Thirty years ago, the coming out novel A Boy’s Own Story transformed gay literature. Edmund White talks to Michael Langan about the thirtieth anniversary of the book, and how men and women have to learn to be gay.
Edmund White, 1984 © Robert Giard (Click Images to enlarge)
Edmund White: In Conversation, Part I. Read Part II here.
Edmund White is the pre-eminent gay writer of our age. As novelist, memoirist, biographer, essayist and co-writer of the groundbreaking Joy of Gay Sex, his career has spanned forty years and has borne witness to massive changes in the legal and social status of gay men and women.
In the early 1980s, as well as being a founder member of The Violet Quill, a group of gay male writers who met and shared their work, White helped set up Gay Men’s Health Crisis in America, as well as its French equivalent, AIDES. In 1983 White’s breakthrough novel, A Boy’s Own Story, was published in the UK. I read the book when it first came out and it was very important to me.
I spoke to Edmund White at length from his home in New York about the novel and its impact. Our conversation started with White started telling me how, when he stayed in London in the 1960s, he would speak Polari on the bus with the friend he stayed with at the time, using the language in the coded way it was intended – to comment on the attractiveness, or otherwise, of the men around them.
I wanted to talk to you about A Boy’s Own Story because it’s the thirtieth anniversary of its publication in the UK. I was fifteen when I first read it, which is the same age as the novel’s protagonist when the book begins. I recently re-read it for the first time and it was a very different experience aged forty-five.
How was it different exactly?
I think that when I was reading it as a teenager I was looking for something specific. I was a scared, closeted adolescent and it gave me a glimpse of what seemed like an exotic world to me – not just of America, but of a boy who, while being closeted himself, is actually having sex.
You know, as an American, one of the strangest things a lot of British people told me was that they were shocked at how unsupervised he was. It’s true that in American suburban life middle-class kids were very free because they lived in these quite sheltered communities and they could come and go as they wanted. They were given a lot of autonomy and many of them had cars at sixteen. I guess that would be striking to a lot of people.
Very much so – the fact that from a very young age he goes off to have lunch in the city on his own, or to the cinema, and is able to sit and watch the hustlers on street corners.
I myself would take a girl to a debutante party and then afterwards I would go off still wearing my black tie and cruise those guys. I had to work it into things, to have a plausible excuse, but still there was a tremendous amount of freedom, I think mainly because parents simply didn’t want to be bothered.
I should say that one of the reasons I waited so long before reading the book again was because I was a little afraid; I didn’t particularly want to be reminded of my fifteen-year-old self, but there’s also a danger, like going back to somewhere that you used to play as a child, that you remember it differently…
…and it looks small and dingy now…
…exactly. But that wasn’t my experience of the book. If anything I got far more out of it reading it in my mature years as opposed to in my teens because I think it’s very much a novel about childhood, told from an adult perspective.
That’s right, there’s a youthful protagonist but a middle-aged narrator. It tells of rather grim things but, if it has a happy ending, or at least a sense of tranquility at the end, it’s because there’s a narrator who’s obviously made it through. He’s arrived at a place that’s safe enough for him to be able to tell this story with a degree of detachment.
When I was growing up there was a local bookshop that was very important to me. I know bookshops were also important to you. It had a display carousel specifically for Picador books which, in the 1980s, was the best publisher around.
They really were. The editor at Picador was a brilliant man called Sonny Mehta. He had a fabulous eye and his list was excellent. He supported gay writers enormously. He also made the decision to publish the book in paperback. It had been rejected by my regular hardcover publisher who didn’t like it and thought it was a betrayal of my avant garde past. I was very disappointed by that. Picador’s covers were always great too.
I have a vivid memory of seeing the cover for the first time – it had a very beautiful boy on the front in a purple vest – and being attracted and drawn to it for that reason, but also being really scared at the same time. I took the book home with me on the bus and didn’t want to take it out in public because I felt I was about to enter a secret and private world. That thrill I got from reading a story that was some one else’s story, and at the same time my story, across the Atlantic, is one of the magical things literature can do.
Yes, absolutely. I’ve had black African teenage boys write me to say that my story is theirs – they’re still writing me now and I think, how could black Africa in the twenty-first century be like America in the 1950s? But it’s a wonderful thing to hear.
How do you feel now about the novel’s protagonist?
Well, I certainly think the book would’ve been more popular, or maybe more filmable, if he hadn’t betrayed the teacher at the end – that disappointed a lot of people. I felt like it was unrealistic to expect a teenage boy living in such an oppressed period to be kind and good and an ideal role model. He would obviously be deformed by a deforming period, so there is a streak of nastiness in him. Also, it functions as a kind of self-liberation where he takes on the adult world.
And how far is he you?
The book is and isn’t autobiographical. The feelings were very much the ones that I had but the actual dimensions of the character are different from the way I was because I was more brassy and precocious as a child. I wanted him to be a little more run-of-the-mill so that gay readers could identify with him. He’s much more timid than I was. I was sort of a show off intellectually and I must have had sex with about 500 people by the time I was sixteen.
The sex the character has in the book is not particularly affirming or positive or even enjoyable for him.
That’s right. One of the first major challenges we had to gay liberation in America was a woman named Anita Bryant campaigning against a law that protected gay rights. She thought it was very dangerous to have gays teaching children and her rather sophisticated argument was that gays were so attractive that they would obviously mislead children into a gay lifestyle. But I felt, like most other gay people at the time, that we became gay not because some attractive older person showed us the way but in spite of all the horrible examples of gay lives that we encountered as children. Despite all that you still have a drive to become gay and it might be painful experience but people aren’t put off. They have a powerful instinct towards homosexuality that overcomes all the negative initial experiences, but it can colour your attitude towards sex.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel is how much it’s about the construction of the self and one’s identity as an almost constant performance, certainly in this boy’s mind. It’s almost as if you, or the narrator-protagonist, believe that the word ‘self’ should always be in inverted commas. There’s the innate, instinctive desire you mentioned, but his identity is constructed and learned through books and watching movies, and often he’s watching women a lot and observing their behaviour, trying to learn from them and learning his own behaviour, whilst also commenting on it.
Yes, plus he’s going to a psychiatrist so he’s very self-reflective anyway. I wrote an essay in 1970 at the very beginning of gay liberation called ‘The Gay Philosopher’ and my idea was that gays, because they can’t learn how to be gay from their parents and maybe no one significant in their early life is gay, have to learn how to be gay in terms of social roles but these vary across time and between cultures. I recently read a book about Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time the cliché in Japan was that gays were seen as ruffian types, whereas heterosexual men were more refined and sissified because they had to get along with women. Gays were these kind of brutes, mostly from the south of the country. It’s fascinating because it’s such an entirely different view from that in the West and you realize how variable these things are from culture to culture and period to period – how gays in the Renaissance were very different from those in ancient Greece, or people today, for example – so I definitely think it was a role that had to be learned. When I was coming out there was a very camp role that people played as the standard, though that appears more in the next book in the series, The Beautiful Room is Empty.
Read the second part of this conversation with Edmund White here.