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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Allan Gurganus is one of America’s great talkers. The words pour from him. With his erect bearing, handlebar mustache, fly-away hair and dignified tweeds (which he satirizes by wearing black Converse high-tops), Gurganus in mid-sentence often seems like nothing less that a Greenwich Village reincarnation of Mark Twain. He’s in constant demand as a lecturer, and he’s among the few living writers who can get away with charging — usually $5 — for his readings.
Over the last two decades, however, the 50-year-old author of “The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All” has been in demand as a different kind of lecturer. Gurganus recalls that his friends, when dying of AIDS, would often say to him, “‘I have one request.’ And of course you’d say ‘anything.’ And they’d say, ‘Do the eulogy.’ And you can’t say, ‘Well, that comes at a bad career time for me.’ You say, ‘I will, honey, and I’ll tell the whole truth and nothing but, if you can take it. As long I can talk about your faults as well as your merits.’ And they said, ‘Dish, dish, dish.’”
Giving those dozens of eulogies — in churches and fellowship halls across the South and the Midwest — was his great preparation, Gurganus says, for writing his new novel, “Plays Well With Others.” The book is a high-spirited comic portrait of a group of young gay artists in New York in the years before and during the onset of the AIDS crisis. The book eulogizes these young men and women without embalming them — it captures the full-time party that was New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Gurganus rarely resists the urge to dish, dish, dish.
Like Hartley Mims Jr., the protagonist of “Plays Well With Others,” Gurganus hails from North Carolina. Like Hartley, too, Gurganus sought his fortune in New York City. Gurganus arrived there after a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War — he claims he became a writer after falling under the spell of Henry James’ books aboard the USS Yorktown — and after studying with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence College and Stanley Elkin and John Cheever at the Iowa Writer’s Conference. (Cheever took a romantic interest in his young student; while the two never had a sexual relationship, Gurganus appears in Cheever’s published “Journals.”) He got his first break as a writer when Cheever, without telling him, sold his short story “Minor Heroism” to the New Yorker. Gurganus was 26.
Gurganus spoke to Salon about subjects ranging from the importance of friends (“I have had notoriously bad taste in men, but I have fabulous taste in friends”) to his years in the Navy (“Imagine 4,000 men, ages 18 to 23 … floating around in the South China sea for 35 days … the mischief and the energy and the volatility and the testosterone and the erotic swill”) to the first time he saw New York. The skyline looked, he says, like “colossal silver dildos standing at attention.”
Did you bring your address book with you? I don’t see it.
It’s in my head. There’s a lot of mileage on it.
The protagonist of your new book, Hartley Mims, is a writer who considers his address book to be his greatest work — the richest, the most complex. Do you feel the same way about yours?
In some ways the inspiration for the novel came from this simple act that we’ve all been through — and certainly all of us who’ve lived through New York in the past 16 years have been through — of sitting down with a new address book and trying to salvage your loved ones. You feel this tremendous hesitancy to leave out the names of your dead loved ones. And you try to come up with a system wherein they can stand as living monuments to themselves and have their own right to the alphabet, without taking the place of the new friends that we all have to make if we’re going to stay sane and keep living. That was for me the beginning of the book.
I first wrote a piece called “On Whether to Purge the Dead from One’s Address Book,” and that became this spinning out of the memories of all the loss and all the separation. In the course of the past 15 years, and certainly in the course of the novel, people who came to New York thinking only of “I” and only of “my work” and “my immortality” were forced to reckon very, very early in the natural course of things with our community and our mortality. And that record, that address book, that sense of collective experience that’s somehow larger than a single experience, the sense that one lives through one’s friends and one is only as good as one’s friends are, is very important. I have had notoriously bad taste in men, but I have fabulous taste in friends. It’s those friends who got me through, and it’s friendship that I am really celebrating in the novel. I think it’s an underestimated form of love. We’re all culturally set up to look for that one other beloved object who will complete us and satisfy us and sate us and make us look good. But while we’re looking for that chimera, that unicorn that will never appear, it’s damn good to have lots of friends to console you and to support you and literally to carry you down the steps when you can’t walk.
You are very mindful of friends. It seems like you’re always thanking someone. Nearly all of the stories in your collection “White People” are, individually, dedicated to someone. Is this kind of graciousness a Southern trait?
