Defining The sacred: Hubert Selby in converstion with Rob Couteau

Defining the Sacred: 
Author Hubert Selby on Spirituality, the Creative Will, 
and Love

by Rob Couteau

Published in:
Rain Taxi Review of Books, 
December 1999
(MN: Minneapolis)

Couteau: You’ve just returned from Europe where you gave a series of readings in Germany and attended the Paris premiere of the documentary, A Couple of Things about Hubert Selby. Would you care to relate some of the highlights of your recent trip?

Selby: Oh, gee, I don’t know if there were any highlights to tell you the truth. It was all very exciting. I enjoyed all of it. And after the people down in the breakfast room at the hotel saw me on television, I got extra croissants in the morning. So, that was kind of nice. Well, the people were all so wonderful, the reception was so enthusiastic, that I can’t think of anything that stands out more than anything else. Other than some of the scenery. Berlin was incredible; there are forests and lakes all over that city. It was just amazing.

Couteau: In that film, you were asked about your belief in God, and you said it all depends on one’s definition of God: that you didn’t believe in most of the conventional definitions, the way that most people define God. Now, my question is, do you have any spiritual beliefs? I’m not going to ask, “Do you believe in God”; that’s not really how I would phrase it, perhaps. But do you have any specific spiritual beliefs and, if so, what is your definition of the sacred?

Selby: Well, I don’t know if I can define it. I certainly do attempt to live according to spiritual principles. That’s always the foundation of each and every day. But to define … I don’t think you can. I think anything that I can define is not it. It has to be beyond my ability to define or understand. But I have experienced some things in my life that just force me to believe in some sort of power. A creative … power, source: however you want to phrase it. I certainly have experienced that presence. And I have experienced the, what I consider the basic … Oh, so hard to use words to describe an ultradimensional thing. But what we would call love and concern.

Couteau: Do you feel that this thing that is so difficult to give a name to–as Lao Tsu says, “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao” … 

Selby: [laughs] That’s right, “is not the Tao,” that’s right!

Couteau: This thing that is so hard to define, is it something that just exists on a human level or on a profane level, or is it something that, for lack of a better word, we could call extramundane or spiritual? Do you believe in anything like that?

Selby: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I believe in something that is beyond this body. And beyond this physical world. Absolutely.

Couteau: That’s always been the sense that I get from your writing. When he was close to death, Henry Miller said he did not believe in God in the first-person singular, not as an “I,” but that he did believe in creation, which is very close, very similar to what you just said.

Selby: Yeah, I would say “it” rather than “I.” [laughs]

Couteau: I noticed in a previous print interview that you said you felt you were–I’m paraphrasing now–merely an “agent” of the creative. Where, then, does it come from? And how is the artist’s spiritual role different from the role that ordinary people play?

Selby: Well, what do you mean where does “it”? What is “it”? Do you mean where does this ultimate creative force come from?

Couteau: I think I’m asking you, in the role of a writer–because you were talking about being a writer–and then, you know, when you write, as I think we all feel when we’re suddenly inspired, there’s something coming from beyond us.

Selby: Oh, right. Well, beyond? I wouldn’t say beyond. I would say absolutely within. But I couldn’t limit the depth of ‘within.’ Because once you start getting within, you are in such a boundless, infinite universe. But it’s important for me to say within, because I don’t think there’s anything outside of me.

Couteau: Are you part of that big “it” with a capital I, then?

Selby: I think we all are, yes. Absolutely. See, which is interesting, because, obviously, every second of every day, people are being born, people are dying, which means whatever this “it” is,changes. It’s in constant change, constant flux. Yet, I want to keep it still. [laughs] And I think that’s the source of so many of my problems, and I guess you could say the world’s problems, is that we’re trying to control it, instead of just surrendering to it.

Couteau: You’ve said, “Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there’s something inside us that’s so hideous and monstrous that, if we ever search it out, we won’t be able to stand looking at it. But it’s when we’re willing to come face-to-face with that demon that we face the angel.” Do you believe in angels?

Selby: I’m just using, you know, the vernacular here–demons, angels–but, yeah, I do believe … [pauses] See, again, angels is a tough word, because it is so involved with organized religion and everything else. But let me just say this: I do know, absolutely, from my experience, there are some kind of spiritual entities–force, power, intelligence–that guide me through each and every day, as long as I’m willing to accept, recognize, and surrender to their guidance. It’s always there, but there are times when I insist upon having my way.

