Edmund White

Interview and photography by
Gert Jonkers


Edmund White is an amazing journalist and best-selling novelist (A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, A Farewell Symphony, to name just a few), biographer of Jean Genet and Proust, and recently biographer of himself in his cheerful and overtly sexy My Lives. Not to mention his co-authorship of the classic The Joy of Gay Sex... Having been an ex-pat in Paris for decades, Edmund White is now back in New York. He’s a professor at Princeton University and he lives in a cozy apartment in the heart of Homo City, Chelsea. Most of all, he’s a very welcoming man.

Gert: Doesn’t it feel like a final book when you write your autobiography?
Edmund: No. Just yesterday I finished a new book — a historical novel about the gay scene in New York in the 1890s. I write all sorts of things. You know, I mean, most writers have very boring lives. They live in little provincial towns in America where they teach at these god-awful places. Like, they live in Idaho and they teach at the University of Idaho. And nothing ever happens to them, and they’re very paranoid about New York and Paris and London. I’m not like that at all because I was always a journalist, so I’ve met everybody from the Queen of Sweden to the Queen of England. I’ve known all the great writers, I slept with everybody and done everything. So, I mean I feel like I don’t have a little life; I’ve had a big life, so far. My Lives is just a part of that.
Makes sense.
Did you see the book? There’s a chapter called My Master and it’s funny — I mean, it’s very sad but it has a lot of funny moments in it. I talk about when I had this master, about two years ago, who suddenly dropped me one day. He broke my heart. So then I thought I must find another master and I went online to slaveformaster.com. I found this guy in Amsterdam who was Latvian and wanted to take complete control of your life and put you in a cage and train you to be a dog and everything. So then I said, “Well, that sounds very tempting, but what about my courses at Princeton? And what about my summer holidays in Greece and whatever?” Suddenly I began to think about my life and how exciting it would be to give it all up.
You were tempted to give it all up?
Oh sure. Well, maybe not… But then this colleague of mine read this chapter and he was totally amazed because he had seen the same ad and had the same response and had tried to get in touch with this guy. He required that, even before the first meeting, you turn over all of your property to him. You had to make an inventory of every T-shirt you owned. And every book. And every CD. And you had to sign it all over to him. Well anyway, just as he was about to run to the telegraph office to sign it all over to this unknown person in Latvia he thought, “Well, wait a minute. There’s something totally wrong with my head.”
That’s what I would say!
I don’t know. I mean, my friend has a very deep masochistic streak — as I do — so we were both talking about how you really want to belong to someone else. You want to be micro-managed by that other person. At least you think you do. It’s a sexy idea. I mean, not everybody likes it. But I do. Don’t you know how many important gay writers have been involved with S&M thinking? Whether it’s Paul Bowles or Tennessee Williams…
Well, isn’t it Bruce LaBruce who claims that all creative people are bottoms? And being a masochist is being the ultimate bottom, I guess.
Sure. Absolutely. The ultimate bottom!
So what did you think you would miss if you had to give your whole life to this master?
(laughs) Well, I don’t know. I like my life, or almost every part of it ’cause I think, finally at this age I’ve managed to get rid of all the things I don’t like and to keep the things I do. So as an ensemble I like it, but there’s always this temptation to revolutionize my life. It’s like, I had a friend who was a very successful concert pianist in Paris, and he lived a very sumptuous life because his boyfriend had a rich mother. And then all of sudden — boom! — he threw everything over to become a monk first, and later a hermit. He lived in a cave in the Pyrenees.
Interesting. Very romantic idea.
Yeah, kind of. And his brother, at about the same age, threw over his French wife of 35 years, and took up with a young American woman and moved to America, though he couldn’t speak English. I think people just get tempted to do that, you know. And maybe S&M is an extreme form of it. But then you start thinking that you actually like your life…
Do you like writing?
No. Not too much. I like having written. I don’t like to write. It’s torture. But I do it anyway.
Have you become more open about writing about yourself? I remember your old book States of Desire, in which you explore all the gay scenes in the States. I love that book, but I can’t remember you mentioning yourself a lot and what you ‘do’ there.
There’s a thing in that book where I talk about having sex with a cowboy, and when he’s about to shoot, he says, “I’m fixin’ to cum,” which is what you say in Texas. “I’m fixin’ to cum.” But, yes, the general impression you have is that I write more about other people. Even My Lives is more about other people than about me. But there are big parts about me…
But have you become more open and comfortable?
