Rick Whitaker: Other Voices
Author: Kevin Brannon
February 18, 2014
Until last year, Rick Whitaker was best known as a memoirist and literary critic. His previous books, Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling and The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, revealed the author’s penchant for considering his own life through the prism of literature, especially the output of queer writers such as O’Hara, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin and others. In his inventive new novel, An Honest Ghost (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013), he takes the notion of literary subjectivity a step further by constructing a narrative entirely out of sentences borrowed from other writers–queer and otherwise. John Ashbery named An Honest Ghost one of his “Books of the Year” for 2013 in the The Times Literary Supplement; it also made “must-read” lists in both Slate and Readers Digest.
Whitaker recently spoke to The Lambda Literary Review about his mentors and influences and how he set about writing An Honest Ghost.
Congratulations on An Honest Ghost. Are you surprised by the attention it has received?
Yes, and very grateful to a few key figures whose attention has meant the world to me: you and the editors here at Lambda Literary, John Ashbery, Filip Noterdaeme, Bryan Lowder at Slate, Jenny McPhee, Malaga Baldi, Debra DiBlasi, Adam Phillips and Edmund White.
Can you talk a little about how you came to write An Honest Ghost; what inspired the idea to compose a novel in this way?
One day in 2005 I picked up Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. In her introduction, Hannah Arendt tosses off the remark that Benjamin’s “greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations.” And then the opening essay is called “Unpacking My Library,” and its first sentence became the opening for my novel: “I am unpacking my library.” I imagined a narrator moving into a new house, unpacking his books, and picking out sentences from them to tell a story about his present shenanigans, loves, and struggles. I’ve always been a book collector, and have always felt that my collection of books was somehow central to my work as a writer. It was a relief to find a method so directly consistent with this belief.
How did you balance any desire you may have felt to use certain sentences or writers with the demands of the story you wanted to tell? Put another way, which came first, the story or the sentences?
Definitely the sentences. It would have been impossible (for me, at least) to have written this novel with a closely predetermined story dictating the way. Writing this book was very much like meditating: it required focus and steady effort, but also a kind of empty wandering, allowing the sentences to drift into place. When I was “harvesting” sentences from books, my only real criterion was its potential usability within the context of what I had already done. Obviously a sentence with a character’s name was immediately rejected unless I was ready to commit to creating a new character. Obversely, any sentence referring to a David, a Joe, an Eleanor, a Roy, or spoken in the first person gave the sentence an instant appeal (though often some other aspect of the sentence rendered it unsuitable). Writers love the feeling of being obsessed enough by their work that they’re “always working.” I was constantly on the lookout for sentences I could use, and that was one of the pleasures of working on An Honest Ghost, this focus it gave to my reading. It contributed to a feeling that the hours and hours I spent with a book were justified on an additional level: I was not only reading, but hunting.
You placed a number of restrictions on yourself while composing the book. Can you say something about these restrictions and the appeal of adhering to rules?
I settled quickly on the rules: I would use only unedited, complete sentences; would steal just one at a time; would limit myself to 300 words per book (in accordance with Fair Use); and would keep a list of every sentence’s source. I’m attracted by Oulipian rules and constraints. I love the idea of Georges Perec’s A Void (the novel in French in which the letter E never appears, translated by Gilbert Adair—and several others—into English, likewise without use of the letter E), but I’ve often felt that such projects, particularly A Void, resulted inevitably in rather weak books whose main allure was the gimmick. I hoped to find a way to use a radical constraint not merely to produce a literary novelty, but a literary novel that would be stronger, more surprising, and a truer expression from the heart, so to speak, than anything I myself could have produced on my own by just writing one sentence after another in the usual way.
Did working on this book change the way you think about writing, or even reading? Do you tend to think of a novel as a story or as an accumulation of words and sentences?
In the early 1990s, I was blessed to receive extensive instruction from three of the most interesting teachers then in New York: Gordon Lish, Denis Donoghue, and Harold Bloom. Among the many things they imparted to me was a kind of weariness with the sheer amplitude of literary production. They taught me to trust myself when it came to picking and choosing texts to read and re-read. I think we all have, to some extent, a built-in judge that’s comfortable with rejecting one text in order to clear space for something more profound, more unsettling, wilder, more necessary, longer-lasting, and closer to the truth. Writing An Honest Ghost was a kind of workout for this process of weeding out, sorting through, casting away, honing in, and landing on what sometimes felt like the right thing at the right time.
Rick Whitaker enjoys a kind of Nabokovian presence in this book. I am thinking of the glimpse you give the reader of your own bookshelves. Was this an effect you were interested in achieving or a mere byproduct of the necessity to cite your sources?
That background personality—the maker silently tinkering—was certainly something that developed along with the novel itself. I love the last four novels of David Markson, which consist of mostly factual statements about literary and cultural figures, with just a trace of information about the author himself, who appears to be a single, lonely, older man hunkered down in a small house near a cemetery, pounding out a final expression of the wonder and bewilderment he feels about all that has gone before him under the sign of the literary. “This boy will come to nothing, said Freud’s father.” That’s an example of one of the thousands of distilled, astonishing moments in Markson’s late novels. You can intuit from just that one sentence a whole personality, a literary power, a cultural observer, the heart and mind of a man with wide-open eyes and raised eyebrows gleefully pointing over and over again to the ludicrous, the amazing, and the endlessly repetitive, intractable cycles of behavior here among us.
I was intrigued by the way the book blurs the line between naturalism and what I will call camp for lack of a better word. Your characters are very dramatic and presentational and the fact that they are mediated through so many different voices only heightens the effect. Yet, they retain an essential authenticity. Communicating in other voices–from film, literature, popular music, etc.–is such a part of the way we relate to each other in life. Is this something you especially wanted to comment on with this book?
Well, we certainly do all live in a swarming cultural cyclotron that fills our heads with voices, sentences, images, sounds, and visions. These artifacts and codes can be powerful ammunition and material for a certain type of wit. I do not have that kind of wit in the moment—but I have friends who are masters of it, particularly a very funny writer friend of mine, Tom Donaghy, who never says anything that’s not either funny or profound and is often both. He was one of my models for Joe, the young boy in the novel, who says nothing predictable. He is wildly precocious (which I think is funny in itself) and dramatic: when his mother has returned from one of her many trips, Joe, already exhausted at the thought of seeing her, says to his dad, the narrator, “Say that I am asleep and tell her to go away. She depresses me.” (Casanova, History of My Life, p. 931 and E.M. Forster, Passage to India, p. 131)
This is your third book and I understand that you are working on a fourth. What can you tell us about your routine when you are writing?
I am not the kind of writer who works at a certain time, or in a certain place, every day. I write when I can, often late at night. My friend Richard Howard likes to tell me that the only cure for life is (creative) work, and I believe that. I love to be a writer, and I love having written something, but I don’t love the effort of finding a way to put something fresh on a blank piece of paper. I’m always on the lookout for help with my own work, and I find inventing plotlines extremely difficult. The book I’m trying to write now is an invention based very closely on the biographical record about another writer, the poet Hart Crane: I’m sort of inserting my narrator into his life. I guess I feel somewhat lost when left to my own devices. Happily, the realm of the literary past is huge and inviting and since most of the writers are dead, they don’t complain of being used. A friend of mine, the writer Gary Krist, said when he heard about An Honest Ghost, that he’d be pissed if I stole sentences from him, but even more pissed if I didn’t.