Couteau: That’s wonderful that you say that. I think this gets close to what I was trying to understand, which is that you do feel there are extrahuman powers or forces that move through us. Is that correct?

Selby: Yeah. But I suppose you could get right down to it and say, well, maybe they’re not even extrahuman, maybe they’re ultrahuman; who knows? But there are definitely things that aren’t necessarily walking around [laughs] in a body like mine. And I believe they’re sort of everywhere. I mean, I can’t … You know, where can you look where you’re not looking in the direction of God so to speak? Where do I go where I’m not surrounded by air, and all these little molecules and atoms, and all that kind of stuff that’s there? It’s just there.

Couteau: That may work as a good segue into a question I was going to ask further down the line. Because it makes me think of “Psalm 16,” what you just said. You know, your piece “Psalm 16”?

Selby: Oh … oh, mine. Yeah, okay–I was thinking of David’s [laughs]–I couldn’t remember 16!

Couteau: [laughs] Okay! My question was: Are good and evil two sides of the same face of God? I’m remembering your stunning piece, “Psalm 16,” in which you excoriate God and all that occurs “in your name, in your fucking myriad of names.” Such a beautiful line! And on the other hand, you sing, at the end of that psalm: “I said to the almond tree, ‘Speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”

Selby: Precisely. One of the things I like about … Whew, I get chills thinking about it! One of the things I like about that psalm is that it appears that the narrator doesn’t know what he’s doing [laughs] or what he’s saying. He doesn’t realize he’s defeating his own argument so to speak. That’s one of the things I like about it.

See, the thing is, about the face of God … again, that really personalizes it, doesn’t it, when we say, “the face of God”? And then that gets us back to that Henry Miller thing and so forth. So, I don’t think they’re two different faces of God. I think “good and evil” is simply my perception of something at the moment.

Couteau: Do you believe in evil as an independent, autonomous force that acts within us or against us? Or is evil, as the Church has sometimes defined it, merely the “absence of good?”

Selby: I don’t seem to be capable of believing in evil as some separate, distinct power within itself. I guess I’m just not a Southern Baptist or a Fundamentalist [laughs]. I just don’t seem to be capable of believing in it, somehow. I can’t conceive, from my experience, how this force of evil can exist without the force of love being right there.

Couteau: When I read through your books, there is, omnipresent, the term and image and notion of the demon.

Selby: That’s right.

Couteau: And in this world of duality, naturally, the question would be: Well, what’s the counterpoint of the demon? Which is why I asked about the angels.

Selby: Well, actually, the counterpoint is love. As I understand it, there are only two emotions a human being can experience: love or fear. And when you’re in a state of love, you can’t think of trying to get anything. You’re incapable of thinking that way. You just seem to experience the perfection of creation and want to do what you can to make everyone comfortable; you just give away everything you have. When I talk about giving away, I’m not talking about my clothes or my house–from within me. You know, try to comfort people.

If I’m coming from anyplace else, I’m coming from fear. And fear takes many, many, many forms to be effective. All kinds of forms. So, if I’m facing the demon of fear, love is always available. But what I have to do is to be willing to surrender to it. Surrender my ideas: of what is right, what is wrong, and all those dreadful judgments that keep us in turmoil and ignorance and misery.

Couteau: Are the demons merely what Jung would call “autonomous complexes”? Are they things that are just below consciousness, that are pulling us in the wrong direction, and that have been formed by past experiences?

Selby: I really couldn’t say. I don’t know if it’s formed by past experience. I mean, because then, if you say past experiences, now we’re getting into reincarnation … 

Couteau: Well, I actually meant in this lifetime.

Selby: Well, no, I don’t think so. It seems to be something else. I mean, then how would you explain Mozart?

Couteau: I think Mozart, like you, is an example of someone who has the gods moving through him, and his religion was creation.

Selby: Yeah, and at three years old he’s writing music! [laughs] I mean … [laughs] you know? So, I don’t know. How about the accident of birth? Maybe you’re born with an obsession or that aspect of obsession that just has to be generated, somehow, through life. I just don’t know.

Couteau: So you do feel it’s possible that, as the word destiny implies–“that which follows from before”–you do believe we may be born into this world not coming in with a blank slate, so to speak?

