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News: What's up with writers and the book biz

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Hubert Selby Jr.
on writing, spoken word,
and dying as a way of life

an interview by Rachel Philips
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I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Hubert Selby Jr., over lunch about writing, his latest project, and the film version of Requiem for a Dream, to be released later this year.

RP: What are you working on now?

HS: Well, it’s a thing called Waiting Period. And I think it’s a book, it must be a book. I’m 160 pages into it. And this kind of happened the way Requiem for a Dream happened. You know, I write jokes. I sit around writing them. And that’s what I was doing with Requiem. I was going to write a black comedy movie, started to write a novel, then realized Nah, this is not what I want. So I started to write a story, and I ended up writing it. And this was recently, I guess around March it was, I started writing a bunch of little jokes. And I started this one about a guy who’s suicidal, very despondent....he goes to a gun store to buy a gun, selects a .357 , and when it’s time to get the permit, the computer breaks down, the system has malfunctioned and he has to wait 5 days so in another 5 days he goes from being suicidal to homicidal.

RP: It sounds great.

HS: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a lot of fun! Anyway, it’s fun and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve never done anything like this before, so... (He shrugs and grins.)

RP: Do you find that writing gets easier for you the more you’ve written?

HS: Well, yes and no. The writing itself has been much easier since Last Exit. I spent 6 years writing Last Exit to Brooklyn, but that time was spent learning how to write. And I started [to develop] the necessary tools in that process to do whatever it is needs to be done. But I have a very difficult time physically sometimes just getting the energy to write. Right now I have some energy, so I just keep writing. The Willow Tree was very difficult from that point of view. I just couldn’t get a sustained rhythm going. I’d write for a while and – for a couple of weeks – and then maybe a year I couldn’t write anything. So each time I did get back to writing, I spent most of my time getting back into the rhythm of the book. So as a result, my main time was spent on editing and rewriting. It was a monumental job, getting rid of all that repetition. Ahh. (Shakes his head.) So the actual writing was only a few months, but it was over a period of years. But the actual act of writing does become easier. Any job becomes easier when you apply the necessary tools to do the job. So you have to keep giving yourself challenges....I enjoy doing things I haven’t done before. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail.

RP: Do you prefer the novel over the short story?

HS: In actual numbers I’ve written more short stories than novels. I don’t know if I prefer one form over the other actually. It’s just whatever happens at the moment, something comes as a short story, so you write it that way. I’ve also written a bunch of prose poem kind of things. They used to have a poetry reading every week here in L.A. called Poetry In Motion and I would write things for that. It was really a lot of fun because what they did was each week they’d have a topic, some arbitrary topic, any kind of wacky thing, so it was a lot of fun trying to write something to fit that subject. And I ended up writing some very personal stuff that I enjoyed very much, and a lot of goofy stuff too. And then I wrote some psalms. I never know what the hell I’m going to do. Maybe nobody does, maybe the problem is we delude ourselves [into] thinking we know.

RP: You’ve done spoken word. What about the spoken word you were working on with Nick Tosches?

HS: Yeah, we put out a CD, Nick and I. He’s written a novel called The Trinity that’s fantastic! I mean drugs deals and things, New York and all, I mean it’s a gem. He writes wack-out poems too. What makes the CD so great is the balance between my stuff and his stuff, the way I read, the way he reads, just a beautifully balanced CD, it was a lot of fun. He’s a sweetheart.

RP: What have been some defining moments for you?