I’m lucky in many, many ways. One way is that I’m alive, which is the ultimate miracle. It’s a daily miracle to me — having survived the great shipwreck. But I’m also lucky in that I love to thank people. I was brought up to say “please” and “thank you” the way all middle-class Southern kids are. I’m a lucky person in that, when good things happen to my friends, even fellow writers, I don’t feel diminished. I feel elated, if the work is good. And I think that’s a minority vision. I think to be happy for and in one’s friends is the beginning of contentment. And they feed me, and they tell me jokes on the answering machine, and that’s my world.
Given the deaths of so many of your friends, I imagine that coming back to New York can feel like coming back to a ghost town.
It’s full of ghosts. But ghosts are presences, too. And I can ride past an address where something magical happened — erotically or personally — and relive it in a flash. Or ride past the Salvation Army store that was my Emporio Armani in the early days. The town has tremendous associations. I’m never away for more than a month or five weeks. I come up and carbo feed, and then go back to my village of 2,400. It’s the perfect balance for me. I think New York is perfect when you’re in your 20s and 30s and have some skill that you’re looking to sell or have acknowledged. It’s harder when you get to be 40, 45 and you’ve been to every party and the parties are “Type 25A,” with the variation. I want to be able to sit alone in a room contentedly, and like all writers I think my life is this weird swing between the consolations of solitude and the rewards of gregariousness and crowds and entertainment.
At one point you said you had to leave North Carolina to write “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” Now it seems like the reverse is true; you had to leave New York to write “Plays Well with Others.”
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Has the book’s comic tone rankled anyone?
People have been very responsive, and I think people are grateful for it. The pietistic, politically correct, afraid-to-offend-anybody belief that one minority group can only write about itself, for itself, frequently at the expense of every other minority group, is not where I’d ever want to be. My goal in writing the book was to speak to both gay people who survived the pandemic and straight people who have no direct experience. So that a woman in Moline, Ill., could actually read the book and not know any gay people except maybe her hairdresser, who doesn’t talk much and doesn’t tell much, and really understand what an amazing adventure this whole decade and a half offered us. I think it’s typical of our insane, bankrupt culture that the heroism of the period is not what people remember. They remember the corruption and the epidemiology of the period. But for me it will always be a great mark of pride to have been part of that community that gave up full-time jobs to take care of friends, that used all our media savvy, all our intellect, all our bankrolls to step into this immense void that was created when the bankrupt leadership of Ronald Reagan slashed the minute amount of money being spent on figuring out what this virus was and how we would stop it. It will be left to future historians to look back and vilify properly those people who cut the budget. And it’s left to us to wonder how many tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of lives could have been saved. But in that breach I saw the most selfish disco queens become Clara Barton and Mother Teresa. It was magical. It was an unbelievable transformation.
You personally devoted many years to taking care of sick friends. Do those years feel lost to you as a writer?
I’m going to do the writing now. There are immense advantages to living through a war — and that’s really what I’ve done. I’m both a Vietnam vet and a vet of this period in New York, so I’ve got purple hearts coming out of my yin-yang. In the Fitzgerald-Faulkner-Hemingway era, they were spoiling to get abroad into a war because that meant that they’d have something to write about. And boy, do I have something to write about. I’m only 50, and I feel a novelist begins life at 40. So I’m only 10, really. I’m just getting my sea legs. I have a lot of energy and I have a tremendous sense of commitment. I don’t have a career, I have a mission. I’m from a long line of ministers, so I’ve applied my status as the black sheep — the fallen, queer one — to transforming myself into the ultimate pulpit-pounder.
One of your heroes, Walt Whitman, also spent many years taking care of dying men. In his case it was the Civil War.
