In 1980s New York, Guy, darling of Fire Island’s gay community and a top male model, is gliding to riches that are a world away from his modest provincial upbringing in France. Edmund White returns to the era and themes that made him an indispensible voice in gay literature in Our Young Man (Bloomsbury, £18.99).
Where did the character of Guy, and the idea for the book, come from?
I used Alphonse Daudet’s forgotten novel Sapho as a template (she’s middle-aged but convinces a 20-year-old penniless aristocrat that she’s his age), partly as a way to jump-start the creative process. For instance, she posed for a statue when she was 16 that her boyfriend saw as a child (Guy poses for a gay porno magazine that his boyfriend jerks off to).
Why did you choose to set the book in the eighties?
That was when models became super-models. Also the Aids era.
The characters in the book are fairly shallow beings, obsessed with materialism and looks. Is this how you remember this period?
That period and the current one.
You lived for a number of years in France, and Paris features heavily in the book. What did you want to capture about the differences in attitudes in France and America?
Boasting is more acceptable in America than in France. People are hard to meet in France but easy in America. Friendship is sacred and very limited in France, in America you’re friends after a first meeting.
What’s the significance of Dali and Dali forgeries in the novel?
In Sapho the corresponding character forges money. Dali strikes me as an old fake who signed hundreds of blank sheets of paper for money.
Your characters are haunted by fear of loneliness and isolation as they get older. Do you think there is a preoccupation with this among gay men?
I don’t read my book that way. Nor do I see gay life that way.
Have the worries and concerns of the Aids epidemic been largely forgotten by younger gay generations and is there an attempt here to capture that experience and pass it on?
It’s like any crisis – for instance World War I, which Vera Brittain found was forgotten by 1920 when she talked of it at Oxford in Testament of Youth.
How do you feel, looking back, about how far gay people have come in terms of gay culture, their rights and their role in society?
In the first world things have changed immeasurably for the better – people are less closeted, have some job security, can marry, etc.
What do you make of the current situation where in some places rapid progress is being made, while in other places it feels as if anti-gay laws are back on the agenda?
The great enemy of gay rights is religion (monotheistic) and wherever it raises its ugly head gays are persecuted — by the Christian right in America and Russia, by Islam, by Orthodox Judaism.