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Novelist Edmund White Completes His Autobiographical Trilogy of Novels.

Novelist Edmund White has just completed his semi-autobiographical trilogy. The new novel The Farewell Symphony (Knopf) focuses on gay life from the 1960’s to the present. His other books include A Boy’s Own Story,The Beautiful Room is Empty,Genet: A Biography, Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, The Joy of Gay Sex, and Caracole.


Other segments from the episode on September 9, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 9, 1997: Interview with Edmund White; Commentary on the spelling of the word millennium.


Date: SEPTEMBER 09, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090901np.217
Head: The Farewell Symphony
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Edmund White is an acclaimed novelist. He won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his biography of Jean Genet. White is also one of the most eloquent and perceptive chroniclers of gay life in America. His new book, "The Farewell Symphony," completes his trilogy of autobiographical novels.

The book is narrated by a writer who has outlived most of his gay friends. He's looking back on the '70s -- the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era -- when he and his friends took full advantage of the gay night life and its bars, discos, and backrooms.

The Farewell Symphony also tells the story of how the character became a writer. The novel opens in the present, just after his lover of five years has died from AIDS.

Be advised that we're going to have an adult conversation about sexuality. I asked Ed White to describe how this new novel fits into the trilogy.

EDMUND WHITE, AUTHOR, "THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY": Well, the first book, "A Boy's Own Story," which was published in 1982, followed the narrator's life up to age 16 and took place in the 1950s in the Midwest, and was very much a story about a boy trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in a totally repressive era.

The second book, "The Beautiful Room is Empty," which was published in 1988, follows the narrator through college and up until age 28, and the beginning of gay liberation with the Stonewall uprising. And it's very much about his trying to be psychoanalyzed; trying to go straight; and wrestling with all the questions of sexuality.

In The Farewell Symphony, the form of it is a bit strange in the sense that it begins in the present with the narrator mourning the recent death of his French lover from AIDS. And then it cuts back to the late '60s to pick up where the last book left off, and concentrates mainly on the 1970s and the pre-AIDS period of sexual liberation.

I think someplace in the book I say: "never was a culture put on such a rapid cycle of oppressed in the '50s, liberated in the '60s, exalted in the '70s, and wiped out in the '80s." And so I think that that's something of what I wanted to show, is this -- in the whole trilogy -- is this extremely rapid evolution.

GROSS: As you were saying, you and your main character both have looked back at this era from the perspective of knowing that many of the people you knew during the '70s have died of AIDS. And also from the perspective of mourning your lover who you were together with for five years -- a lover who died of AIDS.

Isn't that death affecting how you see the '70s when you look back on that period?

WHITE: I tried to keep that out. I mean, in other words, one of the things I wanted to show was the '70s as it felt when we were living through it, not from a moralistic '80s or '90s point of view. In other words, it seems to me that a lot of people are -- have been critical of the '70s and of the era of promiscuity. And they act as though it was almost a natural result that so much sexual activity would have necessarily have led to doom.

But I don't believe that at all, and I tried to show that -- that the '70s was in its own way a very idealistic period, not just as hedonistic one, but one in which people really, especially gays, but also I think many feminists, were trying to get beyond traditional coupling and marriage, and were trying to have more extended patterns of relationship with other people.

And that's something I find attractive and interesting, and I can imagine that if the AIDS virus is ever licked, that the gay community might easily go back to that.

GROSS: You write in the new book that what the Stonewall uprising changed was not love so much as self-esteem, on which mutual love depends. And I'm wondering how you think that sense of adventurous sex with many partners fits into the idea of self-esteem?

WHITE: Well, I mean, I think it's a double-edged sword. I mean, I think that oftentimes -- I think at another point in the book, I say a life entirely devoted to pleasure can be melancholy. And I think that's true, too -- that if you're really a short-range hedonist in the sense that you're out looking for another sexual adventure every night that there -- that eventually you feel sort of lonely and perhaps unfulfilled.

But on the other hand, I also try to show that a lot of the so-called anonymous sex is something that people haven't really very well understood, who are looking at it from the outside; that some of the most intense and even romantic nights that I ever passed were passed with people whose name I might not have known.

And I -- I think I mention in the book something that is in fact a true thing that I got -- I got a couple of CDs recently from a black singer who's since then become very famous. And he said: "I just wanted to send you these records in memory of a perfect night that we spent together 25 years ago."

And it's true -- we only spent one night together. Neither of us ever forgot it. He sent me the records and I was very touched. And I think that people have a hard time sometimes imagining that those encounters can be very intense and very, very real.

