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Edmund White, 74, is the author of many novels, including A Boy’s Own Story, memoirs and non-fiction works. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and holds the French Order of Arts and Letters. He is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
What was your earliest ambition?
Something in the arts: the only thing I was ever able to do was write.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
State schools until high school, then a private boarding school called Cranbrook. I studied Chinese at the University of Michigan.
Who was or still is your mentor?
Richard Howard, the poet. He got my first book, Forgetting Elena, published after it had been rejected by 22 publishers; he insisted that Random House publish it.
How physically fit are you?
I had a very serious stroke a year and a half ago. I was in rehab for three weeks. Now I’m pretty good.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Persistence is the main thing, which I guess is linked to ambition. I was always ambitious – not to make money, to be published.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
Yes. My mother was a psychologist. She’d test us all the time. I always did very well, between 140 and 170, I think. But she was horrified by my responses to the Rorschach test. I just saw diamonds and dead people.
How politically committed are you?
When I was in college, I was always saying I was a socialist. But I never voted at all until about 10 years ago. Now I’m more conservative, though I still vote Democratic.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
Yes, and I think mine is fairly small. I don’t own an automobile. My biggest footprint would be air travel but I don’t do that much any more.
Do you have more than one home?
No. I’m actually quite poor. I’ve paid off about half my apartment in New York.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A house in Key West. I go every January but I’ve always rented.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I’ve had a lot of free time, which is the greatest extravagance.
In what place are you happiest?
Provence, Maine and Key West.
What ambitions do you still have?
To finish the novel I’m doing now and write a few more.
What drives you on?
Fiction is the thing I esteem most in my own work; I feel that, even if it’s no good, only I could have written those books. And paying the bills.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
As far as books go, my biography of Jean Genet. It took seven years.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
My nephew was in a mental hospital as a child; I took him out, brought him to New York, put him into good schools. He committed suicide four years ago at 50. That is the biggest sadness in my life.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
I guess I have succeeded in the way I wanted to. But he’d be surprised by the way that culture in America has collapsed. People used to at least pretend to be cultured. Now they just don’t care.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
I think I could be a cook. Everybody always says I’m good, though I think it’s quite gruelling as a profession.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
Do you believe in an afterlife?
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Nine. Like every writer, I’d have liked a little more recognition. But, while I hate to sound complacent, I’m fairly satisfied.
Edmund White’s ‘Inside A Pearl: My Years in Paris’ is published by Bloomsbury on February 27, hardback £18.99, ebook £16.99
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