In Conversation with the Violet Quill: Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and Edmund White
Author: Frank Pizzoli
April 10, 2013
In November 1980, New York’s SoHo Weekly News tagged a cover story Fag Lit’s New Royalty, referring to Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and Edmund White, alive today, and Christopher Cox, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, and George Whitmore, who have died. Since the publication of that story, which was subtitled A Moveable Brunch – A Fag Lit Mafia, they have brought out the best in admirers and the worst in detractors.
Collectively the seven authors became known as The Violet Quill, meeting only eight times between March 31, 1980 and March 3, 1981. They had a sample “reader” published, emerging later as titans of gay male literature. Their sexual affairs with each other were not unusual in New York City at the time.
Although their status as individuals in gay literature has never been creditably challenged, the Quill’s crowning as an influential group has been called a myth by some, their influence criticized by others.
During their time together, White wrote A Boy’s Own Story, published in 1982 and still in print. Picano, the most prolific of the group, wrote Slashed to Ribbons in Defense of Love, eventually published in 1983. While they met as a group, he published Late in the Season. Still in print, Picano’s best-selling novel, The Lure (1979), was the first gay-themed book presented by the National Book Club. While together as a group, Ferro wrote The Family of Max Desir. David Leavitt has argued that the ironies of Holleran’s famous Dancer from the Dance, published two years before the group ever met and still in print, were lost, even corrupting, on younger readers not able to decode his critical depictions.
Although White didn’t publish The Farewell Symphony until 1997, author and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, his own book Faggots published in 1978 and seen now by some as foreshadowing AIDS, criticized him for the ample inclusion of sex and sexual partners as unrealistic and harmful to the public health. Since these years, White has also written biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud and the novel Jack Holmes & His Friend which he considers his best novel to date. He is currently working on a memoir covering his Paris years. Holleran regularly publishes articles and essays in The Gay and Lesbian Review. Picano just finished a novel set in pre-Homeric Greece.
In a previous LLR interview with me, White said about the group: “We were enabled by the invention of new gay publications such as Christopher Street and about 70 new gay bookstores across the country (now sadly shuttered). We were suddenly writing fiction that addressed the gay reader, not the straight one, and that did not provide an explanation of where Fire Island was or how our characters came to be gay. We used those meetings partly to divide up the turf—Ferro got the family, I got childhood, Holleran got New York and Fire Island, etc.”
David Bergman in The Violet Hour: the Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture writes “But no matter how useful the meetings were to its members, the work they produced […] had an enormous impact on gay writers and readers.”
Regardless of how readers, writers, academics, and reviewers view The Violet Quill, whether as a group or as individuals then, or now, they tackled the technical problems of writing gay literature from a gay perspective and within a narrative context. They didn’t explain where homosexuality came from nor did they bother to explain gay customs. Their work was “of gay, by gay, and for gay.”
Assembled here, White, Picano, and Holleran reflect on their early gay years and their years together as the Violet Quill, Grindr, publishing today, and writing gay characters.
Felice Picano and Edmund White, why did you encourage David Bergman, who wrote The Violet Hour (2004), to continue what George Stambolian began regarding the seven-member writing group known as The Violet Quill?
Picano: Like most academics, Bergman was looking for a good topic. Stambolian was friendly with all of us and he had opened up the subject of gay male literature available to academics and Bergman.
White: I think Bergman very kindly wanted to write about this subject and not exactly a popular one. Most academics chose “Queer of the Renaissance” or something. Almost none of them wrote about contemporary writers. And Bergman is not just an academic; he’s a very good writer and poet.
Holleran: Bergman’s work reflected part of what is called gay publishing in the late 70s. The trend encouraged a lot of librarians, academics, who suddenly had a chance to be gay in their work.
White: We’re not very written about. It’s actually been a scandalously neglected movement, I think. At Princeton where I teach the talks are mostly about Milton or Spencer, but almost nothing on gay literature of the late 20th century and forward. Even gay academics are really only interested up until about 1910.
Picano: Being alive is definitely a disadvantage.
Holleran: So Bergman did us an enormous favor. Without him, we wouldn’t be talking today.
Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review of Robert Chelsey’s play Jerker (1986)that “more bluntly than any other play dealing with AIDS [Jerker] showed how the epidemic has threatened one of the fundamental reasons for an entire community’s very existence – its freedom of erotic expression – and challenged its hard-won self esteem.” What do each of you think when looking back on how sexual liberation was the Zeitgeist that drove all other energies?
Picano: It was gay liberation. It was sexual liberation. We were all criminals at the time. I don’t think younger people actually understand that. [The US Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Lawrence v. Texas, 2003, struck down Texas’ sodomy law and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every state, territory.] I recently did a big piece for the Huffington Post about why I will not serve on jury duty. And it’s because I was a criminal up until about five years ago in every state. And my point was: How is this that I suddenly, without doing anything, am no longer a criminal? I didn’t change.
White: When the Stonewall Riot (1969) occurred, all the gay bars were closed because New York Mayor Robert Wagner wanted to clean up the city for the 1965 World’s Fair. Finally, they began to re-open. By that point, The Stonewall Inn was mainly a black and Puerto Rican bar filled with drag queens. It hadn’t been originally, but now it was full of kids, black and tan kids. We felt that in closing this bar, they were trying to shut down gay bars in general. It’s been forgotten that it was very hard to meet other gay people. There was no Internet, no back-rooms or call-in lines. Street cruising was it, and then only if you lived in a big city. So the real story of gay people in the 50s and 60s is that they were deprived of sex. I know you’re going to disagree, Felice, because you’re beautiful and you had a lot of success, but I mean for average people like me, it was very hard to meet anybody. The truth is that gay liberation was sexual liberation. We were told in Larry Kramer’s living room in 1981 by Dr. Friedman-Kien that until they knew more about the AIDS epidemic we should just stop having sex. We all looked around at each other, the 100 or so guys there, as though he was mad.