GROSS: There's a passage I'd like you to read from The Farewell Symphony that is about the period and about that sense of sexual mania of the period.

WHITE: Sure.

"We equated sexual freedom with freedom itself. Hadn't the Stonewall uprising itself been the defense of a cruising place? The newer generation might speak of 'gay culture,' but those of us 30 or older knew the only right we wanted to protect was the right to have as many sexual encounters as possible. 'Promiscuity,' a word we objected to since it suggested libertinage, and that we wanted to replace with the neutral word 'adventuring,' was something outsiders might imagine would wear thin soon enough."

"We didn't agree. The fire was in our blood. The more we scratched, the more we itched -- except we would never have considered our desire a form of moral eczema. For us, there was nothing more natural than wandering into a park, a parked truck, or a back room, and plundering body after body."

"There had been no radical break with the past. We had all heard about the orgies in the Navy during World War II. But at least since I'd first come on the scene in the 1950s, three things had changed: in New York City, the cops weren't closing down our bars anymore or harassing us if we held hands on the street. We now had a slogan that said 'gay is good' and we'd stopped seeing shrinks in order to go straight. And there were more and more -- millions more -- gay men with leather jackets and gym-built bodies and low voices and good jobs."

"We used to think we were rare birds. Now, the statistics said that one out of every four men in Manhattan was homosexual. When we marched up Fifth Avenue every June, there were hundreds of thousands of gay men and women, many of them freaks, but the bulk of them the regular kind of people we liked. These were the kinds of guys I had sex with several times every week. If I had sex, say, with an average of three different partners a week from 1962 to 1982 in New York, then that means I fooled around with 3,120 men during my 20 years there."

"The funny thing is that I always felt deprived, as though all the other fellows must be having more sex than I. A gay shrink once told me that that was the single most common complaint he heard from his patients, even from the real satyrs: they weren't getting as much sex as the next guy."

"I was so incapable of fitting my behavior into any general pattern that I would exclaim, aghast: 'You know, Liz has been married five times.' If my marriages had been legal, they would have been legion.'"

"Nor did all this sex preclude intimacy. For those who never lived through that period, and most of those who did are dead, the phrase 'anonymous sex' might suggest unfeeling sex, devoid of emotion. And yet, as I can attest, to hole up in a room at the baths with a body, after having opened it up and wrung it dry; to lie head propped on a guy's stomach, just where the tan line bisects it, smoke a cigarette, and talk to him late into the night and early into the morning about your childhood, his unhappiness in love, your money worries, his plans for the future -- well, nothing is more personal, more emotional."

"Of course, the sermons I preached against love and jealousy were all the more absurd because I was so besotted by Kevin. I wanted to be his wife in the most straight-laced of marriages."

GROSS: I think that last line gets to exactly the kind of contradiction that I think runs through the book, you know? Because every -- so many of the impulses in this book seem to have contradictory impulses sitting right next to them. And this passage you read is really in praise of multiple partners, but then the character is also really yearning for that one person.

WHITE: I always felt that in -- yeah, I've always felt that in myself, that when people -- whenever I've had to write something about monogamy or marriage, I've always railed against it. It sort of wells up within me. And yet, I -- it seems to me I've spent most of my life living with a single lover.

So it is very contradictory, and I think most of my affairs, at least since the 1980s, have been extremely happy.

GROSS: So, how do you explain that contradiction?

WHITE: I think that there's something in me that doesn't want gay life to be simply an imitation of straight life. I think that I probably originally chose gay life -- well, that's absurd because I don't think anybody chooses gay life -- but let's say from the very beginning, gay life was twinned in my own mind with freedom -- freedom from my parents; freedom from middle-class conventions; from the Midwest of my childhood.

I remember when my father used to come visit me in college. The minute he would leave, I would run out and try to pickup somebody. I mean, it was like I had to have an antidote to this heavy, dull, bourgeois world that he represented.

GROSS: What reactions have you been getting from people when the character says, and this is a pretty autobiographical novel, when the character says he estimates he had about 3,120 different partners over a 20-year period.

WHITE: Pat Califio (ph)...

GROSS: What's that?

WHITE: ... Pat Califio, the lesbian writer who interviewed me for "POZ" (ph) magazine, which is the magazine for people who are positive, she said: "I find that a rather conservative estimate."

And I think what she meant is that it's true that somebody who was in his 20s and 30s in the '60s and '70s living in New York City and who wasn't in a relationship, a monogamous or exclusive relationship, probably -- and who was reasonably good looking -- certainly probably had a lot more sex than that, in the sense that you could go to the baths and have sex with 10 people in a row if you wanted to, and many people did two or three times a week.