I learned an immense amount about him by living through this myself. Using him as an example, somewhat self-destructively, I kept thinking: Why am I so tired and why does he look so serene? He spent four years living in boarding houses, and going to the hospital, and spending 20 hours a day with dying boys. And it seems not to cost him what it’s costing me. He seems to have no wishes to be doing something else, no resentments to the cruelties that dying friends visit on the people who are caring for them most closely. And then afterwards — in that sweet, still afterwards — I read more seriously about Whitman and realized that essentially he had ruined his own health taking care of other people. He had contracted a virus from gangrene by virtue of helping with an amputation. And he said, you know, “My health ended with the war.” And when you look at the photographs of him and realize that what looks like an 80-year-old man was actually a 48-year-old man, you see what that kind of suffering — being around that grade of suffering and that grade of drama — really cost him. I mean, talk about melodrama. To have three friends in their 20s die within two weeks of each other and to be taking care of them while nursing your parents and trying to hold it all together with no medical experience but what you gained by figuring out how to work a hospital, and how to subvert the nurses and flatter them and how to get the towels yourself — it’s an immense advantage to know all this at 50 instead of waiting to find it out at 75. So I feel that whatever time I lost in terms of titles, I have in terms of hard-won experience and useful experience.
You describe Hartley, when he first arrives in New York, as a “bottom-feeding hick.” Is that how you felt about yourself when you first came here?
The beautiful thing about writing fiction is that you can use aspects of your own experience and transform them. Which also means simplifying them. I think Hartley is simpler than I am, he’s less driven than I am, and he’s kinder than I am. But there are certainly things that we have in common. At the very time that he professes to have lost his innocence to New York and to the wild rush of experience, I intend for the reader to understand that his innocence is irrefutable. Just as Lucy Marsden, in “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow,” is a believer despite everything that must happen to her. And for me, it’s that quality of belief, Hartley’s belief in the genius of his friends, in the possibility of making art, in the possibility of immortality, in the possibility even of happiness, which may be the greatest stretch of all. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in immortality than in present happiness. So that quality of belief is precisely what protects him and makes him the ideal Nick Carroway narrator [ed. note: Nick Carroway is the uncorrupted narrator of F. Scott Fiztgerald's "The Great Gatsby"] for the novel. I think he is a hick, but only in the way that New York defines a hick, as somebody who doesn’t know the streets and subways and somebody who is still open to feeling.
Some of the reviews of the novel say, “This is a great book despite its occasional sentimentality.” Bullshit. There’s no sentimentality in this book. I’ve gone so far out of my way to avoid anything that’s intentionally four-hankie-movie or bathetic. And the humor is what gets the book through and that’s what got us through. The jokes — you’re trying to move a friend, you drop the friend and he’s laughing, you’re laughing — it’s the only way to survive. And so I feel sort of invincible in understanding that what New York calls sentimental is what other people call feeling. New Yorkers are embarrassed by genuine, overt, operatic emotion. They’ll go to the opera, which is about a woman stabbing a dictator to avenge the death of her brother, and talk only about the singer’s vocal technique. This weird kind of necessary detachment in order to go forward and be the kind of Sherman tank that you have to be in this context. And one of the things that I’m really grateful for in living where I am, in this little town, is that I can have moments during the day of just being transparent as a pane of glass. I mean, I can feel protected enough by my house just to disappear in my thoughts. And in New York there’s always honking, there’s always the car alarm, there’s always the crazy neighbor, there’s always the imperative to go out and enjoy yourself. For me it’s been a merciful chord change.
Is it different now for young gay men who come to New York?
New York is one of those necessary addictions that not everybody gets, but those of us who have it, you know … I remember the first time I saw New York. I was running away from home. I’d been hit by my father, one of many times, and I had like $35, and I checked it all out of the bank and just walked right to the bus station and got on the bus to New York. I remember waking up on the bus and seeing the skyline through the cornrows of a fat lady who’d fallen asleep beside me. There was this sort of plaid of these horizontal cornrows and these vertical skyscrapers. And it was like an erection. For me, that’s the image of New York. New York is like colossal silver dildos standing at attention. I just thought: Ah, now I’m home. This is it, this is mine, this is me, this is where I’ll find others like me. And I was right. And the tragedy of losing them so soon after finding them is the fueling injustice at the center of the book. It’s also the source of fossil fuel and the source of the comedy of the book. I just think it’s a subject that’s so colossal and so medieval really.
You’ve said that humor, in times of crisis, becomes holy.
