Edmund White: Who are you calling a Trollope?

The Times

August 23, 2003

There are many things you would expect a protagonist in an Edmund White novel to be: gay, slutty, cosmopolitan, living in the shadow of Aids — but a 19th-century literary matron is not among them.

In Fanny: A Fiction, in place of White’s trademark passionate relationships between men there is the shifting relationship between a female biographer and her subject. The setting is a bustling new American city and fledgling Utopian community, not gay bars and smart apartments. Instead of Aids there is the threat of scurvy on a squalid Atlantic crossing.

So why the change? The 63-year-old author made his name with a trilogy of autobiographical fiction — A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony — which unflinchingly evoked gay life from the 1950s to the 1990s; from oppression (a smalltown boy sent to a succession of shrinks) to liberation (a ringside seat at the Stonewall Riots in 1969); exultant promiscuity (White estimates that between 1962 and 1982 he had sex with 3,120 men — “that’s only three a week, actually”) to disease, decimation and — for White against all the odds — survival. Another autobiographical novel, The Married Man, drew on White’s experience of caring for his long-time partner Hubert Sorin as the latter died of Aids.

Could it be that White has nothing left to tell? Has the confessor turned ventriloquist? In this new book, Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony, is attempting to write the biography of Frances Wright, a Utopianist and radical social reformer who became the first American woman to advocate the abolition of slavery in the 1820s.

He writes in the first person, as usual, but finds this time he is not constrained. “You can end up sounding as if you’re defending or condemning him — your narrator — too much. It’s very difficult to find an exact strategy of presenting yourself. In Fanny, I found I could be several different characters.” The book blends fact (White is a judicious researcher) and fiction.

We are sitting in a patisserie near White’s hotel, and I inquire after his partner, Michael Carroll. “Oh, Michael’s upstairs in our hotel room having sex with a German guy called Philip,” says White blithely.

Doesn’t he mind? “Not at all,” he says, smiling. He and Carroll, his partner of eight years, are in love but not monogamous. Indeed, when I last interviewed White, three years ago, he said he was enjoying sex in saunas with “working-class men with no muscles”.

“Philip, the German guy, is handsome, bright,” he says. “He came to a reading, then round to the house, and we sat on the sofa day after day kissing. Finally, I said: ‘You’re in love with me but you’re not attracted to me.’ He said: ‘But I am — gulp — terribly attracted to Michael.’ Michael is such a workaholic he doesn’t want to have an affair with anybody except me but he made a little exception this time.”

White talks about sex a lot, urgently, like a gumshoe imparting information. He is erudite, fiercely well-read and has a prodigious work ethic (work, he says, is top of his list of priorities; sex comes only second). He is fascinated by biography; what it conceals or misses as well as what it reveals. When he wrote his critically hailed biography of Jean Genet he “tried desperately” to be objective.

Ironically, White himself was the subject of a biography that was more hagiography, which one critic rightly noted should have been subtitled A Fan Writes. “The author (Stephen Barber) had a very romantic vision of me. It was very flattering. He painted me as a brooding figure. I see myself as much more self-mocking and satirical. I just skimmed that biography. As Genet put it, I didn’t want to end up resembling myself.”

Does he want a harder, more objective job done? “Yes,I’d like to be taken a little more seriously,” he says, adding — without prissiness — that his contemporaries are Susan Sontag, Ronald Barthes and Michel Foucault, after all.

White has ruthlessly mined his own life for material; yet he is writing his memoirs.Is there anything left to say? “I am pushing self-analysis further than I ever have,” he insists. So there will be more on his relationship with his mother, his relationships with women (he almost married twice), rent boys and his Christian Science upbringing (he is now an atheist and very down on religion).

White’s eyes dart up. “Oooh, there’s the German. You must meet him.” And he dashes from the table.Carroll, 38, walks in accompanied by Philip, the tall, blond German. “Sam’s coming tonight,” Carroll tells White and leaves.

Who’s Sam? I ask. Are you running a harem? “Hmmm, Sam’s yet another one. He graduated from Princeton last year. He’s a redhead. Absolutely the cutest thing. There was a lot of sitting on the couch and kissing.” White pauses. “People fall in love with me but they don’t want to pass to the act.”

Why? “Because I’m a little too old,” he shoots back equably. How do he and Carroll make their relationship work? “The key is we’re very fond of each other,” says White. “It would be hard for any other relationship to supersede that. I have never liked coming home to a cold apartment. I like domestic life, caring for someone, you know — ‘how did the dentist go, dear?’ ”

Like its predecessors in the Edmund White canon, Fanny has a strong echo in reality. “I identified my mother with her very strongly,” White reveals. “She died, aged 80, in 1987. Like Fanny, she was utterly unconcerned with being consistent. She was a real survivor. She had both breasts removed, a colostomy and she sailed right through it all. Nothing stopped her.”

They weren’t always close. White grew up in Cincinnati. His parents divorced when he was seven, and he and his sister were shuttled between them. “My mother never had friends. My sister and I were her friends, especially me. She would always say Oedipal things, like ‘If only you were a little older I would marry you’ — normal things for a Texan born in 1906. I felt flattered and needed and wanted but also oppressed.” At 14 he was overjoyed to be sent to boarding school — “an escape”.

The two became close again years later. “My mother was completely broke. She had no pension. Her younger partner had left her. She was always being abandoned by her lovers. She was jobless, homeless, breastless, loveless and penniless. And she was drinking very heavily. Then one day she stopped drinking and overnight became this wonderful, serene person. She cultivated her mind, found a new set of friends and had a life.”