So -- and not to mention all the encounters on the street. I don't know -- I think it was -- I mean, I always feel that gay life can always be explained -- gay male life can be explained by the fact that you're dealing with all men. In other words, men aren't interacting with women's expectations, but men are finally having as much sex as they would all like to have, whether they're straight or gay.

GROSS: Do you believe that? Do you believe that most men, if given the chance, would want to have 3,000 partners in a 20-year period?

WHITE: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I think Georges Semineaux (ph), the heterosexual writer, claimed he had sex with 15,000 women in his life, and his wife, when he died, said that's rubbish. He only had sex with 10,000. But I think that, you know -- and Don Giovanni says "1,003 and in Spain only."


"Mille et tres." (ph). So I do think that -- I've often times had heterosexual male friends of mine say "God, you guys are so lucky." Of course, that was in the pre-AIDS period that they would say that.

GROSS: I'm wondering if that's true, though -- if it's only, like, the conventions of bourgeois morality or the conventions of women who are, you know, shackling men to marriage and children -- if that's the only explanation for the fact that more men are having more relationships.

WHITE: I mean, I think the truth is is that heterosexual men are trained from the very beginning, sexually, to interact with women. For instance, I've been to bed with a few heterosexual men in my life, and they were so incredibly gentle that I couldn't figure out what the heck they were doing. I mean, it's a -- and then I realized they must think they have to warm me up the way they have to warm up women, or that they have to be very gentle and romantic, which is not at all the way men are with each other.

You know, in other words, I think that a heterosexual man, all of his sexual experiences normally are with a woman, and he's trained to meet women's expectations from the very beginning. And whereas gay men -- you have a kind of laboratory, pure example of what men would be like if they weren't interacting with women.

And I think same thing with lesbians -- that you have -- you know, I mean, they say that -- I think Pepper Schwartz (ph) did a book about gay male couples, lesbian couples, and straight couples, and she found that if you take those three groups in roughly the same age group, let's say in their early 30s, that the gay men couples will have sex three times a week, the straight couple twice a week, and the lesbian couple once a week.

So in other words, I think heterosexuality can be seen as a compromise between female and male expectations.

GROSS: Hmm. That's an interesting way of seeing it.

My guest is Ed White. His new semi-autobiographical -- shall we call it autobiographical novel? Or semi-autobiographical novel?

WHITE: Well, I mean the book plays back and forth across that boundary. I mean, the other day somebody said to me: "why don't you just call his a memoir?" And I said: "well, I just read to you a passage which was so full of specific descriptions of the way people look and act and move, that you would have laughed if I told you that was actually a memoir because you would have known that I couldn't possibly have remembered everything in such concrete detail."

Obviously, there's a lot of invention going on -- a lot of touching up of memories. I think that what a novelist can bring to a book like this is the sense of pace that does make you want to read on, even through a very long book.

GROSS: So are we going for "semi-autobiographical novel?"



GROSS: Is that...

WHITE: That's good enough.


WHITE: That's good enough for me.

GROSS: OK. And the novel is called The Farewell Symphony.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Ed White, and his new novel is called The Farewell Symphony.

I'm saying that I thought there were a lot of contradictions in the book -- contradictions in your character; intentional contradictions. I mean, intentional on the part of the author...

WHITE: Yeah, right.

GROSS: ... (Unintelligible) on the part of the character. But you know, this character is, as you are, an intellectual, an aesthete -- someone who has a great sense of refinement when it comes to language. But the character says that he put aside his whole middle class manner when making love. And I'm wondering if you felt that you had to create a different self for your sexual life?

WHITE: Well you know, I think that was, for me, one of the revelations when I moved to France in 1983 was that I realized that -- that there were other images for male sexuality rather than just working class or macho or tough guy or cowboy or all these other images that Americans had. I mean, I think it's very hard for Americans, whether they're heterosexual or homosexual, to think of a businessman or an intellectual or a pianist as being sexy.

I think some women probably do, but I think gay men, at least, have always favored -- in the English-speaking world -- have always favored working class images. It goes back to the time of Oscar Wilde. People always liked "rough trade," as they call it.

But I think once I moved to the continent, I had a different image of what was sexy, and that that included refinement or intelligence. But I think that definitely was a contradiction. And one of the things I wanted to show in the book was that gay life in the 1970s in New York was at one and the same time, very, very sexy and raunchy, with people going down to the trucks and back rooms and bars and saunas.

