Interview by Robert Couteau
Robert Couteau: You've just returned from Europe, where you gave a series of readings in Germany and attended the Paris premiere of the documentary, A Couple of Things About Hubert Selby. Would you care to relate some of the highlights of your recent trip?
Hubert Selby: I don't know if there were any highlights, to tell you the truth. It was all very exciting. I enjoyed all of it. And after the people down in the breakfast room at the hotel saw me on television, I got extra croissants in the morning. So that was kind of nice. The people were all so wonderful, the reception was so enthusiastic, that I can't think of anything that stands out more than anything else. Other than some of the scenery. Berlin was incredible, there are forests and lakes all over that city, it was just amazing.
RC: That was not your first time in Berlin?
HS: No, I've been in Berlin before, but it's always been a quickie, in and out, kind of.
RC: What about reading in Europe? Is the reception that you get there any different from the States—when you read in the Moon Dog Cafe, let's say, compared to Berlin?
HS: Well, the people in Germany are very, very responsive to the readings.
RC: In the film you were asked about your belief in God, and you said that it all depends upon one's definition of God; that you didn't believe in most of the conventional definitions, the way that most people define God. Now, my question is, do you have any spiritual beliefs? I'm not going to ask "do you believe in God"; that's not really how I would phrase it. But do you have any specific spiritual beliefs, and if so, what is your definition of the sacred?
HS: I don't know if I can define it. I certainly do attempt to live according to spiritual principles. That's always the foundation of each and every day. But to define . . . I don't think you can. I think anything that I can define is not it. It has to be beyond my ability to define or understand. But I have experienced some things in my life that just force me to believe in some sort of power. A creative . . . creative power source; however you want to phrase it. I certainly have experienced that presence. And I have experienced what I consider the basic . . . oh, so hard to use words to describe an ultra-dimensional thing . . . but what we would call love and concern.
RC: But do you feel that this thing that we find is so difficult to give a name, like, as Lao Tzu says, "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao" . . .
HS: [Laughs] That's right—". . . is not the Tao"—that's right!
RC: That's what I was thinking of when you said that just now. I'm very, very curious to get in your own words, without putting words in your mouth. This thing that we find so hard to define, is it something that just exists on a human level or on a profane level, or is it something that, for lack of a better word, we could call extra-mundane or spiritual? Do you believe in anything like that?
HS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I believe in something that is beyond this body. And beyond this physical world. Absolutely.
RC: That's always been the sense that I get from your writing. When he was close to death, Henry Miller said that he did not believe in God in the first-person singular, not as an "I," but that he did believe in creation, which is very close, very similar to what you just said.
HS: Yeah, I would say "it" rather than "I." [Laughs]
RC: I think he meant, as you said in the film, that God for many people was a sort of anthropomorphic creation; Miller was saying that he didn't believe in a singular being but more of an "it" as you just said . . . I noticed in a previous print interview that you said you felt you were—I'm paraphrasing now—merely an "agent" of the creative. Where then does it come from, and how is the artist's spiritual role different from the role that other people play?
HS: Well, what do you mean where does "it" come from? What is "it"? Do you mean where does this ultimate creative force come from?
RC: No, I'm asking about the role of a writer—because I think you were talking about being a writer—and if, when you write there's something coming from beyond us.
HS: Oh right. Well, beyond? I wouldn't say beyond. I would say absolutely within. But I couldn't limit the depth of "within." Because once you start getting within, you are in such a boundless, infinite universe. But it's important for me to say within, because I don't think there's anything outside of me.
RC: Are you a part of that big "it" with a capital I, then?
HS: I think we all are, yes. Absolutely. See, which is interesting because, obviously every second of every day people are being born, people are dying, which means whatever this "it" is, changes. It's in constant change, constant flux. Yet, I want to keep it still. [Laughs] And I think that's the source of so many of my problems, and I guess you could say the world's problems, is we're trying to control it, instead of just surrendering to it.
RC: You've said that "Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there's something inside us that's so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won't be able to stand looking at it. But it's when we're willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel." Do you believe in angels?
HS: Well, I'm just using, you know, the vernacular here, demons, angels, but yeah, I do believe . . . See, again, angels is a tough word, because it is so involved with organized religion and everything else. But let me just say this. I do know, absolutely, from my experience, there are some kind of spiritual entities—force, power, intelligence—that guide me through each and every day, as long as I'm willing to accept, recognize, and surrender to their guidance. It's always there, but there are times when I insist upon having my way.
RC: That's wonderful that you say that; I think that that really gets very close to what I was trying to understand, which is that you do feel that there are extra-human powers or forces that move through us. Is that correct?
HS: Yeah. But I suppose you could get right down to it and say, well, maybe they're not even extra-human, maybe they're ultra-human; who knows? But there are definitely things that aren't necessarily walking around in a body like mine. And I believe they're sort of everywhere. I mean, I can't . . . where can you look where you're not looking in the direction of God, so to speak? Where do I go where I'm not surrounded by air and all these little molecules and atoms and all that kind of stuff that's there. It's just there.
RC: That might be a perfect segue into a question that I was going to ask you further down the line. Because it makes me think of "Psalm 16," what you just said. You know, your piece "Psalm 16"?
HS: Oh . . . oh, mine. Yeah, okay—I was thinking of David's [Laughs]—I couldn't remember 16!
RC: [Laughs] Okay, my question was: Are good and evil two sides of the same face of God? I'm remembering the place in your stunning piece "Psalm 16" in which you excoriate God and all that occurs "in your name, in your fucking myriad of names"—by the way, that was such a beautiful line! And, on the other hand, you sing, at the end of that song: "I said to the almond tree, 'Speak to me of God'. And the almond tree blossomed."
HS: Precisely. Precisely. One of the things I like about—whew, I get chills thinking about it—one of the things that I like about that Psalm is that it appears that the narrator doesn't know what he's doing, or what he's saying. He doesn't realize that he's defeating his own argument, so to speak. That's one of the things I like about it. See the thing is, about the face of God, again—that really personalizes it doesn't it, when we say, "the face of God"? And then that gets us back to that Henry Miller thing and so forth, from the beginning. So I don't think that they're both two different faces of God. I think what it is, is: good and evil is simply my perception of something at the moment.
RC: Do you believe in evil as an independent, an autonomous force that acts within us or against us, or is evil as the Church sometimes has defined it "merely the absence of good?"
HS: Well, I just don't seem to be capable of believing in evil as some separate, distinct power within itself. I guess I'm just not a Southern Baptist or a Fundamentalist. [Laughs] I just don't seem to be capable of believing in it myself, somehow. I don't . . . I can't conceive from my experience how this force of evil can exist without the force of love being right there.
RC: Right. That's a big part of what I wanted this interview to be about and what I wanted to ask you about. Because when I read through your books there is omnipresent the term and the image and the notion of the demon . . .
HS: That's right.
RC: And in this world of duality, the question naturally would be: What's the counterpoint of the demon? Which is why I asked about the angels.
