigh is that he is someone who acted strictly from political motivations (no matter how misguided) and never from motives of personal gain.”

White encountered one or two complaints that in his depiction of McVeigh he was humanising a monster. White says that we must always seek to understand before we make our minds up and this has always been at the heart of his work. This mantra seems currently more relevant than ever. Two years ago White’s beautifully written self-confessional memoir My Lives was received with mixed reviews. Remarkably candid about his sexual activities it bucked the publishing industry’s current trend for memoirs that as White puts it “can be written as long as the writer reveals nothing.” Literary coyness is certainly not one of White’s attributes.

Sophie Bassouls

His two days a week at Princeton University teaching creative writing keep him in touch with people. He sees this as being essential for a writer. He says he has seen many a dazzling literary star acclaimed in their early twenties for an extraordinary debut novel no longer twinkle because the writer fails to move among his readers.

No one can accuse Edmund White of ploughing the same literary furrow again and again. He has written acclaimed studies of Genet and Proust and a very individual Paris guidebook called Le Flâneur – The Stroller. The sexual ambivalence of the 19th century writer Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge Of Courage, is the subject of White’s forthcoming novella Hotel de Dream. In it he focuses on a straight man pondering the homosexual life.

Though he cried every evening for a long while on returning from his Parisian exile he does not see himself returning to live in the French capital. He admits to being fearful that Bush has some time left in office and though he cites Hillary Clinton as an articulate and intelligent woman he doesn’t see her becoming President. He says she lacks simpatico with people. Discussing America’s obsession with Christianity-one American in three is born again- White says even the most intelligent people baffle him sometimes with their extravagant affirmations of the most illogical religious belief.

At the end of our conversation he reminds me that together with fellow writer Larry Kramer he recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis which he helped to found when early signs of the virus were spreading among gay men. It’s perhaps typical of White that he feels as proud of that as he is of his writing.

Edmund White, Essential (Minshull Street/Bloom Street, the Village. Tickets from www.quaytickets.com 0870 428 0785) £9. 8pm.Tue 15 May.

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