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Two Men Talking: Edmund White & John Irving


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

Photography by Peter Ash Lee

The novelists Edmund White, 72, and John Irving, 70, might not seem an obvious match, but their decades-long friendship is rooted in a shared interest in challenging America's puritanical attitudes. In one book after another, these literary lions have explored sexuality and identity in ways that challenge readers to examine their own prejudices.

White's debut, Forgetting Elena -- a mystery set on an island that thrums with Fire Island's all-too-familiar rituals -- was published in 1973. But it was his 1982 novel, A Boy's Own Story, that cemented his place as America's preeminent chronicler of the gay experience. His latest, Jack Holmes & His Friend, was published in January.

For Irving, international success arrived in 1978 with The World According to Garp, now published as a Modern Library edition, along with three of his other celebrated works -- The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year. His latest, In One Person, tells the story of a bisexual man attracted to men, women, and transgender women. Here, the two men discuss sex, gender, and why breasts separate gay men from straight.

Edmund White in his Manhattan apartment

EDMUND WHITE: In an old email you point out that having a gay son has not "converted" you to the theme of homosexuality, since there is already a gay brother in The Hotel New Hampshire, and that "nonpracticing homosexual" in Owen Meany, and the gay twins in A Son of the Circus. But having a gay son, you concede, might have made you want to write In One Person next -- so that your son, Everett, could still read this book while he was young. Everett has obviously been on both our minds. In my novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend, the character Palmer is based a bit on Everett, and even shares with him a taste for the theater. One reader suggested that having a gay son was my "revenge" on my straight character, Will. I was shocked by that idea, since having a gay son scarcely seems a "revenge" on a character, especially such a handsome, exciting son. Is Everett an "ideal reader" of your book -- or do you not think in those terms?

JOHN IRVING: The dedication to Last Night in Twisted River reads: "For Everett -- my pioneer, my hero." And the novel before that one, Until I Find You, is also dedicated to him: "For my youngest son, Everett, who made me feel young again." When Everett told me he was gay, I told him that I loved him more for it; I knew he would have a harder time in the world because of it. I wanted him to know how very proud I am of him, and how much I love him for who he is.

But I didn't write In One Person because I have a gay son. This novel isn't about that; it's about a young bisexual man who falls in love with an older transgender woman. The bi guy, Billy Abbott, is the main character, and two transgender women are the heroes of the novel -- in the sense that these two characters are the ones my bisexual narrator most looks up to. I was taking notes on In One Person for several years before I knew Everett was gay.

Yet, as you say, having a gay son made me want to write this novel sooner rather than later; I remember wishing that Everett could read In One Person while he was still in his late teens or early twenties. However, I begin a novel on the basis of how rock-solid the ending is to me -- on the immutability of those final sentences or paragraphs. Like Cider House, like A Widow for One Year, this novel has a dialogue ending -- the repetition of a line of dialogue the reader has heard earlier in the novel, but in a different context. When Billy calls Miss Frost a "transsexual," she replies, "My dear boy, don't put a label on me -- don't make me a category before you get to know me!" That's the line Billy repeats to Kittredge's angry son at the end. I simply had to have that ending before I chose to make In One Person my next novel. No matter how much I may have wanted to write In One Person for Everett, I couldn't have forced it. I was lucky that the ending came.

At 20, Everett's privacy should be respected. He's proud of who he is (as he should be); he loves In One Person, and he loves me. You and I shouldn't make too big a deal over Everett's connection to yet another novel by his father on the subject of sexual intolerance; in fact, this novel's relationship to several of my earlier novels is obvious -- most directly to Garp and Cider House, but also to Owen Meany. And Miss Frost (bless her heart) would definitely chide us, on the subject of Everett being gay: "Don't put a label on him -- don't make Everett a category before you get to know him!" she would say.

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."

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!

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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Edmund White and John Irving