by Rob Couteau
Rain Taxi Review of Books,
(online) December 1999
Couteau: Youíve just returned from Europe where you gave a series of readings in Germany and attended the Paris premiere of the documentary, A Couple of Things about Hubert Selby. Would you care to relate some of the highlights of your recent trip?
Selby: Oh, gee, I donít know if there were any highlights to tell you the truth. It was all very exciting. I enjoyed all of it. And after the people down in the breakfast room at the hotel saw me on television, I got extra croissants in the morning. So, that was kind of nice. Well, the people were all so wonderful, the reception was so enthusiastic, that I canít think of anything that stands out more than anything else. Other than some of the scenery. Berlin was incredible; there are forests and lakes all over that city. It was just amazing.
Couteau: In that film, you were asked about your belief in God, and you said it all depends on oneís definition of God: that you didnít believe in most of the conventional definitions, the way that most people define God. Now, my question is, do you have any spiritual beliefs? Iím not going to ask, ďDo you believe in GodĒ; thatís not really how I would phrase it, perhaps. But do you have any specific spiritual beliefs and, if so, what is your definition of the sacred?
Selby: Well, I donít know if I can define it. I certainly do attempt to live according to spiritual principles. Thatís always the foundation of each and every day. But to define ... I donít think you can. I think anything that I can define is not it. It has to be beyond my ability to define or understand. But I have experienced some things in my life that just force me to believe in some sort of power. A creative ... power, source: however you want to phrase it. I certainly have experienced that presence. And I have experienced the, what I consider the basic ... Oh, so hard to use words to describe an ultradimensional thing. But what we would call love and concern.
Couteau: Do you feel that this thing that is so difficult to give a name toĖas Lao Tsu says, ďThe Tao that can be named is not the true TaoĒ Ö†
Selby: [laughs] Thatís right, ďis not the Tao,Ē thatís right!
Couteau: This thing that is so hard to define, is it something that just exists on a human level or on a profane level, or is it something that, for lack of a better word, we could call extramundane or spiritual? Do you believe in anything like that?
Selby: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I believe in something that is beyond this body. And beyond this physical world. Absolutely.
Couteau: Thatís always been the sense that I get from your writing. When he was close to death, Henry Miller said he did not believe in God in the first-person singular, not as an ďI,Ē but that he did believe in creation, which is very close, very similar to what you just said.
Selby: Yeah, I would say ďitĒ rather than ďI.Ē [laughs]
Couteau: I noticed in a previous print interview that you said you felt you wereĖIím paraphrasing nowĖmerely an ďagentĒ of the creative. Where, then, does it come from? And how is the artistís spiritual role different from the role that ordinary people play?
Selby: Well, what do you mean where does ďitĒ? What is ďitĒ? Do you mean where does this ultimate creative force come from?
Couteau: I think Iím asking you, in the role of a writerĖbecause you were talking about being a writerĖand then, you know, when you write, as I think we all feel when weíre suddenly inspired, thereís something coming from beyond us.
Selby: Oh, right. Well, beyond? I wouldnít say beyond. I would say absolutely within. But I couldnít limit the depth of Ďwithin.í Because once you start getting within, you are in such a boundless, infinite universe. But itís important for me to say within, because I donít think thereís anything outside of me.
Couteau: Are you part of that big ďitĒ with a capital I, then?
Selby: I think we all are, yes. Absolutely. See, which is interesting, because, obviously, every second of every day, people are being born, people are dying, which means whatever this ďitĒ is, changes. Itís in constant change, constant flux. Yet, I want to keep it still. [laughs] And I think thatís the source of so many of my problems, and I guess you could say the worldís problems, is that weíre trying to control it, instead of just surrendering to it.
Couteau: Youíve said, ďSometimes we have the absolute certainty that thereís something inside us thatís so hideous and monstrous that, if we ever search it out, we wonít be able to stand looking at it. But itís when weíre willing to come face-to-face with that demon that we face the angel.Ē Do you believe in angels?
Selby: Iím just using, you know, the vernacular hereĖdemons, angelsĖbut, yeah, I do believe ... [pauses] See, again, angels is a tough word, because it is so involved with organized religion and everything else. But let me just say this: I do know, absolutely, from my experience, there are some kind of spiritual entitiesĖforce, power, intelligenceĖthat guide me through each and every day, as long as Iím willing to accept, recognize, and surrender to their guidance. Itís always there, but there are times when I insist upon having my way.
Couteau: Thatís wonderful that you say that. I think this gets close to what I was trying to understand, which is that you do feel there are extrahuman powers or forces that move through us. Is that correct?
Selby: Yeah. But I suppose you could get right down to it and say, well, maybe theyíre not even extrahuman, maybe theyíre ultrahuman; who knows? But there are definitely things that arenít necessarily walking around [laughs] in a body like mine. And I believe theyíre sort of everywhere. I mean, I canít ... You know, where can you look where youíre not looking in the direction of God so to speak? Where do I go where Iím not surrounded by air, and all these little molecules and atoms, and all that kind of stuff thatís there? Itís just there.
Couteau: That may work as a good segue into a question I was going to ask further down the line. Because it makes me think of ďPsalm 16,Ē what you just said. You know, your piece ďPsalm 16Ē?
Selby: Oh ... oh, mine. Yeah, okayĖI was thinking of Davidís [laughs]ĖI couldnít remember 16!
Couteau: [laughs] Okay! My question was: Are good and evil two sides of the same face of God? Iím remembering your stunning piece, ďPsalm 16,Ē in which you excoriate God and all that occurs ďin your name, in your fucking myriad of names.Ē Such a beautiful line! And on the other hand, you sing, at the end of that psalm: ďI said to the almond tree, ĎSpeak to me of God.í And the almond tree blossomed.Ē
Selby: Precisely. One of the things I like about Ö Whew, I get chills thinking about it! One of the things I like about that psalm is that it appears that the narrator doesnít know what heís doing [laughs] or what heís saying. He doesnít realize heís defeating his own argument so to speak. Thatís one of the things I like about it.
See, the thing is, about the face of God Ö again, that really personalizes it, doesnít it, when we say, ďthe face of GodĒ? And then that gets us back to that Henry Miller thing and so forth. So, I donít think theyíre two different faces of God. I think ďgood and evilĒ is simply my perception of something at the moment.
Couteau: Do you believe in evil as an independent, autonomous force that acts within us or against us? Or is evil, as the Church has sometimes defined it, merely the ďabsence of good?Ē
Selby: I donít seem to be capable of believing in evil as some separate, distinct power within itself. I guess Iím just not a Southern Baptist or a Fundamentalist [laughs]. I just donít seem to be capable of believing in it, somehow. I canít conceive, from my experience, how this force of evil can exist without the force of love being right there.
Couteau: When I read through your books, there is, omnipresent, the term and image and notion of the demon.
Selby: Thatís right.
Couteau: And in this world of duality, naturally, the question would be: Well, whatís the counterpoint of the demon? Which is why I asked about the angels.
Selby: Well, actually, the counterpoint is love. As I understand it, there are only two emotions a human being can experience: love or fear. And when youíre in a state of love, you canít think of trying to get anything. Youíre incapable of thinking that way. You just seem to experience the perfection of creation and want to do what you can to make everyone comfortable; you just give away everything you have. When I talk about giving away, Iím not talking about my clothes or my houseĖfrom within me. You know, try to comfort people.
If Iím coming from anyplace else, Iím coming from fear. And fear takes many, many, many forms to be effective. All kinds of forms. So, if Iím facing the demon of fear, love is always available. But what I have to do is to be willing to surrender to it. Surrender my ideas: of what is right, what is wrong, and all those dreadful judgments that keep us in turmoil and ignorance and misery.
Couteau: Are the demons merely what Jung would call ďautonomous complexesĒ? Are they things that are just below consciousness, that are pulling us in the wrong direction, and that have been formed by past experiences?
