For the next six months Hilton Als is the featured artist at The Artist’s Institute; his exhibition One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie and the Rest (through April 24, 2016) inaugurates the Institute’s handsome new uptown space (at 132 East 65th Street). Als is best known as the theater critic for the New Yorker, where he writes pointed and unusually tender examinations of artists and writers. In 1996 he published the erotic-intellectual memoir The Women—a meditation on race, gender, and culture that interweaves remembrances of his mother, who emigrated from Barbados to Brooklyn, with reflections on his adolescence and queer sexuality. His thematic collection White Girls (2014) is equal parts cultural analysis and literary interior monologue, covering everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Eminem to Malcolm X’s mother to Richard Pryor’s sister. He spoke with Jarrett Earnest about his life, his work, and the creation of a critical identity.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Before we start, I have something else to ask you about: walking over here, I was listening to those Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach recordings from the ’60s. I can’t figure out what exactly makes them so incredible, but I’m obsessed with them.
Hilton Als: Actually, this is how you are going to start your piece, because whenever I listen to her, I feel like a plagiarist. Particularly “Trains and Boats and Planes;” it feels like my complete rhythm as a writer, like the strongest influence on me in terms of tone and syncopation—Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach.
Rail: Isn’t it weird that I was listening to that to prepare to come talk with you? I unconsciously connected them. It seems like her phrasing is almost too slow, but it never is, and she’s unworried about hitting it. I can’t figure out the stresses, what makes that particular sound.
Als: It’s because she’s not singing in black vernacular. She’s singing in a pop vernacular but with soul phrasing—it’s not something you would identify as R&B. She is obviously a black woman but her syntax and phrasing, while rooted in the black church, are not a black style of singing. Dionne Warwick was really unique in that way of being soulful without being a soul singer. Then, of course, she had to deal with all those words.
Rail: Her diction is so precise.
Als: She’s one of the clearest singers.
Rail: I guess that makes the rhythm.
Als: Well, breathing—you have to be really mindful of your breathing if you’re singing a lot of language. If you’re singing a Sondheim song you have to deal with your breath on some intense level.
Rail: I keep listening to “Are You There (With Another Girl)” and trying to figure out the emotional register of it, because it’s kind of an upbeat song but it’s also sad—layered, but not self-pitying.
Als: She’s not sentimental in the least. All those great singers, like her or Billie Holiday, were able to transcend what a song was supposed to be about by making it bigger. Dionne Warwick works in miniature and gets expansive—a beautiful example of what syncopation can do. I think she had a huge effect on me as a kid; I had all these 45s of her singing and I would listen to them over and over again. They really transported me, not into a dream world so much as feeding my dreams about what life would be like eventually.
Rail: They feel like a fantasy about being a “grownup” from a teenage perspective—a dream of emotional sophistication.
Als: It was like I knew I was going to just wake up and be that grown up in those songs.
Rail: To shift to a less glamorous question: why did you not include the date of publication information anywhere in the book for the different essays that make up White Girls?
Als: Oh, I didn’t think of that. I think it would have disrupted what I wanted, which was for people to read it as one thing. I was reluctant to make it have the appearance of a traditional book of essays. I wanted it to be emotionally—not factually—chronological.
Rail: It does decontextualize the pieces from the moment in which they were born. I always want to know when and why something was written—it would mean something different to profile Eminem in 2000 than in 2015. In putting the book together, did you find yourself relating to the earlier pieces differently than the more recent writing?
Als: To commit to making a book, you have to confront a despair about whatever you’ve done in the previous years it took to get there. I think I felt a lot of despair about the book because you always expect to accomplish more than you have. I don’t think I am being disingenuous in saying that. It felt like the best I could do when, in fact, I wanted somehow to do better. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or immodest but I feel that I’m just developing. Books fix you in a way that makes me very nervous.
Rail: I wondered about that aspect of it. As I was reading The Women (1995) I was thinking how it embodies such a specific moment of thinking and feeling. How do you relate emotionally or stylistically to that book twenty year later?
Als: I haven’t re-read it. I feel that I didn’t read it because I didn’t want to get fixed there. In the period of time between those two books I was trying to understand myself and also deal with the ramifications of having written about my family, which I think traumatized me.
Als: My sisters weren’t thrilled by it. And it took me many years to realize that they would have found fault with anything because of competitiveness. I didn’t understand that at the time. So to avoid competing, I stopped writing books. White Girls is almost a testament to having worked through those issues.
Rail: It seems to me that your writing is the most stylistically adventurous and vivid when the subject is directly autobiographical, or a very clear surrogate for you. Both The Women and the opening long essay in White Girls, “Tristes Tropiques,”are almost pure autobiography, and have a different quality as writing than the more conventional essays or profiles.
