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Edmund White's new novel 'A Previous Life' is a steamy, but very real, romance story


It's 2050, and Count Ruggero Castelnuovo, a 70-year-old musician, and Constance, his American wife who's 40 years younger, decide to write something confiding and intimate for one another. Let's ask Edmund White to read from an early section of his new novel, "A Previous Life."

EDMUND WHITE: (Reading) But what should we write, he asked with a slightly false respectfulness, as one might ask a child which color one should paint a room. Our confessions, she said, in an edition of one for each other's eyes alone to be burned after a single reading - the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, we know the broad lines of each other's life, but we've never been able to put in the fine shading. Oh, come on. Don't look so solemn. It'll be fun. It's a little unfair since I've lived so much longer, he said. But you have forgotten more, she said, keeping up the bantering tone.

SIMON: Edmund White, the award-winning and much-admired novelist of books that include "A Boy's Own Story," joins us now. Mr. White, thanks so much for being with us.

WHITE: I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: This is a couple that palpably love each other. Why don't they just get each other matching sweaters or something?

WHITE: (Laughter) Well, they do love each other. But she has a kind of morbid fear that he will leave her even though she's so much younger and at least as attractive.

SIMON: A lot of what they write to each other is about prior romances. And I need to flag for our listeners here that, you know, we might be venturing into territory that some people will find difficult to hear. There's just a lot of frank description of desire and sex and, I mean, the basic machinery of sex, isn't there?

WHITE: I suppose there is. There always has been in my writing. And I know some people find that very offensive, but it's just the way I've always written.

SIMON: There's a phrase that I wrote down in - Constance talks. Although she's been married to men, she's found women to be better lovers of women and that, with men, quote, "it always felt a bit remote, like a robotic arm lifting uranium through a protective screen." (Laughter) I'm sorry. I have to laugh while reading that.

WHITE: You know, I wrote a book called "The Joy Of Gay Sex." And when we were talking to the original publishers who published "The Joy Of Sex," they were saying that, of course, books about lesbian sex or gay sex are slightly more obvious to the partners because their body is similar, whereas "The Joy Of Sex," which was for heterosexual couples, there was something of a mystery about women for men and the same about men for women. And so anyway, that is kind of the idea behind that.

SIMON: Forgive me. I didn't know until recently you were in the Stonewall Inn the night of the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

WHITE: Yes. Yes, I was. I was actually just walking by with a friend, and we saw the disturbance. And then pretty soon, we had mixed in with the melee. And it continued for two more nights that weekend.

SIMON: Can we ask you to bring us back and tell us what it was like?

WHITE: Well, people called it a discotheque, but it just had a jukebox. And it had a very long bar that was extremely unhygienic because they didn't really have running water. I had gone there frequently over the years to dance with people. But, you know, Mayor Wagner in the early '60s had cleaned up the city. That is, he'd suppressed all the gay bars because he wanted to make the city more attractive to people visiting for the World's Fair.

Things seemed to be more genial by the late '60s. And then all of a sudden, the police raided the bar. So we resisted. Everybody remembers it as being terribly solemn because it was sort of like our Bastille Day. But the truth is, everybody was laughing. And even saying slogans like gay is good, which was meant to echo Black is beautiful, struck us as funny because we'd been so oppressed for so long that the idea of claiming our rights seemed vaguely humorous to us.

SIMON: Yeah. How do you feel about being identified as a queer writer?

WHITE: Well, you know, everything in America is niche marketing. And people always say, oh, why - aren't you just a writer? And I always felt like, well, I'm not as popular as Saul Bellow or John Updike. But when you write for a minority group, you're sort of essential to them, especially when I first started writing, which was long before there were gay politicians or openly gay movie stars or any other gay figures that you could identify with.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. But, I mean, for example, in this book, "A Previous Life," you - there's a lot of straight sex, too (laughter).

WHITE: Well, that's true. I've been branching out. I was just down in Key West at the literary festival, and I was sort of brought into a discussion about gay lit. And I said to the audience, doesn't that sound terribly old fashioned to you, homosexuality? I said, it does to me. I mean, it - I do feel like 50 years from now, everybody will be bisexual.

SIMON: Age is a theme in this novel. Are there things that are better in your 80s?

WHITE: Well, (laughter) I don't think so. I've had - relatively speaking to the rest of my life, I've had a lot of success with my writing. That part has been gratifying. And when I started off writing, I always got nasty reviews, especially from British critics. The English think it's ludicrous to be frank about sex.

SIMON: Well, you know, as indicated by the fact that every time I raise the subject with you, even in this interview for our audience, I have to do it with a trigger warning.

WHITE: Yeah. See? The mores have changed very much. I mean, like, everybody was much more frank in the '70s than they are now. Now everyone's terrified of being canceled.

SIMON: Edmund White - his novel, "A Previous Life" - thank you so much for being with us.

WHITE: Well, thank you for interviewing me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.