And at the same time, it was very brainy. I think one of the things that's passed out of gay life now is the feeling that in order to be a member of the club, you needed to be cultured or intellectual. But in those days, maybe it was a transitional period, but there was the new development of clone culture in a place like New York, which means everybody wearing leather jackets and having a mustache and trying to be very macho.

But there was also a hangover from an earlier period, when gays felt that they needed to have an opinion about Maria Callas and they needed to have read Nietzsche and they needed to, in general, have traveled to Europe, be intellectual and refined.

And what I try to show in the book is this radical juxtaposition -- the way that almost as in a collage, these elements would be slapped down side-by-side with almost no transition.

GROSS: Was -- was there something in your life that kind of ended that period of sexual adventurousness? Is there -- was there a kind of period at the end of that or a slow change away from that?

WHITE: Well, I think what happened was in 1982, I stopped drinking and I -- in 1983 -- in 1982, A Boy's Own Story came out and I suddenly became much better known than I'd ever been. And I moved to France in 1983, and I was 43 years old at that point. And I think that a lot of things happened. I was suddenly in a different culture where I didn't quite understand the ropes so well. I was beginning to become middle-aged and I was a little better known.

I mean, just everything seemed to me different and I think -- and then AIDS had set in, too, because AIDS made its first appearance in '81. I didn't find out I was positive until '85, which was when the tests were first available, but I suspected I was positive.

So suddenly, sex had become frightening, too. It's very hard for me to separate out how much being middle-aged contributed to a slowing down of my sexual adventurousness and how much AIDS did. But I imagine it was something of both.

GROSS: In the passage that you read a little earlier in our talk, it opened with a line "we equated sexual freedom with freedom itself." Looking back, do you think that that was the right -- I mean, do you think that sexual freedom was freedom itself?

WHITE: Well, I mean, it's not a question of right or wrong. One of the things I was trying to do is I feel like there's been a tremendous amount of revisionism in the gay movement in recent years; that people have wanted to act as though there was some mystical sense of gay community or of gay culture that was what we always prized from the very beginning.

And I don't think that's true. I think that even for lesbians, but especially for gay men, that what was really important was meeting other gay people in order to have sex or a romance. Because the truth is that we didn't have much sense of gay solidarity until Stonewall, and in the pre-Stonewall period, the one thing we were always fighting for was just a chance to meet each other.

GROSS: Ed White -- his new novel is called The Farewell Symphony.

We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Edmund White. His new book, The Farewell Symphony, completes his trilogy of autobiographical novels chronicling gay life in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

The Farewell Symphony opens in the present as the narrator mourns the loss of his lover who has died of AIDS. Then, the narrator looks back on the '70s -- the most sexually adventurous period of his life and the period when he became a writer.

Ed, you've described writers as being "professional exhibitionists" and I guess that's particularly true, you could say, of memoirists or writers of autobiographical novels. And -- in fact, let me read a short passage from your novel The Farewell Symphony:

"I wanted to define myself as my father's opposite. Where he was tight-fisted, I'd be generous. Where he was intent on preserving his reputation as an upstanding citizen and moral paragon among people to whom he was entirely indifferent, I would lay myself bare in full public view through my exhibitionistic writing."

Do you feel like your writing was in some sense done in opposition to your father?

WHITE: Definitely. I mean, from the very beginning. My father was always very embarrassed by my writing, and although he didn't know much about it, because my stepmother would tear out of his newspapers articles about me or ads for my books. So, she was sort of practicing a kind of censorship so that he wouldn't be driven wild by it.

But I mean, I think that I felt that he was a hypocrite, and for no very good reason, because he didn't even care about the people whose opinion he seemed to be courting. I mean, he was a really deep, deeply misanthropic person who was genuinely indifferent to other people, and who only liked to associate with people who were his employees, whom he could completely control.

And yet, he had this sort of almost abstract sense of propriety that he was always bowing to. And he once said to me: "the only mistake I ever made in my life was divorcing your mother." And I said: "oh, why? Because you were still in love with her?" He said: "no, no -- because it was my only moral flaw." 'Cause he thought divorce itself was a moral flaw.

But that's the way he thought, and I thought all that was absurd. And I always wanted to -- and from the very beginning -- I mean, the first novel I ever wrote I wrote when I was 14 years old, and it was called The Tower Window. And it was all about coming out as a gay person. I mean, which is pretty extraordinary if you think about it. I mean, somebody in 1954 sitting in his dorm room at his boarding school writing a gay novel, when there weren't any other gay novels at that time.