I think so, and also I think we live in such a puritanical country and period… Even gay people are all trying to clean up their act so that they can get married and adopt children and be normal. And I hate all that. I mean, I’m all for gay marriage if they want to get married — and I would fight for their right to get married. But I don’t like the concept of heterosexual marriage in the first place. Anyway, I’m free and I have a tenured position at a university and they can’t fire me, and so I have a kind of degree of independence that most people don’t have, so I might as well take advantage of it and do and write whatever I want.
You had a funny relationship with your father, didn’t you?
Yes. I desired him. And I would sit outside his bedroom — I was 12 or 13 — and my mind would just race. I would imagine that my stepmother would go away on vacation and I would go in and he’d be asleep and he would think I was her. And then I would get him excited and by the time he’d wake up, he’d have his dick inside me or something. I always had these ideas… And one time — only one time — my stepmother did go away and my father took me to the most expensive restaurant you could go to. And he got drunk. Of course, I was too young to drink. I was 12, maybe. And he kept saying, “Oh you know, you look so much like your mother,” — my real mother, not his second wife — and then he said, “You know, boys your age really look like girls. There’s no difference between boys and girls at your age.” And I got so excited. But I don’t think I knew how to show him that I could be available. And I’m sure the minute he sobered up he regretted the whole thing.
You mean it could have happened that day?
That day and only that day. All the stars were in the right position and maybe something could have happened…
And you fucked it up.
I didn’t know how to seize the occasion. I had another experience like that when I was in summer camp in Wisconsin. And there was a counselor who was maybe 30, kinda good-looking, very hairy. And he showed me these pictures he had taken of naked men and, of course, I found that very exciting — but I thought that was me. I thought he was an artist who just took artistic pictures. And the fact that we were alone in a cabin where nobody else was around and he was showing me these pictures, I didn’t realize that was a seduction. I just said, “Well, really neat — bye!” And I ran out with a hard-on! Only years later do you think, “Oh my god, how stupid was I?” Now, I guess kids would know.
Or maybe not. I remember when I was 20, I went to LA and one night I walked back home over Santa Monica Blvd and all these cars kept stopping, offering me a ride, and I honestly didn’t think anything of it.
Exactly! Do you know John Rechy, who wrote City of Night? He told me such a funny story. He teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California, but even when he was in his 50s and 60s he was still hustling. He lifted weights all the time and he would put oil all over his body and then walk out on Santa Monica Blvd and pose to catch the headlights of passing cars. So this car slowed down and there’s this very young man behind the wheel who lowers down his window and says, “Evening Professor Rechy. Out for an evening stroll?” It was one of his students.
He was hustling when he was 60? Was it good money on the side for him?
I don’t know… I used to say that his publisher paid people to pick him up so he had something to write about… But I’m a bitch. (laughs)
Do you have a lover?
Yeah. I live with Michael — Michael Carroll. We’ve been together for 11 years. He’s 25 years younger but we have a very open relationship. For instance, he’s in Germany right now with his German lover — who was originally my lover. So… (laughs) His boyfriend will go with us to Greece for one week, and another week an American boyfriend of mine — who’s a Mormon — will be there.
Okay. Do you have a house in Greece?
No. We have no money. We’re totally poor. But we always rent a floor in this house in Naxos.
I guess you need to have a totally free relationship?
Yeah, well we’re very happy together. I’ve never had such a happy love affair with anybody. He’s a writer as well. We met because he was a fan.
Don’t you even have a vague feeling of jealousy now that he’s not here?
No. I mean, I miss him. But we email every day and he calls me all the time. His German lover wanted him to live with him but he said no — Michael said he wants to live with me. I’m reading a novel by him now in manuscript, which is loosely based on us — but not really. It sort of is all about living for a much older man.
Mmm. Is it shocking to read it?
No. No, I like it.
Is Michael handsome?
Are you kidding? He’s totally handsome.
What do you consider handsome?
Well, everybody. Really, I’m always saying that and people say to me, “Oh, Edmund, you’re so looks-conscious, you’re such a snob, you only like beautiful people.” And I say, “Yeah, but you should see the ones I call beautiful. It’s actually everybody.” I find almost all men attractive.
Really? That’s handy.
It is handy. I can go to bed with the village idiot in a cold little town in Wales in December. Which I did once. He was beautiful. You know: missing teeth, a big hunchback… (laughs) I like ‘em all. My main sexual feeling is gratitude and admiration. I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always felt, “How lucky I am that he’s willing to go to bed with me.” I always have this feeling that everybody is very precious and sacred. I mean, I’m one of those terrible people who can stare at other people in a way that embarrasses everybody. It’s because I forget that I even exist. I pour myself into the other person. People who are having dinner with me get very irritated because I am so absorbed by the next table… It’s terrible! Like a child. Or a monkey.