I would make the distinction between comedy and jokes — between comedy and schtick. You see stand-up comics who make you laugh, and it’s like a series of 14 mousetraps going off one after another. And immediately after the snap you have no memory of what’s been said. That’s different from humor, which is a way of perceiving the universe. That instantaneous recognition that it’s not going to work and the laugh that comes as a result. Charlie Chaplin has a bouquet of flowers which he’s stolen from every garden in the neighborhood, and as he’s approaching his beloved object he slips on the banana peel. We laugh with pity and derision and profound recognition about how difficult the world is. So, for me, that comic stance is Borsch Belt humor, it’s black humor, it’s gay humor, homeopathic gay humor which says you can’t be more savage about my being a pansy than I will be. I will be so preemptively cruel to myself that nothing you can say can touch me. I will be such a bitch that you can’t hurt me, and I will be so outrageous and artificial that you can’t miss me. It’s a weird kind of magic. It’s a weird kind of superstition. But there’s a kind of power in it. And I’ve found over and over in life that trapped in an elevator, literally trapped in an elevator, or in a difficult social situation, at a funeral or a wedding, that a joke, however conventional and inept, is the thing that dispels the tension and let’s everybody go on living.
In some ways my great preparation for writing this novel was writing so many eulogies. Partly because I was born talking — as you can probably hear — and will die talking, I hope, and because I’m a writer, my friends would say weeks before they died: “I have one request.” And of course you’d say, “Anything.” And they’d say, “Do the eulogy.” And you can’t say, “Well, that comes at a bad career time for me.” You say, “I will honey and I’ll tell the whole truth and nothing but, if you can take it. As long I can talk about your faults as well as your merits.” And they said, “Dish, dish, dish, I’m not going to worry about anything.”
What I found, in getting up in these little churches and fellowship halls, some in the South and Midwest, was that the more honest I was about the faults of the dead person, and the peccadilloes and the outrageous things, and the extreme opinionatedness of these people, the more laughs I got. And the more laughs I got, the better people felt and the more present the missing person became in the spirit dimension and hovering over our heads. And the greater service I had done to them in terms of portraiture and to the people who gathered to remember them.
So when it came time to write a novel, and to invent characters … Angie and Robert and Hartley are all inventions that are based on 40 people each, and everybody I’ve ever read about, and also, maybe most crucially, all the friends I’ve wished I’d had. You know, kids start out with this fantasy playmate. I think every intelligent and profoundly imaginative kid can tell you the name of his or her phantom playmate. The person who would say, “There, there,” when you go back to your room and cry, or the person who wakes up in the morning and says, “Let’s go explore.” And the person you blame when something has gone wrong. Those fantasy playmates are now on the page. Because Robert and Angie are not only the friends that I had — Angie the ultimate career artist in New York who will sacrifice everything to be immortal, and does, and Robert who is the most spectacular head-turning beauty in the history of the city for 10 years. They’re the people that I knew and also was near enough to want to have known better but couldn’t, and they become these kind of totemic composite Whitmanesque souls that become representative of all those people that I partied with, and talked to, and fucked, and enjoyed, and whose work I was in awe of. We did some wonderful work. As I say in the novel, “The dirty secret of the period is just how hard we worked.” We all did a lot of woodshedding.
All of these characters are so certain of their eventual success. Yet Hartley, in this book, never makes it as a writer.
I think that in some ways Hartley’s appropriateness as the teller of the tale comes precisely in his being a mythomaniac about other people and not himself. In some ways that makes him unfit to live in New York. Because everybody in New York has to say to the greengrocer, when he says, (feigns Korean accent) “Hello, how you doing mister?” — “Fabulous. I have an audition later. Hal Prince is just champing at the bit but I said, ‘Hal, look, I’m booked.’” They will show head shots on the subway. And that’s a necessary and — if you can learn to look at it properly — endearing trait, that I think Hartley lacks. What Hartley shows is head shots of his friends. Which is precisely what makes him the ideal person to tell the story. I have a fantasy that I might eventually do other books with Hartley as the center, and maybe run Hartley over some of the ground I’ve covered since this happened. But I think he’s a kind of ideal neutral ethical center for the book, very much the way Nick Carroway is in “The Great Gatsby.” A believer in decency and taking care of, and writing thank-you notes, even to the real estate agent who’s just raped you. So it’s that equanimity and that generosity of vision and that narrow vision that precisely makes him right for the role.
You are working on an autobiography, aren’t you?
I have lots of books in progress. I have a book called “Never Weaken,” which is closer to the actual facts of my life than any of the fiction I’ve done.