Als: Elaine Pagels prefers the more conventional pieces—the examinations of other people’s lives. A big model for me was Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses; he called it a “novel,” but it is a group of stories. It’s amazing to realize that you can just call it whatever you want, and that’s it. Let’s call The Women a novel. I’ve noticed younger people prefer the raw autobiographical fantasia and the older prefer more considered, traditional things. Everybody has a thing that they’re drawn to and I don’t think anything is worse or better, just different.
Rail: I didn’t think of that distinction as a judgment of quality, but wondered if, as the person who wrote them, you have different relationships to these different modes, or is it just like, “I love all my children equally?”
Als: If you look at the long piece that opens White Girls, everybody that comes later in the book is mentioned in it. The point is: you cannot have one of those people without the others. I don’t love one more than the other, but I think I have more fun with one more than the other. I also think that they each demanded their own form. I couldn’t have written about Flannery O’Connor the way I wrote a fiction piece about Richard Pryor’s sister—O’Connor’s biography doesn’t allow for that kind of intimacy, or for making up.
Rail: I guess the difference between Flannery O’Connor and Richard Pryor’s sister is that Flannery authored the things about herself that she wants you to know as a public self, and Richard Pryor’s sister didn’t.
Als: Right, I made her up—Richard Pryor’s sister wasn’t known to the public, so when she’s talking to that journalist, it’s her big shot to talk about herself.
Rail: A lot of your writing has to do with that relationship—not just of self to other, but of private self to public self.
Als: If you have a job that is being a public self, what interests me is how much authenticity can be left once you make that decision. It’s a real decision. Richard Pryor is famous, in part, because he wanted to be. Richard Pryor’s sister was not famous, in part, because she couldn’t be. One of the great calamities in American life is celebrity. I’ve seen it make people different. So what interests me is getting underneath the mechanism of public regard, and self-regard, and really seeing what human behavior is and how attention reshapes a certain kind of body—does it fuck them up endlessly? Or not? Where is the innocence out of which most people initially create? Does that get dissipated? It’s almost like the perfect metaphor for the self, for interiority: how authentic can we remain once we are seen, or once we want to be seen?
Rail: Thinking about talking with you today, I immediately had very personal questions, and then I stopped myself and wondered why I felt entitled to ask you very personal questions—
Als: —Well, you can.
Rail: But that impulse relates to the nature of your work: you disclose, or seem to disclose, a lot of personal information about who you are. I wonder how your relationship to being a public self has evolved, or how it has influenced your writing.
Als: I don’t think it’s changed my writing because I’m really careful about it. It’s a choice—like what I said about Richard Pryor wanting to be famous. The desire for that kind of mass love generally suggests a very insecure person, or a person who feels unseen. I don’t feel unseen as a writer, because I’m writing. When you’re writing you’re being seen by your words, by yourself. I don’t have a real desire vis-à-vis becoming known. What I feel desirous of is becoming a better writer. It doesn’t have to do with an audience; it has to do with not cheating yourself as an artist.
Rail: I am interested in the emotional aspects of art, and in my responses to it. The way you deal with that is one of the things I really like about The Women. There is a moment when you say, “Time has not changed my point of view, nor has the knowledge that what divide people are not the dreary marginal issues of race, or class, or gender but this: those who believe friendship and love dispel our basic aloneness, and those who do not.”
Als: I still believe that. I talked about it a little bit in the Robert Gober essay for The Heart is Not a Metaphor (2014). When I started going out in the gay world I had a romantic idea that gay people were united. But they were still men, and because they were still men there was an aspect of territory and conquest, and also of isolation—and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. I always believed in my Dionne Warwick-child-self that one of the things that would greet me would be this beautiful community of love, and I was shocked to find that people are people everywhere, and that they are mostly self-interested.
Rail: You put that beautifully in a part of White Girls, and I was grateful to read it. I’ve had a similar experience, thinking that as a faggot art boy I had a “queer art scene” to join, and when I meet them all I thought was—
Als: —These are not my people!
Als: Isn’t that a shock! And what are you supposed to do with that knowledge? It’s not something that makes you bitter as much as something that makes you think about isolation in a profound way. It makes you revisit the isolation you had as a kid but as an adult. That is the weird, harmful part of all of it: you return to the place of hoping, but now knowing the hope won’t be met. I find it difficult still.
Rail: Your current exhibition, One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie and the Rest, at The Artist’s Institute is about a different sense of community, specifically paying tribute to trans women you knew in the ’70s and ’80s. Could you talk about it?
Als: A big impetus for this show was Holly Woodlawn’s death, and the writing and affection I had for a guy named Bobbie Derecktor, who identified as male but took it to a whole other level—he’s the blonde in the slides. Between those two people I’ve always been incredibly moved by a kind of physical bravery they had that very few of us attempt.