Selby: Right. I do believe that. I don’t believe in a blank slate in any way. I mean, that’s what we seem to be taught, at least in the Western world: we’re born with a blank slate, and we have to learn how to get and get. Otherwise, we’re fucked. [laughs] That seems to be the message, you know! Certainly, in this country.

But no one ever seems to train us in methods of finding out that we already have within us all the things that are valuable: all the treasures. But it’s only in the process of giving them away, to somebody else, that we become aware of having them.

And I don’t know; I just don’t know about where these things, where do my obsessions come from? My earliest memory as a little kid: I have these obsessions. I have no idea. I’m grateful I found out how I can become increasingly free of them. But I don’t know. And I don’t know anything really about karma, reincarnation. So, I can’t explain the origin.

Couteau: Do you believe that love is something that existed before human beings? Or the possibility for it existed before we came down the block?

Selby: Well, yeah, I think so, but I don’t know that I could really define it. I can’t … again, it’s like trying to define what this creative force is. It’s beyond my ability to really define. If I can define it, then it’s not it. We’re right back to that thing again.

Couteau: We’re back to Lao Tsu.

Selby: Yeah, right back there again. So, I don’t know. But I do believe that what we call love is always available to us. And of course, I’m not just talking about passion. I’m talking about love where you just can’t conceive that your life isn’t perfect: that you can’t conceive of wantinganything.

Couteau: Do you mean love that could exist without another person?

Selby: Yes, oh, yes. In one sense: in an experiential sense. But if love is what I’ve experienced, I can’t separate it from other people. I can’t separate creation, and I can’t separate whatever this creative thing is from its creation. I don’t believe that can be done. So, as I said before, we’re all part of this creative force. So, where else am I going to be directing my love? Now, I can sit alone and experience this thing and be overwhelmed with such ecstasy that I can’t say anything but “thank you.” But ultimately, I direct it towards people. Hopefully.

Couteau: Is it directed into your work?

Selby: Well, yeah. But of course, then again, we get down to a definition … It may be hard to find the love in my work sometimes! [laughs] We’ll put it that way! According to the way people define love.

Couteau: I think I meant: is the act of you sitting down, with all your physical pain, and all the things you’ve been through, and all the difficulties that every writer encounters in writing a book–isn’t it really motivated by love?

Selby: Yeah. And that love is beyond what we call love. That’s something … it’s probably beyond what any writer calls love, too! [laughs]

Couteau: It’s not romantic love we’re talking about; we’re talking about rapture.

Selby: Yeah, we’re talking about rapture; we’re talking about creation. We’re also talking about extraordinary pain.

Couteau: Which brings us back to what we were talking about before: what I called, for lack of a better metaphor, the two sides of the face of the absolute. There was a German philosopher who wrote about comparative religion; his name was Rudolf Otto. He wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy. He invented two terms. He said the encounter with the absolute is either a mysterium fascinans or a mysterium tremendum. It can be bliss or it can be terror. Or it can be both.

As a spiritual man, is it difficult to reconcile the pain that you were just speaking of: that it’s part of this creation, too? That there are demons; that that’s all part of the same portrait?

Selby: Oh, yeah, it’s difficult. At least for me. Sometimes I sit here, and the phone rings, and I cry. “I … I can’t talk!” I’m just totally incapable of it. But I’ve come to believe, from my experience, that whenever I feel like I’m locked in hell, I am at the gates of heaven. And my perception of my experience can change in the wink of an eye. Just all of a sudden. Boom.

Couteau: You’re at the gates of heaven, because that can be the next step? Or … ?

Selby: Let me put it this way. I think we’re always striving for this perfection of our own being: torealize our own perfection. To realize and to be consciously at one with this thing that created us: that we always have within us.

I mean, we always have it in its entirety. It’s my belief that says, “I don’t.” And it seems to me that, periodically, the closer I get to the conscious awareness of my oneness with this creative power, the more insane the human ego becomes. And I’m defining “ego” as the lie of separation. The lie that says I’m separate from this thing that I can never be separate from. I’m separate from me; I’m separate from you. It starts to feel really threatened, and it just becomes outrageously vicious. At its best, [laughs] it’s vicious. And so, I can just feel so twisted and turned that I can’t move. I just don’t know what the hell is going on.