HS: Well actually, the counterpoint is love. As I understand it, there are only two emotions a human being can experience—love or fear. And when you're in a state of love, you can't think of trying to get anything. You're incapable of thinking that way. You just seem to experience the perfection of creation, and want to do what you can to make everyone comfortable, you just give away everything you have. When I talk about giving away I'm not talking about my clothes or my house–but from within me. You know, try to comfort people. So if I'm coming from anyplace else I'm coming from fear, and fear takes many, many, many forms to be effective. All kinds of forms. So, if I'm facing the demon of fear, love is always available, but what I have to do is be willing to surrender to it. Surrender my ideas of what is right, what is wrong, and all those dreadful judgments that keep us in turmoil and ignorance and misery.
RC: Are the demons then merely what Jung would call autonomous complexes? Are they things that are just below our consciousness that are just pulling us in the wrong direction, that have been formed by past experiences?
HS: I really couldn't say. I don't know if it's formed by past experiences. I mean because then if you say past experiences, now we're getting into reincarnation, because . . .
RC: Well, I actually meant in this lifetime.
HS: Well no, I don't think so, it seems to be something else. I mean, then how would you explain Mozart?
RC: I think Mozart, like you, is an example of someone who has the gods moving through him, and his religion was creation.
HS: Yeah, and at three years old he's writing music! [Laughs] So I don't know. How about the accident of birth? Maybe you're born with an obsession, or that aspect of obsession that just has to be generated, somehow, through life. I just don't know.
RC: So you do feel that it's possible that, as I think the original definition of the word means—destiny—that it's "that which follows from before"—you do believe that we may be born into this world not coming in with a blank slate, so to speak?
HS: Right; I do believe that. And I don't believe in a blank slate in any way. I mean, that's what we seem to be taught, at least in the Western world: we're born with a blank slate, and we have to learn how to get, and get. Otherwise we're fucked. [Laughs] That seems to be the message, you know. Certainly in this country. But no one ever seems to train us in methods of finding out that we already have within us all the things that are valuable, all the treasures. But it's only in the process of giving them away to somebody else that we become aware of having them. Now . . . and I don't know, I just don't know about where these things, where do my obsessions come from? My earliest memory as a little kid, I have these obsessions. I have no idea. I'm grateful I found out how I can become increasingly free of them. But I don't know. And I don't know anything really about karma, reincarnation. So I can't explain the origin.
RC: Do you believe that love is something that existed before human beings? Or the possibility for it existed before we came down the block?
HS: Well, yeah, I think so, but I don't know that I could really define it. I can't . . . again, it's like trying to define what this creative force is. It's beyond my ability to really define. If I can define it, then it's not it. We're right back to that thing again.
RC: We're back to Lao Tzu.
HS: Yeah, right back there again. So I don't know. But I do believe this: That what we call love is always available to us. And of course I'm not just talking about passion. I'm talking about love where you just can't conceive that your life isn't perfect, that you can't conceive of wanting anything.
RC: Do you mean love that could exist without another person?
HS: Yes, oh yes. In one sense, in an experiential sense. But, if love is what I've experienced, I can't separate it from other people. I can't separate creation, and I can't separate whatever this creative thing is, from it's creation. I don't believe that can be done. So as I said before, we're all part of this creative force. So, where else am I going to be directing my love? Now, I can sit alone and experience this thing and be overwhelmed with such ecstasy that I can't say anything but "thank you," but ultimately, I direct it towards people. Hopefully.
RC: And is it directed into your work?
HS: Well, yeah . . . but of course then again we get down to a definition . . . it may be hard to find the love in my work sometimes! [Laughs] We'll put it that way! According to the way people define love.
RC: Is the act of you sitting down, with all your physical pain, and all the things you've been through, and all the difficulties that every writer encounters in writing a book, isn't it really motivated by love?
HS: Yeah. And that love is beyond what we call love. That's something [Laughs]—it's probably beyond what any writer calls love, too!
RC: It's not romantic love we're talking about, we're talking about a mystical rapture.
HS: Yeah, we're talking about rapture, we're talking about creation. We're also talking about extraordinary pain.
RC: Which brings us back maybe to what we were talking about before, what I called, for lack of a better metaphor, the two sides of the face of the absolute, let's say. There was a very interesting German philosopher who wrote about comparative religion; his name was Rudolf Otto. He wrote a book calledThe Idea of the Holy. He invented two terms. He said that the encounter with the absolute is a mysterium fascinans, or it can be a mysterium tremendum. It can be bliss or it can be terror. Or it can be both. Is it difficult as a spiritual person to reconcile that pain that you were just speaking about; that that's part of this creation, too; that there are, besides, the demons; that that's all part of the same portrait?
HS: Oh yeah, it's difficult. At least for me. Sometimes I sit here and the phone rings and I cry. I can't talk! I'm just totally incapable of it. But I've come to believe, from my experience, that whenever I feel like I'm locked in hell, I am at the gates of heaven. And my perception of my experience can change in the wink of an eye. Just all of a sudden. Boom.
RC: You're at the gates of heaven because that can be the next step, or . . . ?
HS: Well, let me put it this way. I think we're always striving for this perfection of our own being; to realize our own perfection. To realize and be consciously at one with this thing that created us, that we always have within us. I mean we always have it in its entirety. It's my belief that says "I don't." And it seems to me that, periodically, the closer I get to the conscious awareness of my oneness with this creative power, the more insane the human ego becomes. And I'm defining "ego" as the lie of separation. The lie that says I'm separate from this thing that I can never be separate from. I'm separate from me; I'm separate from you. It starts to feel really threatened, and it just becomes outrageously vicious—at its best [Laughs] it's vicious. And so I can just feel so twisted and turned, that I can't move; I just don't know what the hell is going on. But my experience has proven to me that when I'm feeling that way, it's because I'm really knocking at the gates of heaven. You know, to use a phrase. And if I can just find some way of letting go of my fear, which usually means surrendering right into the middle of the fear—in other words, just sitting and saying, okay, you fucking dragons, you demons, here I am, eat me up alive, you fucking punk. Then, I become aware of being at the gates of heaven. But boy, it's not easy. [Laughs]
RC: I recently re-read Last Exit to Brooklyn while simultaneously reading your last book, The Willow Tree. Most critics remember your first book for its portrayal of absolute brutality and cruelty—and maybe we can say in this context, separation, right?
RC: . . . while the last book is in part highlighted by the attempt of various characters to show empathy, passion, and love. Yet a careful reading reveals that, in fact, there are episodes, incidents and moments in Last Exit in which empathy occurs and is portrayed in a beautiful and touching manner.
HS: I think so, you know? [Laughs] I'm glad to hear that you do!
RC: I'm also thinking of the story, "And Baby Makes Three," which is at least in part about, "having a ball," as one character says. More specifically, in "The Queen is Dead," there are very moving passages that portray Georgette's love for Vinnie. And in fact I was surprised to discover that three essential symbols make their appearance in this chapter: the swan, the lake, and the willows. These symbols of rapture and bliss also make their appearance years later, in your last book, The Willow Tree; specifically, the part where Moishe takes Bobby to Prospect Park and Bobby experiences what may be his first day of pure bliss and rapture. So my question is, are things like bliss, happiness, ecstasy, and even rapture among the most difficult themes or portrayals to handle successfully, as a writer.