Holleran: I came out very late in the latter half of my twenties. I was very scared of the whole thing, so I guess I’m an example of what Edmund is talking about. It was very intimidating, the whole thing. On the other hand, I just finished a memoir called My Husband and My Wives by Charles Beye, who grows up in Iowa City in the 30s/40s. He seemed to be blowing half the senior class.
Picano: Pre-50s, it was different.
White: That may be true, but on the other hand, look at David Leddick’s book where he follows the lives of all the people who pose for photographer George Platt Lynes. He took pictures of all these cute boys who were gay at the time that he took their pictures, and eventually they all married women. Every one of them.
Picano: I hang around with a group of Santa Barbara guys in their 60s and 70s. People who were rich and have retired now. Most of them were married and have grown-up children. They didn’t come out until they were in their 50s.
Holleran: The Charles Beye memoir is exactly about that. He married twice. Marries a woman two times and has four kids.
White: I think that when we were hearing the phrase “gay culture” I thought what on earth are they talking about? We’re just a bunch of cocksuckers, you know. Where is this culture part? But I remember that when I first came to New York in July, 1962 the second or third night I was here, I was invited to the gay restaurant, The Finale. A gay restaurant? Why would gay people want to eat with each other? By the way, I have a flash announcement to make. The other night I was sitting around with Princeton students, undergrads and grads as old as 30, but from 22 to 30, and they didn’t know what the word “trick” meant.
Picano: No, it’s gone. That language is gone. [See Gay Talk: A (Sometimes Outrageous) Dictionary of Gay Slang (aka The Queen’s Vernacular), 1972, 1979, by Bruce Rodgers]
White: I explained that gay slang was essentially whore slang: to “turn a trick”…
Picano: It was all code because you didn’t want people to know what you were talking about.
Andrew, with regard to Dancer, your words don’t read like code, Bergman in The Violet Hour compares the criticism you endured with what Oscar Wilde encountered, namely that he was corrupting the naive young. Was your POV lost on the Boy Living in Flyover Space? Were you writing for yourself, peers?
Holleran: I was definitely trying to get published. I hadn’t written for 10 years. I had run out of any other recourse. And I had been corresponding with a friend in New York, a gay guy, who would write these very campy letters. And I thought, what if I wrote in this campy style and that started the letters and that started the book? So I was totally in a vacuum and I wasn’t thinking of any reader. But I don’t think I was aware that I had corrupted youth until David Leavitt, I think, wrote something about the fact that when he read Dancer, he was horrified that that’s what awaited him. And I certainly didn’t mean to do that. Again, it was really written as a writer who just wants to try one more thing and I had tried everything else and it hadn’t worked.
White: It’s easy to forget is that this was all new material back then. Contained in the word “novel” is novelty and novelists like to write about new things. It was just too tempting to be able to write about this whole new world. In the past, fiction dealing with gay life, usually dealt with one or two people as a loving couple who were outside of the ghetto. Authors provided an ideology of how they came to be gay and the setting around them. Often their lives, the relationship ended tragically or the person tried to reform. In contrast, our writing was different because in Dancer from The Dance, Andrew shows gay people living amongst other gay people, a brand new portrayal that nobody ever had done except Genet. It was all so brand new that we, the group of us, didn’t give an ideology on how characters came to be gay. We also, in Andrew’s case, recognized that our themes and settings were glamorous material. Our approach was startling because gay themes were supposed to be sad and pathological. The fact that our novels were glamorous and you might want to actually do what we wrote about if you were gay, was really unusual.
Picano: I have met so many people who said to me, “I’m gay because I read your book, The Lure.” They realized there was much more to gay life than being homosexual than they had ever dreamed of, because I made gay life a complex society filled with people of different ethnic and color persuasions.
Frank, I also want to address the last part of your question about was my point of view lost on the Boy Living in Fly-Over Space. When my novel The Lure came out, the New York Times, Sunday Times’ Evan Hunter, a closeted gay author, reviewed it, essentially to eviscerate it, and that backfired. His review sold thousands of copies. The book went back to press for two more printings in the next two weeks. However, I also received death threats resulting from all that notoriety, and someone shot at me one night while I was working in my Greenwich Village office. So the criticism was very direct.
White: Oh, God. I’d never heard that story. I would get anonymous letters that would tell me that I was going to hell or that I would be wearing a bag on my side soon, having a colostomy.
Holleran: My similar story: I was scheduled to be interviewed by a Seattle newspaper’s book editor. Getting to the office was a real effort–buses, trains, flying, part of the book tour. When I got to his office he couldn’t meet my eyes, casting them down on the floor saying he just couldn’t go through with this because, I assumed, he was so mortified by the subject manner.
Perhaps what mortified him is what Don Shewey in his introduction to Out Front: Contemporary Gay & Lesbian Plays, means by shallow hedonism, empty narcissism, or non-judgmentally expressed, that rarefied freedom, intense communication, energy and creativity that you’re all talking about, that gay people were finally reading novels about gay people in gay life with other gay people. The post-Stonewall era when sex was above ground and enjoyed in abandoned city piers, parks, on rooftops, the trucks.
Picano: I long for the days of shallow hedonism, empty narcissism. I’m so glad I was young during all of that. I really am. I think young people would appreciate it today.
White: I don’t know what Shewey is talking about. Is he saying that before Stonewall, people were empty narcissists and hedonists but not afterward? I mean the big change after Stonewall was “clonism.” In other words, before gay liberation, the idea was the “boy” in you. When you turned 30 in the 50s, which I can remember, other gay people would stage a funeral for you because your life was over at 30. As an older man you might by some luck get a cute boy in his wheat jeans and powder blue cashmere sweater. Then they would grow up and turn 30 and their life was over. But I think suddenly what happened in the 70s, partly resulting from gay liberation, was that now you had two mustachioed 35-year-olds falling in love with each other. They could be equals, could both be lawyers and they could take turns fucking each other. It was all new.
