Hilton Als, Constructing Genre


Cultural critic Hilton Als might have written the essay collection of the year with this month’s White Girls (McSweeney’s), if indeed it were merely a book of essays. Instead, each piece explores so many genres—melding fiction with fact and the deeply personal with the staid journalistic profile—that Als isn’t so much playing multiple chords at once as multiple pianos.

The book opens with a piece called “Tristes Tropiques”—the title suggesting a sort of moody emotional travelogue—that follows the writer through his own loves and losses. The essay sets up the many ruptures and reconfigurations of identity: to the point that even the titular taxonomy of “white girls” eventually comes to describe a male lover, or Truman Capote, or so many cinematic, streetwise women searching for their place. Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Pryor, lynching photographs, André Leon Talley—each serves as a separate starting point on an authorial trek to undo the conventional reading in favor of a much more complicated set of possibilities. Als has created a work of art, which we discussed over lunch in Soho.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Being a literary writer and also having an essayist’s position at a magazine can be a tricky balance. How do you structure your day? What time do you wake up?

HILTON ALS: About six. I make breakfast and I watch really bad TV for an hour. It really clears my head to watch Matt Lauer try to save his career on the Today show. It’s fascinating. So around eight, I do my own stuff for a couple of hours, and by then people are coming into the magazine. Business stuff starts around 10:30, and I find that I’m in a much better mood and more agreeable if I’ve gotten my own stuff out of the way.

BOLLEN: I want to tell you how much I love the first piece in White Girls, the essay “Tristes Tropiques.” It’s a beautiful assessment of changing loves. I enjoyed that voice to the point that I was, at first, almost annoyed that the next piece pivots to a more traditional journalistic voice. But then I realized that all of the disjunctions throughout the book are actually unities or connections.

ALS: That’s funny, because if you think about the first part, everything that I talk about subsequently in the book is mentioned there—every name, every idea. I didn’t really want to do a collection of pieces in the first place. And for years I would just play with ideas about the structure of a collection, like cards. And then one day, Dave Eggers asked me about my fiction writing. I said, “Oh, I don’t write fiction,” and he said, “Oh, I bet you do.” I said, “I don’t,” and he said, “I’m sure you do. Go home and look in your trunk.” And there were things that I had written that I had put away because I had had a bad experience with an editor before. So I sent some of these pieces to McSweeney’s. An editor there named Jordan [Bass] did a very quick, sharp edit, and… it shocked me.

BOLLEN: You sent him fiction?

ALS: Yeah. And Dave said, “Let’s try to do a book of whatever you want.” I had gone to speak to a class of his when I was visiting San Francisco, and Dave had flattered me in that he knew so much about my writing. Nothing is more flattering for a writer than when someone knows your work. [laughs] Anyway, I sent him the original draft of that first piece, and I had included this metaphor for the relationship I’m talking about, which were these silent twins, these two girls from the West Indies who developed their own language, who I had written about in The New Yorker. I never thought it really worked. Dave read the whole thing and he said, “It’s like conjoined twins. You have to separate them so they can live.” So I went back and hacked the twins out of the piece and I was suddenly free to write fully about the relationship.

BOLLEN: Sometimes you just need a good reader to tell you what’s holding the work back.

ALS: I’m a draftsperson. And also, I really respond to love. It’s so corny, but if you say, “I really love this, but it could be better, and this is how you could do that,” I’ll love you. I will work on it. Then we missed the publication date, and Dave said, “Don’t worry about that.” Because I knew that first essay—which was the last essay I wrote from scratch—coalesced several other themes in my mind. So I went back and rewrote some of the other pieces.

BOLLEN: Did you let the man in “Tristes Tropiques, ” whom you call SL, read the piece? You don’t mention his real name, but it’s still quite an intimate portrait.

ALS: People are so shocked by this, but I showed it to him because I love him. People have a copyright on their own life. I’m not a vindictive person. And he said, “It’s like a train. You can’t stop it. Just keep going.” So I did.

BOLLEN: There are some really interesting pieces that sit dissonantly side by side in the book. You have a formal, more traditional profile on the life of Richard Pryor followed by a fictional screed in the voice of Richard Pryor’s sister, as if she were Shakespeare’s sister. Was that looser, wilder second piece a response to the formalism of the first?

ALS: That’s a good question. I think that I live in writing. I don’t really see that many distinctions in the work. What I feel is there are certain demands that you have to satisfy in any piece of writing. When it’s just for me, it’s just for me, but if it’s a piece for a particular publication, I know what they’re going to ask for. I feel really spoiled because the places that I write for tend to want more of your sound. They know that there are certain journalistic demands, but they want your sound, too. I don’t make a lot of money, but I get to have freedom.

BOLLEN: I get the sense that Richard Pryor is something of the silent main character of the book—like Hamlet’s father or something. He haunts it.

ALS: He’s definitely a big figure in my life, because there were so few black men who were successful and who successfully conveyed black male fear—how America can make you feel crazy, and how America can create interesting levels of contradiction.

BOLLEN: Did you ever meet Pryor?

