All Kinds of Hell...
Hubert Selby, Jr. meets Kirk Lake
Allen Ginsberg described Hubert Selby's first novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn as "a rusty hellish bombshell that should explode all over America and still be read in a hundred years." Now its 34 years on since the book was first published and there seems no reason to doubt Ginsberg's prediction.
Last Exit To Brooklyn is the quintessential cult novel: banned in numerous countries on first publication, subject of a famous obscenity trial in the United Kingdom. Yet it is a book of immense power and raw poetry. One of the most important and influential literary works this century.
Hubert 'Cubby' Selby, Jr was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928. Serving in the Merchant Marine at the end of World War II he contracted TB, the result of which was prolonged hospitalisation and the loss of ten ribs and most of one lung. After returning to New York he sank into the kind of shiftless decadent lifestyle that he wrote about in his first book.
Finding himself plagued by illness and in and out of hospital, Selby suddenly realised he was blowing his life. A doctor told him there was nothing more that could be done for him. He was going to die and yet he hadn't accomplished anything. "It was a spiritual experience", says Selby, "It suddenly terrified me to have to look back and say, 'Jesus Christ, Cubby, you blew it; you blew your whole life! I had to do something with whatever life I had left. So I decided I was going to write."
It took Selby six years to finish Last Exit, working on the novel every night after work. Struggling with the word, teaching himself how to write. But on publication, the novel's success proved to be something of a mixed blessing. Selby found it difficult to cope with the pressure and opportunities afforded a successful writer. Tormented by self-doubt the immediate years after Last Exit were spent in a spiral of alcoholic and narcotic addiction. Selby's marriage broke up and he found himself incarcerated for possession of drugs.
Again Selby clawed his way back through the mire. He returned to writing in the '70s with the intense and suffocating novel The Room. Followed by two novels that tore open the flabby gut of the Great American Dream: The Demon chronicles the rise and fall of businessman Harry White; Requiem For A Dream combines the stories of three drug addicts looking for the big score with that of a widow's fantasy of TV game-show fame.
For health reasons Selby relocated to California and in 1986 published a collection of short stories, Song of the Silent Snow. And for the first time in his writing was a glimpse of hope. He has recently published The Willow Tree his first novel for 20 years.
Lake: Last Exit To Brooklyn was a fairly damning indictment of a time and a place. Was it your intention to document what you saw around you?
Selby: No. It wasn't my intention to do that. I wanted to write to the best of my ability and I wanted to take the reader on an emotional journey. And to do this I wanted to get the writing down to its simple core, to the essence. The very basic psycho-dynamics of a story and from that create a work of art. I was just trying to write the very best story that I could write. I wasn't concerned with a message or anything else. If there is a message its in the people and their lives and I have to be true to those people and not get concerned with what I would like.
So you created a style of writing that is very direct, very forceful.
Absolutely, because I have no right to get me in between those people and the reader. Its like an egoless way of writing. I knew I had to respect those people and be true to their lives which meant that I had to develop a way of writing that would do exactly that.
One critic described Last Exit as a 'ticker tape from hell'. You do get a sense of that reading the book. The way the text jumps from lower case to whole pages of capitals. The long passages without punctuation. It's kinetic. Almost relentless.
I'm very influenced by music. I've listened to music all my life. I can't imagine life without it. I think life is music. So what I had to do was develop a kind of typography that would reflect musical notation. Because, as I said, I want to put the reader through an emotional experience and I believe everything we see and hear and touch all combine to bring about the emotion. So it seems to me that the way the words are laid out on the page, even though the reader is conscious of it, will bring about the musical effect of the pauses. The silences...
Oh yeah. Yeah. A la Rossini right? (laughs)
In a way that's similar to someone like Kerouac's spontaneous prose, where he was attempting to write in the way that a jazz musician plays. But I've never really connected you to the beats though I guess that they would've been publishing at the time you were writing Last Exit. Were you aware of them?
Yeah but I never had much to do with them to tell you the truth. I read a couple of Jack's books and I liked them and I loved Allen (Ginsberg) as an individual and as a poet. But I really had nothing to do with them. Especially the so called beatniks you met in the bars. Frankly I thought they were full of shit. They had the attitude, and I'm not saying Allen or Jack were responsible for this, but these people had the attitude "all I have to do is paint the picture or play some instrument or put some words on a page and its ART because I did it".
