In the novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend, Edmund White explores thirty years in the lives of two men: one straight, one gay. Beginning in New York City in the early 1960s, the novel takes several long strides forwards in time, but maintains a linear course. What emerges is a very intimate (and sometimes rocky) portrait of two very disparate lives and the friendship that connects them. Granta’s Patrick Ryan speaks with Edmund White about his new novel and the challenge of climbing into the head of a straight man.
PR: As I read Jack Holmes & His Friend, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the work of another one of my favourite writers, Richard Yates. This was partly because of the time period in which the first part of your novel is set, but also because of the voice and – in a certain respect – the sensibilities. It occurred to me that Jack Holmes reads like a Richard Yates novel with (almost) none of the anger. Does the comparison strike you as at all apt?
EW: I suppose I wanted the technique of Richard Yates (scenes with lots of dialogue and action) joined to a more sophisticated bantering mode of dialogue, like that you find in Henry Green’s Nothing, my favourite novel. Although I was trying for the big-city and suburban realism of Yates, I didn’t mind adding a bit of fairy dust in the dialogue, also reminiscent of the Waugh of Vile Bodies and the Fitzgerald of Tender Is the Night.
I think the mix of suburban realism and bantering in your dialogue is perfect because it never stops moving forward. In terms of your prose, Jack Holmes is telling the kind of story that was actually occurring at the time in which it’s set but that wouldn’t have been conventionally told then. And yet the story is delivered in the classic style of that era. Were you conscious of writing in a style that was any different than if the novel had been set during the present day?
There are lots of topical references to the era (the women’s store Peck & Peck, the Kennedy assassination). I tried to be accurate about I kept thinking of the adage that a successful novel is one that squeezes the last bit of juice out of the lemon, that fully exploits its theme. the attitudes of that time (towards sex, politics, marriage, religion) and their shift from the 60s to the 70s. There were almost no books back then about bisexuality. Of course in every era there are extraordinary books – like Five Years, Paul Goodman’s 1966 journal, which discussed his work as a psychotherapist, his marriage and children and his voracious homosexuality. I guess I’m saying that Jack Holmes might have been written back then, but probably not with so much explicit sex.
And I noticed that Jack’s arc, over the course of the book, is very different from Will’s. While Will is unwittingly the source of some of Jack’s emotional struggles (since Jack is, for a long time, in love with Will), Jack proves to be an agent of struggle on Will’s part because he helps Will find a mistress. One could weave all sorts of tapestries thinking about the various themes at play here . . . but while you were writing, did theme(s) enter your head at all?
Proust said that a novelist has to make himself a bit stupid and I certainly comply in that regard, meaning I don’t search too far for the wider implications of my work. Incidentally, I’m not sure Jack intends to fix Will up either with his wife Alex or his mistress Pia. It’s just that Jack is an attractive, sociable man and lots of people swirl around him.
Oh! I guess he was so attractive to me that I couldn’t help but assign him a few devious motives. Getting back to the arcs: Were you always certain how Jack and Will would end up, by the close of the novel? Or, another way of asking: To what degree did the events in the book just unfold, rather than having been charted out? Was it often a process of what, in the past, you’ve called ‘marinating’?
I did do a lot of daydreaming or ‘marinating’ on my couch (the expression is Flaubert’s). I had this vision of Jack, for instance, standing on a toilet so he could peer over the wall at Will to see his penis and only by chance does Will glance up and catch Jack at it. One of my Amazon readers (female) strenuously objected to the verisimilitude of this scene. Perhaps she was right, though I could see it so clearly and it seemed sort of daring, like a Dickens moment that expresses in a condensed image an underlying reality – and I thought, what the hell, I should risk it.
I kept thinking of the adage that a successful novel is one that squeezes the last bit of juice out of the lemon, that fully exploits its theme. I kept inventing actions that would help me to realize that goal. The advantage of having a rich donnée is that it suggests many ways to exploit it.
Can you talk a little about the point-of-view switches that occur in the novel? Both Jack’s and Will’s perspectives are offered, and while you write about Jack in the third person, you write about Will in first person. Do you think this approach allowed you to sufficiently distance yourself from Jack to keep him from being you, and sufficiently cozy up to Will to allow you to think as he does? Or am I the last annoying person on Earth who cares about discussing point-of-view switches?
No, it’s a question central to the book. I wanted to keep Jack a bit mysterious Proust said that a novelist has to make himself a bit stupid and I certainly comply in that regard and I wanted to be able to characterize him. You can say of a character that he was charming but elusive; you can’t write, ‘I am charming but elusive’ unless you’re portraying a madman. I wanted readers to fall in love with Jack a bit, and the third person promotes the necessary distance for the objectification of love. As you point out, as a gay writer I accepted the challenge of rendering a straight man in the first person – albeit a sensitive straight writer.
And both characters are utterly convincing – particularly when they’re privately trying to figure each other out. At one point, Will is considering the changes Jack has undergone over the years, the evolution of him as a man. ‘Jack was no longer a faggot,’ he thinks. ‘He was gay.’ This is a very tiny and yet crucial moment in the novel. What’s the distinction going on in Will’s head, and what does it say about his own character?
In the 60s, Will feels he’s courageous even to have a gay friend, who could destroy his own reputation at work and among his friends and family. But by the 1970s, after gay liberation and the sexual revolution, the ‘Studio 54’ revolution, Will realizes that now it is chic to be gay or know someone gay (everyone wants one, he thinks, just as everyone wants one black friend).
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m writing a memoir about Paris in the 80s called Paris Gossip. I lived in Paris for sixteen years and worked for Condé Nast as a journalist (Vogue, House and Garden, Vanity Fair etc.). Mean readers are always accusing me of being gossipy (I never know if that’s an insult or a compliment but I suspect both, a way of saying that something is low and indiscreet but also entertaining and sizzling), so I thought I’d own the word, in the same way the Impressionists embraced the critical word hurled at them. Although I always felt marginal in Paris because I was a foreigner, I did get to meet ‘everyone’ and to observe many interesting shifts in fashion, mores, politics, values. ?