HS: I think so. Because for one thing, like you said, this is a world of duality, so we need something to compare it with. So I have to set the situation up where we can experience the difference between, whatever—everyday life—we are having and this experience of bliss. And if you remember, when you said about Bobby, his first experience of bliss being under The Willow Tree with Moishe, but remember later on Bobby tries to remember some time in his life that made a difference? He remembers when he was a little kid, and they opened up the hydrant on a summer day. And he had that moment then. You see what I mean? It's a very relative thing. But he had a brief time there where, oh, life was just enchantment. "Even the old cranky folks," or something, "the old sour pusses, were okay"? [Quoting from memory, from the passage]
RC: But in general, as a writer, why is that—why is happiness not only so much more difficult to portray as a writer, but also, to make the critics happy about how you portray it?
HS: Well, I don't know how to make the critics happy! [Laughs] I mean this book, The Willow Tree, I can't even get criticism in this country, that's been totally ignored. So, anyway . . .
RC: Maybe it's just a general human reaction. I remember once reading something that Norman Mailer said—that people get uncomfortable when you talk about being in love. You know? People get uncomfortable when they hear a description of pure happiness, and they tend to look at it as being silly.
HS: Well, because quite often if you're talking about being in love, you probably sound very silly because for one thing, you are totally self-centered at that time, aren't you? When we're talking about romantic love and so on; that must be what he's referring to. Now to talk about the subject of love in some undefined sense, that can be fascinating, but we don't get into that. We're talking about a very subjective, first-person sort of thing. And yeah, [Laughs] that can be a bore! Because of the way we talk about it. But if we can present a life, with the tragedies and the horrors of life, and then, see the absence of these horrors . . . You see, I discovered something many years ago: that I spent so many years trying to get happy, that I finally realized that I can't get happy; that happiness is a natural state of being. When I stop doing the things that make me unhappy, I will experience the happiness that is that natural state of being. See, I don't think we were created with some pain and misery and whatever. I think we were created by whatever this thing is, when it extended itself, and, here we are. But I pile on so many misconceptions that I end up uncomfortable in my own skin.
RC: That's similar to that other definition that I mentioned before, if we turn it around and speak of good as "the absence of evil."
HS: In a very real sense, yes. But the problem with that definition is that the way it's phrased, "good is the absence of evil"—as if it's not something absolute within itself. Now, I don't use the words "good" or "bad" . . . But of course, in our experience, in the human condition, we do need both, it is a world of duality. So I don't know from up without down, or left without right.
RC: Well, since we're in this metaphysical dilemma right now . . .
HS: [Laughs] And have been for many moons, I guess!
RC: Right! This might be a good moment to ask you, what's our purpose then? I mean, in the really big sense of the question; and what's your purpose at this juncture, as a writer? When you wake up in the morning and you're thinking about the book that you're working on, what's the ultimate goal there?
HS: When I'm thinking about the book I'm working on, the ultimate goal is always, of course, just simply to write the best book I can write and to understand the book that's been given to me to write. So that I can create it appropriately. Now, I don't know about the meaning of life. [Laughs] There is no definition of it; it can only be experienced. But I do believe—and I think Moishe says this—we all need a meaning to our life. I have to have a meaning in my life. If I roam around without some meaning in my life, I'm in deep and serious trouble. I can't, I just can't exist.
RC: The French have that wonderful expression, raison d'etre, reason to be. So if you had to define your raison d'etre, what would you say, in a sentence?
HS: To be as kind, gentle, loving as possible.
RC: What's wonderful about all the things you're saying is that I think you have this very well articulated and well thought-out—well thought-out because it's coming from experience—metaphysic, but you really bring it down to earth, and you continually return to those basic . . . I could say moral qualities . . . kindness, love, forgiveness. Would you define yourself in part as a moralist, as a writer or as a person? Or is that just too small a word?
HS: You know, I never thought of it in those terms. But I guess I'd have to, to some degree, because I am concerned with what the moral dynamic might be of any story that's given to me to write. Not only the psychodynamic but what the moral dynamic is, is important. I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit, I heard myself say: "The horrors of a loveless world." That's many moons ago that I was asked that question, and I hadn't thought about it ahead of time, but that's what came out of my mouth, and I can't find any reason to change my mind about that statement.
RC: I noticed that in The Willow Tree there are many times when the phrase "the demons" makes its appearance; and of course there's your wonderful book by the same title; and while re-reading Last Exit, I also noticed the first appearance in your writing of this word, the demon. It's when Georgette spontaneously decides to read Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven." And she recites: "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming." Now, when I met you in Paris, I was surprised to see that you were always smiling, and laughing, and that your eyes did not have the seeming of a demon.
HS: [Laughs] Well, thank you!
RC: And when I read that line, I thought: Yeah, maybe Selby is the demon that is dreaming, and what he dreams up is this collection of what I think is some of the best prose in American literature; or, one could say that the demon is another force that you've been selected for some reason to be the agent for, to use your word from before. If you are the agent, what is the price that you pay, in carrying the demon within you, and giving it a voice?
HS: Ohhhhh, boy. The price! Whewwww. You know, first of all, you can't say with absolute certainty. However, I can say [Laughs] that my life to a great extent has been a horror story. Whewwww. In a way, I don't pay a price, but I'm given something. I have these experiences in my life. I've had a lot of problems. Certainly a lot of physical problems, as well as emotional problems and everything else. Now, when I finally accept the fact that I'm a writer, and go through the arduous task [Laughs] of developing that ability . . . See, you must remember that I have no natural talents or abilities in any area of life. I'm not a natural writer; or a natural reader; I'm not an exceptional mechanic; I'm not an exceptional athlete; I'm not a draftsman at all, I can't draw or . . . Absolutely no natural talent. But I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter everyday for six years until I learned how to write. Now, I can't say that the ability wasn't there, obviously. I guess it was there and I just had to fight like hell to activate it, to animate it, to nurture it, to love it. So I don't know about that; I just know that it was a lot of work. Now, because I have this life of suffering, with demons and all other forms of misery, now at least I can do something with it. So it becomes for me, I have to assume it becomes cathartic, in a sense. But at the same time, I have a certain framework. Now this is something else that kept me in conflict and created great pain, is that, philosophically and consciously, ethically, morally, whatever, I'm a very pacifistic person. I don't believe in violence, yet my life has been so violent that I'm constantly—at least in the past—violating my own code of ethics and morality. And that is just destroying me. So, although I'm not consciously aware of this—I'm just looking back; I'm not aware of it at the time—I can constantly experience the difference between heaven and hell, so to speak. And the terrible pain of these conflicts, and the angst of not doing the loving things that I always wanted to do. And doing all the mean-spirited things I knew that no human being should ever do. So in the end result when I . . . I'm not focusing on any of these things, I'm focusing on writing the best story I can write. Which means I'm doing everything I can to give the artist within me as much power as possible. Then, somehow on this piece of paper emerges the results of that conflict, in such a way that the reader can experience and see what it's really like to live this life, instead of sitting comfortably somewhere and saying, "Oh, those people, they should all be shot."
RC: With your creative obsession with demonology, with God, and with man's suffering and the possibility of redemption or catharsis or even transcendence, which you've lately explored in The Willow Tree, aren't you in fact a religious writer?
