The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Hilton Als

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This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion with Hilton Als about White Girls.

Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.

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Brian S: Welcome to the book club chat tonight. So happy you could join us.

Hilton Als: Thank you so much for having me. I had a nap and some chicken soup to fortify myself for everyone’s brilliance!

Frances: Your brilliance did me in a lot

Hilton Als: Hi, Ana. Is there buzz? Buzzly.

Frances: Oh yeah—I keep finding the book on lists to read.

Hilton Als: That’s really very nice. I know it’s not the easiest book in the world, but who says everything has to be? Remember Faulkner…

Brian S: So what’s it like, given that you’re often on the interviewer side of things, being the person taking the questions from a book club?

Frances: Once in a while—and this was one of the times—I read a book where the author is much more broadly and deeply educated than I. I expect that in physics books but this book kept me in the dark a lot.

Brian S: Can’t go to college in the south without reading Faulkner. I think one of my chemistry classes assigned Go Down, Moses.

Hilton Als: It’s really very sweet and freaky at the same time; I feel all sort of cold clammy and excited—seen!—and then I want to not feel all of those things, too. But it’s so important to take risks, you know?

Frances: Just read a great review you did in the New Yorker. Easier to read than the book.

Hilton Als: Oh, really? In the dark about what, Frances? Your own responses or what I was attempting to say? Brian, you HAVE to read “Go Down, Moses.” In fact that’s one of the books I thought of—structurally—when I was making this book; it’s a novel in stories. I think of this as a novel in stories. Some of it is made up—like Richard Pryor’s sister, for instance.

Frances: You make many references and I think I got about half—or fewer.

I read a lot and have seen a lot of theatre but…

Hilton Als: Ha! I’m glad you found something of mine to like, Frances, but who says reading should be easy? Shouldn’t it challenge you as hard sometimes as love. Maybe “hard” is not the right word in this context. Ha!

Brian S: As I read that section, I kept wondering about that—I was planning to ask about it later. It’s a fascinating piece.

Frances: I find physics books challenge me that way. I don’t mind being challenged to think but not being sure what I am supposed to be thinking about gets me.

Brian S: Oh, and I read Go Down Moses as an undergrad, and really enjoyed it. Absalom, Absalom! less so, though it was a very rewarding book in ways.

Hilton Als: Thank you, I think the book is about transitioning to fiction in some way. I understand, Frances, but stick with it. I promise nothing was intentionally obscure. Or obscure for the sake of being “smart.”

William: I did think that was actually one of the more remarkable aspects of the book. There were some subjects who were unfamiliar to me, but I was still lost in the book—it was sort of musical.

Jack W: I love the depth of the essays. I felt at times like I was reading a Thomas Pynchon or Paul Beatty novel.

Frances: I liked a lot of it. Liked the Flannery O’Connor part a lot but I have read all her work.

Ana: There were times when I would feel completely in the dark but then a sentence of paragraph would resonate with me.

Brian S: I found myself at times making lists of things I wanted to explore later.

Frances: I didn’t think any of it was purposely obscure. I just felt you were way more educated and well-read than I.

Brian S: O’Connor is another one, like Faulkner, that I’ve read a lot of but not for a while.

Hilton Als: Thank you, William. Yes, I thought of the structure as musical. The first piece, for instance, contains the names/subject matter of every person to come in the book. Like a piece of music with themes, etc.

Frances: I didn’t realize that. Beautiful!

Hilton Als: I really don’t think we should dismiss a book because we feel messed about intellectually. Or emotionally. That’s the writer’s job!

Ana: It was definitely interesting to read essays that I largely understood all the references in and then others, not. It made me think more about how we experience stories we feel like are grounded in reality vs fictional stories vs stories we are looking to verify or fact check against.

Brian S: I didn’t find too many people in the discussion group who dismissed it. Mostly we found it challenging but worth the effort. I know I did.

Frances: I didn’t dismiss it but found it hard-going.

Hilton Als: Yes, Ana, that’s right. Challenging is good, like good conversation, yes? Who wants to have dinner with the same old easy listening music sounding friends all the time?

Hilton Als: This is fun to do!

Brian S: Yeah, sometimes you need to bring in your conspiracy-theory believing cousin just to shake things up a bit.