ALS: I didn’t want to, because it was in my imagination.

BOLLEN: Let me ask you about the title, White Girls. There is an expectation that a reader has from a black writer who titles a book “white girls” that there is going to be some critique of race. But you turn that expectation on its head by claiming the identification of a white girl. You are purposely trying to shift our categories or elide expectations.

ALS: Well, I was so well loved by my mother that if people have any expectations of me I really don’t notice because I’m hardest on myself. I’m also interested in the levels of my own thinking. As I said, I never feel that kind of pressure. I feel that I talk about it a lot in the book, when I do feel it or when I feel like I’m being asked—because I’m black or gay—to do something. But I never think from a category. I always think from the reaction or the thought. I remember that one editor who caused me to put my fiction away made a comment about “Richard Pryor’s Sister.” He said, “Well, for this kind of person, she wouldn’t be reading the books you mention.” He said that. When I told SL that, he said, “Can I give that editor several phone numbers?” It made me know that the racism that my fictional character is attacking and which Pryor was attacking is a very real thing. I think it’s cultural racism more than anything by now, which dovetails with actual racism, but the cultural racism to me is even more shocking.

BOLLEN: Where did the idea for the title come from?

ALS: One of the things I noticed when I worked at Vibe was that backstage at a fashion show, they always referred to the black models as “black girls.” I thought, “They never say ‘white girls.'” And then I was thinking about titles of books that were sort of self-identifying as black. Richard Wright’s Black Boy; Invisible Man [by Ralph Ellison]; James Walden Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. They always felt like downtrodden stories, even before I picked up the book. I thought, Fuck this, I’m going to just turn it around. What if we took the camera and didn’t point it at ourselves and pointed it at someone else who had more power than a black man but was marginalized like all women? What if there was a contradiction in terms, like there was her whiteness, but then there was her femaleness. It really was supposed to be a contradictory title and, like all definitions, be very limited. And then I hoped that the writing would just explode the limitations.

BOLLEN: I noticed throughout the book that you identify with women from films—women characters. Film makes its way into the book quite a bit as an influence.

ALS: It’s a big deal, right? It’s the most democratic art that we have, and I think if you grow up poor—or rich—that it’s the central form of entertainment. Images are really powerful. There are times where people fall in love with images, and as a way of falling in love with someone because they’re like an image.

BOLLEN: You must keep the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction distinct in your journalism, particularly in your pieces for The New Yorker. But you must find occasional trails the cross into each other, so maybe you write a journalistic assignment and it gives you the possibility to use it later as fiction?

ALS: If I feel like I haven’t really tapped into the essence of the story when I do an assignment, I may revisit it on my own, and that’s when I feel freer to add my imagination. But I think that if you feel imaginatively towards a subject, you really shouldn’t do it in a journalistic context, because then you’re just fabricating, and that’s crazy. That’s Jayson Blair.

BOLLEN: The last paragraph of your essay on André Leon Talley is devastating. He just takes the racist punch from the fashion elite that he so loves. Did he have a strong reaction to that piece when it first came out?

ALS: I heard at first, he really liked it. Then being a fashion person…. But it was too bad because I really love André. He’s an amazing person. And that world, I think, will kill you if you don’t feel loved somehow. I don’t know what makes fashion cruel, except I feel nothing but spiritual depletion around it. There’s nothing enriching, spiritually.

BOLLEN: It’s not a good source of ethics.

ALS: Why are people attracted to it?

BOLLEN: I think because it exudes a glamour or a very desirable image of a life that requires very little inner work to inhabit.

ALS: There’s no inner life.

BOLLEN: Did you think of your first piece in the book as a love poem?

ALS: Well, I miss SL. I miss those people. But a chunk of it is also fictionalized.

BOLLEN: I couldn’t always tell when I was veering from fact to fiction. There was such a spontaneity to the structure of it. It felt immediate—although you just said you’re a man of many drafts.

ALS: What did Toni Morrison say? “Your sentences should not slack.” I do think I wrote that because I miss those people. Recalling, for me, is a great way of living, so not to forget. And again, all that stuff only makes sense if you’re writing and you can see certain patterns in your relationships.

BOLLEN: I was interested in the woman friend you call “Mrs. Vreeland”—the one who dated Basquiat and either kept you and SL close or slipped between you two. It was a sad end for her.

ALS: I feel like there are so few girls in New York like that anymore, who are not focused on getting a man with money.

BOLLEN: I think certain characters go extinct. You tend to think everyone’s always the same, but I feel some kinds of people just don’t exist anymore.

ALS: I think you’re right.

BOLLEN: What is SL doing now? Are you in close contact?

ALS: He’s in California, so I don’t have that family in New York anymore.

BOLLEN: It’s hard to lose your family. So what do you do? You can try to grow a new one.

ALS: That’s like growing a new penis. [laughs] You can’t.

BOLLEN: Where do you write in your apartment?

ALS: I write in longhand. In bed. I’m a completely horizontal author, and then I sit up and type when I’ve decided to do a draft.