GROSS: You probably weren't even out at that time.

WHITE: I was. I was. I was out, but nobody else was and nobody else was writing about it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WHITE: I mean, I hadn't even -- I mean, I don't think even "Giovanni's Room" had been published yet at that point. So it seems to me like from the very beginning that writing, disclosing, surviving, and being gay were all linked in my mind, from then up 'til now. And sometimes people say to me: "Aren't you a bit obsessed? Why don't you write about other things?" And it is true: I've written two novels in which there are no gay characters, "Forgetting Elena" and "Caracole."

And I am interested in other things and I've written biographies -- I mean, one of Jean Genet. Now I'm writing one of Proust. So, it's not like I'm only obsessed with that.

But on the other hand, I think if was maybe my peculiar destiny to bear witness to my own sexuality which, when I first started writing, felt to me something that was almost freakish and so exceptional as to be totally weird. And then later, as history evolved, I began to feel, instead of being the strangest person, I began to feel like the most representative person of my generation.

GROSS: A book that you wrote early in your career -- well, you co-wrote was "The Joy of Gay Sex" and the character in your book writes a similar book and coauthors it with a psychologist who happens to be the character's psychologist, so they have to end their therapy relationship when they start co-authoring the book.

Was Charles Silverstein, who co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex with you, your therapist before you started writing?

WHITE: Yeah. Mm-hmm. He was.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

WHITE: And it was very odd because the English packagers of The Joy of Gay Sex -- Mitchell Beasley (ph) was the name of the company -- they had tryouts of different writers. I think 10 or 12 of us had to write sample entries, and at that time I was almost totally unknown as a writer, but somebody had recommended me to them. So I was asked to write a sample entry about kissing; about aging; and I can't remember the third.

Anyway, so I wrote these sample entries and they decided that mine were the best and they wanted me. And they said "but of course you're going to be paired up with a professional psychologist, which will lend a kind of authority to the whole enterprise, and his name is Dr. Charles Silverstein."

And I said: "oh my God, that's my shrink." And so then I said to Charles: "what will we do about this?" And he said: "you can either be my patient or you can be my collaborator, but you can't be both." Which I thought made perfect sense.

Anyway, I was so broke and I'd already been in therapy for years, so I thought I'd rather -- I'd rather be his collaborator and make the money. Because the whole point of it was to make enough money to support my nephew. And Bertha Harris (ph), who was the coauthor of "The Joy of Lesbian Sex" who had a daughter whom she was sending off to college -- we used to joke that if we were ever on Johnny Carson and he asked us: "why did you two write The Joy of Lesbian Sex and The Joy of Gay Sex, we would say: "in order to support our children."

GROSS: Why did your nephew need your support?

WHITE: Well my sister had divorced her husband, and then she had had some mental problems and so she had lost custody of my nephew to his father, and the father had remarried and anyway things weren't working out, and they decided that he needed help.

So he was put in a hospital, and I just hated the idea of my nephew being in a hospital. And so I got him out, brought him to New York, and then suddenly had to pay for him to be put into a -- into a good private school that was a couple of blocks away from where I lived in the West Side.

And then his little girl friend arrived from the hospital, and she was living with me and I had to put her in a Catholic school. She was a Mexican girl who was used to Catholic schools. And so, suddenly I had these two kids on my hands, and my expenses quadrupled in one year.

So that's why first I got a job working for a chemical company, which was totally farcical. I was doing publicity for them. And secondly, I dropped that job when I got The Joy of Gay Sex.

GROSS: You know, in your novel, the character says that when his sister temporarily became suicidal and had serious mental health problems, he was stunned because he'd always thought of her as the healthy person in the family.

WHITE: Yeah. She was sort of like my hostage to normality because when we were growing up, she seemed to be the one who was athletic; who was popular; who was attractive. And I was the sort of weirdo who was at home improvising on the piano and spending too much time with my mother.

And my sister, I think, was embarrassed by both my mother and me, and would, when she'd bring home dates or eventually her fiance, she would always pose us very carefully. I was supposed to be watching football games on TV...


... and my mother's supposed to be sewing -- something she didn't even know how to do. And it was all just a sort of farce.

So I had always imagined my sister was our kind of hostage to normality, and then all of a sudden, in her early 30s she came out, and it was a very, very painful coming out because she had been married; she had three children; she'd been a sort of pillar of the community. And suddenly, she had to deal with her lesbianism.