Selby: I really couldnít say. I donít know if itís formed by past experience. I mean, because then, if you say past experiences, now weíre getting into reincarnation Ö†
Couteau: Well, I actually meant in this lifetime.
Selby: Well, no, I donít think so. It seems to be something else. I mean, then how would you explain Mozart?
Couteau: I think Mozart, like you, is an example of someone who has the gods moving through him, and his religion was creation.
Selby: Yeah, and at three years old heís writing music! [laughs] I mean Ö [laughs] you know? So, I donít know. How about the accident of birth? Maybe youíre born with an obsession or that aspect of obsession that just has to be generated, somehow, through life. I just donít know.
Couteau: So you do feel itís possible that, as the word destiny impliesĖďthat which follows from beforeĒĖyou do believe we may be born into this world not coming in with a blank slate, so to speak?
Selby: Right. I do believe that. I donít believe in a blank slate in any way. I mean, thatís what we seem to be taught, at least in the Western world: weíre born with a blank slate, and we have to learn how to get and get. Otherwise, weíre fucked. [laughs] That seems to be the message, you know! Certainly, in this country.
But no one ever seems to train us in methods of finding out that we already have within us all the things that are valuable: all the treasures. But itís only in the process of giving them away, to somebody else, that we become aware of having them.
And I donít know; I just donít know about where these things, where do my obsessions come from? My earliest memory as a little kid: I have these obsessions. I have no idea. Iím grateful I found out how I can become increasingly free of them. But I donít know. And I donít know anything really about karma, reincarnation. So, I canít explain the origin.
Couteau: Do you believe that love is something that existed before human beings? Or the possibility for it existed before we came down the block?
Selby: Well, yeah, I think so, but I donít know that I could really define it. I canít ... again, itís like trying to define what this creative force is. Itís beyond my ability to really define. If I can define it, then itís not it. Weíre right back to that thing again.
Couteau: Weíre back to Lao Tsu.
Selby: Yeah, right back there again. So, I donít know. But I do believe that what we call love is always available to us. And of course, Iím not just talking about passion. Iím talking about love where you just canít conceive that your life isnít perfect: that you canít conceive of wanting anything.
Couteau: Do you mean love that could exist without another person?
Selby: Yes, oh, yes. In one sense: in an experiential sense. But if love is what Iíve experienced, I canít separate it from other people. I canít separate creation, and I canít separate whatever this creative thing is from its creation. I donít believe that can be done. So, as I said before, weíre all part of this creative force. So, where else am I going to be directing my love? Now, I can sit alone and experience this thing and be overwhelmed with such ecstasy that I canít say anything but ďthank you.Ē But ultimately, I direct it towards people. Hopefully.
Couteau: Is it directed into your work?
Selby: Well, yeah. But of course, then again, we get down to a definition ... It may be hard to find the love in my work sometimes! [laughs] Weíll put it that way! According to the way people define love.
Couteau: I think I meant: is the act of you sitting down, with all your physical pain, and all the things youíve been through, and all the difficulties that every writer encounters in writing a bookĖisnít it really motivated by love?
Selby: Yeah. And that love is beyond what we call love. Thatís something Ö itís probably beyond what any writer calls love, too! [laughs]
Couteau: Itís not romantic love weíre talking about; weíre talking about rapture.
Selby: Yeah, weíre talking about rapture; weíre talking about creation. Weíre also talking about extraordinary pain.
Couteau: Which brings us back to what we were talking about before: what I called, for lack of a better metaphor, the two sides of the face of the absolute. There was a German philosopher who wrote about comparative religion; his name was Rudolf Otto. He wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy. He invented two terms. He said the encounter with the absolute is either a mysterium fascinans or a mysterium tremendum. It can be bliss or it can be terror. Or it can be both.
As a spiritual man, is it difficult to reconcile the pain that you were just speaking of: that itís part of this creation, too? That there are demons; that thatís all part of the same portrait?
Selby: Oh, yeah, itís difficult. At least for me. Sometimes I sit here, and the phone rings, and I cry. ďI ... I canít talk!Ē Iím just totally incapable of it. But Iíve come to believe, from my experience, that whenever I feel like Iím locked in hell, I am at the gates of heaven. And my perception of my experience can change in the wink of an eye. Just all of a sudden. Boom.
Couteau: Youíre at the gates of heaven, because that can be the next step? Or ... ?
Selby: Let me put it this way. I think weíre always striving for this perfection of our own being: to realize our own perfection. To realize and to be consciously at one with this thing that created us: that we always have within us.
I mean, we always have it in its entirety. Itís my belief that says, ďI donít.Ē And it seems to me that, periodically, the closer I get to the conscious awareness of my oneness with this creative power, the more insane the human ego becomes. And Iím defining ďegoĒ as the lie of separation. The lie that says Iím separate from this thing that I can never be separate from. Iím separate from me; Iím separate from you. It starts to feel really threatened, and it just becomes outrageously vicious. At its best, [laughs] itís vicious. And so, I can just feel so twisted and turned that I canít move. I just donít know what the hell is going on.
But my experience has proven to me that when Iím feeling that way, itís because Iím really knocking at the gates of heaven. You know, to use a phrase. And if I can just find some way of letting go of my fear, which usually means surrendering right into the middle of the fearĖin other words, just sitting and saying: Okay, you fucking dragons, you demons, here I am: eat me up alive, you fucking punkĖ then I become aware of being at the gates of heaven. But boy, itís not easy. [laughs]
Couteau: I recently reread Last Exit to Brooklyn while simultaneously reading your last book, The Willow Tree. Most critics remember your first book for its portrayal of absolute brutality and crueltyĖand maybe we can say, in this context, separation, right?
Couteau: While the last book is, in part, highlighted by the attempt of various characters to show empathy, passion, and love. Yet, a careful reading reveals that there are episodes, incidents, and moments in Last Exit in which empathy occurs, and itís portrayed in a beautiful and touching manner.
Selby: I think so, you know? [laughs] Iím glad to hear that you do!
Couteau: Iím also thinking of the story, ďAnd Baby Makes Three,Ē which, at least in part, is about ďhaving a ballĒ as one character says. More specifically, in ďThe Queen is Dead,Ē there are moving passages that portray Georgetteís love for Vinnie.
I was surprised to discover three principal symbols that make their appearance in this chapter: the swan, the lake, and the willows. These symbols of rapture and bliss also appear years later, in your last book, The Willow Tree: specifically, the part where Moishe takes Bobby to Prospect Park, and Bobby experiences what may be his first day of pure rapture and bliss. Are things such as happiness, bliss, ecstasy, and rapture among the most difficult themes or portrayals to handle successfully as a writer?
Selby: I think so. Because for one thing, like you said, this is a world of duality, so we need something to compare it with. So I have to set the situation up where we can experience the difference between whatever we are havingĖeveryday lifeĖand this experience of bliss.
You said Bobbyís first experience of bliss was being under the willow tree with Moishe. But remember, later on, when Bobby tries to remember some time in his life that made a difference? He remembers when he was a little kid, and they opened up the hydrant on a summer day. And he had that moment then. You see what I mean? Itís a very relative thing. But he had a brief time there, where: oh, life was just enchantment. ďEven the old cranky folksĒ or ďthe old sour pusses, were okay.Ē [Quoting from memory, from the passage.]
Couteau: If I recall correctly, he remembers that when heís with Moishe in the park, right?
Selby: Mm-hmm. I think so.
Couteau: Why is it so much more difficult to portray happinessĖand to make the critics happy about how you portray it?
Selby: I donít know how to make the critics happy! [laughs] I mean, this book, The Willow Tree: I canít even get criticism in this country; thatís been totally ignored.
Couteau: I remember reading something that Norman Mailer once said: that people get uncomfortable when you talk about being in love. People get uncomfortable when they hear a description of pure happiness, and they tend to look at it as being silly. Maybe itís just a general human reaction.