Hilton Als: Ha!

William: Ha!

Brian S: Could you talk a little about how you decided what to include, and what you wrote especially for this book? You have such a large corpus of work to pull from, after all.

Hilton Als: Do you think the intensity of the race stuff put you off, made you feel you didn’t “understand” (if you’re white, or “other”)?

Frances: True, I, for one, didn’t understand a lot of the beginning stuff. I felt so sad for you and your sadness.

Frances: Life seemed so hard and uncertain.

Frances: I am also very linear. That leaves me behind a lot as people think globally.

Ana: I don’t think the intensity is off-putting.

Brian S: I fought some with “Philosophy or Dog” because it took me a while to see the basic argument you were making. It’s challenging in part because I’m teaching a class in American Multicultural Lit for the first time this semester, and as a straight white male I feel like maybe I’m exactly the wrong person to be teaching it sometimes. But it made me see The Autobiography of Malcolm X in a whole new way (and made me glad that I’m not teaching it this term as well).

Hilton Als: I was really reluctant to do a “collection,” because there are so few that have themes. The great ones—like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Joan Didion’s The White Albumalways have a big unifying essay that makes you see the book whole. Every time I put a collection together I’d scrap it because there was no “meaning,” until I wrote about the two black men—friends—in the beginning of the book. So much of their experience was ABOUT trying to find friends in the authors/artists I wrote about—subjects that were/are a source of comfort, somehow, since none of them “fit,” either.

Ana: I think that the deconstructed language/experience can be hard to grapple with but I like to think that’s partially the point. I loved the Malcolm X essay (chapter?).

Hilton Als: I had to rewrite “Philosophy” a lot. It was more obscure than what’s in the book now, even! Some things I had to go back to and excise my former self, who was even more dense. I think you should teach whatever you want, Brian! That’s the point of books like White Girls, to help free our thoughts!

Brian S: And then following it with “White Noise” just seemed perfect. I was nodding along with you the whole time I read that one.

Hilton Als: Thank you, Ana. I know it’s not an easy piece. But I do love the sound of it, particularly when we get into Mrs. Little as seen by her son. He saw her to some degree as a “white girl,” an outsider from his blackness.

Hilton Als: Thank you, I’m glad the order makes sense—emotionally and otherwise—Brian. I stuck by that decision during the editing process—a lot.

Brian S: I appreciate it. I’m not letting my own nervousness stop me from teaching the class or dig into some sticky issues, but there are times when I question. Which is good. It keeps me from being overconfident.

Hilton Als: I think you’re not really teaching anyone unless you’re learning yourself.

Brian S: Absolutely.

Did you write the piece about Richard Pryor’s sister around the same time that you did “A Pryor Love”? Or did it come later?

Hilton Als: Did anyone think the Louise Brooks section was hard to read, or prohibitive in its sadness? I think you’re right, Frances, great sadness can be off-putting, hard to comprehend, especially if it hasn’t been your experience. It’s amazing for me to know now that AIDS, for instance, is something a lot of people don’t “get,” whereas it entirely shaped my social life since the time I was twenty until I was almost forty.

I wrote the Richard Pryor’s sister piece a couple of years later and it’s a testament to Dave Eggers will that it was published. I had put it away after an editor didn’t “get” it, but Dave did. He ran it in McSweeney’s and it really opened me up as a writer to see my other voice validated in that way.

Brian S: About not understanding AIDS—it reminds me a bit of a discussion I saw on Facebook a few weeks ago. Nick Flynn mentioned that he’ll read poems that talk about Abu Ghraib on campuses and students won’t know what that is. But freshmen were 8 when that story broke. What do you know about world events at 8 unless they land in your lap?

AIDS was a huge deal in my teen years and into adulthood, but once it became treatable, it faded, and most young adults today have never lived in a world where it was a crisis.

Hilton Als: I know. I lost so many friends—including the guy K that I was writing about—and it’s amazing how central history is to oneself, an ultimately NOT shared experience.

Brian S: And it was a huge deal in my young adulthood because I grew up in a fundamentalist church in the deep south. A different church in the area had a highway billboard that said “AIDS Judgment Has Come” on it.