And in my egotism and blindness, I sort of imagined: "oh, maybe she's just sort of imitating me." But in fact, it had nothing to do with me. And now that I look back at it, I realize that from the very beginning, she'd only been happy at summer camp when she was with other girls, and always miserable during the winter when she was expected to date men.

And that her marriage had been a very unhappy affair; and that it was really only once she came out that she began to find some peace of mind.

GROSS: Your character says he had a way of shamelessly courting and flattering people, and I'm wondering -- I don't know if you feel that you flatter people, too -- but I'm wondering: if so, what happens when then in a semi-autobiographical novel, you write in a fictionalized way of people who can recognize themselves in the novel and who are written about in a more critical way. Do people turn against you?

WHITE: Well, yes. I mean, I haven't really had any bad responses to this book, which is -- which came out first in England and so it's been around since last May. And I sort of wonder what people are going to think about it, but I haven't really heard from anybody and hadn't -- I think I've sufficiently well-disguised people that it shouldn't bother them.

But on the other hand, I also feel that my biggest defense is the truth. I mean, I feel like I've been as truthful as I've known how to be, and I feel like I've been harsher about myself than I have been about anybody else.

GROSS: Do you feel more of a responsibility to be truthful in fiction than you do in real life?

WHITE: Yes. Yes I definitely do. I mean, there's something -- I mean, I happen to be writing this little book about Proust now and I was interested in seeing that he actually had sort of the same tics that I have only in this one regard, that he was almost unbelievably flattering in his letters to people -- I mean to the point of absurdity -- and in his daily dealings with them.

But of course, very, very harsh and direct in his writing. And that made him many enemies initially, until people realized that in fact they had been immortalized in a masterpiece, and then they all turned around and wrote memoirs about "my great friend Marcel Proust."


GROSS: Oh, right. In a recent essay, you wrote that you were worried about who your readers were going to be now, and as you pointed out, the pioneer gay novels by James Baldwin, by John Rethie (ph) -- they had non-gay readers, too. They had straight readers. They were just like important events in fiction. They weren't just consigned to the gay shelves.

WHITE: Sure.

GROSS: So, do you feel that gay writers for the most part just have gay audiences now, that the field has narrowed?

WHITE: In some ways, yes. I mean like...

GROSS: I mean broadened, because the population of gay people is broader, but perhaps narrowed because...

WHITE: ... because fewer straight people are reading it.

GROSS: Yeah.

WHITE: I know -- I was talking to an ex-student of mine who's straight, yesterday, and I said to him: "would you have the nerve to pick up The Farewell Symphony and stand in line at the bookstore, at the cash register, for everybody to see you holding a gay book? And therefore to assume, I suppose, that you were gay?"

And he thought I was perfectly mad. He said: "of course, I would do that. I don't care." I mean, he -- I guess he's somebody who's very sure of himself. But I oftentimes have that picture of -- I mean, I know I have a lot of women readers, both straight and lesbian, and so I don't think that's such a problem. But I always feel that especially in America, heterosexual men tend to be very fragile creatures who are very worried, oftentimes, about their reputation.

I mean, what's interesting is that when The Farewell Symphony came out in England, it was reviewed by all the big heavyweight heterosexual male reviewers who, of course, had to devote at least three or four lines to the fact that "I, a heterosexual," you know, "found this book to be weird" or "amazing" or whatever. But in any event, people do tend to have to establish their own identity and to separate themselves from the homosexual content of the book.

But in America, up 'til now, most of my reviewers have been women or gay men, and very few straight men have had the nerve to really take me on in that sense.

GROSS: My guest is Ed White. His new novel is called The Farewell Symphony. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Ed White is my guest, and his new novel is called The Farewell Symphony.

Your new novel, which is primarily set in the '70s, is framed by the present, in which the main character reflects on his French love of five years who recently died of AIDS. And that's clearly based on your life -- your French lover of, I guess, five years, recently died of AIDS as well.

Your character said that -- he asked himself whether he'll have the courage to tell his lover's story. I know you're considering writing about your lover. Do you think it would take courage? Why courage?

WHITE: Well, I think to relive especially the horrifying moments toward the end of his life were very painful. I mean, I feel that there's an awful lot of AIDS kitsch that's out there, being written and painted and shown in movies and television. And that in it, the lovers -- the healthy one and the sick one -- are shown always in the most heroic and I think even sentimental terms.

And I wouldn't be interested in writing that book because I do have this mania about being honest. And I would like to show how destructive an illness like AIDS is, even to a relationship. That -- I mean, I feel that what I had with my friend Hubert (ph) was a great love story, but it was certainly one that had it's very, very painful and sour and difficult and rebarbative moments. And the very last words he ever said to me is: "I despise you."