HS: Number 1 – Being born. I started to die 36 hours before I was born. By the time I was born I was in deep serious trouble. (Laughs) I was blue from cyanosis, my head was all twisted and out of shape, and a few kinds of brain damage. My mother, she almost died too, she had severe toxemia, and when she asked the doctor what she should do about feeding me. He said, "Well, just keep breastfeeding him and eventually he’ll suck out all the poison." (Selby cackles gleefully.) They had to drag me screaming into the twentieth century. So that was, I guess, a very defining moment, because I have been defiant ever since. And dying became a way of life. When I was 18, in 1946, they said I couldn’t live more than 2 months, I ended up spending more than 3 years in bed, had 10 ribs cut out and all that. In 1988, the doctor told a friend of mine, "According to all accepted medical evidence, your friend is dead." So dying has been a way of life. But I think that’s a very valuable thing. I believe that you don’t know anything about writing till you’ve died. I can’t complain about it, although I do. (Another cackle) I complain about anything and everything, what the hell.
Another time, I was married, we had a daughter, who was two or three years old at the time. I was home alone, and I had what I realize now was a spiritual experience, although I didn’t understand it as such at the time. But I knew that someday I was going to die. And just before I died, two things would happen: Number 1 – I would regret my entire life. Number 2 – I would want to live my life over again, and I would die. And I was terrified, absolutely terrified. So I knew I had to do something with my life. I was terrified of living my whole life, and at the end looking at it and having blown it. I was on disability at the time, and my wife was working part-time, I think at Macy’s, it was the Christmas season, so I bought a typewriter, and decided I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know anything about writing. But I knew I had to do something with my life, and that was the only thing I could think to do....So I sat there for two weeks with that typewriter and I had no idea how to write a story, I just had to do something before I died. So I wrote a letter to somebody. And that’s how it started. The long process of learning how to write.

At this time the waitress arrives with our food and drinks. Hubert is such a gentleman he unwraps my straw for me. We both dig into our lunches without restraint, and there follows several minutes of uninterrupted eating before we get back to the interview.

RP: Do you have any specific rituals that you do before writing?

HS: I have a whole bunch of them, and I never know which one is going to work. It doesn’t make any difference how you get started, you just prime the pump. Sometimes I’ll write a letter, sometimes when I don’t know what to do I start to retype old manuscripts. One of the things I like to do is hang out with some paintings. Go down to the museum and hang out with some things that I like. Sometimes I scream and holler and cry. I never know what the hell I’ll do. And then sometimes, like now, I’ll sit down and write some goofy little things. Like I wrote a thing on the common cold, I wrote a thing "the whites of their eyes," to get back into the rhythm of it. I just don’t know ahead of time.

RP: What effect, if any, did being married and having kids have on you as a writer?

HS: I don’t know. I suspect that in some ways I never should have been married, never should have tried to live with someone. There seems to be something inherently out of balance with me. One of the big problems with marriage for me is that I’ve never been able to earn a living. I had jobs, of course, but having been in the hospital at eighteen, and being on disability, there weren’t a lot of jobs that I could physically do... I have less than one lung, my brain isn’t getting ample oxygen, all that sort of thing. The stress of all that is something I don’t seem to be able to deal with too well. It creates pressure and stress on me, and a lot of discomfort for the people around me.

RP: Is it easier for you to write out here in L.A.?

HS: No, I can’t say that. When I first started writing out here, I was wondering if I could. No inspiration. No community. But I learned something very valuable. I learned that – if you don’t have it within you, you don’t got it. And that’s what I really learned out here, cause I’m not going to find anything outside of me out here. Life is an inside job. And another big difference is you don’t have an artistic community out here. New York, of course, is the art center of the world since the end of the war. (He giggles.) Try being suave with onions hanging off of your mouth. (My turn to giggle.) From time to time, friends will come in from Europe, and they all have the same response. They find L.A. very unfriendly and New York very friendly. The town is unreal and all the occupants are unreal, but I have a bunch of great friends out here, all ex-New Yorkers (cackle) and we all get together and bitch and moan about the place, but we stay here (bigger cackle). It’s just so easy to be a bum here.

RP: You’ve worked with Henry Rollins on spoken word projects for his publishing company 2.13.61 Publications. What do you think is the importance of smaller grassroots publishing companies? Do you think they are doing an important job?