His family was, as he puts it, “awash with incestuous desire”. “When I was 12 I spent the night with my mother’s stepfather. I kept trying to initiate sex. We kissed and hugged, nothing else. When I woke up the next morning, he was talking to my mother and grandmother: ‘Oh that Ed is such a sweet boy. He was huggin’ and kissin’ all night long.’ Well, I was horrified. I felt so guilty and ashamed. So I turned on the gas of the little fire in my bedroom and tried to kill myself. But I moved away in time.”

He believes his father was in love with his sister (she has told White they had sex twice when she was 13). White himself was attracted to his father. “But I never got anywhere with him. We had one date that seemed very romantic to me. He took to me to a very expensive French restaurant and said to me: ‘You have beautiful eyes, just like your mother. You know boys your age aren’t so very different from girls.’ I was thrilled, but nothing happened.”

He had sex with a boy his own age (12) at summer camp, then the boy next door. On holiday in Acapulco, he had sex with the hotel pianist, “who was eventually shot by the father of two boys he had had sex with”. At 14, White told his mother he was gay. She sent him to a psychiatrist. “I was reading Oscar Wilde and was very arch. The shrink told my mother that I was ‘unsalvageable’. Against my wishes she told my father, whose theory was that my mother had introduced me to the adult world — mixing Martinis, chatting gaily with guests — too early. He thought I should be mowing the lawn or playing baseball.” They grew apart. Later White’s stepmother would see advertisements for his books and throw them away so his father wouldn’t see them.

“I was gay, growing up in the Fifties. I felt a lot of shame and guilt. And I had a strong sex drive. That’s quite an explosive situation. I couldn’t keep myself from seeking out partners and going to extremes to find them. I was hiring hustlers (rent boys) from when I was 16.”

He remembers the first — “a 25-year-old hillbilly from Kentucky with pale, watery blue eyes, blond hair, lanky. He and his friends would sit on a railing downtown and people — mainly married men — would drive around and the boys would jump from the railings into the cars.”

From an early age he wrote books and later plays. One early unpublished novel, Mrs Morrigan, was about his mother’s divorce, streaked with “madness, puritanism, a fearless attraction towards more extreme forms of sex and a simultaneous hatred of the flesh”. At the University of Michigan, White studied Chinese, then — following a student who he had fallen in love with — moved to New York. “I remember arriving on the night of July 19, 1962. My friend took me to a gay restaurant and I was amazed by it — the idea that gays could meet and talk in a non-sexual space.”

On June 27, 1969, in a Forrest Gumpish stroke of good timing, White came upon police laying siege to a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall. Patrons were being dragged into paddy wagons. Then the police barricaded themselves inside while waiting for reinforcements. It was not the riot cultural historians have long invoked — “more Dada than Bastille,” says White — but it changed his life. “We began to pull up parking meters to use as battering rams. I was horrified with myself. I kept thinking: ‘You’re middle class and you’re going to get into trouble.’ Yet in spite of myself there was this exhilaration. Sometimes the personal does become political and an event intersects with your own life and changes you.”

White worked as a journalist and as an arts editor on magazines (and would do so till the success of A Boy’s Own Story, 1982). He became an academic. In 1973 he published his first novel, Forgetting Elena, a fantasy about an island where manners are everything (inspired by Fire Island, New York’s long-established gay playground). “When I started I was worried I would never write about the big themes of life — divorce, bigamy, having children, I could only write about sick faggots who were neurotic. I had bought the notion that gays were stunted people, that we had no access to great occasions of human life.” So he did the only thing he could do. He started to write his story.

AS time has gone on he has written out of “a sense of duty and obligation to history and to the people I knew and loved”. Like many of his generation, he lost all of his friends to Aids. He was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985 but is a “non-progressor” — one of the 5 per cent of people with HIV who have not gone on to develop Aids-related illnesses.

But he takes nothing for granted. He touches the wood of the table gingerly when discussing his health. He hates growing older: “As Colette said, ‘Let’s draw a veil over that’.” He returned to America in 1997, after a 14-year exile in Paris, because he had been living extravagantly “with the idea that I would be dead in a year. I never saved money for my old age because I thought I wouldn’t have one. But it seems I was condemned to carry on living — which sounds like I’m being ungrateful, which I’m not. The great thing at Princeton (where he is professor of creative writing) is that they let you work way past 65.”

The future concerns him. “Each book feels as if my back is against the wall. The book market has become like film-making. You can’t really afford more than one or two failures. I feel at any moment I could fall off the map.” His eyes have lost their twinkle. He looks downcast. Then the cloud passes. “But don’t get the idea I am gloomy. I’m not.” (I’m reminded of the moment in the novel that Fanny passes a mirror and notices with a piercing sadness her advancing age, before sallying forth.)

Criticism — Fanny was denounced by one critic this week as an “ersatz travesty” — doesn’t faze him. “I know many people may have dismissed me as a ‘gay writer’ and have never read me. But the fact is that my own life coincided with a revolution of gay society — oppressed in the Fifties, liberated in the Sixties, promiscuous in the Seventies, nearly wiped out in the Eighties. I do feel a representative figure. It’s useful to report that trajectory. But I feel I’ve done that now.” He is looking forward to writing more historical fiction and he’ll publish a book of essays next summer.

And there will be more ventriloquism: a play about an imagined relationship between the author Gore Vidal and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001. “In the play, I imagine Gore being attracted to McVeigh until he finds out what a gun-loving nutcase he really is. Gore says he’s OK with it.”

So, more adventures, then? “Yes. I may move to London,” White muses. “I’ve had wonderful times here. I once had sex with a lord on Hampstead Heath in the Seventies. And Cudjo (a black slave in Fanny: A Fiction) — his body is kind of based on my third boyfriend in New York right now, this lovely guy who . . .”