Selby: Quite often, if youíre talking about being in love, you probably sound very silly, because, for one thing, youíre totally self-centered at that time, arenít you? When weíre talking about romantic love and so on. That must be what heís referring to.
Now, to talk about the subject of love in some undefined sense, that can be fascinating. But we donít get into that. Weíre talking about a very subjective, first-person sort of thing. And yeah, [laughs] that can be a bore! Because of the way we talk about it. But if we can present a life, with the tragedies and horrors of life, then see the absence of these horrors ...
You see, I discovered something, many years ago. I spent so many years trying to get happy that I finally realized that I canít get happy: that happiness is a natural state of being. When I stop doing the things that make me unhappy, I will experience the happiness that is a natural state of being.
See, I donít think we were created with some pain, and misery, and whatever. I think we were created by whatever this thing isĖwhen it extended itselfĖand here we are. But I pile on so many misconceptions that I end up uncomfortable in my own skin.
Couteau: Thatís similar to the other definition I mentioned before if we turn it around and speak of good as ďthe absence of evil.Ē
Selby: In a very real sense, yes. But the problem with that definition is the way that itís phrasedĖďgood is the absence of evilĒĖas if itís not something absolute within itself. Now, I donít use the words ďgoodĒ or ďbad,Ē I donít ...
Couteau: As if whatís not something absolute in itself?
Selby: Well, what weíre calling goodness, love, you see? But of course, in our experience, in the human condition, we do need both; it is a world of duality. So, I donít know from up without down, or left without right.
Couteau: Well, since weíre in this metaphysical dilemma right now ...
Selby: [laughs] And have been for many moons, I guess!
Couteau: Right! This might be a good moment to ask: whatís our purpose, then? I mean, in the really big sense of the question. And whatís your purpose as a writer? When you wake up in the morning, and youíre thinking about the book youíre working on, whatís the ultimate goal there?
Selby: When Iím thinking about the book Iím working on, the ultimate goal is always, of course, just simply to write the best book I can write and to understand the book thatís been given to me to write. So that I can create it appropriately.
Now, I donít know about the meaning of life. You know, thatís [laughs] ... There is no definition of it; it can only be experienced. But I do believeĖand I think Moishe says thisĖthat we all need a meaning to our life. I have to have a meaning in my life. If I roam around without some meaning in my life, Iím in deep and serious trouble. I canít, I just canít exist.
Couteau: The French have that wonderful expression, raison díÍtre: reason to be. If you had to define your raison díÍtre, what would you say, in a sentence?
Selby: To be as kind, gentle, loving as possible.
Couteau: Whatís wonderful about the things youíre saying is that you have this very well articulated metaphysicĖbecause itís coming from experienceĖbut you bring it down to earth and continually return to those basic ... I could say moral qualities, right? Kindness, love, forgiveness. As a writer or as a person, would you define yourself, in part, as a moralist? Or is that just too small a word?
Selby: You know, I never thought of it in those terms. But I guess Iíd have to, to some degree, because I am concerned with what the moral dynamic might be of any story thatís given to me to write. Not only the psychodynamic but also what the moral dynamic is, is important. I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit, I heard myself say: ďThe horrors of a loveless world.Ē And I think thatís true, the more I ... And thatís many moons ago that I was asked that question. I hadnít thought about it ahead of time, but thatís what came out of my mouth. And I canít find any reason to change my mind about that statement.
Couteau: I noticed in The Willow Tree that there are many times when the phrase ďthe demonĒ makes its appearance. And of course, thereís your wonderful book by that same title. While rereading Last Exit, I noticed the first appearance in your writing of this word, the demon. Itís when Georgette spontaneously decides to read Edgar Allan Poeís poem, ďThe Raven.Ē She recites: ďAnd his eyes have all the seeming of a demonís that is dreaming.Ē
Now, when I met you in Paris, I was surprised to see that you were always smiling and laughing, and that your eyes did not have the seeming of a demon!
Selby: [laughs] Well, thank you!
Couteau: When I read that line, I thought: perhaps Selby is the demon that is dreaming, and what he dreams up is this collection of some of the best prose in American literature. Or one could say that the demon is another force that youíve been selected to be the agent forĖto use your term from before. If you are the agent, what is the price you pay for carrying the demon within you and for giving it a voice?
Selby: Oh, boy. The price! Whew. You know, first of all, you canít say with absolute certainty. However, I can say [laughs] that my life, to a great extent, has been a horror story. Whew.
In a way, I donít pay a price, but Iím given something. I have these experiences in my life. Iíve had a lot of problems. Certainly, a lot of physical problems as well as emotional problems and everything else. Now, when I finally accept the fact that Iím a writer and go through the arduous task [laughs] of developing that ability ...
See, you must remember that I have no natural talents or abilities in any area of life. Iím not a natural writer or a natural reader; Iím not an exceptional mechanic; Iím not an exceptional athlete; Iím not a draftsman at all; I canít draw or ... Absolutely no natural talent. But I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter every day, for six years, until I learned how to write. Now, I canít say that the ability wasnít there, obviously. I guess it was there, and I just had to fight like hell to activate it, to animate it, to nurture it, to love it. So, I donít know about that. I just know that it was a lot, a lot of work.
Now, because I have this life of suffering, with demons and all other forms of misery, now at least I can do something with it. So it becomes for me Ö I have to assume it becomes cathartic, in a sense. But at the same time, I have a certain framework.
Something else that kept me in conflict and created great pain is that, philosophically and consciously, ethically, morally, whatever, Iím a very pacifistic person. I donít believe in violence. Yet my life has been so violent that Iím constantlyĖat least, in the pastĖviolating my own code of ethics and morality. And that is just destroying me. So, although Iím not consciously aware of this (Iím just looking back; Iím not aware of it at the time), I can constantly experience the difference between heaven and hell, so to speak. And the terrible pain of these conflicts and the angst of not doing the loving things that I always wanted to do. And doing all the mean-spirited things that I knew no human being should ever do.
So in the end result, Iím not focusing on any of these things; Iím focusing on writing the best story I can write. Which means Iím doing everything I can to give the artist within me as much power as possible. Then, somehow, on this piece of paper emerges the result of that conflict, in such a way that the reader can experience and see what itís really like to live this life. Instead of sitting comfortably somewhere and saying, ďOh, those people, they should all be shot.Ē
Couteau: With your creative obsession with demonology; with God; with manís suffering and the possibility of redemption, catharsis, or even transcendence, which youíve lately explored in The Willow Tree, arenít you in fact a religious writer?
Selby: Again, it depends on how we define the word religious. Certainly not in the organized sense, but in some very, very broad spiritual sense I guess Iíd have to agree with you. Again, this wasnít my conscious effort in writing. But it seems to me I am. And I should amend my previous statement by saying, in The Willow Tree, it was a conscious effort to write a spiritual book.
Couteau: Could you elaborate on that?
Selby: Well, as simply as possible, I had spent many years writing about the darkness. And I wrote about the darkness from many different points of view, as I felt like it. And now I wanted ... See, Iím always presenting myself with problems to solve as a writer. So, the problem I presented myself with was: not only to write about the darkness but to write about the light. And how you get from the darkness to the light. So, I would think that thatís kind of defining a spiritual book.
Couteau: Coming from Brooklyn myself, Iím always amazed at how much youíve captured of that nearly impossible to describe place. If you hadnít been raised in Bay Ridge but, instead, hailed from a small town with white picket fences, and year-round sunshine, and strangers who greeted everyone on Main Street by saying ďGood morningĒ Ö In other words, if the peculiar spirit of those dark Brooklyn streets had not infused itself into your soul, what do you think would have been the result? I mean, in terms of your writing.
Selby: Maybe I never would have written. Thatís quite possible, you know? Because one of the things that fascinates me is the music of speech. How many places are there in the world where you have the music of speech? Certainly not in most of this country. So, I just donít know. And if I had the same kind of personality that I have, living in a small town, I donít know if I would have survived long enough to try to write.