Ana: I liked “I am the Happiness of this World.” I don’t think it was prohibitive in its sadness. I thought it was interesting paired with the Malcolm X piece, reconstructing a story and voice of a woman whose voice has been usurped and story constructed by external forces.

William: Was “Tristes Tropiques” written for the book? Or was it more of a serendipitous thing—you came up with it and found that it could ground the rest?

Hilton Als: I wrote “Tristes” for the book, yes, to make a big unifying thing that would hold a mirror up to the rest of the characters. I didn’t publish it anywhere else.

Hilton Als: So, Brian, you grew up in Flannery O’Connor country. Wow.

Brian S: Right down the road—north of New Orleans. That great howling den of iniquity just across the lake from the much whiter, much more conservative suburbs. I love the place still but will never live there again if I can avoid it.

Hilton Als: Truman Capote was born in New Orleans. Have you guys read his work?

I think Northern California is the most beautiful place on earth. And I adore New Orleans, but there’s something about the air in San Francisco, for instance. It changes from moment to moment, like one’s thoughts.

Brian S: I have, and I really loved your take on that photo of him. Added a whole new dimension to him.

Hilton Als: Thank you, Brian. I think he had a lot of girl envy.

Brian S: It’s the micro-climates. And because, like New Orleans, it lives on the knife-edge of potential destruction. Some day a hurricane will sink New Orleans and an earthquake will wipe out San Francisco, and I think that rests in the back of everyone’s minds. That’s basically what I said in a poem once, anyway.

Hilton Als: I’d love to read that poem.

Jack W.: In light of your GWTW essay, do have thoughts on Kanye West sampling[partaking of?] “Strange Fruit” on Yeezus?

Brian S: I have a confession to make. Until this book, I’d never heard of Andre Leon Talley. And now I want to go to dinner with him, just once.

Hilton Als: Hi, Jack. How dare he sample Billie Holiday’s great signature song. Her rendition of ANYTHING makes him look like Tupperware.

Brian, you dwell in the temple of the mind, and Andre is a fashion person! I love him (ALT) and I’m so glad you liked him, too.

Kevin: I loved that Andre Leon Talley piece because I had the same reaction as some of the people in it—”Hey, that’s the guy from TV!”

Brian S: How old is that piece? I think I remember a VCR turning up in it.

Hilton Als: Ha! He would like that! Andre has no problem being famous. He’s a brilliant person.

Ha! Yes, a VCR in Paris! I believe it was published in 1994 or 96, I can’t remember. The year Tina Brown hired me.

Bobby: Hi all, I’m just arriving here late. This book’s title has drawn me into more conversations at work than any other book I’ve read there (I am a tutor at a writing center, so I’ve recommended it to like forty-five students in the last month…)

Brian S: Nice! McSweeney’s will be very happy to hear that.

Hilton Als: Bobby, hi! Thanks for the shout out!

Jack W.: My favorite reaction to the book I’ve encountered is when I read it on a train, and a guy boarding said, “Me too, man. Me, too.”

Hilton Als: Wow! That’s the best, Jack! Let’s use it on the paperback edition!

Bobby: It’s interesting. I’ve been having trouble describing it to students, because it’s not the type of book that lends itself to, like, a logline. But at the same time it feels really important to get it right because it seems like the type of book that college freshman might shy away from if you describe it poorly.

Brian S: Are there any book tour plans at present?

Hilton Als: Umm. Since I write about New York based theatre for the New Yorker I have to stick around here for a minute but I’ll be in Boston next month and I don’t think I’m booked in California yet. If you know of anyone who’d like to have me, encourage them to get in touch with Isaac at McSweeney’s. I’m game!

That’s very interesting, Bobby, but I think you should go for it in any way you like. Students will follow you if they trust you. They will.

Jack W.: Yeah, it’s probably my favorite speechless-induced encounter I’ve had.

Hilton Als: That’s hilarious.

Brian S: Ah, I’m in flyover country—Des Moines. But not terribly far from Chicago.

Hilton Als: Oh, I see, I didn’t know where you were, Brian. Chicago can be pretty conservative, too; it’s very segregated. I only get to see the beautiful lake and downtown when I’m there, but people I know who grew up there said it’s pretty divided.