HS: It depends again on how we define the word religious. Certainly not in the organized sense, but in some very, very broad spiritual sense, I guess I'd have to agree with you. Again, this wasn't my conscious effort in writing. But it seems to me I am. And I should amend my previous statement by saying, in The Willow Tree, it was a conscious effort to write a spiritual book.
RC: Could you elaborate a bit on that?
HS: Well, as simply as possible, I had spent many years writing about the darkness. And I wrote about the darkness from many different points of view, as I felt like it. And now I wanted . . . See, I'm always presenting myself with problems to solve as a writer. So the problem I presented myself with was to not only write about the darkness but to write about the light. And how you get from the darkness to the light. So I would think that that's kind of defining a spiritual book.
RC: Coming from Brooklyn myself, I'm always amazed at how much you've captured of that nearly-impossible-to-describe place. If you had not been raised in Bay Ridge but instead hailed from a small town with white picket fences and year-round sunshine, and strangers who greeted everyone on main street by saying, "Good morning"—in other words, if the peculiar spirit of those dark Brooklyn streets had not infused itself into your soul, what do you think would have been the result? I mean, in terms of your writing.
HS: Maybe I never would have written. That's quite possible, you know? Because one of the things that fascinates me is the music of speech. And I don't know . . . how many places are there in the world where you have the music of speech? Certainly not in most of this country. So I just don't know. I'm not sure what. . . And if I had the same kind of personality that I have, living in a small town, I don't know if I would have survived long enough to try to write.
RC: One of the strange things about a lot of those parts of Brooklyn is they don't seem to change, decade after decade.
HS: Oh, that's right. Yeah, Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last eighty years. With a few physical exceptions.
RC: In many ways it's a wonderful place, but in other ways it is a very violent place. For some reason, there are a lot of very violent people that come out of those streets.People who don't really have a sense of what you were calling catharsis before.
HS: But isn't it funny that all these mass murderers and kids and grown-ups who go around whacking people, don't come from . . .
RC: They come from the little towns with the white picket fences!
HS: That's right! [Laughs] Yeah, they don't come from Brooklyn, so I might have been one of those! Given the nature of my personality. Who the heck knows! I don't know, man. I don't know. But I know that I Iove the city; I love the sound of the city.
RC: I guess the other side of my question really was, how much of Last Exit and maybe things that followed, even up through and including The Willow Tree, how much of that is really a portrait of such streets? All your books are very universal, but if someone like me has actually come from a place like that, we're hit with a double whammy. Because it's a universal tale but it really mirrors and captures the uniqueness of that place. Has that been something you've thought about through your life?
HS: Well, not in the physical sense of portraying Brooklyn in any way. But in a very real sense I have thought about it. Because what I attempt to do is put the reader through an emotional experience. So you don't find much physical description in my work. I don't describe the streets too much or anything else. But I try and get as deeply inside the people who live on those streets as possible. And I think that's what you're experiencing, what it's like to live on those streets. And you're getting each individual's reaction to their life on those streets. Maybe that's what it is. I certainly can't really say.
RC: I know that you feel a spiritual or literary kinship with Céline.
RC: There's another great writer who also emerged from Brooklyn who also had a great kinship with Céline; that is, Henry Miller. Did Miller in any way influence you or did you feel a kinship with him as a man or as a writer?
HS: No . . . I don't know how much of Miller I ever read before I started writing.
RC: Probably wasn't much available at that time.
HS: No, there wasn't. Because I started writing in the mid-'50s. So . . . No, I don't think . . . even if I had read it, I don't think Miller would have influenced me in any way. Because we seem to approach things so differently.
RC: How so?
HS: Well in a lot of .. well, I don't know about "a lot"—I haven't read that much.
RC: Oh really? For some reason, I thought he might have been someone that you've read a lot. Because I saw somewhere that you had his books on your bookshelf or something.
HS: Yeah, I do have a couple of his books here. But see, I always have a very definitive story-line. I'm like an old fashioned writer: a beginning, middle and end, kind of thing. And quite often, he doesn't. He just kind of wanders around in the streets of Paris, so to speak, and then he wanders around in his mind, you know? Just kind of strolling, straying. Which is cool; I'm not making a negative critique of this. But I think we approach things quite differently sometimes. Although that one book, I forget which Tropic it is, the one that takes place in Brooklyn when he's at Western Union, that had a pretty kind of direct story-line, and was kind of linear, and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. The thing with his first babysitter and all that kind of stuff man, you know? [Laughs] And the same thing with Céline—I don't think I was influenced by him, but just on looking back on it, at least on the surface, it looks like I have more to do with him than anybody else. You know, in that raging, maniacal kind of sense.
RC: By the way, did you know that . . . I don't think it's in print anywhere, but apparently Celine did use mescaline. I was speaking to a biographer who had some contact with Allen Ginsberg, who had met Celine, and according to Ginsberg, Celine had used mescaline. And I've always wondered about the influence of mescaline on Celine's books. Because there are some passages that are very, very hallucinatory in his work.
HS: So in other words, he used it on a regular basis for a while? Not just an experimental thing?
RC: I really don't know; I think there's very little known about it. I've read most of the biographies that are available on him; I've never seen it in print. But I know that he did use it at least once and that he had access to it as a doctor. Have you ever used hallucinogenics?
HS: No. Well, I smoked grass, which is basically a hallucinogenic. But no, I never wanted to go near them.
RC: Did using drugs have any kind of positive influence on your writing? Or to put it in another way, were you able to take anything out of that experience and portray it or use it as material?
HS: Well, yeah, Requiem for a Dream, obviously.
RC: How about how it might have effected you as a stylist? Or your use of language?
HS: I don't think so. I didn't get involved with drugs until after Last Exit was published. And I think that language and style and so forth was pretty well established there.
RC: Carl Jung used to say that it took as much as twenty years for the collective consciousness to catch up with the contents published in his books. How much time will pass before the public is able to get—in other words, to understand—books like The Room and Requiem for a Dream?
HS: Well, now that's a good question; that's a very good question. The public doesn't seem to have such a problem with my books. It's the academics that do! [Laughs]
RC: And the critics? Is that what you mean when you say academics?
HS: Well, some critics have been very kind, very wonderful.
RC: You received some great reviews for those books.
HS: Yeah! The Room got some . . . Josephine Hendin, and Dotson Rader! I mean, wow, I got incredible reviews. But nobody seems to know it exists. So, it's not so much the public. I find that when the public gets around to reading it, from the feedback I get from them, they seem to relate to the book and enjoy it and so forth. But I've been kind of ostracized I think by the academic community. As a matter of fact, I was told that after Last Exit was published, I was told by someone that there really was a conspiracy against the book, in that the large bookstores in New York would not display the book. They would sell it, but they wouldn't display it.
RC: Last Exit was banned in the U.K., but not in the States. Why was Last Exit allowed to be published in the United States in 1964 and Tropic of Cancer, which was a much less obscene book, by the classical definition, why was that book banned; and why did it have to go through a trial of over a year? And it was three years later—it was 1966 or 1967—until it was allowed to be published, when the trail was over?
HS: I don't know, but what popped in mind is the fact that his work had been banned here for many years. You could only smuggle it in and all that sort of stuff. So it had a different resistance and a different procedure to go through.