But my experience has proven to me that when I’m feeling that way, it’s because I’m really knocking at the gates of heaven. You know, to use a phrase. And if I can just find some way of letting go of my fear, which usually means surrendering right into the middle of the fear–in other words, just sitting and saying: Okay, you fucking dragons, you demons, here I am: eat me up alive, you fucking punk– then I become aware of being at the gates of heaven. But boy, it’s not easy. [laughs]

Couteau: I recently reread Last Exit to Brooklyn while simultaneously reading your last book, The Willow Tree. Most critics remember your first book for its portrayal of absolute brutality and cruelty–and maybe we can say, in this context, separation, right?

Selby: Mm-hmm.

Couteau: While the last book is, in part, highlighted by the attempt of various characters to show empathy, passion, and love. Yet, a careful reading reveals that there are episodes, incidents, and moments in Last Exit in which empathy occurs, and it’s portrayed in a beautiful and touching manner.

Selby: I think so, you know? [laughs] I’m glad to hear that you do!

Couteau: I’m also thinking of the story, “And Baby Makes Three,” which, at least in part, is about “having a ball” as one character says. More specifically, in “The Queen is Dead,” there are moving passages that portray Georgette’s love for Vinnie.

I was surprised to discover three principal symbols that make their appearance in this chapter: the swan, the lake, and the willows. These symbols of rapture and bliss also appear years later, in your last book, The Willow Tree: specifically, the part where Moishe takes Bobby to Prospect Park, and Bobby experiences what may be his first day of pure rapture and bliss. Are things such as happiness, bliss, ecstasy, and rapture among the most difficult themes or portrayals to handle successfully as a writer?

Selby: I think so. Because for one thing, like you said, this is a world of duality, so we need something to compare it with. So I have to set the situation up where we can experience the difference between whatever we are having–everyday life–and this experience of bliss.

You said Bobby’s first experience of bliss was being under the willow tree with Moishe. But remember, later on, when Bobby tries to remember some time in his life that made a difference? He remembers when he was a little kid, and they opened up the hydrant on a summer day. And he had that moment then. You see what I mean? It’s a very relative thing. But he had a brief time there, where: oh, life was just enchantment. “Even the old cranky folks” or “the old sour pusses, were okay.” [Quoting from memory, from the passage.]

Couteau: If I recall correctly, he remembers that when he’s with Moishe in the park, right?

Selby: Mm-hmm. I think so.

Couteau: Why is it so much more difficult to portray happiness–and to make the critics happy about how you portray it?

Selby: I don’t know how to make the critics happy! [laughs] I mean, this book, The Willow Tree: I can’t even get criticism in this country; that’s been totally ignored.

Couteau: I remember reading something that Norman Mailer once said: that people get uncomfortable when you talk about being in love. People get uncomfortable when they hear a description of pure happiness, and they tend to look at it as being silly. Maybe it’s just a general human reaction.

Selby: Quite often, if you’re talking about being in love, you probably sound very silly, because, for one thing, you’re totally self-centered at that time, aren’t you? When we’re talking about romantic love and so on. That must be what he’s referring to.

Now, to talk about the subject of love in some undefined sense, that can be fascinating. But we don’t get into that. We’re talking about a very subjective, first-person sort of thing. And yeah, [laughs] that can be a bore! Because of the way we talk about it. But if we can present a life, with the tragedies and horrors of life, then see the absence of these horrors …

You see, I discovered something, many years ago. I spent so many years trying to get happy that I finally realized that I can’t get happy: that happiness is a natural state of being. When I stop doing the things that make me unhappy, I will experience the happiness that is a natural state of being.

See, I don’t think we were created with some pain, and misery, and whatever. I think we were created by whatever this thing is–when it extended itself–and here we are. But I pile on so many misconceptions that I end up uncomfortable in my own skin.

Couteau: That’s similar to the other definition I mentioned before if we turn it around and speak of good as “the absence of evil.”

Selby: In a very real sense, yes. But the problem with that definition is the way that it’s phrased–“good is the absence of evil”–as if it’s not something absolute within itself. Now, I don’t use the words “good” or “bad,” I don’t …

Couteau: As if what’s not something absolute in itself?

Selby: Well, what we’re calling goodness, love, you see? But of course, in our experience, in the human condition, we do need both; it is a world of duality. So, I don’t know from up without down, or left without right.

Couteau: Well, since we’re in this metaphysical dilemma right now …

Selby: [laughs] And have been for many moons, I guess!

