In 1983, after moving to Paris, Edmund White was asked by a journalist for the French magazine Masques if he was a “gay writer.” White recalls that he responded yes, and the surprised interviewer told him, “You’re the first person we’ve ever interviewed who has said yes to that question!” Masques was a gay magazine.
White is far from the first “gay writer” (especially in France, with its richer, longer tradition of taking gay themes and authors more seriously), but his unapologetic approach to writing about gay life has always made him stand out. It was his 1982 autobiographical novel, A Boy’s Own Story,that introduced both White and the coming-out narrative to a wider audience, along with frank, transgressive depictions of budding adolescent homosexuality.
Although White drew from his own experiences, he felt that “nobodies” like him could not produce memoirs at the time. To write a memoir, “you had to be the hero of the battle of Iwo Jima or have invented the safety pin,” he says. He also toned down many of his own experiences to make the narrator more widely representative: “Even though he is pretty odd, he’s a lot more normal than I was,” White says. “Whereas in a memoir, you can make yourself every bit as strange as you really are.”
It wasn’t until the late 1990s, after producing several more novels treating the AIDS crisis and the award-winning, definitive biography of the mythic writer Jean Genet, that White began to share these strange, naked facts with readers. Alongside the various fictions he has released, he also wrote of his time in Paris and his escapades in 1970s New York, and he even offered a poignant and funny take on his heartbreaking sadomasochistic, master/slave relationship in a standout chapter of the autobiography My Lives.
However, his latest memoir, The Unpunished Vice,might be the most intimate thing White has yet created, since it centers entirely on his deep relationship with reading. After spending a month where he could not read following a heart attack, his partner, fellow writer Michael Carroll, encouraged him to start writing again by focusing on literature directly. “I think that it is true,” White says, “that books do show different aspects of your personality. Like, in my case, the formation of a gay identity from early reading.”
White also explores the influences behind his many nonbiographical novels. Time spent reading about ancient Japan and modern New York led to the fantastical Forgetting Elena (which was apparently adored by Vladimir Nabokov). Deep research helped create his imaginative, fictive portraits of Stephen Crane and Frances Trollope in Hotel de Dream and Fanny: A Fiction, respectively. Acquaintances and, of course, Oscar Wilde play parts in forming the eternally youthful Guy at the center of White’s latest novel, Our Young Man.By delving into the literary origins of these more inventive plots, White addresses his voice as a writer, the thread that ties all of his books, autobiographical or otherwise, together.
White has worked hard to maintain that voice across all his writings, including the novel he’s currently working on, A Saint in Texas. “I would like people to think that I always wrote very carefully,” White says, “and that my books are all equally good or equally bad.” As for subject matter, White remains pleased to be thought of as a “gay writer” and proud of his contribution to the gay liberation.
“I think contained in the word novel is novel, something that is a novelty,” White says, “And I think that the privilege of being able to write about a whole new, unexplored world—at that time—was a great privilege.” In thinking about future pioneers and what queer authors following in his footsteps might do next, White offers that he would like to see people break away from less colorful, more politically correct depictions of homosexuality: “I think that they should write about evil characters,” he says, “evil gays.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.