Couteau: One of the strange things about a lot of those parts of Brooklyn is that they donít seem to change, decade after decade.
Selby: Oh, thatís right. Yeah, Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last eighty years. With a few physical exceptions.
Couteau: In many ways itís a wonderful place, but, in other ways, itís a very violent place. For some reason, there are a lot of violent people that come out of those streets.
Couteau: And people who donít really have a sense of what you were calling catharsis.
Selby: But isnít it funny that all these mass murderers, and kids, and grown-ups who go around whacking people donít come from ...
Couteau: They come from the little towns with the white picket fences!
Selby: Thatís right! [laughs] Yeah, they donít come from Brooklyn. So, I might have been one of those! Given the nature of my personality. Who the heck knows? You know? I donít know, man; I donít know. But I know that I love the city; I love the sound of the city.
Couteau: I guess the other side of my question really was: how much of Last Exit and some of the things that followed, even up through and including The Willow Tree, how much of that is really a portrait of such streets? All your books are universal, but if someone like me has actually come from a place like that weíre especially impressed, because itís a universal tale but it also mirrors and captures the uniqueness of that place. Is that something youíve thought about through your life?
Selby: Well, not in the physical sense of portraying Brooklyn in any way. But in a very real sense, I have thought about it. Because what I attempt to do is put the reader through an emotional experience. So, you donít find much physical description in my work. I donít describe the streets too much or anything else. But I try to get as deeply inside the people who live on those streets as possible. I think thatís what youíre experiencing: what itís like to live on those streets. Youíre getting each individualís reaction to their life on those streets. Maybe thatís what it is. I certainly canít really say.
Couteau: I know you feel a spiritual or literary kinship with Cťline.
Couteau: Thereís another great writer who also emerged from Brooklyn who had a great kinship with Cťline: that is, Henry Miller. Did Miller in any way influence you as a writer?
Selby: No ... I donít know how much of Miller I ever read before I started writing.
Couteau: There probably wasnít much available at that time.
Selby: No, there wasnít. Because I started writing in the mid í50s. So, no, I donít think ... even if I had read it, I donít think Miller would have influenced me in any way, because we seem to approach things so differently.
Couteau: How so?
Selby: Well, in a lot of Ö Well, I donít know about ďa lotĒ; I havenít read that much Ö
Couteau: Oh, really? I thought he mightíve been someone youíve read a lot, because I saw somewhere that you had his books on your bookshelf.
Selby: Yeah, I do have a couple of his books here. But you know, some of his books ... See, I always have a very definite story line. Iím like an old-fashioned writer: a beginning, middle, and end, kind of thing. And quite often he doesnít. He just kind of wanders around in the streets of Paris, so to speak. And then he wanders around in his mind, you know? Just kind of strolling, straying. Which is cool; Iím not making a negative critique of this. But I think we approach things quite differently sometimes. Although that one book, I forget which Tropic it is, the one that takes place in Brooklyn when heís at Western Union: that had a pretty direct storyline, and was kind of linear, and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. The thing with his first babysitter and all that kind of stuff, man, you know? [laughs]
Couteau: Do you like his writing?
Selby: Yeah. And the same thing with Cťline; I donít think Iíve ever been influenced by Cťline. But looking back on it, it just seems likeĖat least on the surfaceĖit looks like I have more to do with him than anybody else. You know, in that raging, maniacal kind of sense.
Couteau: By the way, did you know that Ö I donít think itís in print anywhere, but, apparently, Cťline did use mescaline.
Selby: Oh, really?
Couteau: I was speaking with a biographer who had some contact with Allen Ginsberg, who had met Cťline, and according to Ginsberg, Cťline had used mescaline. Iíve always wondered about the influence of mescaline on Cťlineís books, because there are passages in his work that are quite hallucinatory.
Selby: So in other words, he used it on a regular basis for a while? Not just as an experimental thing?
Couteau: I donít know. I think thereís very little known about it. Iíve read most of the biographies that are available on him, and Iíve never seen it in print. But I know that he used it at least once, and that he had access to it as a doctor.
Selby: Thatís true, too.
Couteau: Have you ever used hallucinogens?
Selby: No. Well, I smoked grass, which is basically a hallucinogenic. But no, I never wanted to go near them.
Couteau: Did using drugs have any kind of positive influence on your writing? Or to put it in another way, were you able to take anything out of that experience and portray it or use it as material?
Selby: Well, yeah, Requiem for a Dream, obviously.
Couteau: What about how it might have affected you as a stylist? Or your use of language?
Selby: Gee, I donít think so. Because I didnít get involved with drugs until after Last Exit was published. And I think that the language, and style, and so forth, were pretty well established there.
Couteau: Carl Jung used to say that it took as much as twenty years for the collective consciousness to catch up with the contents of his books. How much time will pass before the public is able to understand books like The Room and Requiem for a Dream?
Selby: Well, now thatís a good question; thatís a very good question. The public doesnít seem to have such a problem with my books. Itís the academics that do! [laughs]
Couteau: And the critics? Is that what you mean when you say academics?
Selby: Well, some critics have been very kind, very wonderful.
Couteau: You received some great reviews for those books.
Selby: Yeah! Oh! Oh, The Room? Got some ... Josephine Hendin and Dotson Rader! I mean, wow, I got incredible reviews. But nobody seems to know it exists. So, itís not so much the public. I find that when the public gets around to reading it, from the feedback I get from them, they seem to relate to the book and enjoy it and so forth. But Iíve been kind of ostracized, I think, by the academic community. As a matter of fact, after Last Exit was published, I was told by someone that there really was a conspiracy against the book, in that the large bookstores in New York would not display the book. They would sell it, but they wouldnít display it.
Couteau: Last Exit was banned in the U.K. but not in the States. Why was Last Exit allowed to be published in the United States in 1964, while Tropic of Cancer, which was a much less obscene book-by the classical definition-was banned until just a few years before that?*
Selby: I think becauseĖnow, I donít knowĖbut what popped in mind is the fact that it had been banned for many years. His work had been banned here for many years. You could only smuggle it in and all that sort of stuff. So it had a different resistance and a different procedure to go through.
Couteau: It had an already-established weight, a history that it had to deal with.
Selby: Right. Yeah. And of course, Barney Rosset took care of business and made it possible for a lot of things to happen.
Couteau: You were just talking about the fact that there was a conspiracy to create obstacles for Last Exit. Did the FBI ever open a file on you, and, if so, have you ever seen it or requested it?
Selby: Somebody once told me that they have a file on me, but I ...
Couteau: Never seen it?
Couteau: Not curious?
Selby: No ... well, I suppose ... I donít even think about it. I mean, what the hell could ...
Couteau: Might be good for some laughs, no?
Selby: Yeah! [laughs] No, I think it would piss me off to think of all the time and money theyíre wastingĖgetting a file on me, for Christís sake! Maybe we should do something more important with all this stuff!
Couteau: It pisses me off that people like Frank Sinatra get the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or whatever itís called ...
Selby: [laughs] Yeah!
Couteau: And not people like you!
Couteau: I mean, that really pisses me off!
Selby: You know, fuck the medalĖI could use some money! [laughs]
Couteau: Dough-ray-me, right?
Selby: Yeah! And donít forget, sixteen years ago, I was on welfare for Christís sake, with my son. We were on welfare for a year.
Couteau: Well, this is coming off the top of my head, but do you have anything to say about how America treats its artists? Or maybe not just America but governments in the world, in general? I mean, you must still have some bitterness about that, no?
Selby: No, not bitterness, I just ... I get sad sometimes. I was certainly sad at the time when, you know, you have to scrounge for money to support your family. And I never could really earn a living because of my physical condition, lack of education, and so forth. But you know, governments ... the only government I really know is this government. We donít have a cultural affairs department or anything like they have in some of the European countries. Now, whether thatís any better or not, I donít know! Iím sure there are plenty of artists who really oppose all that bureaucracy dealing with the arts. But it would be nice if, somehow, you could get some money. You know, Iíve applied for the NEA a couple of times, and the Guggenheims, and things like that. And Iíve always been turned down by everybody. According to them, there are at least 2,000 writers in this country that are better than I am. Which could very well be true. And I would love to read them ...