Holleran: Do you think that represented [North] America because I remember at the time realizing that in Latin cultures, certainly South America, they couldn’t understand how two men could be equal.
White: It was absolutely American and maybe Northern Europe, kind of a Protestant thing. I don’t think so in the Catholic world or certainly not in the “garlic belt” as we called it, France, Italy and Spain.
Picano: I think it was American and then it transferred. I refer it to the generation of 1975, because I had been going out to Fire Island sporadically from the late 60s, staying with older people, but all of a sudden an entire new group of 30-35-year-old hot guys with mustaches appeared in the summer of 1975. Like a whole new generation. Minor muscles, it wasn’t big muscles then. That’s I think what changed everything.
Is it a given that one had to have participated back then, at least in a minimum way, in order to talk about it with any creativity or credibility?
Picano: Well there were so few gay people out at that time, or even halfway out, that you pretty much knew most of the gay people in Manhattan. It wasn’t that difficult if you got around. If you went to clubs, if you went to resorts, if you went to parties, you ended up meeting most of the people you wanted to meet. It was a small amount of people.
White: The downtown scene was very small. Like Fran Lebowitz said, everyone who read Andy Warhol’s Interview knew each other.
Holleran: But there was resentment against that too. I remember when our books came out people would ask “Why do you always have to write about ‘fast lane gays’”? Why was it always about Manhattan and the urban scene? Leaving the impression that there were vast members of gays in small towns and other places who weren’t having their lives written about. And I suppose that was true to a degree.
White: But they were all in the closet. Andrew, I was criticized for this when writing States of Desire (1980), for not covering a lot of minority groups and rural gays. The main reason was that unless you lived there and cultivated those people over several years, you couldn’t meet them.
In contrast to the “rural” dilemma of meeting other gays, Susan Sontag summarized post Stonewall as a time when “many male homosexuals reconstituted themselves as something like an ethnic group, one whose distinctive folkloric custom was sexual voracity, and the institutions of urban homosexual life became a sexual delivery system of unprecedented speed, efficiency and volume.” And just when we thought it couldn’t get any faster, came the Internet and now Grindr. Visibility is high but has the sexual delivery system changed?
Picano: I don’t know, I think that there’s a lot of more hookups from what I’ve experienced but the sex is lousier than it ever was. And I mean, really, really terrible. Everybody should read any version of The Joy of Gay Sex to give them tips. [White and Picano each completed a version with psychiatrist Dr. Charles Silverstein with whom White had to end his therapeutic relationship before beginning the collaboration.]
What’s making the sex lousy?
Picano: During the 70s the worst thing you could say about somebody is, Oh, he may be beautiful, have lots of money, be famous, but he’s bad at sex. That was a killer. Nowadays, people seem unable to do really basic things well in bed.
Holleran: When I first heard that people were going to Tea Dance in the Fire Island Pines and standing there looking at Grindr on their smartphones, I thought this is a scream. What does that mean you go to Tea Dance and you’re on Grindr?
Picano: It had already reached a point that the last time I went to the Eagles Nest it was called S&M, as in stand and model, because nobody was hooking up.
White: I think this is a general phenomena. I just reviewed A.M. Holmes new novel, May We Be Forgiven for The New York Review of Books. I quoted a passage in which she says: Everybody talks about how important family is, but when they finally get together all they do is sit at the table and look at their telephones. Trying to communicate with other people is difficult because virtual reality is more acceptable than real reality. Face to face, nobody can really tolerate the ups and downs of family life or real intimacy. It’s much more promising to have virtual relationships.
Holleran: I agree, except one thing. I have to ask, Is this because of our age? Should we ask a 26-year-old? I suspect for them, not having known anything else, that they view these interactions as much the human comedy as we experienced them without the computer, but I don’t know.
Picano: I did an editorial for The Huffington Post called Children of the Hive and during this time my car was in the shop and I was using buses. I was observing people on the phone and how they related. Older people usually conferred messages back and forth, sometimes very briefly. But children and younger people and teenagers would talk for 30 minutes on a bus without saying anything of importance. I assumed they were stroking each other the way bees do in hives, that we are forming a new kind of hive mentality, establishing that being in communication in some way is more important than actually communicating anything.
White: Back to Sontag, Frank. If you’re referring to an essay she wrote called Fascinating Fascism, it’s a very foolish and hostile essay in which she equates American leather queens with fascists, a very primitive attitude and very arrogant and stupid, I think. She has great insights on millions of topics, this was not one of them. Studies have shown that S&M people are often vegetarian, more sensitive to the sight of pain than ordinary people are, against capital punishment. To call them fascists is just ignorant. And Jean Genet, who was attracted to real Nazis in their uniforms, said that he was a Communist and he was very clear his politics had nothing to do with his sexual taste. This kind of reductionism that people have, and I think Sontag is guilty of it, is extremely narrow minded and foolish.
Felice, in Bergman’s preface to The Violet Hour he writes that you informed him at great length about what you see as the errors of his ways. What were Bergman’s errors?
Picano: Like most academics, he likes neat little theories. And unlike most of them, he could not be persuaded that he was wrong. Bergman divides the VQ into two groups; those who circulated around Holleran and those who circulated around Edmund White. And then he places me as the outsider. Guys, was I ever the outsider?
White: Well, no, you had your own fans and…
Picano: Right, I introduced the two of you (White and Holleran). Do you remember? Because you didn’t know each other until I introduced you at Stu Roder’s place at Fire Island Pines. Barry Walker made us all dinner. While he and I cleaned up, you talked. Do you remember that? That was the first time you guys met. And it took me about two months to get you together.
