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.

EW: I think that breasts are the things that separate the straights from the gays. Straight friends are always noticing tits, whereas, to my shame, I scarcely notice them. The narrator of One Person notices Miss Frost’s tits right away, which are suspiciously girlish for a broad-shouldered woman her age -- our first clue that she might be a transsexual. Some straight guys are attracted to “chicks with dicks” if they have big boobs. I’ve always found that strange.

JI: I was conscious of making Billy interested in breasts, but he’s very particular in his interest -- he likes small ones. Not only Miss Frost, but Mrs. Hadley and Elaine -- and he doesn’t want Donna to have breast-enhancement surgery. (It’s one of the things Donna says isn’t “normal” about Billy -- namely, that he doesn’t want her to have bigger breasts.)

I thought a bi guy would more believably be interested in “chicks with dicks” (and in women) with small boobs. And Miss Frost, and Mrs. Hadley, are also described as very masculine-looking. Billy likes good-looking men and women who look a little bit like men. He is relieved that Esmeralda, his first girlfriend, doesn’t have big breasts. And in his half-sleep, when he touches her vagina, he is actually reaching for her nonexistent penis; whomever Billy’s with, he’ll be missing one or the other.

EW: You mentioned that you want your protagonist, Billy, to look sexually ambiguous -- that Billy wants both straight women and gay men to wonder about him. Then you said that you and your editor were walking up Sixth Avenue on a warm night, and at least four or five times you asked each other (about someone passing by), “Boy or girl?” Do you think this gender confusion is more common now than when we were young?

JI: Billy says: “I wanted to look like a gay boy -- or enough like one to make other gay boys, and men, look twice at me. But I wanted the girls and women to wonder about me -- to make them look twice at me, too. I wanted to retain something provocatively masculine in my appearance.” Billy remembers when he is cast as Ariel in The Tempest, and Richard (the director) tells him that Ariel’s gender is “mutable.” Billy later says: “I suppose I was trying to look sexually mutable, to capture something of Ariel’s unresolved sexuality.”

Gender was certainly mutable in Shakespeare. I agree with you that the desire -- at least in young people -- to look androgynous, or sexually ambiguous, is more common now than when we were young. It suggests to me that the absolute tyranny of gender is changing, becoming more flexible.

I was writing Cider House when I first read your novel A Boy’s Own Story. There was a line near the end of the fourth chapter; I remember how it seized my attention, and I went back and took a longer look at it when I was beginning In One Person -- 27 years later! “Would I become a queer and never, never be like other people?”

You’ve heard me say -- I’ve been saying it for years -- that A Boy’s Own Story is the novel kids in boarding school should be required to read, instead of The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, which are routinely fed to teenagers who are “coming of age.” I say this because the fear in your sentence, which resonated with me, has stayed with me for 30 years.

When I was a boy, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone: in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex (this was the ’50s), I imagined having sex all the time -- with a disturbing variety of people. I was attracted to my friends’ mothers, to girls my own age, and -- at the all-boys’ school, where I was on the wrestling team -- to certain older boys among my teammates. Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me; the fear (as you wrote, that I would “never, never be like other people”) was constant. My first girlfriend was so afraid of getting pregnant that she permitted only anal intercourse. I liked it, thus adding to my terror that I must be gay!

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