So, that's not going to be easy to write about. And it's something I want to take on; I want to deal with. But there's another problem and that is a kind of protective amnesia that sets in I think after the death of somebody. It's very curious. It's not that you don't remember the facts and the sequences and the scenes. It's that your emotions somehow go dead on you.

And of course, that's fatal for a novelist. So I'm hoping that in writing about it, I'll begin to relive it all and feel it again. But that's not something I look forward to very much either. I mean, it's a very mixed bag.

GROSS: You tell if this is a question best saved for another time, or a question too personal to be asked at all, but those last words to you -- "I despise you?" What?

WHITE: Well, what it -- what was prompted by it was that he had -- I was -- we were in Morocco and we were traveling from city to city, which was his idea, and he was actually loving it because we were seeing these houses and castles and fortifications built out of mud, which are all along the river called the "Dra" in southern Morocco, and we'd -- and he wanted to see the desert.

It seems like many people when they're about to die want to see the desert. I keep finding this theme again and again. Anyway, we got to the desert and then he began to go very quickly. He began to lose control of his bowels. I mean, he was dying.

And so I drove as fast as we possibly could, but it was very hard to drive because it was right -- it was the end of Ramadan, so everybody was celebrating and the streets were thronged with people dancing; with camels; with people in their finery eating again and relaxing in a normal way after the long ordeal of Ramadan.

And anyway, we -- the car would sort of breast its way through these crowds. Finally, after all this agony, we got to Wasasat (ph) and to a very luxurious hotel, and I was hoping to get him in the hotel and then arrange for a private plane to fly us back to Paris, because after a certain point, a commercial airline won't take you anymore.

And so I wanted to get him into the hotel, and I went into the hotel, signed -- you know, signed in and came back out and he said: "I can't go on anymore. I'm too sick. Don't you realize I'm dying?" And I got very stern with him, and I said: "God damn it, you're coming with me," you know -- and that's when he said "I despise you."

Because I just wanted to get him into a nice air conditioned room, clean him up because he was covered with feces, and I was afraid that if we were -- if he looked too ill, that they would turn us away from the hotel, which had almost happened in the preceding hotel.

So it's a very -- so that was what prompted it.

GROSS: And have you been able to keep a perspective on that?

WHITE: No, I mean, I went to a shrink for a couple of years after it, and I've -- I mean, he's somebody who specializes in AIDS and he keeps trying to get me to let it go and to just realize that this is what happens. But I don't know -- maybe I'm unusually guilt-ridden by nature, but I feel that somehow I let him down or did something wrong.

And my -- even his doctor said to me: "well, at least you shared the adventure of going to Morocco together and that whole last night when you were in an ambulance going to Marrakech to a good hospital was something that you were sharing, and would it have been better for him to die the way everybody else dies, in a gray little hospital room in Paris or New York? I mean, at least he had this exotic last adventure, which is something he himself wanted."

And I tried to say: "well, yes, that's right." And it is right. But it -- but there's also something that nags at me that I can't get rid of.

GROSS: The funny thing is even travel during a vacation can put a strain on a relationship.

WHITE: Yeah, that's true. Absolutely. And I mean, I really know that he loved me and that I was -- toward the end of our -- of his life, I became his entire life. And once when I went away for like three or four days, just for a little R&R, his brother took care of him and his brother told me that all he did was talk about me, and then when I was about to come back, he made tremendous efforts to make sure he was as well-groomed and attractive as possible for my coming back.

And that moves me very much, you know. And I mean I know I was -- I mean, we did have this great love and we did really -- we did this book together called "Our Paris" where he did the illustrations and I did the writing. And he finished the last illustration and I finished the last bit of text a week before he died.

GROSS: Wow. Now, I know that you've been HIV positive for about 15 years or so. Are you taking any of the new drugs? Or is that considered not necessary?

WHITE: No. Nothing. I mean, I'm not taking anything because my counts are still in the normal range.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WHITE: So I think that it's probably best to wait as long as possible. I was talking to the editor of POZ magazine which is, you know, the magazine for positive people, and he's done the same thing and recommended that I do the same thing -- that I keep on doing what I'm doing, that is to wait as long as possible before beginning any of the medications.

GROSS: I really thank you very much for talking with us.

WHITE: I loved it, as always.