Holleran: Yeah, that’s true, you introduced us, but I don’t remember any of that…
White: I don’t either, but I’m senile. I don’t remember…
Picano: Here’s the other thing regarding Bergman. I was dating George Whitmore when The Violet Quill began and throughout its existence. After Chris Cox and Edmund broke up, I remained close to Cox. And I was seeing him almost daily in the weeks before he died. Also, I was very close to Robert (Ferro) and Michael (Grumley) long after the group ended. And I spoke to Robert maybe a few hours before he died. So I don’t think I was outside of anything.
White: No, no, of course not. And I was close to Chris Cox and we had been boyfriends. And then I had had a sexual affair with George Whitmore.
Picano: The other thing he writes about and he assures readers that Edmund White was always the best known of us at the time we got together. Edmund deserved to be better known, but he wasn’t better known until later. Holleran had garnered enormous publicity through Dancer in 1978, before we started meeting. And as for being connected up [in literary circles], Allen Ginsberg had asked me to join him in a poetry reading at Hunter College way back in 1974. My first book was a PEN Hemingway Finalist in 1975. I had a New York Times paperback bestseller in 1977, all before we began meeting. Bergman just didn’t do his homework.
The Gay Writers Who Changed America
Felice, Andrew, Edmund: Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, opens a chapter by citing your dairies as an “entertaining account” of the Violet Quill period. He writes “It is sometimes claimed that the Violet Quill as a group created the new gay literature….Holleran later wrote a fine essay about Robert Ferro after Ferro’s death, where he downplayed the Violet Quill…called it a ‘dessert and short story’ club. White in his memoirs and autobiographical fiction never mentions the group at all.” Does he have it right?
Picano: First of all, let’s consider the source. This is somebody who admittedly can no longer sell a novel to a publisher, right? And who thought he was doing the great bright thing back in the 80s when he sold one of his books to the movies. And now, essentially, he doesn’t seem to have a career. So I think we have to be very careful about who Christopher Bram is as an author nowadays. Also, he never interviewed any of us that I’m aware of. Did he interview you guys?
Picano: Which he should have done. If you’re writing about living people wouldn’t you at least call them up. The other thing is it’s to none of our advantages to admit that we’ve been a group. If we want to be strictly ruthless and ambitious, yeah, we belonged to this little group a long time ago, but it doesn’t mean anything in the great arc of our magnificent careers. I mean, let’s be honest.
White: My memoirs do not cover that period. I’ve written three memoirs, one of which is still unpublished, about my Paris years. I never wrote about that period, so that’s why I didn’t mention it. In City Boy, I write about the early 60s and the early 70s and I don’t mention the Violet Quill. I could write an essay about it, although we only met eight times.
Picano: I did a piece about Robert Ferro that was in Loss within Loss, an anthology that you (Edmund) put together. That was one of the few times I’ve written about the group.
Holleran: Well, I think two things are true. I think it was a short story and dessert club and we did only meet eight times, if that. And it was pleasant and I don’t think we put any huge store into it, except it was an agreeable thing to do at the time. But I also think that we’ve got an incredible amount of mileage out of this. I understand that no artist wants to be grouped, an artist wants to be unique, but on the other hand, we’ve had a wonderful series of panels, and meetings, and things.
Picano: Nobody else that we knew, like Richard Howard or Jimmy Merrill, nobody, would discuss gay literature. They said gay literature is all porn. Isn’t that what they told you, Edmund? That’s what they told me. What do you want to write something gay for? Do something literary.
White: Yes, that’s right. I remember.
Holleran: Edmund, who’s the figure in City Boy that does that to you?
White: Richard Poirier. He blew up at me at a party. [Then-Raritan editor Richard Poirier became “furious” with White for suggesting that there may be “gay” fiction, poetry, even a gay sensibility.]
Holleran: So Poirier tells you that you’re a fool for wanting to write about gay life, for wanting to be considered a gay writer…
White: His position is actually a lot more divisible than that, but he started screaming at me for talking about a gay sensibility or gay literature. He felt that literature had to be universalist. And so does every person in France think it has to be universal. There is no gay fiction in France. There is no black fiction. There’s no Jewish fiction. It’s all universal. Everyone insists on that. And no French person has ever said Yes to the question, Are you a gay writer? Not one. I now can see what Poirier’s [saying], but I felt that he was very intolerant of what was essentially a chance to explore new material in fiction. Back then at that party, I was the unpublished or just published writer and always the youngest person in these circles. So I was unusually sensitive to these disputes, but nobody else was. We were very friendly before he died. I saw him two or three times at parties and he was extremely friendly.
Holleran: Well, Edmund, you weren’t a completely unknown transitional figure between generations and cultural things.
White: You’re right. I was a friend of Richard Howard, Poirier, and David Kalstone, and James Merrill, Susan Sontag. They were all considerably older.
Holleran: They were part of a generation that regarded anything explicitly gay as essentially provincial and second rate. Then you went ahead pursuing the role they had occupied, but you used gay material throughout. In a way, you insisted on something.
White: We should be fair because Richard Howard very early on wrote gay poems and James Merrill in his profession turned to it. Ashbery never did. Sontag never did.
Holleran: Let me clarify. I’m not judging these people in any way. To look back at another generation or another time and feel superior to it, I think is one of the most stupid things that people do.
Picano: You know, Edmund, I always pointed out to people who say that gay literature is not universal that the first accepted piece of literature in Western culture which is the Gilgamesh epic, which has a very large gay or homosexual component to it. It’s half of that book.
Felice, as drawn from your incredible memory and personal journals, Art and Sex in Greenwich Village outlines the history of Sea Horse Press and the combined work of Sea Horse and three other presses, known as Gay Presses of New York.
Today, there’s Chelsea Station Editions, Magnus Books. Harrington Press is gone. Not to compare, but who’s out there today bringing out new names that you’re looking at, aware of?