Couteau: But the question is: where the hell are they? [laughs]
Selby: Yeah, where are they? [laughs] You know what I mean? [laughs] Where the hell are they? Itís true.
Couteau: Henry Miller was also turned down for a Guggenheim.
Selby: Well, I can understand thatĖbecause he was a dirty writer! [laughs] You know, in those days? To write the way he was writing? You know.
Couteau: When Picasso was living in Paris, he was approached by a group of artists, and they asked him to sign a petition demanding that the government give more money to artists. And he refused to sign it. He said, of course Iím not going to sign that petition; the state, the government, is the enemy.
Selby: Mm-hmm. Well, but we must remember that he was a Communist, so his attitude was a little different. But thatís why I say Iím not sure if itís beneficial to have an official government bureau. And whoís going to head it? Jessie Helms? [Laughs uproariously] Dan Quayle, thatís who! [laughs]
Couteau: Right! Talking about Murphy Brown!*
Couteau: If Murphy Brown gives him a hard time, what about Hubert Selby?
Selby: Oh, my goodness! [laughs] Yeah. So, I donít know about governments as far as individual artists are concerned. I suspect it wouldnít be worth it to have them poking around. I think it would be nice if governments could be a little more helpful with, say, orchestras, ballet companies, and so forth, which canít sustain themselves. Maybe they could get a tax break on tickets or something. There might be some way of doing it where they could keep them out of it. But the individual artists Ö I think we just have to go our own way.
Couteau: I agree with you.
Couteau: Yeah. I think in a way, the great irony, or paradox, about America is that it makes it so hard for the sensitive person, the artist, the impressionable person, the person whose raison díÍtre is to incarnate the creative will rather than to just make money, and yet that extreme difficulty that the culture poses for us has created some of the best artists in the last hundred years.
Couteau: You would agree with that?
Selby: Oh, yeah. I mean, how is a pearl manufactured?
Couteau: Beautiful answer.
Selby: Right? Yeah, that seems to be a necessary part. Because the artist by definition is outside the mainstream of society. Wasnít it Yeats who said that the artist is the antenna of the race? Itís so true. It seems to me that what the artist sees is the simple and obvious that is invisible to everybody else. And itís always there; itís all around us. The artist magnifies whatís invisible to other people so that theyíre capable of at least realizing thereís something here.
Couteau: What is the artistís relationship to the childhood experience? Were you, for example, the classic ďartist as a childĒ: the sensitive, impressionable person?
Selby: Oh, God, yeah! Oh, Jesus! [laughs] And not only thatĖmy name is Hubert, and Iím born and raised in Brooklyn! Everybodyís Mikey, Vinnie, TonyĖit was like being a Jew in an Irish neighborhood! [laughs] I mean, everybodyís poking fun at me. And I could never, never deal with it. I could never deal with it. Oh, God almighty. And of course, I donít know that, inside, Iím different from anybody else. And everybody else seems to be taking care of business. And Iím in this constant turmoil. I see a cat going through a garbage can getting something to eatĖI fall apart; Iím crying, Iím dying! I canít stand to look at it, you know? Oh, man. You know, bringing home crippled birds. You know, that kind of thing.
Couteau: Was there an adult who was any kind of a role model; or was there a singular defining experience in your childhood that marked you to be an artist, later on, do you think?
Selby: No, I think itís just something there. Again, itís that accident of birth that I donít understand. I think it can get nurtured. You see, you donít decide to be an artist; you accept the fact that you are. But you donít decide to be one. Now, who the hell could be that dumb? Can you imagine deciding to live this kind of life? Oh, good Lord! [laughs]
Couteau: I donít know if youíve ever seen Mircea Eliadeís work on shamanism, but he says that when the old shaman, or when the tribe, decides to select the young boy who will become the next shaman, itís like a fate worse than death. And the boy tries to run away and to escape, and itís the worst thing imaginable, because heíll be wounded in some wayĖin a psychological senseĖand itís through that wound that the unconscious will be channeled. The sacred world will come through that wound, through that hole inside of him.
Selby: Yeah. Boy, does that sound accurate. Wow.
Couteau: You can relate to that?
Selby: Oh, dear Lord. Yes, indeed.
*†††† *†††† *
Couteau: Whatís your parentsí background? Are you Irish?
Selby: No, English. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years: all English.
Couteau: On each side?
Selby: Yeah, my family on both sides has been in this country for more than 350 years.
Couteau: They were probably the last English family left in Bay Ridge!
Selby: I was a member of the smallest minority in the country, for Godís sake! [laughs] I want minority rights, God bless us! [laughs]
Couteau: Youíre working on an autobiography now?
Selby: No, not really. I was writing a memoir. I wanted to put down as much information as possible about myself for my children. Because I realized: who the heck can know their parents? Even if you have a whole bunch of facts. I know nothing about my father, not even the facts or anything else. But who can really know them? When youíre a kid, theyíre God: theyíre all this; theyíre that. I just thought it would be nice to leave a document for my children where they can see the humanness inside of their father. Itís not finished, because Iíve got so many other things happening. Suddenly, I was writing The Willow Tree, and now something else. Also, I was writing a thing called ďSeeds of Pain, Seeds of LoveĒ that is very autobiographical. I donít know if Iíll ever get back and organize that and finish it. Itís just ... I never know.
Couteau: I understand youíre currently working on a book that deals with the theme of suicide.
Selby: Well, not really suicide. What the theme is ... itís hard for me to say, because this thing evolved from a joke, just like Requiem for a Dream evolved from a joke. It might be, simply, having a purpose in life.
The thing started: this guy is very despondent; heís very unhappy. So heís trying to figure out how to kill himself. And eventually he decides heís going toĖthis is a long thingĖbut finally he decides heís going to get a gun and blow his brains out. And so he goes to get a gun, and they need information to okay it: you know, to get a permit, whatever itís called. And the computer system breaks down, and he has to wait five days. He becomes pissed off at all this, and in that five-day period he goes from being suicidal to homicidal. So he figures: oh, heíll kill this guy at the Veteranís Administration whoís been breaking his balls.
He doesnít want to just murder him; he wants to make it look natural, so he doesnít have to pay a price. So he goes on the Internet, and he finds out how to culture E. coli and salmonella bacteria. And to make a long story short, he drops it in the guyís Coke one day at lunch, and the guy actually dies. And he goes and he visits the body, and heís really delighted over this, really happy: ďI killed a man; I killed a man!Ē
And then, of course, heís even more depressed than ever. And he sits around for about three days with the gun barrel in his mouth, hoping that if he canít pull the trigger maybe heíll fall down and accidentally pull the trigger. So then the TV is on, and suddenly something captures his ear.
Theyíre talking about the thirtieth picnic and barbecue celebration in some place, and you get the distinct impression that itís Mississippi. What itís about is: thirty years before, when they were integrating the hospitals for Medicare. The doctors were going all over the country doing this. And there was a black doctor working in this particular town, and he was murdered. And everyone knew that this guy had done it. Then they brought him to trial, and they found him not guilty. And everyone celebrated right after the trial with a barbecue and picnic. And every year since then, they have this barbecue and picnic celebration. So this guyĖďAh, ha!ĒĖnow he has a purpose to his life, see?
So heís going to get this guy. And heíll get this guy in the same E. coli kind of manner. But then what heíll do is: heís going to see if he can start a mafia war between different gangs and have them eliminate each other. Heís going to go aroundĖI donít know how many: three, four different citiesĖand blow up some mafia people, hoping theyíll all start shooting each other and all that kind of thing.
Couteau: Youíre currently working on this?
