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 started to write something on Saturday, my birthday. Out-of-town guests arrived earlier than anticipated so I set it aside. Distractions of a football nature took over on Sunday, Monday went missing, and yesterday became yesterday. So here I am, four days later, beginning again. We do a lot of that, don’t we? Starting over, beginning again. Well, I do. And I know what I might’ve written then, won’t be what I write today – even if I include the opening paragraphs here:
On my fourth birthday, I wore my Davy Crockett T-shirt. I was King of the Wild Frontier and mom made me a cake shaped like an old train. Five years later I had a costume pirate party, and mom made a pirate ship cake. Clearly my imagination took me on adventures to far-flung places from a very young age.
When I was eleven I wrote and performed a school play about Roland, a medieval pageboy who saved the castle from marauding invaders. During summer vacation, by day I’d mow the lawn dreaming I was Huckleberry Finn on a river raft. And when the stars came out at night I’d take a spaceship to Mars with Ray Bradbury.
“What do you write?”
A simple question, and the first most people ask when you tell them you’re a writer. Crime fiction, I say. But they usually want to know more. That’s where it can get tricky. From the start, I called my first book a psychological thriller. It’s how I pitched it to agents a couple years ago. After hearing the plot, one asked me, “Are the main characters gay?” “All of them except the dog,” I said. Her quick forced smile told me she was neither amused nor interested. I moved on.
Should I have said upfront it was a gay thriller? Was the gay aspect a reason another agent expressed concern about “our ability to sell this work”? As I thought about it, gay protagonists did seem a rarity in current mainstream crime fiction. In Jonathan Kellerman’s popular Alex Delaware series, the gay cop is almost a sidekick. What about other genres? And next I’m shifting gears with a ghost story, but the same main character. Switching genres within a series and a gay hero? Was I insane?
Walt Whitman would be delighted with all the attention paid to him on his birthday. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if he were alive today, he’d blog more often than Neil Gaiman, post more selfies than James Franco, and have more Twitter followers than Lady Gaga. Years ago when I visited Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey – now a museum – then curator Margaret O’Neill told me the poet was very concerned with how he would be remembered. So much so, he spent over $4000 on a memorial tomb that he designed for himself. (By today’s standard, around a million dollars.)
I came to Whitman’s poetry late – Dead Poets Society late. But more so ten years later when I read Gary Schmidgall’s biography Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. I made a two-part radio program featuring the author and my visit to the poet’s home. Since then, his poetry has often infused my work. But to be honest, I’ve never been able to sit down and read my battered 500-page copy of his epic life’s work Leaves of Grass from beginning to end.
Inn at Whitefield
The northern New Hampshire inn where I’m spending the summer is haunted. I’ve not seen any first-hand evidence. But others report a recurring manifestation of dead flies in certain rooms; mysterious whistling in the kitchen; sudden loud knocks or extreme drops in temperature. A child played with an unseen friend. The dog refused to climb the Tower stairs. Oh, yes. A Tower. Any of these occurrences on their own might be explained. Put them all together? You don’t need to be Einstein to figure out the setting of my next book.
So one of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival panels that grabbed my attention was The Devil You Don’t Know: Otherworldly Forces in Fiction.