Picano: I’m pulling for Chelsea Station. I think the most extraordinary LGBT press around today is run by a lesbian who writes under the name of Radclyffe. It’s called Bold Strokes Books. They’ve opened up a gay male division called Liberty Press. Last year, they put out 78 new books.
Holleran: Mainstream publishers, you have to notice, are bringing out an awful lot of gay books. Even so, it’s a balkanized world out there for gay manuscripts.
White: Well Jonathan Galassi came out and he’s bringing out a lot of gay books.
White: Michael Lowenthal’s new novel, The Paternity Test , came out from the University of Wisconsin.
Picano: Raphael Kadushin is doing wonderful books over there.
Which writers, gay, straight, excite you today?
White: I like A.M. Holmes…she’s written a lot about gay subject matter. Many of her characters from her first book on have been gay. She’ll write a novel about a straight boy who has a gay father who comes out, asking how does the son deal with his father. I like Sarah Schulman’s writing a great deal. Watch for James Salter’s new book All That Is that I’ve just read in galleys. He also wrote A Sport and a Pastime.
Picano: I think the Hispanic American queer men and women writers of today are the most unique. They have the most to bitch about and the most to change in their lives. I co-edited an anthology last year, Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing (co-edited with Lazaro Lima), because I think there’s so much really great writing out there I’ve also been reading some Canadian poets, S. McDonald wrote the only interesting transvestite piece of literature I’ve come across; a group of very good poems called Confessions of an Empty Purse. And David Bateman wrote a wonderful book called ‘Tis Pity. I find them very accomplished and new. I like the idea of women writing as men as Dale Chase does quite fearlessly in her books. And for the long run at the moment, I like both Trebor Healy and Kevin Killian the most.
Edmund, you mentioned Schulman. In her Gentrification of the Mind, she reprints portions of interviews she did with you and Andrew Sullivan as a way of illustrating your fear, shared by many, including myself, of being marginalized by younger people, especially but not exclusively around AIDS. You say “It’s one thing to think that we all went through this together and survived and here’s my story of what I went through. It’s going to be another thing to have nobody want to read those stories.”
White: Well I’m always reminded of a book by Vera Britten called, The Testament of Youth. She was nurse in World War I and then went to Oxford. She was only maybe two years older than the other students, but they would all roll their eyes and start laughing whenever she had mentioned the war. That was all old news and they didn’t want to think about it. I think it’s the same thing with AIDS. The whole AIDS period has been forgotten the way the Banana War is forgotten and a hundred years of solitude. Nobody wants to talk about it; the fact that hundreds of people were killed, forget it. Although the other day when I talked to Sarah Schulman at a reading she gave, she said young people are quite interested in the history of AIDS. I don’t know if they’re so much interested in the literature of AIDS, but they’re responding quite a bit to the new documentary films, United in Anger, she co-produced with Jim Hubbard. There’s also How to Survive a Plague about ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group.
Holleran: I loved Plague, saw it twice and afterwards wrote an email to Larry Kramer saying that I had just seen it and that I liked it very much. He wrote something back that was very funny and shocking, insights you don’t get in the movie. Here’s what ties what you just said about young people not wanting to read AIDS literature: I think only the literature is going to be able to tell the full story of the plague. There were so many scenes in that movie where you’re wondering, you know, what’s going on and who is the good person and who is the bad person?
Picano: I’ll give an example of that. The Vito Russo movie in which I have a very brief moment, is out. Russo is turned into an All-American hero because that’s the only way that young people can see people of our generation, as heroes or losers, and it’s complete bullshit. I love Vito. He was a great person, but he’s not a great American hero. Or if he is, 10,000 of us, 20,000 of us were heroes. I’m afraid it’s all being distorted. And poor Vito might well be spinning in his grave to Bambi shown as a figure addressing people from balconies when he was such a modest guy. The movie is so unlike him and yet that’s what the movie does. [Russo came to one meeting of the group and read portions of his celebrated The Celluloid Closet.]
What meaning do you each of you find in the AIDS experience, looking back at the roles each of you played, the roles that people think you played, the roles that may look different now?
Picano: In the early 90s, I addressed the Gay Journalist Association which had been spending an entire weekend congratulating itself on how far they had gotten. They had gotten some NBC anchor to appear. I said to people, as I was soundly booed to the point where I left the building: You know, in the future, AIDS which dominates our lives is going to be seen as a tiny little blip in gay history and gay culture. Everybody will wonder why we spent so much time dealing with it, I think in the future no one’s going to pay attention to it. They just howled, threw notebooks at me and it turned out, I was right.
White: I think that will be true, Felice. It’s like the history of Syphilis or Tuberculosis in the 19th century, everybody had it and some wrote about it, including Alphonse Daudet who wrote a translated book called In the Land of Pain. What did AIDS do for us? I think it gave us a good subject. Yeats said there are two great subjects for any writer – love and death; and AIDS had both. I wrote a novel, The Married Man, which I think shows some of that, although Larry Kramer criticized it by saying it wasn’t even a love story. So I think AIDS was a subject that people were tempted to cover. Andrew, I remember you saying you wanted to write what became Ground Zero: Chronicle of a Plague (later re-issued as Ground Zero: Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited).
Holleran: I’m listening to you both thinking that I don’t know how to express this. When I watched How to Survive a Plague, I didn’t know what I felt about ACT UP and the times during those events. One of the good things about the documentary is that it’s filmed as it is happening, so there’s no editorializing. You really get to decide what you feel about it because you’re basically watching movies that were made at the time those meetings and demonstrations were held. And part of me agrees that AIDS is going to be a blip, but at the time I thought to myself, this has nothing to do with anything except a virus. This is simply a medical thing. But by the time I finished watching Plague, I thought to myself, for better or worse, that the movement was in a way, the gay civil rights movement at its climax. After AIDS and ACT UP, two things happened: gay life was completely out of the closet as a byproduct of talking about AIDS. The straight community had to become aware of things that they had never heard of before. AIDS brought gay life completely out of the closet. The other thing was the straight community gained respect for gay people so, as a result, they did not just die. Their death had meaning beyond their years.