When Holly Woodlawn died I started thinking of the trans women I knew pre-Caitlyn Jenner and pre-Transparent, and how incredibly moved by them I had been from the age of about eighteen on, when I used to go to a club called GG’s Barnum. I felt that there was an incredible sense of power—personal power—that they had, which didn’t rely on external validation. Warhol wrote about it so beautifully in POPism: these people were so marginalized until it became the era of “let it all hang out.” Then they were thought of as sexual revolutionaries. Now they are getting lost and swept under the rug. They were the first people fighting at Stonewall. Sylvia Rivera says it in the really good play I saw called O’ Earth: we were the first and then we got marginalized. They were not representatives of either male or female iconoclasm, but a mixture and representatives of the people who were completely other.
Rail: I know you’ve curated exhibitions before; what was it like, for this show, to be making art too?
Als: It slipped up on me. I’ve always collaborated with artists—I would be the curator and we’d do it together. I was just thinking today about how I always relegated myself to a recessive position so as not to be seen, and that this show demanded that I be seen. I’d say to the people in the gallery, “I’m thinking of a kind of Saran wrap,” and I’d draw it out for them. It was a trick of the mind that I didn’t realize I was making the work myself. Then suddenly the curator, Jenny Jaskey, sent me the work list, and half the things were things that I had made. It gives me goose pimples to tell you that now, but it is something I hope to pursue, because I can do it.
Rail: Tell me about the colored lights that you used in the space.
Als: I’m a big believer in lighting—you can have a rug and some amazing lights and create an atmosphere. I literally wanted to shine the spotlight on these people, and I wanted to have something that was evocative of dancing and movement.
Rail: There is something about that photograph of Sylvester that is so emotional; I don’t know if it’s that it is overexposed—
Als: I think it’s the cropping, and the light on it brings out the whiteness so he is almost a totemic figure.
Rail: What was the process of tracking down all those images?
Als: They were in my heart and head for years. The two by Fred McDarrah of Candy Darling were in my head for years because I worked for Fred McDarrah. But the other stuff from Bill Bernstein was in a book I found just rummaging through Marc Jacobs’s bookstore, a book called Disco Nights—perfect. I started looking through it and there was GG’s Barnum, and it was a flood of memories. I think in the end you can only make a show that matters if it’s somehow connected to the person you were and the person you want to be. I still aspire to be like these people. In a way it’s really hero-worship, but it’s also about how these people are being forgotten because they didn’t have language. There was no language, theoretical or otherwise.
Rail: In this exhibition, very much like in the writing, you are the medium animating this stuff, these people. It’s mostly ephemera in your displays, and you highlight their ephemeral nature, which is very moving.
Als: The show is also about photography. I’m playing with various aspects that make a photograph—light, for instance—and using mediums from the period like slide projectors and overhead projectors.
What is that beautiful line Marilyn Monroe has in the The Misfits: but we’re dying all the time, all the people, everywhere. Facing the fact that we are terminal doesn’t so much make you grow up as make you acknowledge the sadness. For instance, there is sadness being here now: this moment won’t be repeated. Theater interests me for that reason—if I see it twice, it’s different. As humans, no matter how much we try to relegate ourselves to sameness in any group, we are different, all the time. We are different no matter how much we cleave to the quotidian, to the status quo, to ideals of identity—whether it’s gay, bi, trans, whatever. I don’t think these people cleaved to “identity.” I think they made themselves, and that was who they were. They are real heroes to me because of that.
There is some great footage of Jackie Curtis and Candy rehearsing one of Jackie’s plays. It gives such a great sense of how they were in their own fantasy, but that they were working really hard in that fantasy.
Rail: How do you regard the difference between fiction and non-fiction in your writing?
Als: Now, I am just treating everything as fiction, because I’m distrustful of the imagination, which is what memory is. I prefer to move forward treating the books as novels—let’s say novels about memory. Or a poem, in that no one ever asks a poet if what they’ve written is true or not. I’m a stickler for accuracy, but that doesn’t mean everything I write is a hundred percent true. There is a great emotional truth there, and I’m trying to honor that.
My mother had a sister; I left that out of The Women because it would have been very painful to her memory to talk about that. So I changed certain things to leave out that fact. Now, that makes it “not accurate” because I left out a character from the story, but I did it to preserve something of my mother’s privacy.
When you’re writing about real people it is important, in order to get through it, to treat them as characters—but there is also such a thing as honoring the copyright someone has on their own life. That part of the book took me five years because I wanted to honor the copyright on my mother’s life while being honest to myself. Even though there was a distance of seven or eight years from the time she died until the book was published, it was still a very complicated relationship for me. I adored her, and I never wanted to see her hurt. I’m beginning to understand more that my protecting my mother might not have been the best thing for my writing, but it was the best thing for my relationship to her.