I ask that question because I’m wondering if this book scratches your autobiographical itch, and perhaps makes your autobiography redundant.
I think the material is inexhaustible. When I finished this book, I wrapped it up in gift wrapping and FedExed it to my editor here, Dan Frank, and slept for three days. And then I woke up and I thought, “I could start over.” I mean, I could write six books about the same material, and tell something new about the experience every time. But I love this book. I love the Chip Kidd cover with its kind of toylike, playful quality. And I think of the book as, like, kids let loose in F.A.O. Schwartz without the security guards. That, for us, was really what New York was. To be great looking and really, really intelligent, and wide-eyed and genuinely talented, not just saying that you want to be a writer some day, but genuinely working. And genuinely encouraging each other. It really was like a jungle gym.
Having great friends in New York is like having great friends on an expedition into Darkest Africa in the early 19th century. You need them. And you need sponsorship on a daily basis. I have a painter friend here who says, “I need two compliments a day just to break even.” And we gave them to each other, and we got them, and honestly got them. And so when the darkness hit us, there was a weird kind of propulsive forward motion, which I really try very hard in the book to imitate. So that when we really hit the first case of a loved one coming down with it, it’s like a locomotive hitting the wall. You just think, “No. Not us. It could happen to friends of friends, and it could be a rumor, but it can’t be a fact.”
You’ve led a public life. You’re famous for your readings and lectures, and you’re politically active. You’re a great talker. Do you ever worry about talking away your prose?
No, I don’t worry about it. For me, speaking, publicly speaking and speaking out on political issues which matter immensely to me, and reading from the book, and writing the books are all a part of the same thing. I think it’s a false distinction to say that conversation and composition are separate. Because even as we speak, I’m seeing. Every interview is different, and I’m finding new ways to talk about ancient preoccupations. And I sometimes come on something that’s immensely helpful and valuable. Plus I like the sensation of conversation.
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I grew up in that world where people still talk. I think there’s always this question about what makes Southern writers unique, and why there are so many on every street corner in North Carolina, and pretty good ones too. There are several reasons. One is that, if I want to have the oil changed in my car in New York, I go to the garage and I say: (feigns Bronx accent) “Hi. The Ford Taurus? Oil change. When am I going to get it? You’re kidding! That’s not acceptable. I’m going elsewhere.” Now, in North Carolina, I go to a garage and I say (feigns an exaggerated Southern drawl): “How you doing? Boy, hot enough for you? I tell you, this time of year last year, we weren’t suffering like this, were we? I declare, this air conditioner feels good. You from around here? What’s your family name? I think I know her! How old is this dog? That’s an old-looking dog! Eighteen? That’s the oldest dog I’ve ever seen in my life!” And eventually you tack into why you’ve come. But to go directly to the subject is verboten — it means you have a Ph.D. and you’re dissing the person who’s changing the oil. You haven’t done what dogs do, which is sniff each other and bare their jugulars to each other and say, “I’m a dog and you’re a dog.” And though a lot of that is pro forma, and it really is weather conversation and natural disaster conversation, things actually get said. And more than that, the habit of exchanging information with strangers is something long established.
One of the secrets of the history of the South is it was terribly underpopulated until the early 19th century, so that when people got together, by God, there was a lot to say, because you were lonely. So company was a major source of amusement, and conversation being cheap and also non-exerting in a very hot climate, it’s a basic training ground. And it’s clear that my work is very spoken and very musical and very much written aloud. I revise everything by ear. I read my work aloud to myself. And I think that one of the sadnesses of recent American prose is that most of it sounds like Windows 95. There is nothing individual, there is nothing biorhythmical, there is nothing inherently human in the rhythms of the prose. It’s really about the cold crackling of cyberspace, that has a way of infecting everything it touches. You have to be very hot to melt that, and one way of doing it is just to read everything you write aloud over and over and over again until the music becomes your own.
How are you accepted in small-town North Carolina?