Couteau: What about writing in the first person? When I read the little thatís available about your biography, it seems it would be a natural thing for you to write in the first person. Is your memoir in the first person?
Selby: Oh, well, yeah. And this ďWaiting PeriodĒ thing that I just told you about, the suicide guy, thatís first person. Thereís actually no narrator. Thereís actually no narrator at all.
Couteau: Itís first person?
Selby: Yeah. Itís all inside this guyís head, like in The Room. Thereís no narrator, but there is a commentator that kind of pops up, every now and then. Sometimes he seems to be the devil, and sometimes he seems to be Jesus. I donít know who he is. He just pops in and out. And makes comments about things.
Couteau: Maybe back to that thing about the two sides, the two faces, right?
Selby: Yeah, who knows? [laughs]
Couteau: It seems to me that would be a natural thing for you to do, given the incredible life ... you know, youíve had a very rich life, and a very intense life. Is this the first time that youíve had the impulse to write in the first person?
Selby: No, there are some things ...
Couteau: I know you have some short stories ...
Selby: Some stories are in the first person. And then, oh, that thing, the ďSeeds of Pain, Seeds of Love,Ē the autobiographical thing: thatís first person. But I jump from first to third. I do that a lot in all my work; Iím sure youíve noticed.
Couteau: You listen to Beethoven every day and youíve mentioned Cťline, whoís a very musical writer. When youíre writing, do the words come in rhythm or melody?
Selby: Yeah. Depending upon whatís needed. See, I always try to fulfill the responsibility to the story: whatever is needed at the moment. But yeah, I write by ear. Yeah, the rhythms of the writing, even in the narrative, are important. For instance, if Iím writing a narrative about a particular person, dealing with a particular person, the rhythms, the syntax, and so forth, should reflect that personís personality.
Couteau: It was obvious to me that you were writing by ear; I just wanted to make sure. Itís one of the reasons your writing is so beautiful, and so different, from many other writers.
Just a couple of last questions. Are there any nonfiction writers or books that were a big influence?
Selby: Well, maybe when I was ... when I was a kid, I did read one book. And that was called Heroes of Science. And it had Edward Jenner, Lavoisier, and, oh, I canít remember the various scientists. But I do remember reading that book. And I remember, when I was eight or ten years old, making a decision that I was going to find a way to stop the suffering in the world. [laughs]
Couteau: Well, thatís interesting!
Selby: [laughs] Yes, indeed. I think about that now. And, you know, I think about it, and it really wasnít an ego trip. It wasnít like, ďIím going to do this.Ē
Couteau: It wasnít coming out of a power complex.
Selby: No, it was a real sincere thing. I was that kind of kid. I guess I had, by that time, seen enough suffering. And I just really wanted people to stop hurting each other.
Couteau: You said you donít know much about your dad. I imagine your mom must have been an incredible influence.
Selby: Yeah. They were both very, very influential. My motherís a very strong, powerful woman. And my father was a drunk. He died drunk at the age of seventy-eight, so it wasnít like a premature death. And Iíve just cloned myself after my father. Oh, in so many ways. Violent, drunk, maniacal. I left home and went to sea, and he went to sea. And oh, just ... oh, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, my mother was a reader. But she just couldnít stand bad language! [laughs] I used to get a bar of lye soap in my mouth for using words like lousy.
Selby: [laughs] Oh, boy! But at the same time, she got me to museums periodically. At least a couple of times a year we went to museums, things of that nature. My father went back to sea in 1942, and I always had a part-time job after school or before school, whichever. Which meant I used to work a half a day Saturday, and quite often weíd meet, go to a movie. And once we saw Othello, with Paul Robeson. Oh! Boy, what an experience that was! And so, there was a balance.
You know, as weíve said, there are no absolutes. There was a lot of conflict. I wanted to please my mother, and I wanted to please my father. And so, [laughs] itís pretty hard to please them both when they were so opposite in personality. So, I was always caught up in this conflict.
Couteau: Was your father kind to you? Was he loving to you?
Selby: Well, not overtly. I realize now that he felt so incredibly inadequate. He didnít know what the hell to do.
You know, thereís one thing I do know about him. He was twelve years old; he was all alone in the world and working in a coal mine. So you know, thatís not exactly a great background to bring to a marriage.
Couteau: His parents were both ...
Selby: Dead. Yeah.
Couteau: They died at about that time or ...
Selby: Well, first his mother died when he was very young. He comes from Island, Kentucky. And then, when he was about twelve, I guess, his father died, and his stepmother just packed up and left. So, he went to live with an aunt in Indiana and worked in the coalmines. And he was just a little guy.
Couteau: He was confronted with a whole lot of reality very early on.
Selby: Oh, yeah! Right.
Couteau: And your mother, I would imagine, was more overt with her affection?
Selby: Oh, yeah, with her affection. And she sang in the same choir for more than sixty years. Sheíd still be there, but she canít get out of bed.
Couteau: How old is she now?
Selby: Sheís eighty-nine.
Couteau: What does she think of your work? What was her reaction?
Selby: Well, Iíll tell you, man. Her reaction to Last Exit was one of the greatest compliments Iíve ever gotten. Because I told you her thing about language.
Couteau: Okay! So if lousy was a bad word, what did she think of Last Exit?
Selby: Well, she read the book, and this is what she said. She said: ďOh, those poor people.Ē Wow. So, I mean, I really must have succeeded in doing what I planned to do. And that is: to put the reader through an emotional experience, because the experience of reading that book transcended all her prejudices, her ideas, her beliefs, and she just responded to the pain of the people.
Couteau: That must have been the ultimate compliment.
Selby: Oh! Itís the greatest compliment that Iíve gotten. Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Because I know how she feels. [laughs] You know what I mean?
Couteau: Has she read your subsequent books?
Selby: Iíve given her a copy of each one. I donít know if sheís actually read them all. I donít know if she was able to get through The Room. Some people canít.
Couteau: I think itís one of your best.
Selby: I think itís the most disturbing book ever written by a human being. But I think itís a masterpiece.
Couteau: Is that your own favorite, of all your work?
Selby: Well, I canít say itís a favorite. In one sense it is, because ... after I finished writing that thing, I stayed away from it for twelve years. It was really disturbing. And then I went back to it, and I was just delighted. Because, in Last Exit, I was struggling so hard to learn how to write. Oh, God, I canít describe to you the pain and torture: every night, for six years, trying to learn how to write. And so, Iím so involved in it that I canít see what Iím learning. But in rereading The Room all those years later, I could see so clearly how, in Last Exit, I had learned how to write. Because I learned how to put down a simple lineĖthat is so simple, and so obvious, and that, hopefully, contains a certain degree of profundity.
Couteau: You were channeling the creative will in a much easier way.
Selby: Yeah. And I had acquired tools and techniques that I could utilize whenever the need arose. I could see that when I reread The Room. I think itís a remarkable book. I really do.
Couteau: I agree with you. Whatís incredible about that book is its minimal beauty. The setting is a single room. The ďcharactersĒ are just one person. The dialogue is a monologue. Were those intentional things or was that just something that evolved?
Selby: The basic premise of the book was totally musical: variations on a theme. And I wanted it just as simple, as simple, as simple as possible.
Couteau: Was there any particular thing that inspired that idea, that concept to create a sort of minimal masterpiece?
Selby: It grew out of a story called ďThe Sound.Ē I donít know if you remember that story or not.
Couteau: Is it in Song of the Silent Snow?
Selby: Yeah. A guy is locked in a cell, and he hears a strange noise. And heís looking out, and he becomes scared and so forth. Turns out, heís having DTs [delirium tremens]. But thatís where that originated. That was the germ of the idea for The Room.
Couteau: I understand you were actually locked up for a month.
Selby: Yeah. Thatís where they both come from.
Couteau: Was that the germ for the short story then?
Selby: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I wrote that in jail. I was in solitary a month, and then I was in population for a month.