Well there are still people making careers doing just that.
It's ridiculous. It's insane. (laughs) Art entails a great deal of discipline and technique. Its the hardest job in the world.
Now the "Tralala" section of Last Exit [concerning the rape and brutalisation of an alcoholic prostitute] had already run into trouble in America when a magazine published it. And then when Last Exit came out in England it caused a furore. The book was prosecuted for obscenity. Did that surprise you?
Well.(laughs) nothing really surprises me much. But yeah, a little. The case in America was a farce. They tried to prosecute the publisher of the magazine but it just got thrown out. The problem in England.I was, you know, 6000 miles away so it didn't really affect me. The publisher had to deal with all that.
You see I don't really see anything unusual about what I do. And especially with Last Exit where I'd spent six years going over every word struggling to learn to write. Then to think that people are having debates in Parliament over this.It just seemed ridiculous! I mean, there are millions of people starving to death, what the hell are you doing worrying about this! (laughs) But I understand them worrying because the people on the right always have to attack the artist. They are terrified of freedom of thought and if you start expressing those thoughts in any way.forget it. Certainly in my lifetime, Hitler and Stalin were great examples of that. Franco was another. And today in America the Christian Coalition are people of that nature. They're the same kind of people that brought the lawsuit in England. The moral majority.
It seems unlikely that a book would be tried for obscenity today. But I guess censors find other ways to work.
Right. Obscenity seems to be part of the past. But of course books are being censored for all manner of reasons. In this country books are censored by the publishers because they say they're not going to make enough money. (laughs) And as you know in the emerging nations journalists are getting locked up by the hundreds, killed, disappeared.There will always be these people terrified of any expression of truth and honesty and creative power.
The success of Last Exit seemed difficult for you to come to terms with. You've said that it gave you the ability to just go "wacko". And you ended up an alcoholic and ultimately wound up in jail for possession of heroin.
You see its so different when you're sitting alone and writing. Six years writing this book. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. You're just struggling, struggling, struggling. You've nothing to defend. You've nothing to oppose. You have no responsibility other than your responsibility to your art. Then, all of a sudden, you have something to try and maintain. You have to do it again! (laughs) And when you have a belief in your heart, in your bones and in your soul that you are worthless, useless.and that this was all a mistake and someday they'll find out. It's a terrifying thing.
And that's how you really felt. You thought it was no good?
I just had no belief in myself at all. Even though I had friends and artists that I respected telling me that I was a good writer I couldn't believe it. I thought I was the most worthless thing in the world. And of course I was a drunk and all of a sudden I had the means to just drink as much as I wanted.(laughs)
You ended up kicking heroin locked in solitary. But when you came out you started drinking again. Were you writing at this time?
Oh no. I'm not a Faulkner or a Hemingway. When I drink I just drink. I didn't start writing again until I stopped drinking.
But I'm presuming your second novel The Room came out of this period. It's a book of nightmares and utter desperation. One man trapped in one room. From what you've said it seems like it was an extension of your personal situation in the late '60s.
No, not really. I mean of course everything comes from your own experiences but what I was focused on at the time was that I wanted to write a variation on a theme. Again a basic technique in classical music and jazz. That was my approach. And it goes between fantasy and reality. Sexual guilt is the primary factor in the book. And then of course he is his own jailer. And this is true of all of us. If we're in jail then we're the jailer.
I wanted to ask you about The Demon. Your third novel and also your most conventional.
It's funny you say that because I always considered myself to be a very conventional writer. An old fashioned writer.
Well in the narrative sense yes. Your books have beginnings, middles and ends. Your characters are fully realised and you can imagine them having a life outside of the pages of the book. But the style is unique. The way that you write. I certainly wouldn't call you an experimental writer because that always implies that the reader should be more interested in the technique than in the essence of the book. And that is absolutely not the case with your work as we discussed earlier. But I do think that its necessary for the reader to invest a little of himself in the work. I guess I'm thinking of the typography again, the page layout, the punctuation...
Well I've no idea what it's like coming to the work unprepared. (laughs) Maybe to the average reader it seems new or unusual. I don't know.
Yes but it's not impenetrable. It's not difficult. Yet it is more internalised than a lot of writing. You are very successful at that. The style allows the reader to become emotionally involved with the characters as well as involved with the story and the action. It's just that The Demon seems more restrained than your other books.