I’m in this little town and I’m a good citizen. Citizenship matters, and it’s an underestimated pleasure. I go to town meetings and rail against development and the horrible coarsening of the landscape that’s going on there, as well as everywhere else. I’m surrounded by widows in their ’80s and ’90s, and I try to leave them Valentine candy and flowers and food and save things and clippings. And we have this active leaving-things-on-the-front-porch thing for each other. It’s very out-of-time. I mean it has nothing to do with the 21st century and everything to do with the 19th, which is fine with me since that’s really where I feel happiest. It’s very much like my grandparents’ reality. I don’t feel that I’m hiding my head in the sand. I feel that I’m participating in something that’s very necessary to my health and my work, which is a small, viable community full of really interesting and intelligent people. Some of whom have never been to school, but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that there’s something very alive. And I’m respected in the community and nobody bothers me. Occasionally I’m asked once too often to come and talk to a Brownie Scout troop, but I have to work that out with people. I say, “I work until 3 o’clock, and this is my schedule, and this as valid as anybody who goes to an office, and it has to be respected.” People understand.
How far is this town from where you grew up?
About an hour and half by car.
Did you grow up in a bookish family?
No. My mother had a master’s degree and had been a schoolteacher before she started having kids at 30. But my father’s family were landowners, farmer-merchants. Money-making was extremely important, like one of those semi-rapacious families in Lillian Hellman, where they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But it was also a very religious family. My father was converted to fundamental evangelical Christianity when I was 9 and that was a terrible loss to us all. He’d always been sort of a rigid person, but then he became a really self-righteous dictatorial person. And the paradox is that I — having gone to church all my life — absorbed much, much more than I could have ever imagined. As you know, this novel ends in Paradise, but a Paradise that’s been radically, sexually revised.
One of the many things that I learned from sitting in those endless dreary Sunday school classes, taught by people who were unqualified to teach the Bible — and they said that every Sunday, as if you hadn’t noticed it — is precisely that reading the King James Bible aloud over and over again, and hearing those lessons, and looking at those highly colored lithographs that were on every wall, made me understand that ordinary experience, common experience, throwing seed into the garden, or losing a valuable coin in the house and re-finding it, had immense allegorical and metaphysical significance if it was stated in a proper way. These simple truths mattered immensely, and could be lit up. And that a local reality was a universal reality if it was treated properly. And that fables mattered.
Were you “out” as a gay person in high school?
No, I can’t say I was. It was only when I went into the Navy and got out of town that I really realized that this is going to be the way it was going to be. I love women. I mean, I’m mad about women. And some of my best friends are women! [Laughs.] Most of my best friends are women, many of my best friends. And I was always having sexual relations with women, because they were adorable and gorgeous and they were the ones I was supposed to be interested in and they were the ones who were coming forward. But when the adorable gorgeous boys started coming forward, I though, “Hmm. This really is interesting.” It’s an interesting paradox, being an “out” gay man in this little town. It’s not something that comes up all the time. I introduce my boyfriend to people, and there he is, and here we are. There’s a lot of tolerance, partly because I’m from a good family, and that’s never to be underestimated. And partly because I’m a good citizen. I think I could be having sex with seven Great Danes and as long as I didn’t do it in the yard nobody would really mind. That’s the village ethos. Our little town has two or three village idiots that people give food to at every house because they’ve always done that and they’re harmless, and I think every town has the town queer, and the lady gym teacher with chopped-off hair, and it’s just part of the cast of characters.
Did you feel more removed from your hometown during the Vietnam era? You were a conscientious objector, before you eventually enlisted. That must have raised eyebrows.
Well, I felt very alien. I celebrate this little town as if it’s not full of racists and Republicans and bigots and people who hate queers. And they’re there. As long as they don’t burn a cross on my yard or interfere with me, or let the air out of my tires, or insult me in the street, live and let live. But I was actively opposed to the war in Vietnam and knew in my heart of hearts that if I went into the Army I was going to be killed. I have real psychic capacity. Sometimes it’s terrifying for me and my friends. I had this vision that if I arrived on a plane I would be killed at the airport. And when I saw, years later, “Platoon,” with the plane bringing the live soldiers out one door and putting the dead soldiers on the plane, it was almost unbearable, because it was so close to what I imagined for myself. So having been forced to go into the military against my wishes, I chose the Navy. At least it was off the coast, and at least I was on water and I was avoiding that image of the airport, which I knew was going to be deadly.
They were going to put you on trial because you wouldn’t enlist, weren’t they?