It suits you. I mean, one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you is because I read your book Arts and Letters and I love the collected profiles you did for Vanity Fair and Talk and Rolling Stone. They’re amazing.
Thank you.
I guess for a journalist it helps if you’re a little bit submissive…
Yeah. Good journalists, good psychiatrists, good editors — they’re all a little submissive. Because if you’re not passive — like if you were a psychiatrist with a very strong personality — you can’t sit and listen to people for hours and hours and hours.
You have to be a bit masochistic to sit through a conversation with David Geffen.
Well, I was irritated by him because he was so unconfiding, you know. I said to him, “You’re a terrible interviewee ’cause you’re too discreet.” It’s a great quality in a friend, but it’s a bad quality in an interviewee. Because while we were there several fascinating things happened but they were all off the record. And David Geffen is so rich and powerful that you don’t dare go against him. He could sue the hell out of you.
What happened?
He’d probably sue you if you’d print it! So… Portraying people is kind of nerve-racking because I always feel like I’m under-prepared, I don’t have good questions and I don’t know enough. Like, I did Elton John for Rolling Stone and I really don’t know anything about pop music — I never listen to it. But Michael, my boyfriend, knows all that, so he went with me. And he would ask all the questions. I had no idea.
But that was a wonderful piece.
Oh, thank you. Yeah. Well, I like Elton. I don’t think he liked the piece because he invited me to several events before the piece came out, and after the piece came out he never spoke to me again. But you know, it can be something tiny and seemingly irrelevant. You can say something disobliging about the way somebody looks, and the damage is done. Like, I remember once somebody wrote a very, very nice piece about me, and what a genius I was, but that I had a matronly chin, like an old woman. That’s all I can remember. And so I hated that piece and I hated that person.
Coming back to your saying you think all men are handsome; does that means that you hardly have a ‘type’ or any specific guidelines for the ideal sexy man?
Eh, a big Adam’s apple. I like that. Boys who are kind of skinny with big, big Adam’s apples, I think that’s exciting. I was talking about fetishism last night with my colleague — we were laughing about sadism and how they always want you to kiss their boots and everything, and how we don’t even like to do that because we don’t have fetishes. We don’t care about the boots. Or the leather. Or any of it. We only like the melodrama of domination, submission…the whole idea of possession, of belonging to somebody. All of that is very primitive and exciting. But in terms of actual fetishes, you know, I don’t think I have any. Well, maybe one… My father was an obsessive smoker of cigars. And once I had a master who would light up a cigar, sort of close to the moment of cumming. And I hated it! This terrible smell — it was like a violation of my apartment. And then some little thing in me would crack and I would suddenly love it! You know, because I consider my father… But in Paris, for instance, when you go online, people are always saying, “Moi, je cherche le look basket,” like they want you to wear basketball shoes. To me that’s so stupid, because all you have to do is go out and buy some basketball shoes. And it says nothing about you as a person. It’s just how you’re dressed!
And if you turn up in tennis shoes…
…then they’re not turned on. It’s so narrow and rigid. I’ve had boys say to me, ‘Oh, if you had a beard I would go to bed with you, but…’
Well, come back in three weeks!
Yeah right, exactly.
But at least it’s easier than your fetish. I mean, everyone can buy a pair of sneakers, but not everyone can be a good master.
Yeah. Although as I said, I like everybody. I know a boy who’s deaf, and he likes to dominate me and I love that, you know, because he looks like just the boy next door. So it becomes purely mental in that sense. He wears a baseball cap backwards and shorts and he’s very cute and he looks very innocent. I find that very exciting. It’s like Peter Pan being your master.
And what do you do then? Do you actually walk around the apartment like a dog.
Sure. And he likes that. I think it’s fun to see that someone has a genuine appetite for that, that it makes them hard. The fact that you’re actually humiliating yourself, ha ha — it’s fun! I had another boy who, the first time I ever met him, he buzzed me into his building and I went up to his door — it was three in the morning — and I had to kneel in front of his closed door with a $100 bill in my mouth. He opened the door, took the money out, and made me walk on all fours into the house. He thought that was funny, to have a famous writer kneeling with money in his mouth.
And you thought it was funny too?
It was fine with me because it excited him so much. He’s very cute, 25 or 26. I mean, normally a 66-year-old man wouldn’t excite somebody that young. They’d be kind of shocked, but if they’re crazy like that you have a chance of exciting them.
Do a lot of people go on all fours without us knowing?