Picano: AIDS certainly changed the younger generation and their whole attitude toward everything. But I’m trying to remember, do you remember, Edmund, when we were at those meetings at Paul Popham’s apartment. [Popham was the first president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, 1981-85. He was the basis for the Bruce Niles character in Larry Kramer‘s The Normal Heart, one of the first plays to address AIDS.] We figured out the group we were forming had to be called Health Crisis, very specifically, so it would not have any political import but only be medical.
White: I remember the reasoning behind the name, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was that first of all we had had so many unpleasant experiences with lesbians that we wanted to say, well this is something happening to gay men. And not have to do the whole LGBT thing. Now, mind you, later, lesbians like Sarah Schulman became active in the movement, which actually healed the rift between lesbians and gay men. But, as I recall calling AIDS a health crisis was a way to suggest that it was serious but would not last forever. [CDC, 2009: g/bi men are 2% of U.S. population but accounted for 61% of all new HIV infections. The number of gay men infected may be as high as 1 in 8 with 1/5 not aware of their infection. 30,000 gay men, mostly young men of color, are newly diagnosed each year.]
Writing Gay Characters
Don Shewey in Out Front writes: “Perhaps the essential strangeness of being gay is being something other than what one was brought up to be.” Kids today are out at young ages and raised openly. If you had a character(s) in a current piece, how would you portray them? Through what nuanced voice?
White: I don’t agree with Shewey at all because I just had an 18-year-old student who wrote a very tortured piece about being Catholic and coming out in the confessional booth and being sent to a psychologist who was supposed to do reparative therapy. Young people are part of their parents’ generation much more than we realize. If you want to know what young people think, ask a 30-year-old, not an 18-year-old, because an 18-year-old is engulfed in his parents’ value system. And if he’s a Mormon or Catholic, I mean, we’re the most religious country in the Western world but thankfully the US is growing less religious; nonetheless, the three Monotheistic religions with their horrible approach to homosexuality still prevail in America.
Picano: I always wrote as though people were assumed to be gay. From early in my writing my gay characters were people who were out and comfortable with it as much as possible. I was always assuming that would be true. On the other hand, I’ve been aware of the fact that many children continue to go through problems with their parents. The madness isn’t over. Kids were out when we were young and were being harassed then. I came to believe that some of the West Village homeless and alcoholic characters that we knew in the 60s and 70s like Marsha P. Johnson and Bambi were outcasts originally because they couldn’t hide their queerness from the family. Every generation has to deal with it in its own way.
It doesn’t quite match up. People say, Well, no one under 30 really cares. And I keep saying, Somebody’s doing all this bullying.
Picano: Exactly, exactly.
Holleran: It’s a brave new world and it’s not.
Picano: Even so, I try to write about gay life as though everybody’s accepting it or that it’s the way to be because in some ways, when you’re writing fiction, you’re writing idealized life, no matter what you try to do.
White: That’s what poet James Meredith called “moral sculpture,” when you pretend that things are much more advanced than they are. That people are much more liberated than they are. I remember when I worked on The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein, I created a kind of persona for myself who was much more comfortable with being gay than I actually was. [Charles Silverstein has written a memoir, For the Ferryman, published by Chelsea Station Editions.]
Picano: I had an interesting experience with Charles, who was one of the people behind the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from its list illnesses. We worked on two subsequent versions of The Joy of Gay Sex. I found that he was less comfortable with his gayness than I was. He actually developed more tolerance as we went along and got older.
White: Well he was very inexperienced. He came out late and he went right into a relationship.
Edmund, you wrote in the foreword of The Faber Book of Short Fiction that since no one is brought up and recognized as being gay, the moment he recognizes the difference, he must account for it. “Such accounts are kind of primitive gay fiction.” Is that idea still alive?
White: I think so. Very few gay people are brought up to be gay. Oh maybe some male prostitutes in India are brought up to be gay, but I mean regular people are not brought up to be gay. So, discovering that is a huge change in your life, when you have to come out, if you’re 13 or 30, you have to acknowledge that this is a new set of rules for you.
I remember asking Silverstein once, what is the single biggest problem that married men who come out have to deal with? And he said, loss of status. I just read figures yesterday that said that gay people are poorer than straight people.
Holleran: And always have been.
White: People used to talk about how we had all this disposable income, possibly maybe that was true. But we have less income than regular people.
Right, but that was at a time when everyone thought every homosexual was a white privileged, well educated man, an image peddled by gay media run by white privileged, well educated men.
White: Yes, that’s right.
We’re all older now, of course, and Andrew, you wrote in the foreword to The Man I Might Become, edited by Bruce Shenitz, on the theme of becoming men. Felice, you had a piece in that volume too.
Holleran: Horror, horror. When I saw that in your email with the questions you were going to ask, Frank, and I thought that is such a huge question, a chill came over me. Because it’s the kind of thing you do at the end of your life, which is express yourself. It’s just an enormous question. And I don’t know the answer. Part of me is pleased that I did become who, I guess, I thought I wanted to be. Part of reaching this stage in life, I think, is going through to the opposite side of your feelings, feeling things you didn’t originally. Well, I can’t even go on. It’s too good a question. That’s a question I’m going to have to write about rather than to answer verbally. Somebody take this away.