HS: They’re becoming increasingly important. There aren’t many opportunities for a writer to get published anymore. A friend of mine, Gil Sorrentino, who is really a great writer, one of the most brilliant literary men from my generation, absolutely brilliant, he can’t get published either. A couple of years ago, a publishing company in New York, a large company, rejected a book of his and the editor wrote a little note that said, "The only basis on which we could sell this book is that Mr. Sorrentino is a good writer." What do you say to something like that? There’s no response. The head of one of the very large publishing companies, the managing editor. For twenty years he was the managing editor, he resigned, this is recently, not too long ago, in the last couple of years. There was a book he wanted to publish, they had their meeting with the committee, and they turned it down. The advertising people, the accountant people, said no, you can’t do it. He resigned. He said, what the hell is going on? So without those little publishers.... Small publishing companies have always been important for young writers. Now they’re important for old mature writers! (He laughs.) They are very important.

RP: Do you think there’s still an audience for the individual voice in what is becoming an increasingly mass-produced culture?

HS: There is. I think so. Especially by the younger people. I mean you see a lot of young people in public covered with tattoos, and piercings, and this and that, and they do it as a way rebelling. I’ve met a lot of young people through Henry, in their twenties, sometimes even younger, who have read my work and really relate to it, and really understand what’s going on, and they have a real hunger for it. And I think one of the reasons is a lot of these kids were raised through the Reagan/Bush years, and they’re starving for honesty , they’re really starving for honesty. And they recognize it when they see it. So I think there is, even though there’s certainly a lot of mass-produced attitude, Madison Avenue attitude and so-forth, yeah, I think there’s always a minority interested. The big problem is not so much lack of audience, I believe it’s getting the material to the audience, and having them aware that it exists.

RP: Requiem for a Dream is timeless because it is so real.

HS: I think so. And it’s more pertinent today.

RP: Absolutely.

HS: Darren Aranofsky, who did Pi, did the film, and so you can see that when a young person becomes aware and they relate to it... But he doesn’t come from that kind of background. I met his parents and they’re nice people, encouraging, reinforcing, nurturing people. He doesn’t know the world I know, but he identifies with it. I was back in New York for a week, on the set, and Ellen Burstyn is playing Sara, and in ten minutes she had me in tears. Oh my God, she is good. I’m looking forward to seeing this film, really seeing what Darren ends up with–he’s cutting it now. Yeah, people relate to that stuff. It’s interesting, if you can stay alive long enough.

RP: This is a perfect time for a film of Requiem, because heroin has risen dramatically in popularity in the past five years.

HS: That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve heard it is abundant, it is powerful, and cheap.

RP: I think part of the reason it’s become so widespread is because everyone’s told BE HAPPY! BE HAPPY! all the time.

HS: Yeah. See, I don’t listen to commercial radio, I don’t own a television, I don’t read newspapers, but still I’m aware of the intense propaganda. Don’t feel unhappy. Don’t feel depressed. We’ve got 75 pills! It’s like it’s a sin and you’re guilty if you wake up depressed.

RP: What artists have had an impact on you?

HS: Beethoven. God, I love the guy. Just a great impact on my life. He’s the only conscious influence I’ve ever had as a writer. (Pause) Renaissance painters knock me out. Abstract expressionists knock me out. I can’t help but think about when I first read Moby Dick – I went crazy. What a remarkable piece of work. I had a great experience in the Rodin museum in Paris in 1988. I believe that he used to live there, I’m not sure. Anyway, we went there, first time I went there, was there a few minutes, and I became aware of the fact that I was kind of tiptoeing around. I don’t know if I was actually doing it, but I had the sense of overwhelming reverence that I didn’t want to disturb anything. I was so aware of his presence and his work. Monumental – in every sense of the word. It was quite an experience, it really was. It was a dreary day, too – it was a rainy, dreary day. The experiences you have with artists and works of art are really not only infinite and everlasting, but in a sense immutable. But if it challenges you, that’s what makes that necessary change that art has to make to be a success.

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