Rail: I’m very interested in how we navigate the biography of an artist as relevant or not to the work they make. Most of the pieces that you’ve written about artists situate their work within the narrative of their life.
Als: More than anything else I use a bit of the life to talk about things chronologically. If I’m interviewing them I think I go more on observation. I’ve found that words are suspect in some way and the thing that is most helpful to me is the language of bodies—what they are doing and how they are responding to me, as opposed to what they are saying. I think I go much more with behavior now than with the standard “telling quote.”
Rail: There is that very famous line Janet Malcolm wrote at the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer (1990): “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” I’ve been holding that in my mind in terms of what it means to write about someone else’s life, in relation to what I want from it and from what someone reading it might want from it. How have you engaged writing about other people’s lives?
Als: For a while I stopped writing profiles because I felt that I wanted to change the form in some way and I didn’t know how to do that. Janet is a brilliant person and I think she says tough things in order to change things. I think she wanted to confront the idea that journalism isn’t a service industry. I still believe in journalism as literature—if it’s literature then it has the complications of the truth and embellishment of the subject. I think Janet is interested in finding out how people betray themselves, and I’m much more interested in discovering how they embellish in order to protect themselves from reality. I’m interested in the accretion of narrative in order to just get through existence.
Rail: I thought it was beautiful in The Women when you said you were fascinated by your mother as a kind of living literature.
Als: I think I’m just so much a part of her story, and yet I haven’t really told her whole story. Which means I haven’t told the story of myself, which I guess is the work of the writer—you keep going. I’m very shy about the “I” character—
Rail: How has the “I” character evolved in your writing?
Als: Janet has a brilliant “I” character, right?
Rail: Sublime, nasty, sharp, and it’s always trying to understand itself. The way you diagrammed the difference between your writing and hers is perfect: her “I” is pushing itself forward, asking “why am I doing this, what do I want from this?—really?” Whereas your “I” is almost the inverse—it’s always trying to slide behind the subject.
Als: I think I’ve been incredibly withdrawn about the “I” because the story is really about an experience: you go to the theater and have an experience and you’re telling people about it; it’s not a time to say “I”.
Rail: Often I feel like your writing is about the displacement of your “I” onto the subject. Like the profile on André Leon Talley—
Als: That was the first one I wrote for the New Yorker. Well, I loved him, in a way. I actually had a love for him, so it would be displaced in that way. The complications of “he and I” or “me and him” in retrospect get played out there. But the psychic energy of it is not something you can manufacture. I think he’s a great person in a crummy field. He’s better than the fashion industry.
Rail: I think of your writing as extremely stylish, almost to the point of opacity. When did using language flamboyantly enter into your mind—how did you realize you could do it?
Als: I think the act of writing is having the tiniest bit of belief in yourself, that you can do it.
Rail: What’s the rest of it?
Als: Blind faith, and hope that you can’t really explain.
Rail: One of the things I like about your writing’s worldview is that you don’t give anyone an easy out.
Als: I hope myself more than anyone.
Rail: Well that is where it begins and ends, isn’t it?
Als: I don’t want anybody to feel judged harder than I judge myself. Do you think I condemn people?
Rail: No, but sometimes I’m surprised at how hard you are on certain writers. But I wonder if it’s about trying to be unsentimental.
Als: I think you are right in terms of indirection and what that means: ultimately it’s about being hard on one’s self.
Rail: One thing you said about Flannery O’Connor: “What was lacking in O’Connor’s life—and in her art—was the spontaneous experience of intimate love, with its attendant joys and tedium and security.” It made me think of an offhand observation you made about Owen Dodson in The Women: “I found out the sin in his work: the inability to convey intimacy.” I’m curious about the ways intimacy is made manifest in art.
Als: You have to learn to write about love in order to write. It’s the most fundamental thing, and if you don’t write about it then you are missing something that is so profound—how could you even carry on? It is a very profound thing to touch another human being. I haven’t had the best luck with it, but it seems to me that staying vulnerable to experience is why we’re here. That means all sorts of weird things, like being responsible for someone else’s soul, which is what it comes down to. So if you’re an artist, and intimacy is the most profound thing, then you have to deal with it, with what it means to love someone. It doesn’t get any deeper than that. If your job as a writer is to convey human emotion and interactions, you can’t skip the intimacy part.
Rail: How did you learn to write about it?
Als: I didn’t know how to write any other way. I’m not a master of the classic essay form; I don’t know how to do it unless I feel it. Not to be all Janis Joplin about it, but something has to connect with me personally in order for me to write about it.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.