Picano: Frank, to seriously answer your question, at the age of 16 or 17, I pretty much destroyed my entire idea of what other people expected of me. I was really part of a counterculture. And as opposed to Edmund and Andrew, I came out very easily because it was part of my way of destroying the entire picture people had of my life. I was going to be new and different in every way. I was going to be radical. I was going to be politicked. I was going to live in a commune. People used to shout, Cut your hair! Take that earring off! And that’s the way I’ve remained. Poet Edward Field (Lambda Award Winner, 1992, Counting Myself Lucky, Selected Poems 1963-1992) is trying to sell a profile he did with me to The New Yorker called The Last Hippie. He might be right. That might be who I am. And I still feel like the person I aimed to be, once I got rid of all of my parents’ conceptions or misconceptions.
Holleran: What is your answer, Edmund?
White: I’m with you, I would have to write an essay about it. I think writers are bad in discussing general questions or philosophical questions. And if they can discuss them, they have to meditate on them. It’s a good subject whenever somebody’s of two minds about something. Am I the man I wanted to be? I don’t like a totalizing of life. I think that life is just this moment, and then the next moment, and the next. Totalizing one’s life kind is a kind of post-Christian thing, to summarize your life. Summarizing your life is like a substitute for heaven or hell, a way of placing a grade next to your name.
Summarizing is a state of judgment?
White: Yes, which I don’t like because we’ve known so many people who have died of AIDS or even of Alzheimer’s and so on, and they become totally reduced to that right before they die. Are we supposed to say that is the way they really were? Is that supposed to reveal some truth about their lives? And I don’t mean to go on about that, I’m ducking the question because I just think the question has to be questioned.
A reader once commented to poet Marianne Moore: “Your poems are difficult to read.” She replied, paraphrased: They’re difficult to write. At any age writing is a physically draining exercise. How does the process feel to you now?
Picano: Well writing for me, if it’s for two hours, is a lot less draining than having sex for two hours. And I don’t have sex for two hours.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Picano: It wasn’t. I think I’ve written my best two novels recently and joyfully, and I continue to do so. I don’t find it painful in any way. Writing is wonderful when I do it, not draining. I have had very draining, emotionally draining circumstances when writing books. When I was writing Like People in History, which was all about friends and lovers, I would have to stop because I found myself weeping as I was keyboarding. But that doesn’t happen anymore. I’ve gone beyond that. What about you guys?
Holleran: I still take pleasure in writing. But the part that is difficult now and what happens to all writers, mentioned by Bram in Eminent Outlaws, is the problem of the mindless writer sitting before the computer and what’s happened to publishing. In the past, we were all in a rather comfortable relationship with the outer world in the sense that we thought that if we wrote anything interesting or wrote it well, that it could be printed and received at the other end. Now there’s this feeling of diving into an empty swimming pool. Writers can no longer be sure. I don’t think publishers know either. I don’t know what’s out there anymore, how people are reading (iPads, Nooks, traditional books), what they’re reading, and what the act of reading is like anymore. Sometimes I think I’m just like a woman making lace, sitting here in my little room spinning things because I get pleasure from it and I’m not going to stop just because I don’t know how to market my lace.
White: I agree. We may be the last generation of people who believed in the myth of the writer. And who have so far have been able to get published, but it’s constantly threatened. Last year literary fiction was down 20%. On the other hand, a friend of mine whose book went out of print was taken up by Amazon and he’s made more money than he’s made in his whole life from Amazon, which gives authors 70%.
Picano: All of my early paperbacks are going on Kindle.
Holleran: This brings us back to David Bergman. We were talking about just this in a recent email in which he said to me, and I’m paraphrasing, that the age of reading lasted no longer than the age of human sacrifice. That years from now people are going to look back at this strange epoch when people sat in front of things and looked at symbols on the page. In one’s despair, one thinks like that.
White: I feel very strange teaching creative writing to 18-year-olds and I’m so grateful to know that most of my students are studying biochemistry or physics, that they only take creative writing as a one off, that they can’t major in it.
Picano: I won’t teach writing. I teach literature. I’ll teach reading, but not writing. I think communication and reading is changing, but not that much. I was just at the West Hollywood Book Fair and it was bigger than ever. The question has the expanded world of communication, publishing become too big? That literally was one of the topics because there are so many readers. There are so many writers. There are so many people interested.
White: Aren’t there more writers than readers now? Here’s a change…there used to be 10 or 20 books a year that everyone had to read. That’s gone completely. Our whole culture has been diversified. There’s now 300 TV channels. It used to be that you would stand by water cooler and discuss last night’s episode of some shared show. Now there’s no such thing. There’s no focus for a dialogue in our culture anymore.
Picano: Reminds me of a David Bowie film in which he plays a spaceman, The Man Who Fell to Earth. You see him looking at 25 television sets on all at once. That’s what the future is going to look like. Our attention will be like that.
White: I think people’s brains are being rewired to only have an attention span of three seconds or something.
Holleran: That’s too long. And it seems to me the presumption is if you can type, that means you can write.
Picano: The changes have also given good writers a chance to get out there, writers who were closed out of the system beforehand.
White: Lots of people, especially in genre fiction, will write a book and just directly post it online where it gets lots of hits. Then he’ll write a sequel to that. After about three rounds, he has a fan base. The idea seems to work better in genre fiction than in so-called literary fiction.
Paul Auster in a memoir anecdote writes: A woman approaches James Joyce at a party asking to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses. Joyce is said to have replied: “Let me remind, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.” What other things have each of you done as well? Hope to do in the future?
Picano: I garden, I cook. In my “Last Will and Testament,” I specifically wrote that no section of my journals or other personal writings can be published after my death that eliminates all of my recreational drug use and my many sexual advances. It has to all be there or it cannot be used. That’s also specified in the arrangement that I did with the Beinecke Library at Yale University, regarding publication of my papers. I just don’t want my life taken out of context. They can publish it if they include a representational sample. Which includes, you know, I took two Tuinal, then blew a priest. And then wrote my masterpiece.