Oh yeah, I think so. But a lot of them are hypocritical… Like, see, most of the bad reviews I’ve had for My Lives have been by gay men my age. I just think a lot of them are… Well, maybe they are shocked, but I think…
They’re either hypocritical or they regret not leading the fun life you lead.
Yes. I think that’s part of it. When you’re an old man like me, you’re supposed to stop having sex, stop worrying about all this. People are sort of shocked when you want to go on with an erotic life.
When you’re bored, do you just leave the house and see if there’s somebody to be picked up somewhere?
Well, I never make the first move with anybody anyway. And I don’t go to bars. I don’t cruise. There’s very little chance that anybody I wanted would want me, I think, in a public setting like that. The other thing is that when you get older — this is good for your readers if any of them are older, dealing with the same thing — there are a lot of young men who like old men, but they don’t want to show it in front of their friends. They’re ashamed, because their friends will tease them. Like, “Who are you going out with? He looks like your grandfather!”
So bars are very bad for that. Unless they’re specialty bars for old people/young people. And there are, of course, websites like silverdaddies.com. Silverdaddies is very good. I have a friend in Paris who I met on silverdaddies and I thought, “God, he’s awfully handsome.” He’s the one who introduced me first to BUTT. He said, “You must read BUTT. And if you could only be in BUTT, then I would know that you are a real writer!” (laughs)
Well, we’re happy to serve.
Great. The thing is, when I was in my 20s, I found lots of men in their 40s and 50s to fuck me. And it was very, very exciting. I mean, some of them were extremely powerful guys… Physically and in the world.
Like who?
One of them was head of all artistic programming for a major television channel. He had a very powerful body and he liked to pick me up and hold me upside-down — with my head down — and then he would suck my cock while my feet were sticking straight up. And I would suck his too. He had this incredibly strong body. He could just pick people up and throw them around.
Yeah. Did you go to the Radiohead concert last night?
No, did you go?
No, but I have this Mormon boyfriend who’s a Radiohead fanatic, so I bought him online a ticket on eBay. Because the minute they came on sale they were all sold out.
So he went?
Yeah. And he said it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
Oh, how sweet. So he lives in New York? If he’s a Mormon, I’d think he lived in Salt Lake City?
He’s from Salt Lake City, but now he lives here. And he’s an ex-Mormon.
Well, yeah, I guess you’d need to be an ex-Mormon if you want to sleep with Edmund White.
I know. (laughs) What happened is, I was at the Sundance festival last year, which of course is in the heart of Mormon country, in Utah. All the waiters were Mormons — these big, tall, blondes who look kinda like dinosaurs with small heads and long necks and big bodies, trudging around with this almost alien, zombie look. I thought that was so sexy. So then when I came back in August, last year, I met this Mormon and I immediately fell for him. He’s probably the one I sleep with the most. Maybe two or three times a week. He’ll probably come by later tonight, if he thinks I need to be slapped up a little bit.
He could be good to write a book about.
I have this fascinating sister who is a lesbian, who I would like to write a book about someday. She’s a non-practicing lesbian.
By choice? I mean she really doesn’t want to practice?
She doesn’t care about sex — she loves babies. She has eight adopted children. They’re all HIV babies and most of them are in perfect health and not even HIV anymore. She’s amazing… She’s 70-years-old and now she’s founding an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can’t stop it. It’s a very nice obsession. I think she’s like a saint.
Has she always known she’s a lesbian?
She had a very painful coming out in her 30s. She had been married, she had three children. They were hyper respectable — a high school principal in a small town and his wife. And then my sister began to notice that she was more attracted to women. In fact she had always been, but she just thought that was some aberration that would go away. Anyway, I don’t think sex is so important to her — babies are what she loves. And church — she’s very religious. I’m an atheist. And I care about sex a lot. So you know, we’re very different.
Absolutely, yes. Couldn’t be more dissimilar.
But we have perfect understanding. You know, we really like each other.
What would you have become if you weren’t a writer?
If I could wave a magic wand and come back as anything, then maybe either a ballet dancer or an opera singer. I think they’re the most expressive arts. With writing it’s very indirect. But if you sing with a great voice, in a great opera with a great conductor and a great orchestra and a great audience, then you do communicate in the most absolute way you can imagine. And if not a singer — maybe a cook?
A cook?
I discovered I liked cooking when I was in my mid-20s and I still love it. I do it a lot. I wouldn’t be a chef in a restaurant, but I would like to be a cook for maybe just a rich family.
Total submission to the rich family.
Yes, I guess that’s what it is.

Originally published in BUTT 17