William: Having “White Girls” in big letters is an interesting thing—I saw you reference Wright’s “Black Boy” in an another interview, and for some reason, walking onto the subway with that title in big letters probably wouldn’t elicit the same response.

Hilton Als: Isn’t that interesting, William? That’s right. Why do we think “less,” of one race and gender and more of another? Or more prohibitively about another?

Ana: Where is the cover photo from/how did you land on it?

Brian S: Did anyone joke about the horrible Wayans’ brothers movie of the same name? Or worry about it? (I only remember that movie because someone referenced it in a recent debate over wearing blackface for a Halloween costume.)

Frances: I wondered about cover photo, too.

William: With that said, I love the cover design.

Hilton Als: I’d always loved the picture. It’s by Garry Winogrand, the great American photographer. And the minute I had the title I had the picture in my head, not least because of the black man far left, listening to those white girls. He’s visually “different,” but I’ve always been drawn to how he’s listening to those “white girls,” with the same sensitivity and beauty the girls exhibit in the picture.

Yes, a film critic mentioned the Wayans flick just the other day. That was funny. I’m not bothered by stuff like that.

Brian S: I was imagining a publicity person worrying, but then I remembered Isaac and McSweeneys.

Hilton Als: Ha! Isaac is a great person, and Dave has been great and the whole team has been very very stalwart and loving.

Brian S: Yeah, Isaac was with The Rumpus from nearly the start and only left a few months ago to go to McSweeney’s. We’ve had many late nights together.

Hilton Als: Brian and his late nights! What a doll—and what a committed book person. Very very rare.

Would you guys like to see what I do with “straight,” fiction next? I mean, fiction the way I’d do it, with “real” elements, probably. Why limit it?

Brian S: Like an entire book of it, you mean? As opposed to just the “You and Whose Army?” bit? Sure.

Hilton Als: Okay!

William: I think that’d be wonderful!

Brian S: You mentioned that you have to stay in New York for the theater season—what’s the thing we have to see if we manage to make it there soonish?

Hilton Als: Thanks, William!

See Marie Antoinette, by David Adjmi. It’s very White Girls—a bit of everything wrapped up in history! Also Twelfth Night—the all male version on Broadway. INCREDIBLE.

Bobby: I’d be excited. “You and Whose Army” felt genuinely unique. I remember reading that in McSweeneys and it feeling like something that I’d never read before. Was there any prototype you used for it? Any particular influences or pieces of fiction or nonfiction?

Ana: I have an oddly personal question. So much about is about locating identity—or at least feeling truth—through connection with other people or cultural productions (i.e. looking for one’s self in the SL movie script). Do you feel you’re able to get clear on who you are, or your thoughts, more by yourself (alone, writing, introspection) or with others?

Hilton Als: No, Bobby, that sprung whole, out of my head, and was based on listening to a friend who used to telephone me quite a bit—her voice. I took off from there.

Ana: I know that’s a strange jump but I guess I’m wondering about your writing/rumination process

Bobby: Remarkable. More of that, please.

Frances: I always like these chats when the book baffles me. Widens my horizons. Chatting with you, Hilton, has changed my entire view of the book. I will read it again with a different mindset. Thank you for being here and letting us meet you.

Hilton Als: Hi Ana. I THINK so, but to get a “clear,” on one’s own self is the work of living, isn’t it? And the longer we live, the less clear things become; complexity shapes us. I think I’m a more in the world person than ever before, largely because I managed to put this book out there and talk to people like you!

Jack W.: I’d love to read fiction from you. Many times the writing echoed of Paul Beatty, especially his White Boy Shuffle. Love that book.

Hilton Als: You got it, Bobby. Thank you for working so hard to understand, Frances. I haven’t read that book of Paul’s but I will.

Hilton Als: Thank you all for your interesting heart felt questions!

William: This is somewhat of an obscure question—but have you read Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay about Dave Chappelle in The Believer? There’s a paragraph near the end of “A Pryor Love” where you mention Pryor’s comedic offspring—Rock, Eddie Murphy—which got me thinking about him. He’s not as intense as Pryor, to be sure, but he does have a certain strain of vulnerability.

Brian S: I thought about Chappelle as well when reading that piece.

Hilton Als: I wrote that piece before Chapelle was really known, actually, but I would have put him in for sure had he been around in ’99.


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