One might say gay author Edmund White’s 80th birthday celebration began last year. In the spring, ITNA Press published Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, a scintillating compendium of essays, which together create a comprehensive biography of the iconic writer’s adventurous literary life.
And in November, the National Book Foundation honored Edmund White with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Most writers don’t set out to break barriers or trail blaze, but rather to share their unique perspectives and stories on the page,” said executive director Lisa Lucas. She added that by looking at the body of work, one sees his career as “revolutionary and vital, making legible for scores of readers the people, moments and history that would come to define not only queer lives, but also the broader trajectory of American culture.”
I first met Edmund White in October 1997 when he was a guest of Amsterdam’s John Adams Institute, sharing the podium with another gay author, David Leavitt. I had read books by Leavitt but must admit I only knew of White by name and reputation. However, I had a strong feeling an interview with the pair could provide excellent material for the pilot of a new series I had pitched to Radio Netherlands.
Allow me a personal digression. This was a critical point in my life. I had only just returned to work after a nine-month “sabbatical.” Okay. Full disclosure. I was on medical leave battling severe depression, with little certainty I would ever work again. But the fog suddenly lifted and I came back with renewed creative energy. Although I was up for the challenge of a weekly documentary-style art, culture, and history program called Aural Tapestry, my bosses were not so sure. Hence, the request for a pilot.
I didn’t have a great deal of preparation time, so I dove into White’s latest novel, The Farewell Symphony, which I thought was magnificent. I also read his groundbreaking 1982 novel, A Boy’s Own Story, which I found somewhat less appealing—I had little in common with his young protagonist. No matter. What interested me most were the autobiographical fiction elements in both books, as well as the different approaches taken by White and Leavitt writing about AIDS.
The program In Conversation with Edmund White and David Leavitt (click on the unwieldy title for audio via Radio Netherlands Archives) surpassed my greatest expectations. Not only did it green-light the series Aural Tapestry, it also won the Seigenthaler Excellence in Radio Journalism Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. I shared the news with White five years later when he returned to Amsterdam to promote two non-fiction books: his short biography Marcel Proust and The Flâneur : A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, which yielded a second, more musical radio program—simply called The Flâneur. (Again, click on the title for audio via Radio Netherlands Archives.)
The next time I bumped into Edmund White he was moderating a panel of debut authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival in the Fall of 2011. I was struck by his encouraging support of the three young writers. Afterward I said hello, mentioning we had met twice in Amsterdam. With his usual warm charm, he said he remembered—though I wasn’t sure I believed him. Writers meet many easily forgotten journalists. But the panel had inspired me. A year after being pushed into early retirement, doing little since but traveling to places like New Orleans and Croatia, Venice and New York, wasn’t it time to get back to my creative side? Back in Amsterdam a month later, I sat down and began writing my first novel.
Fast forward to Spring 2014. I’m at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans sitting in on a memoir master class with—yes—Edmund White. I’m furiously taking notes on all he says because, although I’m not sure yet what it will be about, I’m certain my next book will have autobiographical elements, just like my debut psychological thriller, Calvin’s Head, which is due out in six months. When I tell White this news, he seems genuinely excited for me—whether he remembers our previous meetings or not. And a year later we will meet again at the Lambda Literary Awards where we are both Finalists, albeit in different categories: his Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris in the Memoir category and my Calvin’s Head in the Gay Mystery category. Our literary intersections appear to have come full circle.
Personal Essay as Biography
If my musings here seem as much (if not more) focused on me as they are on the esteemed author Edmund White, perhaps it is because just yesterday I finished reading the essays in Crashing Cathedrals. Whether one is a fan of White’s work or never heard of him (as a well-read former radio colleague told me recently) this is a fascinating, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking collection. Although the format is fairly straightforward—covering each of White’s books in chronological order—what emerges is so much more than the proverbial sum of its parts.
By so carefully choosing who writes about which books, skillful editor Tom Cardamone has created not only an in-depth biography of Edmund White. On another level, he has put together a biographical chorus of the queer literary community. The voices are all compelling, whether established authors or academics, students or journalists, friends or lovers. As I read each piece, I couldn’t help thinking about my own literary life. Where was I then? When did I read that? What did I miss there? Why did this inspire me? Who am I as a writer?
I look forward to meeting Edmund White again in the spring when we return to New Orleans for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.