White: I used to have a French boyfriend who said that if I wasn’t a writer, I could open a restaurant because I am still a fairly good cook.
Holleran: I can’t think of anything, really, that I’d want readers to know. It’s charming to think that people would want to know because as we’ve just been discussing, this whole glamorous idea of the writer is so much a thing of the past now.
Speaking of once-glamorous writers, Edmund, in The Farewell Symphony, you write “history is nothing but feuds and fashionable complications.” What delicious feuds are you all enjoying today, about any topic, gay literature, anything?
White: I seem to get attacked more than anybody else in reviews. For example, Daniel Mendelsohn, who writes for The New York Review of Books. It’s not an active feud, but I wouldn’t cross the room to talk to him at a party. You know, every single nasty review I’ve ever had is from a gay man. I have never been badly reviewed by a woman or a straight man.
Edmund, you reviewed David Halperin’s new book How to Be Gay in The New York Review of Books. Given all the changes since Stonewall and The Violet Quill era, how is one to be gay?
Picano: I’ve read the review of Halperin’s book and want to say something about Queer Theory. At base I think it’s utterly homophobic. And not one of the academics involved in Queer Theory can see it. When they finally wake up, I think a lot of people are going to be really embarrassed. Queer Theory is homophobic in that it denies essentially that there is homosexuality. It just denies it, period. The theory says homosexuality is a performative act. Well, making a baby is a performative act, too. All we do in life are performative acts. So I don’t see how homosexuality is meaningless compared to anything else in life. I think it’s just really deep bullshit.
There’s another review of Halperin’s book (Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 17, 2012) by Richard Davenport-Hines, a British scholar. He wrote: “The tragedy of queer studies is that a subject of exceptional importance to humanity is left in the clutches of show-offs who reduce it to self-centered banality.”
Picano: Written off. Even the founder of the school, Eve Sedgwick, before she died, said we’ve made a mistake. That’s my take. Douglas Sadownick, Antioch University, has written a paper about Queer Theory which I’ve been consulted. He’s taking the whole school to task on it in a very point, by point manner.
Working on It
Are any of you working on something you’d like our readers to keep in mind?
Picano: I just finished a historic novel set in pre-Homeric Greece called Notes from a Golden Age which rewrites literature from the beginning.
Holleran: Well I’m working on a lot of stuff that I want to get out of the computer and I’m having trouble getting out of the computer. Right now I’m really publishing just articles and essays in The Gay and Lesbian Review. I think that’s about it for now.
Picano: I do want to talk about one thing. The fact that you’re talking to us many years after our most famous gay books came out, I think says something. And I appreciate your attention and I’m sure so do Andrew and Edmund. This interview speaks to something that I found interesting. Living in Los Angeles which I’ve been doing now for about 19 years, just you get a different concept of what life is like. For a period of about four, five years, every time somebody would ask me to do something as an author I would do it. They would say, you know, Felice, you’re a star. That compliment stopped having any kind of meaning for me and I wondered about it. Around the same time, I had become an escort to a group of elderly Hollywood actresses who used to call themselves The Brassy Old Dames. They didn’t hire us, they just used us socially because they needed some presentable guys who could wear tuxedos to take them out to the Oscars and to other parties around Los Angeles, like award ceremonies which is still a big bullshit thing here. So the very old and still beautiful Loretta Young became one of my dates about two years before she died. She was tiny, but very pretty.
I explained to her that everybody says to me, Oh, you’re a star! And she said to me, Felice, you have to understand, one is a star not only because you shine brightly, but because you shine brightly for a long, long time. As she had done. That’s my final statement.
Near the end of our interview, Edmund White in response to Andrew Holleran commented, “We may be the last generation of people who believed in the myth of the writer.” Later he describes poet James Merrill’s idea of “moral sculpture,” the creative act of pretending that things are much more advanced than they are. Then he applies the thought to himself in the context of those rarified years of sexually liberation spawned by Stonewall and that allowed Violet Quills everywhere to flow. Referring to his work with Dr. Charles Silverstein, co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, White reveals with humility what many writers may not: “I created a kind of persona for myself who was much more comfortable with being gay than I actually was.” He exposes perhaps his own myth and the idea others may have of him if only familiar with his novels.
Picano relates a similar experience with Silverstein when they worked on two later versions of The Joy of Gay Sex. That he found Silverstein “less comfortable with his gayness” than Picano was…“And that he actually developed more tolerance as we went along and got older.” A myth broken? Remember too that Silverstein was one of the people behind the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from its list of illnesses. White was prompted to explain that Silverstein, teaching a generation and beyond about gay sex, “was very inexperienced…He came out late and he went right into a relationship.” Imagine that. In an era of sexual openness and experimentation often compared to the bacchanal of the late Roman Empire, the man educating a generation of gay men about sex came out late in life and quickly entered a relationship. Silverstein not joyful? Perhaps not if joyful back then meant sexually prolific.
Back then Holleran was not exactly a dancer from the dance. He is rather shy and pleasantly reserved. When he had a firm chance to publish his most successful novel, Dancer from the Dance, he feared his parents might learn of his sexuality. So writer Eric Garber chose the pen name Andrew Holleran, not quite the fearless bon vivant who summered on Fire Island as did his characters drawn from the letters of a friend on which he based the book.
I do not note these divergences from the “myths” these writers may have accrued in order to be critical. I think each of these authors were brave to share their human inconsistencies. In a time when many who can type think they also can write, let’s remember that these gentlemen were the first to write novels, short stories, reviews, and criticism in which homosexuality wasn’t explained to readers, apologized for or interpreted through the loathing haze of being an illness, a criminal act, or a sin.
As White said in our previous LLR interview: “I believe that the fame of an artist or writer is mostly due to his legend, rather than his work. Look at Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. If we’re honest about it, most of us respond to the extra-artistic image these people have.”