Couteau: Why did they put you in solitary? Because you were detoxing?
Selby: Yeah. And because ... This wasnít solitary, like in the hole. This was, you know, a single occupancy room, an SRO! [Laughs uproariously] Because of my tubercular history, I was put in isolation, I guess. So I had this single- room occupancy cell. [laughs]
Couteau: My astrologer friends made me promise to ask if you know what time you were born.
Selby: Oh, dear, I donít know. I think it was something like 11:00 a.m. And that would be New York time. But Iím not certain about that.
Couteau: I remember reading, years ago, in the Village Voice that, because of your health problems, you turned to astrology. Is that true?
Selby: No. What happened was: when I was very young, we lived in a luxury building. My father was the super: 59 West 12. Across the street from where the New School is now. It wasnít there at the time. But it was a luxury building. And there was an older lady in there that really took a liking to me. I was maybe three years old when we lived in there, or four. And she had my horoscope drawn up by somebody that Iíve been told is a very famous astrologer: Alan Leo.*
Couteau: Yeah. Heís from an older generation of astrologers.
Selby: Yeah, I guess he would be, because this was maybe 1931 or í32 that it was drawn up. And what happened is: many, many years later, I found, I came across this. I had it, and I read it. So, I never had one made up.
Couteau: Was it accurate?
Selby: Well, yeah, there are some interesting things. Like: ďStay away, be careful about going to sea,Ē and stuff like that. [laughs]
Couteau: Really, he said that?
Selby: Yeah! [laughs] ďBe careful of things like alcohol and drugs.Ē
Couteau: And ďBe careful if you leave your house. Better to stay at home!Ē
Selby: Yeah! [laughs] And you know, ďYou might want to look into the arts.Ē Things like that.
Couteau: Actually, heís a very respected astrologer. Heís published quite a bit.
Selby: Yeah. But it doesnít say on there about what time I was born. So, thatís why I couldnít really say. And itís got all these figures. I guess these Ö not illustrations Ö
Couteau: The glyphs for the signs?
Selby: Glyphs! Yeah. Those things for the different months and stuff. So, I donít know whatís what.
Couteau: Obviously, youíre a spiritual man, and youíve developed a philosophy that comes out of spiritual experience. Was there a point in your life when that started to happen? Was there something in particular that occurred?
Selby: Well, boy ... You know, when you start looking back on your life, you see it happening all along. But the big thing, the big thing was: thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. And that gave me a chance to get in touch with, shall we say, my own reality, as far as this world is concerned. Very uncomfortable! [laughs] But that, of course, was the big thing.
But I can look back on things that are just remarkable. We had a little thing called ďPoetry in MotionĒ out here. We had poetry readings every week for about four years. And the fun part of it was that each week theyíd have a topic. Just some arbitrary thing. You know, like ďfashion,Ē ďpassion,Ē ďterminal cool,Ē ďit takes one to know one,Ē you know, ďsports heroes,Ē that kind of stuff. And then youíd write something around this topic.
So I wrote a thing about what happened when I was about eighteen years old in the hospital. And what it was: this old guy, Hocus Pocus, he was a little old Estonian guy; we used to kind of make fun of him because he was a religious man. And he had this very deep affection for this young Greek boy. He was probably still in his teens, too; he was a Greek from Egypt. And he was going for his routine operation. Every three weeks, he got another three ribs cut out. It was one of those things. And he went for his first operation, and he didnít come back for a while, and ... Well, anyway, it turned out ... he died.
So this old guy Hocus Pocus was really broken up over this. And one day he came over to my bed, and he asked me to write him a letter. Now, I never wrote a letter in my life; I didnít know from nothing. And I said yes. I guess I was just moved by his need. So he said he wanted to write a letter to AlexísĖthat was the boyís nameĖAlexís parents, and to say he was a good boy, and that weíre sorry.
So, I donít know, somehow, I wrote a letter and it met with his liking. And we mailed it. And then we got a reply back. And the parents said they were so happy to hear from us and that sort of thing. And they exchanged a few letters. And then I realized, as I was writing this (and I wrote this forty years after the fact), two things:
First, in the story itself, I say: why did this guy ask me to do this? There were plenty of people in this ward who were better qualified; everybody was better qualified than I was. In addition to that, they had Gray Ladies* there, social service Ö anybody ... but he asked me. And the conclusion I came up withĖand this only happened as Iím writing; see, thatís why I say I donít know what I have to give until Iím in the process of giving it awayĖas Iím writing this thing, on the paper it says: ďBecause I was in more need of the miracle he was offering than anybody else.Ē
And because I had said yes to life, I found out that I always have within me the infinite resources necessary to fulfill my responsibility at the moment. And what he was giving me was the gift of love. The gift that I could love. And then, later on, I realizedĖand again, this is maybe forty-two years after the factĖthat is where I made the decision to be a writer. Now I know that, absolutely. Now I may be talking about a spiritual decision. But that is where it really originated. I said yes to writing a letter.
Couteau: Itís very interesting, because my question was about spiritual experience, and you immediately focused on your role as a writer.
Selby: Mm-hmm. Right.
Couteau: So in a sense, this is your spiritual raison díÍtre: what youíre doing, what you do.
Selby: I believe so. But see, I believe the first thing I mentioned was that he gave me the gift of love. Thatís the first thing I recognized. The gift of love. That I could commit a loving act. And that was vitally important to me, because I thought I was the lowest form of animal life in the world. I was totally incapable of loving. And I wanted to be loving more than anything: more than I wanted life itself. And it tortured me Ö
Couteau: Your own judgments?
Selby: Of myself.
Couteau: The way that you looked at yourself?
Couteau: As a result of the illness?
Selby: No, just a result of everything. I always felt that way, all my life. I just ... and thereís no reason for it: no reason, in fact. I just thought I was evil.
Couteau: And you donít know why?
Selby: No. Just ... the way it is.
Couteau: You know, when we read things about you, writers always sort of draw this vertical line: Before the illness; after the illness. Do you feel that? Or do you feel something else that is a continuity, which is not separated in that way? I mean, did it fundamentally change you?
Selby: Oh, yeah. Well, yes, absolutely.
Couteau: Your soul?
Selby: Well, no, I donít think it changed my soul. But it certainly changed my perception of it. And it changed my perception of my place in this world. See, I had no education; I left home at fifteen. And when I was a kid, I was a very physical kid. I was maybe six feet tall, 170 pounds. I was just a physical kid. And now, all of a sudden, I have all these ribs removed. Iím just devastated. The physical world is no longer my friend. I canít function in the physical world. And I am terrified. Now, let me tell you something I just remembered thatís indicative of the opinion I had of myself.
When I was finally brought back to this country, they said I was going to die. They didnít tell me; they told my mother. And they had me in this little, itty-bitty room. It was just big enough for the bed. They just stick you in there to die. When I was in there, I couldnít lie down. I had to sit up in bed all the time, because I couldnít breath. And it was like, I gasped for air. You know, always gasping. And I remember so clearly the thought that just went through my head. It was: God put me here in order to atone for all my sins.
Now, what in the hell kind of an opinion did I have of me?
Couteau: Where did that come from?
Selby: Donít ask me!
Couteau: No idea?
Selby: No. But thatís the opinion I had of me. That Iím just ... Iím really ... And I told this to a shrink once. And then he asked me, he says, ďWell, what did you do that was so terrible that you deserved to die like that, at the age of eighteen?Ē And I lay there a while [laughs]ĖI had no answer! FinallyĖthis is so insane, when I think about itĖthe only answer I could come up with, after many minutes of thinking, was: I quit school. Now, isnít that insane? Thatís the kind of thing Iím working with internally! [laughs] I quit school. But I mean, if you know the whole background, it does make a little sense. Because my parents wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to go to school, get a good job, and so forth. And I left school. And that hurt them. So, in a sense, it does make some sense. But still, thatís really crazy.