Yes. There was a hearing. And what’s really sad was that my late parents, being Republican, were perfectly willing to send me to Vietnam. It’s amazing how many people were in favor of the war, but how many people have you heard in the last six weeks say, “I was really gung-ho about the Vietnam War”? You know, that damn thing went on for 40 years and there’s not one person I’ve met who’s willing to come forward. But yes, it was very difficult.
In retrospect, are you glad in any way that you served?
I can say that good things came out of it. I don’t think anybody who has any wisdom regrets a minute of their life, as long as it takes you to the next minute, when things get a little better, and even when it doesn’t. The good thing that came out of it was that I started writing and reading. Reading first, and writing.
You’ve said you read 1,200 books on that ship. How did you pull that off? How did you get the books?
I was very lucky in a number of ways. One was that there was a library on the USS Yorktown. I was on a carrier with 4,000 people on it. Which meant that there was a library just to keep them from killing and fucking each other in plain sight. There was a lot of fucking going on, but it was usually in the showers after midnight. And I was much too terrified to be doing that. I was in the library every night — that was the only game in town. It was so long ago that there were no televisions on the ship. Imagine 4,000 men, ages 18 to 23, with a couple of 55-year-olds in charge, floating around in the South China sea for 35 days without even seeing the land. And just the mischief and the energy and the volatility and the testosterone and the erotic swill.
The only way I could stay sane was to find something to do. I had been a painter, I had gone to art school for a year, but painting was not exactly a career option on a carrier. I had my sketch book and I had a journal and I had license to check out those books. And I had the amazing good fortune to find Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” which was the first novel that I just remember the sensation of suspended breath. Entering this world that was so familiar and alien and magical. And thinking the way I had thought when I was a painter and I was looking at Cezanne and thought, “I can do that” — which was complete bullshit. But of course, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. And so I would write imitations of James or Dickens or Balzac. I’d try to write a middle chapter out of a Henry James novel, and then a chapter out of Balzac. And I really taught myself how to write. But I taught myself how to write 19th century prose. Everything was subject-verb, then the next sentence would begin with a dependent clause and the subject and verb withheld. It was very antique and very endearing and insular and weepy in the way all autodidactic people really are. And very earnest, militantly earnest, the way we self-taught are.
It was only when I got out of the Navy and went to Sarah Lawrence to work with Grace Paley … I did have the wit to see that Grace Paley was, along with Cheever and Stanley Elkin, one of the great writers of the period. She’s phenomenal. There’s nobody working who has more purity and originality than Grace does. And I showed Grace one of my 19th century stories and she said, “Oh honey. People aren’t doing this kind of thing now. This is really, really good, but hey, it’s now, it’s not about this so much. It’s about …” I’ve always wished I could have her exact words, but she said it’s about how people get along, and what they have to do to stay alive, and what they’ve sacrificed, and what they choose to save. And I was 22, and I just said, “Oh, OK.” And I went back to my room and spent two days writing what I think is in some ways the first real thing I wrote, which was published in a now-defunct magazine. It was a series of family vignettes about a — to say a dysfunctional family is redundant, every family is — but about family’s betrayals and compromises and mythologies and romances. And I just started. But I’m eternally grateful for that three and a half years of 19th century rhetorical preparation.
It’s a great image. You on the ship with 4,000 men, lost in some Jamesian daze. Did you catch flak for your bookishness?
Well, they found it useful in some ways. I was sometimes called Professor, the way uneducated people call people with glasses Doc or Professor. But it meant that I could help write letters for many of the men. No surprise, many of the guys on the ship who were high school dropouts were functionally illiterate. This was the only job they could get, because they were big and healthy and could take orders. So I wound up writing romantic erotic letters to women all over the world, wives and mothers. It was very powerful. I’ve written a novella about it. It was a very powerful kind of erotic tie. Frequently I’d be writing sexy letters dictated by a man that I really, really wanted sexually, but didn’t dare approach. And I would begin putting words in his mouth and writing — very much Cyrano de Bergerac — writing these wildly romantic letters that became increasingly erotically specific. I was interviewing them about what they had and hadn’t done, and how that could apply. I’m getting turned on just thinking about it. It became this profound connection, and sometimes these guys — I would not call them rocket scientists — would bring their wives’ letters to me to open, and I would read them to them. And the letters would say, “Dear Rocky, I never knew you were such a poet. You made me so wet last night when I read …” It became this very heady kind of experience. So in some ways my finding my own power in prose came not only from writing these imitations of 19th century fiction, but of being the ventriloquist for these beautiful dummies who were all around me.