Couteau: Right! This might be a good moment to ask: what’s our purpose, then? I mean, in the really big sense of the question. And what’s your purpose as a writer? When you wake up in the morning, and you’re thinking about the book you’re working on, what’s the ultimate goal there?

Selby: When I’m thinking about the book I’m working on, the ultimate goal is always, of course, just simply to write the best book I can write and to understand the book that’s been given to me to write. So that I can create it appropriately.

Now, I don’t know about the meaning of life. You know, that’s [laughs] … There is no definition of it; it can only be experienced. But I do believe–and I think Moishe says this–that we all need ameaning to our life. I have to have a meaning in my life. If I roam around without some meaning in my life, I’m in deep and serious trouble. I can’t, I just can’t exist.

Couteau: The French have that wonderful expression, raison d’être: reason to be. If you had to define your raison d’être, what would you say, in a sentence?

Selby: To be as kind, gentle, loving as possible.

Couteau: What’s wonderful about the things you’re saying is that you have this very well articulated metaphysic–because it’s coming from experience–but you bring it down to earth and continually return to those basic … I could say moral qualities, right? Kindness, love, forgiveness. As a writer or as a person, would you define yourself, in part, as a moralist? Or is that just too small a word?

Selby: You know, I never thought of it in those terms. But I guess I’d have to, to some degree, because I am concerned with what the moral dynamic might be of any story that’s given to me to write. Not only the psychodynamic but also what the moral dynamic is, is important. I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit, I heard myself say: “The horrors of a loveless world.” And I think that’s true, the more I … And that’s many moons ago that I was asked that question. I hadn’t thought about it ahead of time, but that’s what came out of my mouth. And I can’t find any reason to change my mind about that statement.

Couteau: I noticed in The Willow Tree that there are many times when the phrase “the demon” makes its appearance. And of course, there’s your wonderful book by that same title. While rereading Last Exit, I noticed the first appearance in your writing of this word, the demon. It’s when Georgette spontaneously decides to read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” She recites: “And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.”

Now, when I met you in Paris, I was surprised to see that you were always smiling and laughing, and that your eyes did not have the seeming of a demon!

Selby: [laughs] Well, thank you!

Couteau: When I read that line, I thought: perhaps Selby is the demon that is dreaming, and what he dreams up is this collection of some of the best prose in American literature. Or one could say that the demon is another force that you’ve been selected to be the agent for–to use your term from before. If you are the agent, what is the price you pay for carrying the demon within you and for giving it a voice?

Selby: Oh, boy. The price! Whew. You know, first of all, you can’t say with absolute certainty. However, I can say [laughs] that my life, to a great extent, has been a horror story. Whew.

In a way, I don’t pay a price, but I’m given something. I have these experiences in my life. I’ve had a lot of problems. Certainly, a lot of physical problems as well as emotional problems and everything else. Now, when I finally accept the fact that I’m a writer and go through the arduoustask [laughs] of developing that ability …

See, you must remember that I have no natural talents or abilities in any area of life. I’m not a natural writer or a natural reader; I’m not an exceptional mechanic; I’m not an exceptional athlete; I’m not a draftsman at all; I can’t draw or … Absolutely no natural talent. But I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter every day, for six years, until I learned how to write. Now, I can’t say that the ability wasn’t there, obviously. I guess it was there, and I just had to fight like hell to activate it, to animate it, to nurture it, to love it. So, I don’t know about that. I just know that it was a lot, a lot of work.

Now, because I have this life of suffering, with demons and all other forms of misery, now at least I can do something with it. So it becomes for me … I have to assume it becomes cathartic, in a sense. But at the same time, I have a certain framework.

Something else that kept me in conflict and created great pain is that, philosophically and consciously, ethically, morally, whatever, I’m a very pacifistic person. I don’t believe in violence. Yet my life has been so violent that I’m constantly–at least, in the past–violating my own code of ethics and morality. And that is just destroying me. So, although I’m not consciously aware of this (I’m just looking back; I’m not aware of it at the time), I can constantly experience the difference between heaven and hell, so to speak. And the terrible pain of these conflicts and the angst of not doing the loving things that I always wanted to do. And doing all the mean-spirited things that I knew no human being should ever do.