Couteau: You describe yourself as being a very empathetic child and adult. And this is what I feel, even when I read Last Exit, which, as youíve said somewhere else, you said something like: There is no light in this book. And the reader is forced to turn to his own light, you know, inside.
Selby: Mm-hmm. Yeah. He has no relief.
Couteau: Thereís no relief in that book. Except maybe in that story, ďAnd Baby Makes Three,Ē which I think is a fun story.
Selby: [laughs] Well, yeah. And that was there just for that reason. I put it right there just because I had the sense that, if I donít change the tempo of the music, the rest can start to become a monotone and lose its power.
Couteau: I see. But again, when I read Last Exit, thereís an authorial presence; your presence is in the book, and we feel it during those brief moments of empathy when, for example, Georgette imagines a different world ...
Couteau: ... a wonderful, loving world. And there are other characters, in other moments in the book, through which that occurs. Was that an intentional part of what you tried to do in Last Exit? Or was it just that you were sort of ďleakingĒ into the book?
Selby: Well, it must just be ďleaking,Ē because I never wanted me to be in there in any way whatsoever. But as I said, I put the reader through an emotional experience. I have to write from the inside out. And it seemed absolutely essential that that romantic image, which can be so lyrical within Georgie and, at the same time, so deadly, be expressed.
Couteau: Because itís part of the human condition.
Couteau: And youíre writing about the human condition.
Selby: Thatís right.
Couteau: Well, Mr. Selby, this has been an emotional catharsis for me, talking to you!
Couteau: I really want to thank you for your time.
Selby: Well, thank you! Itís been a really very interesting interview. You asked some really interesting questions. It was a lot of fun.
Couteau: Thank you. What did the guys in Brooklyn think when you published Last Exit? Did any of them read it?
Selby: Well, a couple of them read at least part of Last Exit. And [imitating a Brooklyn accent]: ďSay, man, this ainít the way it was!Ē [laughs]
Couteau: They said that?
Selby: Yeah, they all said the same thing! [laughs]
Couteau: Were they just giving you a hard time?
Selby: No, no! Itís just, you know: poetic license! I mean, itís based on my experiences in life, but: ďItís not the way it happened.Ē [laughs]
Couteau: Were any of the stories in Last Exit things that actually occurred?
Selby: Well, yeah, a little bit. ďAnd Baby Makes ThreeĒ: it was kind of ... that sort of happened, at least part of it. There was a time when somebody was fucking around with a knife and stabbed Georgie.
Couteau: Georgie really existed?
Selby: Oh, yeah, Georgieís very real. What else? There was a strike.
Couteau: Thatís an amazing story, ďStrike.Ē It really makes you feel as if youíre inside a little Brooklyn office somewhere.
Selby: I mean, the strike was real, but everything else of course was just pure imagination. ďTralalaĒ: there was a person named Tralala. I never saw her. Thatís the only connection with reality, the name.
Couteau: Two last things that pop into my head: let me throw these at you. Why is there so much homosexualityĖyou know, the drag queensĖin Last Exit? Why does it happen so frequently? And the other question I wanted to ask: you were saying that you felt as if you were at the bottom rung of humanity. How do you feel about yourself now?
Selby: Oh, Iíve come to terms with all that. Mostly, by correcting the errors Iíve made on the outside: doing all I can to compensate for any pain and misery Iíve caused people. And through these experiences that weíve talked about, I get a greater glimmer of my reality. So, I just donít believe the lies that go through my head anymore.
The homosexuality really stems from just Georgie, for one thing. And there is this connection through it so that the guy in ďStrikeĒ is actually going out with people that were introduced to him through Georgie. So, thatís just the thread. Itís not ...
Couteau: Itís just the thread that runs through the book then.
Selby: Yeah. Itís not that thereís so much homosexuality, although it may appear that way. It starts with Georgie, whoís a neighborhood kid. And then he brings around some of the others, and that kind of thing. Also, you must remember that most of these guys that weíre talking about here, and writing about, had been in the joint for a while. So, fucking young boys in the ass is S.O.P.
Couteau: Whatís S.O.P.?
Selby: Standard Operational Procedure.
Couteau: [laughs] Thatís true. You even use the word ďconĒ at some point in the book. You say, ďa bunch of cons.Ē And someone ďhad never hung out with cons beforeĒ: one of the girls.
Selby: Yeah, right. I remember once seeing a coupleĖtwo malesĖon a subway, many years ago. And this one guy had a real typical Irish ex-con look. And he was big. And he just had that look. And he had this frail-looking little guy with him, and they were holding hands, you know. But nobody was going say anything! [laughs]
Couteau: Nobody was going to fuck with him, right?
Selby: [laughs] No way!
Couteau: By the way, itís interesting that youíre using some Internet stuff in your latest book. I mean, thatís something weíd never expect in a Hubert Selby book.
Selby: Well, I figured: where else is he going to find that? It seems everybodyís got a Net, an Internet thing.
Couteau: Thatís a great idea.
Selby: Yeah, so Ö
Couteau: Is living in L.A. changing your writing in any way, or what youíre writing about?
Selby: Well, youíd have to answer that. I mean, has it? I donít think so ...
Couteau: I meant, for example, are there any L.A. characters or ... Well, I guess youíre still writing about New York, obviously ...
Selby: Uh-huh. I think I still write with Ö whatever power I have is still there, I believe.
Couteau: I just meant in terms of something you might experience in L.A. that you would never experience in New York and that eventually finding its way into your writing.
Selby: Who knows? Itís possible. Well, the guy with the suicide-murder thing, I guess that could be L.A., why not?
Couteau: What was the origin of ďPsalm 16Ē? That has to be one of your most incredible short pieces. I was telling my friends that, when I die, I want the priest to read it at my funeral!
Selby: [laughs] Really? Well, that was those poetry readings I was telling you about. And the theme one night was ďSong of Forgiveness.Ē And this is what I ended up writing. A song of forgiveness.
Iíll tell you something interesting about that. I sent a copy to my mother. She was still ambulatory at the time, so it must have been like ten years ago. And she showed it to her pastor in her church. And he wrote to me asking if he could have a copy of it to use. He said, ďI never read religious literature, because itís just too easy. But you ask hard questions.Ē [laughs] So, he was fascinated by it.
Couteau: Thatís an amazing little story.
Selby: Yeah, isnít it?
Couteau: It really is, yeah. Of course, heíll probably never read it at the church but, still, itís a great story!
Couteau: I was reading Van Goghís letters the other day, and I noticed that Vincent sent a copy of one of his sermons to his brother Theo.
Selby: Yeah, Vincent was a preacher up there in the Belgian coal mines for a while. He was a religious fanatic. He just couldnít come to terms with it. You know, God is loveĖand look at the suffering. It was ... whew. Oh, who can come to terms with that?
Couteau: Itís one of those questions that will always haunt mankind.
Selby: Mm-hmm. Yeah, as long as we have that personalized God.
* From a two-hour phone interview conducted between Los Angeles and Paris on 20 September 1999. An abridged version was featured in Rain Taxi Review of Books (online) in December 1999.
* Although Tropic was published by Grove Press in 1961, it wasn't until June 22, 1964 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the book to be not obscene. In Florida and Philadelphia, however, litigation continued until 1966.
* An American television comedy about a journalist named Murphy Brown, which aired from 1988 to 1998. After ďMurphyĒ decided to raise a child as a single parent, Vice President Dan Quayle denounced her for ďignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone.Ē
* Leo died in 1917, so Selby must have had someone else in mind. * Red Cross workers, who wore gray uniforms.
The complete interview is featured in:
Collected Couteau: Poems, Letters, Essays and Interviews, by Rob Couteau
Book reviews of Hubert Selby's The Demon and The Room, by Rob Couteau
All text Copyright © 2015 | Rob Couteau | key words: interview | literature | The Beats | The Demon | The Room | Requiem For a Dream | Last Exit to Brooklyn | Hubert Selby