RC: It already had an established weight, a history that it had to deal with.
HS: Right. Yeah. And of course Barney Rossett took care of business and made it possible for a lot of things to happen.
RC: You were just talking about the fact that there was a conscious . . . well, we could say, conspiracy, to create obstacles for Last Exit. Did the FBI ever open a file on you and, if so, have you ever seen it or requested it?
HS: No, somebody once told me that they have a file on me, but. . .
RC: Never seen it?
HS: No . . . I don't even think about it. I mean what the hell could . . .
RC: Might be good for some laughs, no?
HS: Yeah! [Laughs] I think it would piss me off to think that all the time and money they're wasting, getting a file on me, for Christ's sake! Maybe we should do something more important with all this stuff!
RC: It pisses me off that people like Frank Sinatra get the Presidential Medal of Honor or whatever it's called . . . and not people like you!
HS: [Laughs] You know, fuck the medal—I could use some money! [Laughs] And don't forget, sixteen years ago, I was on welfare for Christ's sake, with my son. We were on welfare for a year.
RC: Well, this is also coming off the top of my head, but anything to say about how America treats its artists—or maybe not just America, but governments in the world in general? I mean, you must still have some bitterness about that, no?
HS: No, not bitterness, I just . . . I get sad sometimes. I was certainly sad at the time, when, you know, you have to scrounge for money to support your family. And I never could really earn a living because of my physical condition, lack of education, and so forth. The only government that I really know is this government; we don't have a cultural affairs department or anything, like they have in some of the European countries. Now, whether that's any better or not, I don't know! I'm sure there are plenty of artists who really oppose all that bureaucracy dealing with the arts. But it would be nice, if somehow, you could get some money. You know, I've applied for the NEA a couple of times, the Guggenheims, and things like that. And I've always been turned down by everybody. And according to them, there's at least 2,000 writers in this country who are better than I am. Which could very well be true. And I would love to read them . . .
RC: You know Henry Miller was also turned down for a Guggenheim.
HS: Well, I can understand that, because he was a dirty writer! [Laughs] You know, in those days? To write the way he was writing?
RC: When Picasso was living in Paris, he was approached by a group of artists, and they asked him to sign a petition so that the government would give more money to artists. And he absolutely refused to sign it. He said, of course I'm not going to sign that petition. The state, the government, is the enemy.
HS: Well, but we must remember that he was a Communist, so his attitude was a little different. But that's why I say I'm not sure if it's beneficial to have an official government bureau. And who's going to head it? Jessie Helms? [Laughs uproariously] Dan Quayle, that's who! [Laughs] Yeah. So I don't know about governments, as far as individual artists are concerned. I suspect it wouldn't be worth it to have them poking around. I think it would be nice if governments could be a little more helpful with, say, orchestras, ballet companies, and so forth, that can't sustain themselves. Maybe they could get a tax break on tickets or something. There might be some way of doing it where they could keep them out of it. But the individual artists, I think we just have to go our own way.
RC: I agree with you. I think in a way the great irony or paradox about America is that it makes it so hard for the sensitive person, the artist, the impressionable person, the person whose raison d'etre is to incarnate the creative will, rather than to just make money, and yet that extreme difficulty that the culture poses for us has created some of the best artists in the last hundred years.
HS: Correct. I mean, how is a pearl manufactured? That seems to be a necessary part. Because the artist by definition is outside of the mainstream of society. Wasn't it Yeats who said the artist is the antenna of the race? It's so true. It seems to me that what the artist sees is the simple and obvious that is invisible to everybody else. And it's always there; it's all around us. And the artist magnifies what's invisible to other people; so that they're capable of at least realizing there's something here.
RC: What is the artist's special relationship to the childhood experience? Were you, for example, the classical artist as a child; the very sensitive, impressionable person?
HS: Oh God, yeah! Oh, Jesus! [Laughs] And not only that—my name is Hubert, and I'm born and raised in Brooklyn! Everybody's Mikey, Vinnie, Tony—it was like being a Jew in an Irish neighborhood! [Laughs] I mean, everybody's poking fun at me. And I could never, never deal with it. I could never deal with it. Oh, God almighty. Everybody else seems to be taking care of business, and I'm in this constant turmoil. I see a cat going through a garbage can getting something to eat—I fall apart; I'm crying, I'm dying! I can't stand to look at it, you know? Oh, man . . . You know, bringing home crippled birds, you know, that kind of thing.
RC: Was there a person, was there an adult who was any kind of a role model, or was there a singular defining experience in your childhood that marked you to be an artist later on, do you think?
HS: No; I think it's just something there, it's again that accident of birth that I don't understand. I think it can get nurtured. You see, you don't decide to be an artist, you accept the fact that you are, but you don't decide to be one. Now who the hell could be that dumb? Can you imagine deciding to live this kind of life? Oh, good Lord! [Laughs]
RC: I don't know if you've ever seen Mircea Eliade's book on shamanism, but he says in that book that when the old shaman, or when the tribe decides to select the young boy who will become the next shaman, it's like a fate worse than death, and the boy tries to run away and to escape, and it's the worst thing imaginable, because he will be wounded—in a psychological sense—in some way, and it's through that wound that the unconscious will come, that the sacred world will come, through that wound, through that hole inside of him.
HS: Boy, does that sound accurate. Wow.
RC: By the way, what was your parents' nationality? Are you Irish?
HS: No, English. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years; all English.
My family on both sides have been in this country more than 350 years.
RC: So they were the last English family left in Bay Ridge probably, right?
HS: I was a member of the smallest minority in the country, for God's sake! [Laughs] I want minority rights, God bless us! [Laughs]
RC: You're working on an autobiography now?
HS: No, not really. I was writing a memoir. I wanted to put down as much information about myself as possible for my children. Because I realized that, who the heck can know their parents? Even if you have a whole bunch of facts. And I know nothing about my father, not even the facts or anything else. But who can really know them, when you're a kid, they're God, they're all this, they're that. And I just thought it would be nice to leave a document for my children, where they can just see the humanness inside of their father. It's not finished, because I've got so many other things happening. Suddenly I was writing The Willow Tree, and now something else. And also, I was writing a thing called "Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love"; that is very autobiographical. I don't know if I'll ever get back and organize that and finish it. It's just . . . I never know.
RC: I understand that you're currently working on a book that deals with the theme of suicide.
