6 Questions For Author Hilton Als About "White Girls"
It's been 14 years since the debut of Als' critically acclaimed memoir The Women, but the writer is back with an explosive take on race, sex, and celebrity. No wonder Junot Diaz calls White Girls "the read of the year."
The book's title, juxtaposed with the fact that you're a black gay man, creates a conversation in and of itself. This morning on the subway, while reading White Girls, I caught a woman staring at me, then at the book's cover and again at the book.
I think that one of the things that I was trying to do, and it didn't occur to me until after the fact, was that Ralph Ellison had written Invisible Man, and Richard Wright had written Black Boy, and Toni Morrison had written Tar Baby. So, there were all these titles that had been really taken. Also, I worked in fashion for a while, and I used to always be disturbed by how [people in the industry] never called the black women who were modeling women. They always said "black girls," or "the black girl," and they never called the white models "white girls." And so I was just so blown away by this idea of what if we took a sort of figure that had been largely marginalized, but now what if "she" had power but was also sort of complicit in her subjugation?
The trick, of course, is that the "white girls" in the book are cultural icons like Michael Jackson, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Truman Capote and, Flannery O'Connor. Though it may initially seem like these style makers, musicians, and writers have nothing in common, over the course of reading the book, striking parallels begin to surface. What drew you to these people as subjects?
I'm attracted to people who work their little plot of land, and cultivate it and cultivate it. A lot of the people that I'm talking about [in the book] have no preconceived notions of themselves. Do you know what I mean? They don't know who they were. They just make themselves up, if that makes any sense. So, I think I was drawn to them because of the hard work of self-invention and self-preconceptions.
Which of the figures in the book did you find most interesting?
I think Richard Pryor for sure. And I think in a way Truman Capote was an entertainer. I'm sort of dealing with him as a public figure, or self-invented figure. I think Richard because I could invent more because I wasn't interviewing him. I love André Leon Talley as a person. And it's amazing how much shit he has to put up with, isn't it? And I wish he knew or trusted that he was so much smarter than any of those people. He's a very valuable person, and I really respect him in a lot of ways. I mean, to live in that world for as long as he has, you have to be an amazing politician.
Do you worry how the book is packaged? Many people have called it an essay collection, though that doesn't seem to be entirely accurate.
I really wanted it to be read as one thing, so why not call it a novel? I just don't feel it's an essay collection. It's more organic than that, and it has a sort of real art to it, so I would call it a novel.
Some chapters of the book — the sections on Michael Jackson and André Leon Talley, for example — originally appeared in The New Yorker, where you work as a theater critic. As White Girls is part fiction, criticism, and memoir, you have so much more freedom, I'd imagine, than when writing a magazine profile. What's the process like for those profiles?
There are certain requirements for the magazine profiles. You have to include certain information about their background and quotes from other people and so on. [For White Girls] I really liked working in a different way that's not about the standard form. And if you don't want to work in the standard form, you have to find not-standard people. I like the person to dictate what the story will be.
Does writing come easily?
I have to do it every day. I'm one of those crazy people who have to write every day. Otherwise, I feel really sort of despondent, and it's because I don't feel very happy about not learning. I don't know what else teaches you as much as writing. Perhaps reading. So if I don't have one or the other in the course of the day, I feel old. In the morning, I like to watch The Wendy Williams Show and make breakfast. Today show into Wendy Williams, and then I write. Wendy can sort of blast your own voice out of your head and make you feel less self-conscious. Cause she's always talking about the same things: the Kardashians, her wigs, or a gay cutie-patootie, or how how somebody is. It's only four issues, and it really is meditative because it's always the same. Then I'm ready for my own voice.