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BOOK REVIEW Conversations with Edmund White
by Owen Keehnen
2017-12-20

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Edited by Will Brantley and Nancy McGuire Roche

$25; University Press of Mississippi; 208 pages

Edmund White was one of the first important writers to emerge at the dawn of the gay liberation movement, bursting onto the literary scene in 1973 with the publication of his first novel, Forgetting Elena.

White has been at the forefront of gay literature ever since. His work helped bring critical attention to gay books, bridging the gap between gay and mainstream literature. White was a member of the seminal gay writing group, the Violet Quill. His numerous novels include A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, Fanny, Hotel de Dream, Caracole, The Married Man, Jack Holmes and His Friend, and Our Young Man.

White has written short-story collections, memoirs, released journals, done travel writing, collected his essays ( The Burning Library ) and penned biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud. He also wrote two defining non-fiction works of the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS era, The Joy of Gay Sex ( with Charles Silverstein ), and States of Desire, a snapshot of gay sexual life across America. White's numerous honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Foundation's Pioneer Award.

The 21 interviews that compose Conversations with Edmund White span 34 years ( 1982-2016 ). In these pieces, White proves to be a spirited interviewee, emerging as frank, thoughtful, wise and always interesting. The chats reflect White's predilections, his body of work at various stages of the game, his major achievements, and other pivotal moments of his long and varied career. Through these talks, White explains the methodology of his formidable talent, his take on writing and the writer's role in society, his sources of inspiration and creative motivation, his habit of writing everything by hand and then reading it back aloud, etc.

However, the underlying strength of these pieces is in the telling of a larger story, the evolution of the LGBT community. As portals on LGBT history, the interviews capture 21 different moments in our journey as filtered through one of our literary giants. In that light, these pieces reflect the endurance of the community as it emerged politically and socially, fought and struggled through the devastation of AIDS, and how it persevered with an unwillingness to regress or return to the closet. All the main themes of our collective development are explored - coming out, reinvention, chosen family, sexual liberation, loss, activism, assimilation and more. Equally fascinating is to see White's maturing perspective in regards to gay consciousness and the concept of an LGBT community.

Conversations with Edmund White will appeal to aficionados of gay literature and is an extremely inspiring tool for writers of all levels. The interviews come from myriad sources and each stands on its own but, collectively, these pieces compose a mosaic through which the reader can glimpse the life of a true artist and man of letters as well as the journey of the community that he deeply loves.


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