GROSS: Ed White's new novel is called The Farewell Symphony.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Edmund White
High: Novelist Edmund White has just completed his semi-autobiographical trilogy. The new novel The Farewell Symphony focuses on gay life from the 1960s to the present. His other books include A Boys' Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, Genet: A Biography, Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, The Joy of Gay Sex, and Caracole.
Spec: Homosexuality; Books; Authors; Edmund White
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Farewell Symphony
Date: SEPTEMBER 09, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090902NP.217
Head: Millennium
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As we approach the end of the century, we're seeing the word "millennium" in print more and more often.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg says it's time to settle the issue of how the word is spelled.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Everybody in the software business these days is worrying over what they call the "millennium problem." At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, all those programs that represent the year with only two digits will roll over to zero zero, which means they'll think the clock's been turned back to the year 1900, with catastrophic consequences all around.

There's another millennium problem, though. Not as ominous as the first, but auspicious in its own right. As we enter the new millennium, will anybody still know how to spell the word? In theory, it shouldn't be that hard. "Millennium" from the Latin "milli," thousand, plus "annum," year -- two "Ls", two "Ns."

But people seem to have a lot of trouble getting this straight. When I did a search on the Web, I found it misspelled about 30 percent of the time, usually with two Ls and one N, but with lots of other inventive combinations, too -- one L and two Ns or one of each. As for the vowels, you don't want to know.

Of course, this is just what you'd expect to find on the Web, where the reliability of spelling and grammar is on a par with the reliability of the other information floating around. But in fact, the traditional press doesn't do a lot better, even when you make allowances for all the names of companies, hotels, and the rest that have adopted the one "N" spelling.

The New York Times spells "millennium" wrong eight percent of the time and so does the Wall Street Journal, even though they themselves ran a story not long ago pointing out the frequency of the error. The Washington Post gets it wrong 14 percent of the time, and journals and magazines do even worse than that. The error rate was 20 percent for the Journal of the American Medical Association, and over 40 percent for the Harvard Business Review and Consumer Reports. I mean, Consumer Reports -- if you can't rely on their spelling, how can you be sure they're getting toaster ovens right?

Out of 20 or so periodicals that I looked at, the only one that consistently spelled the word correctly was the New England Journal of Medicine. It's nice to think that somewhere in Boston there's a lonely editor holding the line on this one -- an unsung hero of American orthography.

Still, this is clearly a losing battle. You could tell the game was up when Mazda came out with a new sedan last year called the "Millenia" with one "N" and nobody raised an eyebrow. Maybe we were already jaded by the Geo Prizm spelled with a "Z."

For that matter, nobody seemed to mind that Mazda used the plural form of the noun, which opens the door to other intriguing possibilities: the Acura Integri, the Buick Le Sabres. And that one "N" spelling of millennium has worked its way into the names of hotels, pharmaceutical companies, and a massage parlor in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

There's no point in getting indignant about all this, though. It's just too fin de siecle fulminating over the collapse of traditional values. The only solution here is legalization, before this can spill over into a general disrespect for the law.

The question is: who's going to bell this cat? The fact is that we've never tolerated official interference in orthography, which is probably why we've been drifting along with a spelling system that hasn't undergone any significant changes for the past 150 years or so.

And it would be futile to expect help from the dictionary publishers. They like to talk about how they're only in the business of describing usage, but when it comes to the crunch, they tend to be pretty hide-bound about things like spelling, particularly with all those English teachers and librarians looking over their shoulders.

Anyway, it doesn't seem right to rely on an 18th century institution like the dictionary to take charge of a word that has everything to do with the 21st. What we need is someone with the influence and assurance to guide us along the road ahead.

Indeed, who better than Bill Gates? All it would take is a word to the people who are implementing the spell-checker for the next version of Microsoft Word: why don't we ease up on "millennium" this time around?

Let's face it: spell-checkers are about the only thing that have been keeping that second "N" around up to now. And for Gates it would be another brilliant coup. If he can't take care of the first millennium problem single-handed, at least he can resolve the second one, and in a way that demonstrates his abiding commitment to tolerance and diversity.

What's more, he can be sure that posterity will remember him for this longer than for any mere software fix or marketing maneuver. After all, a lot of people will shape the way the history of our age is written, but how many of them get to determine how it's spelled?

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Dateline: Geoffrey Nunberg; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg comments on the word millennium. He worries that during the next century, will anyone be able to spell it right. A look on the Web showed the word misspelled 30-percent of the time. Nunberg offers his solution to the coming orthographic crisis.
Spec: Computers; The Internet; Language; Millennium
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Millennium
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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