Well you are absolutely correct. In the case of The Demon in order to be true to the people, who are very conventional people, the approach had to be as conventional as possible and to alternate that, as I do at times in the book, to reflect the pathology of Harry White.
The Demon is concerned with temptation and guilt and sin. One man's fall.You've used Biblical quotes in most of your books and your writing has a spirituality. Is the Bible important to you? You don't strike me as someone who is particularly religious.
No, not religious in the sense of a formal religion. But there are some beautiful things in the bible. Very insightful. Very human. One of the things I love is the Book of Psalms because David was so human! This guy sees this chick naked and sends her husband off to get killed in the war so he can cop her. (laughs) And then he says to the guy 'Oh I'm sorry, I'm sorry' But the thing is, underneath all that exterior, that lustre is a very real, spiritually hungry man. Yet he's human.I use quotes from the bible, especially in Last Exit , because there's no catharsis in the book, in the first four books as a matter of fact. The only answers implied are in these quotes from the Bible. And that's why I didn't use any quotes in the new book although I had intended to use Psalms 22, 23 and 25. I decided not to because I didn't want any connection with what happens in the book with any religious affiliation.
Yes, I can see that. In your new novel, The Willow Tree the catharsis is there. Again it's to do with good and evil but in this book there is redemption.
Yeah, to sum up as simply as possible. Redemption through forgiveness. That doesn't tell you much but that's the theme.
And it also seems to me to be about age and experience. You have the young boy Bobby whose living in the Bronx, whose girlfriend has been attacked, whose been beaten to the point of death, coming into contact with Moishe, a survivor of the concentration camps.
Right. You see I think Bobby and Moishe were pretty much the same at the beginning. They wanted to work and have a family. Pretty much what we all want. But circumstances tend to change things and then we find out what we're made of within ourselves. Some people go through all kinds of hell.../p>
But it's the wisdom of Moishe that in the end helps Bobby come through. And that wisdom only comes from age and experience.
Well, what I wanted to do was bridge all kinds of gaps. The Holocaust is the most horrendous thing that happened in my lifetime, maybe the most horrendous thing in the history of the human race. It is so difficult to accept the enormity of what happened. Not just the murders but the fact that every day millions of people got up, kissed their wives goodbye, went to work and were involved in murdering people as a daily job. You know, had a lunch-break and a sandwich and an apple and then went back to killing. For years this was going on. It's difficult to really accept this.
I wanted to bridge these gaps and the only way that a black kid is going to listen to a honky is if they can identify. How else do we communicate but through identification? I mean, otherwise we end up with all these professional do-gooders who come from an affluent background, apologising for their affluence by telling these black kids how to live. But this is fucking horseshit. But Bobby will listen to Moishe because Moishe has paid his dues and Bobby can't deny that. It's the only way that Moishe can penetrate Bobby's defences.
I have a CD of yours that Rollins put out a few years ago. Live In Europe. You're a great reader. Very distinctive. And I could 'hear' you reading the words as I read the new book. Do you enjoy doing readings.
Well whenever I'm asked. I love reading. I've written a bunch of stuff, prose poems to be read aloud.
Right. Because there is stuff on the CD that I don't recognise from any of the books. Do you have a different approach to writing stuff that you're going to read?
Sure. I have to watch the rhythms. As you know, I have less than one lung and I'm not capable of reading to the rhythms I would like. I can't breathe enough to get the flow.
Are you one of those writers who has to write something everyday? Are you working on something now?
I write when I can. I used to just work through something until it was finished. But these days a lot depends on my physical ability. I find it physically difficult to get things done.
I hear you're teaching creative writing now.
(laughs) Well not really. You can't teach writing.
That's what I was going to ask you.
No. But I believe what you can help people to do is to learn to rewrite. What I have my class do is bring in their work and we all take copies and the next day we'll discuss it and as we learn how to read somebody elses work with the idea of helping them then we're learning to help ourselves. But you can't teach people to write. No way. You just die, sweat, go crazy. That's the only way. The only way.
Kirk Lake is the London based novelist, spoken word performer and leader of the Jazz Thugs, (imagine Big Band meets renegade cadre of bored, lazy machinists bustin' chops in a back alley). A pop culture anthropologist. This interview with pivotal American novelist Hubert Selby took place prior to the Uk publication of The Willow Tree, Selby's first novel in 20 years.
Photograph by Mark Savage
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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