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Books: Edmund the Magnificent

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    Books: Edmund the Magnificent - 14-May-2006
    Headed for Auckland next week, American author Edmund White talks to IAIN SHARP about his startling new autobiography, works in progress and the gay life.
    With characteristically astute self-awareness, Edmund White recently told an American reporter: "I am very exhibitionist in my writing, but I'm actually quite shy about my life in person."

    Those who have read the 66-year-old New York-based author's latest book, My Lives (Bloomsbury, $35), are bound to agree with the first part of that description. In this autobiographical work, White discusses his sex life with a candour that is sometimes startling and a stylistic verve few living writers could match. He lost his virginity at age 12. Because he has always enjoyed cruising, his sexual partners since then number not just in the hundreds but the thousands.

    But the shyness is real too. When interviewed, he responds to questions with an endearingly old-fashioned courtesy and - for someone so articulate - a surprisingly hesitant manner, as if embarrassed that he might be hogging too much of the conversation.

    My Lives opens with a memorable sentence: "In the mid-1950s, when I was 14 or 15, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness."

    Instead of following a chronological path, however, the book is divided into 10 thematic essays: My Shrinks, My Father, My Mother, My Hustlers, My Women, My Europe, My Master, My Blonds, My Genet, My Friends.

    White will be in New Zealand next week as one of the star attractions in WitSunday, a day-long literary smorgasbord organised by the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival committee. He then flits across the Tasman to participate in the Sydney Writers Festival. His Australasian appearances come hard on the heels of a tour of American cities to promote My Lives. Although the book has been available in the UK and Commonwealth countries since September, it was released in the US only last month.

    White scotches rumours that it has been bowdlerised for American consumption to comply with the God-fearing censorship-prone climate encouraged by the Bush administration. But he confirms that his American publishers did voice concerns over the kinkiest chapter, My Master, which chronicles, in graphic urine-slurping detail, his masochistic infatuation with a handsome young Virginian identified simply as "T".

    White is disappointed by the general drift in the US away from the liberalism of the 70s. He likens the current "terrorism scare" to the "Commie scare" when he was growing up in the conservative strongholds of Cincinnati, Ohio and Evanston, Illinois during the Eisenhower era. But he says he has generally been left alone by America's large and powerful fundamentalist Christian block.

    "They don't read me or know who I am - and I'm happy for it to remain that way. I have relatives on my mother's side who are Southern Baptists in Texas, but I don't have any contact with them. Their world is quite insulated. They're not aware that my books exist."

    My Lives does not cover all aspects of White's past. He does not tell us much about Michael Carroll, the writer 25 years his junior with whom he has lived for more than a decade. Likewise, there is only a fleeting mention of his French lover, Hubert Sorin, who died of Aids, with White at his side, in 1994.

    White was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985 and is among the small percentage classified as "nonprogressors". But this is not discussed in any depth.

    In 2000, White's nephew, Keith Fleming, published a memoir called The Boy with the Thorn in His Side, describing his troubled adolescence and how "Uncle Eddie" rescued him from a mental hospital, took him to live in New York and worked 12-hour stints in the PR department of a chemical company to pay for skin treatment for the teenager and to send him to a good school.

    Extraordinary generosity -yet there is not even a whisper of this episode in My Lives.

    Partly, White does not want to repeat himself. His nephew did figure in his semi-autobiographical The Farewell Symphony - a book haunted, as is much of White's fiction, by the spectre of Aids. Shortly after Sorin's death, White published Our Paris, a beautifully sad collection of reminiscences which includes more than 30 of Sorin's charming drawings of Parisian life. In 1997, White and Carroll contributed fond recollections to the anthology Two Hearts Desire: Gay Couples on their Love.

    "I don't like to use the same material over and over," says White.

    "The writing goes dead if there's not something new. There were a lot of other topics I might have tackled in My Lives , and in fact my idea of what to include kept shifting even when I was working on the book. I thought of doing a chapter called My Aids. I could have written about my life with Michael. People seem surprised that jealousy has not been an issue between us, but Michael was aware of my wandering eye when we got together and I'm very committed to him in other ways.

    "I might also have written a chapter on My Jobs, which have been varied. Or on My Sister. Margaret is 70 years old and she has eight adopted children, six of them black, two Vietnamese, the youngest just a baby, most of them born with HIV. She's very different from me - very religious, very maternal. But she's an interesting, colourful and dynamic person."

    There is plenty of untapped subject matter for a sequel to My Lives, but White is unlikely to attempt such a project in the near future. Now on leave from his job as director of the creative writing programme at Princeton University, he is working on a novel tentatively called Hotel de Dream with assistance from a fellowship that gives him a $US50,000 ($80,000) stipend, an office and access to the vast collections of the New York Public Library.

    "It's been marvellous," he says.

    "The library has the papers of the 19th century writer Stephen Crane, who is most famous for his novel The Red Badge of Courage. Crane was a bohemian in New York with wide sympathies. His wife, Cora, was a prostitute who once ran a brothel in Jacksonville, Florida, named Hotel de Dream. He died of TB when he was 28.

    "It's said that Crane was once approached on the streets by a male hustler. He wrote a story about the encounter and gave it to his friend, Hamlin Garland, a he-man writer of outdoor adventure books, to read. Garland said it was the best thing Crane had ever done, but he better destroy it before it wrecked his career. This was in 1895 - the year of the Oscar Wilde trial.

    "I imagine Crane on his death bed, dictating a novel about a boy prostitute to Cora. I wanted the challenge of thinking about how a straight writer would conceive of gay sex. The reverse has been done often enough. In the 1890s, there wasn't even a generally recognised term for homosexuality - the vocabulary was very imprecise."

    White is also adding the finishing touches to a play, Terre Haute, which will be part of the Edinburgh Festival in August and will have its American premiere in San Francisco in March.

    There is a sequence in My Lives in which White tells T: "Remember you're my master and you can order me to do anything. You can tell me to write a play for you, for instance, but you must give me the theme."

    "Timothy McVeigh," T replies. "I want you to write about Timothy McVeigh."

    Convicted of killing 167 people with a bomb detonated in Oklahoma City, McVeigh was executed in June 2001 at Terre Haute in western Indiana. While on death row, he corresponded with Gore Vidal, inviting the celebrated author to be a witness at the execution. Vidal declined.

    "I don't use the names McVeigh and Vidal in the play," says White.

    "I imagine a meeting - and an attraction - between a famous older writer known for his radical politics and a convicted young murderer. In reality McVeigh and Vidal never met."

    After the novel and play, White thinks his next project will be a book-length essay on high culture in New York in the 1970s, focusing on such figures as Jasper Johns, Susan Sontag and George Balanchine. More urgently, however, he has to write an address (which will later be published) for the Sydney Writers Festival on the differences between autobiographical fiction and autobiography proper.

    "With fiction," he says, "there is a desire to be somehow representative and to avoid anything too extreme or too coincidental. But with autobiography, you can flaunt the ways you are different.

    "When I was writing my novel A Boy's Own Story in the early 80s, I based it on my own experiences as an adolescent, but normalised them because I didn't want to freak readers out. I was far more precocious, both sexually and intellectually, than the narrator of that book, and my family background was much stranger than his."

    # White will discuss his life and writing career at Auckland's Aotea Centre at 8.30pm on May 21. Further information is available from www.writersfestival.co.nz
    Ref: - Sunday Star Times - NZ Writers Festival


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