John Cheever was one of your mentors, as well as Paley. You are a figure in his journals; he had erotic feelings for you. Has all the investigation into Cheever’s personal life — he has even become a joke on “Seinfeld” — bothered you?
All I can say is that I feel lucky to have been born when I was born. Because I think if I’d been born even 10 years earlier — John was 40 years older, I guess — I would probably have a wife and three kids. I came very close. And the pathos … Cheever is in the pantheon. The best of those stories are as good as anything that’s been written in the century. And he was, pound-for-pound, the best company imaginable. He was so entertaining, he was so wonderful, so alive and to the moment. He was so present and jokey and just alert. And if he liked you and loved you, as he loved me — what he gave was just immensely beautiful. What I didn’t understand at the time, being 24 — it’s so easy not to know what’s going on when you’re 24, very few people do at that age — is that he really genuinely loved me. And I know that now, as a 50-year-old man, who’s capable of reading a 65-year-old man about a 24-year-old boy, and saying, “It was not just that he kept putting his hand on my knee, and wanted me to come upstairs,” which I resisted every step of the way. Partly because he was 65 and I was 24, and he was alcoholic, and he had just had a major heart attack, and he looked like hell and he was nearly dead. He killed himself and his liver was like a pistachio nut. But partly because I understood that with bisexual men of the period, the ethos is that it’s easy to blame the victim. You try to get a man to sleep with you, and if he does, than he’s the faggot and you’re not.
I knew in my heart that I had to resist his importuning, partly because I felt that I had a separate destiny as a writer, and I didn’t want to be the boy who’s having dinner with John Cheever all the time who happens to write sensitive short stories. And his pathos, the pathos of his circumstance, of being proud of his children, and he was immensely proud of all of them, with good reason I think, and proud of his beautiful and intelligent wife, despite their difficulties, which became the subject of so much of his fiction. I wouldn’t have been in his situation for anything, because he was a person who was very erotically driven and mainly driven, I think, toward men, at least in the period that I knew him. And possibly blocked by being recognized, and by his own stoical New England embarrassment.
Those journals are remarkable literature. Do you agree with the people who think they may be his most lasting work?
I think they’re very important. And he wrote them for posterity. People ask, “Should they have been published?” Well, you read that prose, and it’s prose as written for publication. When we were so close, when he was my teacher at Iowa he was living in the university hotel, which was just a pit, and drinking from half gallon bottles and going to the liquor store on Monday morning at 8 a.m. when it opened, he and Raymond Carver sitting in the car with trembling hands waiting for the store to open … I hardly drink, I don’t smoke. If I’ve learned anything from my teachers, it’s that. I have my own vices, but being a workaholic is a much better deal. But he said to me, “If I die,” and it was a distinct possibility, because he was very close to dying, “I’ve given your name to the hotel, and I have instructed them to call you any hour of the day or night, if I’m found, and as soon as you get the call, I want you to come and get these journals out of here, because I’m afraid they’ll fall into the wrong hands.” And he showed me black spiral, three-ring notebooks, that were three inches thick with journal entries.
He wrote them every morning, to get himself going. And the heroism of drinking an immense amount of Scotch and weighing 110 pounds and getting up at the age of 65 in this exile in the Middle West, you have to remember, he was writing “Falconer” then, I didn’t know what the name of the book was then, but he was writing something. And that was his last great comeback, that was his great triumph. Here was this great writer in exile, writing his life out and saving a lot out in the journals. So I think there’s a lot of reason to believe he saw that as his legacy, and it’s the one place where, unlike fiction, he could be radically honest. And I think he really was.
He was a dear, dear person. His generosity to me, as somebody who wouldn’t sleep with him — it’s easier to be nice to people who will than it is to the ones who won’t — was just immense. And his selling my story “Minor Heroism” to the New Yorker, without my knowing it, is probably the kindest thing anybody’s ever done for me. I was amazed. I thought I was years away from being ready for publication. He knew better.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.More Dwight Garner.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)