HS: Well, not really suicide. I think what the theme is . . . It's hard for me to say, because this thing evolved from a joke, just like Requiem for a Dream evolved from a joke. It might be simply, having a purpose in life. The thing started, this guy is very despondent; he's very unhappy. So, he's trying to figure out how to kill himself. And eventually he decides he going to—this is a long thing—but he finally decides he's going to get a gun and blow his brains out. And so, he goes to get a gun, and they need information to okay it; you know, to get a permit, whatever it's called. And the computer system breaks down, and he has to wait five days. And so he becomes pissed off at all this, and in that five-day period he goes from being suicidal to homicidal. So he figures he'll kill this guy at the Veteran's Administration who's been breaking his balls. He doesn't want to just murder him; he wants to make it look natural, so he doesn't have to pay a price. So he goes on the internet and finds out how to culture ecoli and salmonella bacteria. And to make a long story short, he drops it in the guy's Coke one day at lunch, and the guy actually dies. And he goes and he visits the body, and he's just really delighted over this, really happy–"I killed a man; I killed a man!" And then, of course, he's even more depressed than ever. And he sits around for about three days with the gun barrel in his mouth, hoping that if he can't pull the trigger, maybe he'll fall down and accidentally pull the trigger. So then the TV is on, and suddenly something captures his ear. They're talking about the 30th picnic and barbecue celebration in some place, and you get the very distinct impression it's Mississippi. But what it is, is thirty years before, when they were integrating the hospitals for Medicare? The doctors were going all over the country doing this. And there was a black doctor working in this particular town, and he was murdered. And everyone knew that this guy had done it. Then they brought him to trial, and they found him not guilty. And everyone celebrated, right after the trail, with a barbecue and picnic. And every year since then, they have this barbecue and picnic celebration. So this guy–"Ah, ha!"—now he has a purpose to his life, see? So he's going to get this guy, and he'll get this guy in the same icoeli kind of manner. But then what he'll do is, he's going to see if he can start a mafia war between different gangs and have them eliminate each other. He's going to go around—I don't know how many; three, four different cities—and blow up some mafia people, hoping they'll all start shooting each other and all that kind of . . . Anyway, it was one of these kind of things that happens.
RC: And you're currently working on this?
RC: What about writing in the first person? When I read the little that's available about your biography, about your life, it seems to me like it would be a natural for you to write in the first-person. Is your memoir in the first-person, I assume?
HS: Oh well, yeah. And this waiting period thing that I just told you about, the suicide guy, that's first-person . . . There's actually no narrator. There's actually no narrator at all. It's all inside this guy's head, like in The Room. There's no narrator, but there is a commentator that kind of pops up every now and then. Sometimes he seems to be the devil, and sometimes he seems to be Jesus. I don't know who he is. He just pops in and out. And makes comments about things.
RC: Maybe back to that thing about the two sides, the two faces, right?
HS: Yeah, who knows? [Laughs]
RC: I know you listen to Beethoven every day, and you've mentioned Celine, who's a very musical writer. When you're writing, do the words sort of come in rhythm or melody?
HS: Yeah. Depending upon what's needed. See, I always try to fulfill the responsibility to the story; whatever is needed at the moment. But yeah, I write by ear. Yeah, the rhythms of the writing, even in the narrative, are important. For instance, if I'm writing a narrative about a particular person, dealing with a particular person, the rhythms, the syntax, and so forth should reflect that person's personality.
RC: It's one of the reasons your writing is so beautiful, and different, from so many other writers. Are there any nonfiction writers or books that were a big influence?
HS: Well, maybe when I was a kid I did read one book. And that was called Heroes of Science. And it had Edward Jenner, Lavoisier, and . . . Oh, I can't remember the various scientists. But I do remember reading that book. And I remember when I was eight or ten years old, making a decision that I was going to find a way to stop the suffering in the world. [Laughs] And you know, I think about it and it really wasn't an ego-trip. It wasn't like, "I'm going to do this."
RC: It wasn't coming out of a power complex.
HS: No, it was a real, sincere thing. I was that kind of kid. You know, I really . . . I guess I had by that time seen enough suffering. And I just really wanted people to stop hurting each other.
RC: You said that you don't know much about your dad. I imagine your mom must have been an incredible influence on you.
HS: Yeah. They were both very, very influential. My mother's a very strong, powerful woman. And my father was a drunk. He died drunk at the age of 78, so it wasn't like a premature death. And I've just cloned myself after my father. Oh, in so many ways. Violent, drunk, maniacal. I left home and went to sea, and he went to sea. And oh, just . . . oh, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, my mother was a reader. But she just couldn't stand bad language! [Laughs] I used to get a bar of lye soap in my mouth for using words like lousy. But at the same time, she got me to museums periodically. At least a couple of times a year we went to museums, things of that nature. My father went back to sea in 1942, and I always had a part-time job after school or before school, whichever. Which meant I used to work a half a day Saturday, and quite often we'd meet, go to a movie, and once we saw Othello, with Paul Robeson. Oh! Boy, what an experience that was! And so . . . there was a balance. You know, as we've said, there are no absolutes. There was a lot of conflict. I wanted to please my mother, and I wanted to please my father. And so [Laughs] . . . it's pretty hard to please them both, when they were so opposite in personality. So I was always caught up in this conflict.
RC: Was your father kind to you? Was he loving to you?
HS: Well, not overtly. I realize now, he felt so incredibly inadequate, he didn't know what the hell to do. You know, there's one thing I do know about him is, he was twelve years old, he was all alone in the world, and working in a coal mine. So, you know, that's not exactly a great background to bring to a marriage. His mother died when he was very young. He comes from Island, Kentucky. And then, when he was about twelve, I guess, his father died and his step-mother just packed up and left. So he went to live with an aunt in Indiana and worked in the coal mines. And he was just a little guy.
RC: And your mother, I would imagine, was more overt with her affection?
HS: Oh, yeah . . . And she sang in the same choir for more than sixty years. She'd still be there but she can't get out of bed.
RC: How old is she now?
HS: She's eighty-nine.
RC: What does she think of your work? What was her reaction?
HS: Well, I'll tell you man—her reaction to Last Exit was one of the greatest compliments I've ever gotten. Because I told you her thing about language.
RC: So if "lousy" was a bad word, what did she think of Last Exit?
HS: Well, she read the book and this is what she said. She said: "Oh, those poor people." Wow. So I mean, I really must have succeeded in doing what I planned to do, and that is, put the reader through an emotional experience, because the experience of reading that book transcended all her prejudices, her ideas, her beliefs, and just responded to the pain of the people. It's the greatest compliment that I've gotten. Absolutely.
RC: Has she read all your subsequent books?
HS: I've given her a copy of each one. I don't know if she's actually read them all. I don't know if she was able to get through The Room. Some people can't.
RC: I think it's one of your best.
HS: I think it's the most disturbing book ever written by a human being. But I think it's a masterpiece.
RC: Is that your own favorite book, of all your work?
HS: Well, I can't say it's a favorite. In one sense it is because . . . After I finished writing that thing, I stayed away from it for 12 years. It was really disturbing. And then I went back to it, and I was just delighted because in Last Exit I was struggling so hard to learn how to write. Oh, God, I can't describe to you the pain and torture, every night for six years trying to learn how to write. And so I'm so involved in it I can't see what I'm learning. But in re-reading The Room all those years later, I could see so clearly how in Last Exit I had learned how to write. Because I learned how to put down a simple line—that is so simple and so obvious that hopefully contains a certain degree of profundity.
RC: So you were really channelling that creative will through you in a much easier way.
HS: I had acquired tools and techniques that I could utilize whenever the need arose. I could see that, when I re-read The Room. I think it's a remarkable book. I really do.
RC: I agree with you. What's incredible about that book is that it has a real minimal beauty to it. The setting is a single room. The characters are just one person. The dialogue is a monologue. Were those intentional things, or was that just something that evolved?
HS: Well, the basic premise of the book was totally musical: Variations on a theme. And I wanted it just as simple, as simple, as simple as possible.
