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: It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the “wrong” people never left me. The impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences -- more important, my earliest sexual imaginings -- taught me that sexual desire is mutable. In fact, in my case -- at a most formative age -- sexual mutability was the norm.

We’ve both written novels about novelists before One Person and Jack Holmes. Now we’re at it again: Billy Abbott and Will Wright are novelists. I don’t say much about Billy’s writing; the quotations I attribute to Billy are from various novels and screenplays of mine. From what my other characters say to Billy about his novels, we get the idea that sexual outsiders, or sexual misfits, are his characters -- certainly there’s a lot of sex, and anger, in his work. (Billy sounds like me, doesn’t he?)

But Will doesn’t sound like you -- I mean as a writer. Will says, “After that Times review I became ill every time I thought of working on a new novel.” You and I aren’t that thin-skinned! What did you want us to feel about Will as a writer, and am I wrong to think that you feel some disdain for Will’s relationship with Alex?

I know what Jack thinks of Will and Alex; I know less about what you think of Will and Alex, and of Will as a writer. I’m trying not to assume that you think what Jack thinks, though Jack reminds me a little of you -- that is, of the young man you describe as yourself in City Boy.

EW: In your novel Last Night in Twisted River, Danny is a world-famous novelist like you, just as in this novel Billy Abbott is a writer who in some ways resembles you. Perhaps one reason readers like you so much is that they know where you stand in a book -- who and what you approve of and disapprove of. My Will Wright is not a version of me and it’s clear that Jack, who is not a novelist, is based on parts of me. We’re supposed to think of Will as a failed novelist, heavily influenced by Boris Vian and Thomas Pynchon. In Amsterdam, Ian McEwan got it right that the thought processes of a bad composer and a good composer would be very similar -- separated only by a miniscule knack called talent. In the same way I suggest that Will’s ideas about writing are similar to those of a good novelist -- he just lacks talent.

Is Jack really just a version of Edmund White? Like me, Jack studies at the University of Michigan and comes to New York in 1962 and becomes a journalist, but unlike me, Jack is not at all ambitious, not a novelist, rather passive, massively endowed, and not much of a take-charge kind of guy. Whereas I came out in my early teens, Jack has to wait until his early twenties. I was never in love with a straight guy for long, whereas Jack is besotted with Will -- and so on.

JI: I have created many not-very-good writers among my stable of characters. Dr. Larch, who keeps a journal at the orphanage in The Cider House Rules, begins every polemical diatribe with, “Here in St. Cloud’s...” In A Son of the Circus, I made Dr. Daruwalla a hack screenwriter -- not to mention that every other character in A Widow for One Year is a writer (Ruth is the only good one). What’s funny is that we also write a lot about sex, albeit differently. It hasn’t happened frequently, but occasionally someone has asked me why you and I are friends, and I begin by saying that we like each other, and each other’s writing, and that we both write about sex, and we’re both “political,” but whoever has asked me the question has already drifted off and looks utterly disappointed by what I’m saying; I don’t know what the expectations of someone asking this question really are. Now I can say: “For starters, Ed and I aren’t ‘massively endowed,’ notwithstanding what rumors you’ve heard to the contrary.” That ought to have greater effect.

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