So in the end result, I’m not focusing on any of these things; I’m focusing on writing the best story I can write. Which means I’m doing everything I can to give the artist within me as much power as possible. Then, somehow, on this piece of paper emerges the result of that conflict, in such a way that the reader can experience and see what it’s really like to live this life. Instead of sitting comfortably somewhere and saying, “Oh, those people, they should all be shot.”

Couteau: With your creative obsession with demonology; with God; with man’s suffering and the possibility of redemption, catharsis, or even transcendence, which you’ve lately explored in The Willow Tree, aren’t you in fact a religious writer?

Selby: Again, it depends on how we define the word religious. Certainly not in the organized sense, but in some very, very broad spiritual sense I guess I’d have to agree with you. Again, this wasn’t my conscious effort in writing. But it seems to me I am. And I should amend my previous statement by saying, in The Willow Tree, it was a conscious effort to write a spiritual book.

Couteau: Could you elaborate on that?

Selby: Well, as simply as possible, I had spent many years writing about the darkness. And I wrote about the darkness from many different points of view, as I felt like it. And now I wanted … See, I’m always presenting myself with problems to solve as a writer. So, the problem I presented myself with was: not only to write about the darkness but to write about the light. And how you get from the darkness to the light. So, I would think that that’s kind of defining a spiritual book.

Couteau: Coming from Brooklyn myself, I’m always amazed at how much you’ve captured of that nearly impossible to describe place. If you hadn’t been raised in Bay Ridge but, instead, hailed from a small town with white picket fences, and year-round sunshine, and strangers who greeted everyone on Main Street by saying “Good morning” … In other words, if the peculiar spirit of those dark Brooklyn streets had not infused itself into your soul, what do you think would have been the result? I mean, in terms of your writing.

Selby: Maybe I never would have written. That’s quite possible, you know? Because one of the things that fascinates me is the music of speech. How many places are there in the world where you have the music of speech? Certainly not in most of this country. So, I just don’t know. And if I had the same kind of personality that I have, living in a small town, I don’t know if I would have survived long enough to try to write.

Couteau: One of the strange things about a lot of those parts of Brooklyn is that they don’t seem to change, decade after decade.

Selby: Oh, that’s right. Yeah, Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last eighty years. With a few physical exceptions.

Couteau: In many ways it’s a wonderful place, but, in other ways, it’s a very violent place. For some reason, there are a lot of violent people that come out of those streets.

Selby: Mm-hmm.

Couteau: And people who don’t really have a sense of what you were calling catharsis.

Selby: But isn’t it funny that all these mass murderers, and kids, and grown-ups who go around whacking people don’t come from …

Couteau: They come from the little towns with the white picket fences!

Selby: That’s right! [laughs] Yeah, they don’t come from Brooklyn. So, I might have been one of those! Given the nature of my personality. Who the heck knows? You know? I don’t know, man; I don’t know. But I know that I love the city; I love the sound of the city.

Couteau: I guess the other side of my question really was: how much of Last Exit and some of the things that followed, even up through and including The Willow Tree, how much of that is really a portrait of such streets? All your books are universal, but if someone like me has actually come from a place like that we’re especially impressed, because it’s a universal tale but it also mirrors and captures the uniqueness of that place. Is that something you’ve thought about through your life?

Selby: Well, not in the physical sense of portraying Brooklyn in any way. But in a very real sense, I have thought about it. Because what I attempt to do is put the reader through an emotional experience. So, you don’t find much physical description in my work. I don’t describe the streets too much or anything else. But I try to get as deeply inside the people who live on those streets as possible. I think that’s what you’re experiencing: what it’s like to live on those streets. You’re getting each individual’s reaction to their life on those streets. Maybe that’s what it is. I certainly can’t really say.

Couteau: I know you feel a spiritual or literary kinship with Céline.

Selby: Yeah.

Couteau: There’s another great writer who also emerged from Brooklyn who had a great kinship with Céline: that is, Henry Miller. Did Miller in any way influence you as a writer?

Selby: No … I don’t know how much of Miller I ever read before I started writing.

Couteau: There probably wasn’t much available at that time.

Selby: No, there wasn’t. Because I started writing in the mid ’50s. So, no, I don’t think … even if I had read it, I don’t think Miller would have influenced me in any way, because we seem to approach things so differently.

Couteau: How so?

Selby: Well, in a lot of … Well, I don’t know about “a lot”; I haven’t read that much …

Couteau: Oh, really? I thought he might’ve been someone you’ve read a lot, because I saw somewhere that you had his books on your bookshelf.