RC: Was there any particular thing that inspired that idea, that concept, to create a sort of minimal masterpiece?
HS: It grew out of a story called "The Sound." I don't know if you remember that story or not.
RC: Is that in Song of the Silent Snow?
HS: Yeah. A guy is locked in a cell, and he hears a strange noise, and he's looking out and he becomes scared and so forth. Turns out he's having DTs. But that's where that originated. That was the germ of the idea for The Room.
RC: I understand that you were actually locked up for a month.
HS: Yeah. That's where those both come from.
RC: Was that the germ for the short story then?
HS: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I wrote that in jail. I was in solitary a month, and then I was in population for a month.
RC: Why did they put you in solitary? Because you were detoxing?
HS: Yeah. And because . . . This wasn't solitary like in the hole. This was, you know—A Single Occupancy Room—a SRO! [Laughs uproariously] Because of my tubercular history, I was put in isolation, I guess. So I had this single room occupancy cell. [Laughs]
RC: One of the most incredible passages for me in your writing, and I believe it's in Requiem for a Dream, is when everybody's hanging out in a morgue. And it's also one of the most musical passages. Everything sort of slows down, into a kind of vegetative consciousness, and everyone's kind of merged in this very sticky, gluey way. Was that something that came out of direct personal experience?
HS: No. Well, I guess everything comes out of our experience in some way . . .
RC: The setting did not come out of experience, but the experience of using heroin obviously influenced you there?
HS: Yeah; oh sure. Yeah, that sedative approach to life. [Laughs]
RC: My astrologer friends have made me promise to ask you if you know what time you were born.
HS: Oh, dear; I don't know. I think it was something like 11 a.m. And that would be New York time. But I'm not certain about that.
RC: I remember reading—maybe somewhere in the Village Voice, years ago—that you actually at one point, in desperation, because of your health, that you did turn to astrology. Is that true or not?
HS: No. No, what happened was, when I was very young we lived in a luxury building; my father was the super. 59 West 12th. Across the street from where the New School is now. It wasn't there at the time. But it was a luxury building. And there was an older lady in there that really took a liking to me. I was maybe three years old when we lived in there. And she had my horoscope drawn up by somebody that I've been told is a very famous astrologer—Alan Leo.
RC: Yeah, he was one of the older generation.
HS: Yeah, I guess he would be, because this was maybe '31 or '32 that it was drawn up. And what happened is, many, many years later, I found, I came across this; I had it, and I read it. So, I never had one made up.
RC: Was it interesting? Was it accurate at all?
HS: Well, yeah, there are some interesting things. Like: "stay away, be careful about going to sea," and stuff like that. [Laughs]
RC: Really, he said that!?
HS: Yeah! [Laughs] "Be careful of things like alcohol and drugs." And you know, "You might want to look into the arts." Things like that.
RC: Actually, he's a very respected astrologer. And he's published quite a bit.
HS: Yeah. But it doesn't say on there about what time I was born.
RC: Going back to what we started off with in the interview, one thing I wanted to ask you: Obviously you're a spiritual man, and you've developed a spiritual philosophy that comes out of spiritual experience. Was there a point in your life when that started to happen? I mean, was there something in particular that happened?
HS: Well, boy . . . You know, when you start looking back upon your life, you see it happening all along. But the big thing, the big thing was, thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. And that gave me a chance to get in touch with, shall we say, my own reality, as far as this world is concerned. Very uncomfortable! [Laughs] But that of course was the big thing. But I can look back on things that are just remarkable. We had a little thing called Poetry in Motion out here. We had poetry readings every week, for about four years. And the fun part of it was that each week they'd have a topic. Now just some arbitrary thing. You know, like fashion, passion, terminal cool, it takes one to know one—you know--sports heroes, that kind of stuff? And then you'd write something around this topic. So we had one one time, so I wrote something about it. I wrote a thing about what happened when I was about eighteen years old in the hospital. And what it was, this old guy, Hocus Pocus, he was a little old Estonian guy--we used to kind of make fun of him, 'cause he was a religious man. And he had this very deep affection for this young Greek boy. He was probably still in his teens, too; he was a Greek from Egypt. And he was going for his routine operation. Every three weeks he got another three ribs cut out. It was one of those things. And he went for his first operation, and he didn't come back for a while, and . . . well, anyway, it turned out . . . he died. So this old guy Hocus Pocus was really broken up over this. And one day he came over to my bed and he asked me to write him a letter. Now I never wrote a letter in my life--I didn't know from nothing. And I said yes. I guess I was just moved by his need. So he said he wanted to write a letter to Alex's--that was the boy's name--Alex's parents, and say he was a good boy, and we're sorry. So, I don't know, somehow I wrote a letter, and it met with his liking. And we mailed it. And then we got a reply back. And the parents said they were so happy to hear from us, and that sort of thing. And they exchanged a few letters. And then I realized, as I was writing this--and I wrote this forty years after the fact--that first, in the story itself, I say, Why did this guy ask me to do this? There were plenty of people in this ward who were better qualified--everybody was better qualified than I was. In addition to that, they had Gray Ladies there, social service, anybody . . . But he asked me. And the conclusion I came up with--and this only happened as I'm writing (see, that's why I say I don't know what I have to give, until I'm in the process of giving it away)--so, as I'm writing this thing, on the paper it says, Because I was in more need of the miracle he was offering than anybody else. And because I had said yes to life, I found out that I always have within me the infinite resources necessary to fulfill my responsibility at the moment. And what he was giving me was the gift of love. The gift that I could love. And then later on, I realized--and again, this is maybe forty-two years after the fact--that is where I made the decision to be a writer. Now I know that absolutely. Now, I may be talking about a spiritual decision. But that is where it really originated. I said yes to writing a letter.
RC: So, in a sense, this is your spiritual raison d'etre, what you're doing.
HS: I believe so. But see, the first thing I believe I mentioned was that he gave me the gift of love. That's the first thing I recognized. The gift of love. That I could commit a loving act. And that was vitally important to me, because I thought I was the lowest form of animal life in the world. I was totally incapable of loving. And I wanted to be loving more than anything--more than I wanted life itself. And it tortured me.
RC: It sounds like you were very torn between these two polarities that were somehow personified by both your parents. Is that correct?
HS: Well, yeah, I guess personified by them. But it was my own judgments that really tortured me. I always felt that way, all my life. I just . . . and there's no reason for it, no reason in fact . . . I just thought I was evil.
RC: And you don't know why?
HS: No. Just . . . the way it is.
RC: You know, when we read things about you, writers always sort of draw this vertical line: Before the illness; after the illness. Do you feel that? Or do you feel something else that is a continuity, that is not separated in that way. I mean, did it fundamentally change you?
HS: Oh, yeah. Well, yes, absolutely.
RC: Your soul?
