Two Men Talking: Edmund White & John Irving

5.4.2012

By Edmund White and John Irving

Friends for decades, the iconic (and virile) authors talk frankly about sex, identity, and storytelling.

JI: I told Everett I was worried how some journalists will seize upon the story of my having a gay son as the only story, how they will make it a cause-and-effect tale -- the familiar laziness that believes everything in fiction is autobiographical. You know what Everett said: “Think about a kid like Billy or Gee. That kid should read this novel. In One Person would help that kid.” Everett’s point is that even a misguided interview with me, if it leads a young Billy to the book, is a worthwhile interview. If this is a novel I wrote for Everett, which it is, it is also a novel for kids like Billy or Gee -- the young reader who’s a bisexual boy in progress, and the young transgender girl in the making.

Maybe every novel of mine was always going to be written, but there are things that make the timing of when you write a particular novel feel more urgent. Writing In One Person at this time felt more urgent because of Everett. But publishing it now also feels more necessary -- because of the persistent gay-bashing by the Republican presidential candidates. Among those self-described social conservatives in the Republican Party, the similarity between opposition to abortion and opposition to gays and lesbians is growingly obvious. The righteous condemning of women with an unwanted pregnancy, and the condemning of gays and lesbians wanting to be treated the way straight people are treated, is borne of sexual disapproval; the social conservatives want pregnant women to “pay the price” for their presumed-to-be-promiscuous sexual activity, and they want gays and lesbians to suffer accordingly. The sexual backwardness of our country has always fueled my writing, and yours -- we are a sexually repressive country, a sexually punitive country. It’s a good time for you to be publishing Jack Holmes & His Friend and for me to be publishing One Person.


John Irving in his home in East Dorset, Vermont

EW: And you began One Person in the summer of ’09 and finished it before Christmas ’10 -- though you’d been thinking about it for seven years?

JI: I’ve often been thinking about novels for seven or more years before I begin writing them. While I choose the first-person voice reluctantly -- the first person makes any story longer, because you have to account for how the narrator knows everything -- when I do choose that voice, the novel is more quickly forthcoming. That’s because the narrator is a character. You’re one of the actors onstage; because you know your character, you know your character’s voice.

My first-person novels are confessional stories about sexually taboo subjects. The 158-Pound Marriage is about wife-swapping. The narrator of Hotel New Hampshire is incestuously in love with his sister. Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of Owen Meany, is called (behind his back) a “nonpracticing homosexual”; his love for Owen is repressed. I always saw Johnny as a deeply closeted homosexual who would never come out. Now there’s Billy Abbott -- a bisexual who is very out. Not only is One Person a shorter novel for me, but Billy was an easier first-person voice to be in than the closeted voice of Johnny Wheelwright. The repression in Johnny’s voice made the storytelling process a slow one in Owen Meany.

It was easier, and faster, to be in Billy’s voice. Billy isn’t beating around the bush about who he is or how he feels. Witness his line -- a play on the title -- “I knew that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.” Johnny Wheelwright and Billy Abbott are related first-person narrators, but Johnny is oh-so-careful -- he takes his sweet time -- and Billy just plunges in; he goes fast, both sexually and as a storyteller. Billy sped up the storytelling process for me.

But you know more about the first-person voice than I do -- you’re more at ease with it, not only because you write memoirs and I don’t. You seem more at ease with slipping into (and out of) that voice as a novelist. In Jack Holmes, I love the seamlessness of the shifts in point of view and in voice. There are also things in the dialogue that work wonderfully as characterization, the way dialogue always functions as characterization in a play or screenplay. Will says: “A married man can’t write autobiographical novels, not if they’re based on the truth.” (That tells us a lot about Will -- not only as a writer but sexually.) Or when Jack is talking to Will about Will’s “bad heterosexual values.” Jack says: “Straight people, as soon as they’ve broken up, it’s off with their heads.” Gays, Jack says, “stay friends.” Will responds by saying, “But it doesn’t mean anything to you gay guys -- it’s all just a joke for you.”

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