HS: Well, no; I don't think it changed my soul. But it certainly changed my perception of it. And it changed my perception of my place in this world. See, I had no education, I left home at fifteen. And when I was a kid, I was a very physical kid. I was maybe six feet tall; 170 pounds. I was just a physical kid. And now, all of a sudden, I have all these ribs [removed] . . . I'm just devastated. The physical world is no longer my friend. I can't function in the physical world. And I am terrified. Now let me tell you something I just remembered that's indicative of the opinion I had of myself. When I was finally brought back to this country, they said I was going to die. They didn't tell me, they told my mother. And they had me in this little, itty-bitty room. It was just big enough for the bed. They just stick you in there to die. And when I was in there I couldn't lie down, I had to sit up in bed all the time, because I couldn't breath. And it was like, I gasped for air; you know, I just . . . always gasping. And I remember so clearly the thought that just went through my head. It was: God put me here in order to atone for all my sins. Now, what in the hell kind of an opinion did I have of me?
RC: Where did that come from?
HS: Don't ask me! But that's the opinion I had of me. And I told this to a shrink once. And then he says, Well, what did you do that was so terrible you deserved to die like that at the age of eighteen? And I lay there a while [Laughs]--I had no answer! Finally--this is so insane, when I think about--the only answer I could come up with after many minutes of thinking was: I quit school. Now, isn't that insane?! That's the kind of thing I'm working with internally! [Laughs] I quit school. But in a sense, I mean, if you know the whole background, it does make a little sense. Because my parents wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to go to school, get a good job, and so forth. And I left school. And that hurt them. So in a sense, it does make some sense. But still--that's really crazy.
RC: Could it have been reflective of the fact that unbeknownst to you at that time there was a real, higher self trying to work its way through you . . .
HS: You mean like maybe when I thought I was locked in hell I was at the gates of heaven? [Laughs]
RC: Well, maybe! What I was thinking of is . . . I consider you to be the greatest living American writer . . .
HS: Oh, thank you.
RC: . . . and a lot of other people feel that way, too. And at 18, there was probably something in you that also realized that, but that had not yet worked its way into your conscious mind. And perhaps quitting school was somehow a symbol of this fear that that might not come through somehow. That higher self might not incarnate somehow.
HS: I never thought of it along those lines.That's quite possible, isn't it? I never thought of it that way. But I think it was the quitting school--in other words, the sink or swim syndrome. I had no resource, no recourse, no nothing. You're going to either write or die. But I suspect the moral aspect from my point of view was more important. The fact that inside of myself, I knew I hurt my parents by leaving school.
RC: And you also describe yourself as being a very empathetic child, and adult as well. And this is what I get, even when I read Last Exit, which as you've said somewhere else, you said something like: There's no light in this book. And the reader is forced to turn to his own light, you know, inside. There's no relief in that book. Except for maybe that story, "And Baby Makes Three"--which I think is a fun story!
HS: [Laughs] Well yeah. And that was there just for that reason. I put it right there just because I had the sense that if I don't change the tempo of the music, that the rest can start to become a monotone and lose its power.
RC: I see. But in Last Exit, there's an authorial presence, your presence is in the book, and we feel it during those brief moments of empathy when Georgette imagines a different world. And there are other characters in other moments in that book when that occurs. Is that an intentional part of what you tried to do in Last Exit? Or was that you just who you are "leaking" into the book?
HS: Well, it must just be leaking, because I never wanted me to be in there in any way whatsoever. But as I said, I put the reader through an emotional experience--I have to write from the inside out. And it seemed absolutely essential that that romantic image that can be so lyrical within Georgie, at the same time so deadly, be expressed.
RC: What did the guys in Brooklyn think when you published Last Exit? Did any of them read it?
HS: Well, a couple of them read at least part of Last Exit. And . . . [Imitating a Brooklyn accent]: "Say man, this ain't the way it was!" [Laughs]
RC: They said that!?
HS: Yeah, they all said the same thing! [Laughs]
RC: Were they just giving you a hard time?
HS: No, no! It's just, you know--poetic licence! I mean, it's based on my experiences in life, but--"It's not the way it happened." [Laughs]
RC: Were any of the stories in Last Exit actually things that happened a little bit that were exaggerated?
HS: Well, yeah. A little bit. "And Baby Makes Three," it was kind of . . . that sort of happened. At least part of it.There was a time when somebody was fucking around with a knife and stabbed Georgie.
RC: So Georgie really existed?
HS: Oh, yeah. Georgie's very real. "Tralala"; there was a person named Tralala. I never saw her. But that's the only connection with reality, is the name . . .
RC: Two last things that pop into my head--let me throw these out at you. Why is there so much homosexuality--you know, drag queens--in Last Exit? Why does it happen so frequently? And the other question I wanted to ask you: You were talking about how you felt, like you were at the bottom rung of humanity. How do you feel about yourself now?
HS: Oh, I've come to terms with all that. Mostly by correcting the errors I've made on the outside; doing all I can to compensate for any pain and misery I've caused people. And through these experiences that we've talked about . . . I get a greater glimmer of my reality. So I just don't believe the lies that go through my head anymore. And the homosexuality really stems from just Georgie, for one thing. And there is this connection through it, so that the guy in "Strike" is actually going out with people that were introduced to him through Georgie. So that's just the thread. It just starts with Georgie, who's just a neighborhood kid. And then he brings around some of the others, and that kind of thing. Also, you must remember that most of these guys that we're talking about here, writing about, had been in the joint for a while. So, fucking young boys in the ass is S.O.P. [Standard Operational Procedure.]
RC: [Laughs] That's true. Because you do even use the word "con" at some point in the book; you say "a bunch of cons." And someone "had never hung out with cons before," one of the girls.
HS: Yeah, right. I remember once seeing a couple--two males--on a subway, many years ago. And this one guy had the real typical Irish ex-con look. And he was big. And he just had that look. And he had this frail looking little guy with him, and they were holding hands, you know--but nobody was going say anything! [Laughs]
RC: And what was the origin of "Psalm 16"? What gave you . . . because I think that's got to be one of your most incredible short pieces. I was telling my friends that when I die, I want the priest to read this at my funeral!
HS: [Laughs] Really? Well, that was those poetry readings I was telling you about. And the theme one night was "Song of Forgiveness." And this is what I ended up writing. A song of forgiveness. I'll tell you something interesting about that. I sent a copy to my mother and . . . she was still ambulatory at the time, so it must have been like maybe ten years ago. And she showed it to her pastor, in her church. And he wrote to me asking if he could have a copy of it to use. He said, "I never read religious literature because it's just too easy. But you ask hard questions." So [Laughs] . . . he was fascinated by it.
RC: That's an amazing little story. Of course he'll probably never read it at the church, but still, it's a great story! I was reading Van Gogh's letters the other day, and noticed that Vincent sent a copy of one of his sermons to his brother, Theo.
HS: Yeah, Vincent was a preacher up there, in the Belgian coal mines, for a while. He was a religious fanatic. He just couldn't come to terms with it. You know, God is love--and look at the suffering. Who can come to terms with that?
RC: I guess it's one of those questions that will always haunt mankind.
HS: Yeah, as long as we have that personalized God.
Thanks to Joseph Krausman for providing the following notes and information:
1. Josephine Hendin wrote The World of Flannery O'Connor and Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945.
2. Dotson Rader is an author, columnist and interviewer. He wrote books on Truman Capote and Tenessee Williams.
3. A "Gray Lady" was a Red Cross volunteer who provided non-professional services. They got their names from the gray uniforms that they wore.