Selby: Yeah, I do have a couple of his books here. But you know, some of his books … See, I always have a very definite story line. I’m like an old-fashioned writer: a beginning, middle, and end, kind of thing. And quite often he doesn’t. He just kind of wanders around in the streets of Paris, so to speak. And then he wanders around in his mind, you know? Just kind of strolling, straying. Which is cool; I’m not making a negative critique of this. But I think we approach things quite differently sometimes. Although that one book, I forget which Tropic it is, the one that takes place in Brooklyn when he’s at Western Union: that had a pretty direct storyline, and was kind of linear, and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. The thing with his first babysitter and all that kind of stuff, man, you know? [laughs]

Couteau: Do you like his writing?

Selby: Yeah. And the same thing with Céline; I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced by Céline. But looking back on it, it just seems like–at least on the surface–it looks like I have more to do with him than anybody else. You know, in that raging, maniacal kind of sense.

Couteau: By the way, did you know that … I don’t think it’s in print anywhere, but, apparently, Céline did use mescaline.

Selby: Oh, really?

Couteau: I was speaking with a biographer who had some contact with Allen Ginsberg, who had met Céline, and according to Ginsberg, Céline had used mescaline. I’ve always wondered about the influence of mescaline on Céline’s books, because there are passages in his work that are quite hallucinatory.

Selby: So in other words, he used it on a regular basis for a while? Not just as an experimental thing?

Couteau: I don’t know. I think there’s very little known about it. I’ve read most of the biographies that are available on him, and I’ve never seen it in print. But I know that he used it at least once, and that he had access to it as a doctor.

Selby: That’s true, too.

Couteau: Have you ever used hallucinogens?

Selby: No. Well, I smoked grass, which is basically a hallucinogenic. But no, I never wanted to go near them.

Couteau: Did using drugs have any kind of positive influence on your writing? Or to put it in another way, were you able to take anything out of that experience and portray it or use it as material?

Selby: Well, yeah, Requiem for a Dream, obviously.

Couteau: What about how it might have affected you as a stylist? Or your use of language?

Selby: Gee, I don’t think so. Because I didn’t get involved with drugs until after Last Exit was published. And I think that the language, and style, and so forth, were pretty well established there.

Couteau: Carl Jung used to say that it took as much as twenty years for the collective consciousness to catch up with the contents of his books. How much time will pass before the public is able to understand books like The Room and Requiem for a Dream?

Selby: Well, now that’s a good question; that’s a very good question. The public doesn’t seem to have such a problem with my books. It’s the academics that do! [laughs]

Couteau: And the critics? Is that what you mean when you say academics?

Selby: Well, some critics have been very kind, very wonderful.

Couteau: You received some great reviews for those books.

Selby: Yeah! Oh! Oh, The Room? Got some … Josephine Hendin and Dotson Rader! I mean, wow, I got incredible reviews. But nobody seems to know it exists. So, it’s not so much the public. I find that when the public gets around to reading it, from the feedback I get from them, they seem to relate to the book and enjoy it and so forth. But I’ve been kind of ostracized, I think, by the academic community. As a matter of fact, after Last Exit was published, I was told by someone that there really was a conspiracy against the book, in that the large bookstores in New York would not display the book. They would sell it, but they wouldn’t display it.

Couteau: Last Exit was banned in the U.K. but not in the States. Why was Last Exit allowed to be published in the United States in 1964, while Tropic of Cancer, which was a much less obscene book-by the classical definition-was banned until just a few years before that?*

Selby: I think because–now, I don’t know–but what popped in mind is the fact that it had beenbanned for many years. His work had been banned here for many years. You could only smuggle it in and all that sort of stuff. So it had a different resistance and a different procedure to go through.

Couteau: It had an already-established weight, a history that it had to deal with.

Selby: Right. Yeah. And of course, Barney Rosset took care of business and made it possible for a lot of things to happen.

Couteau: You were just talking about the fact that there was a conspiracy to create obstacles forLast Exit. Did the FBI ever open a file on you, and, if so, have you ever seen it or requested it?

Selby: Somebody once told me that they have a file on me, but I …

Couteau: Never seen it?

Selby: No.

Couteau: Not curious?

Selby: No … well, I suppose … I don’t even think about it. I mean, what the hell could …

Couteau: Might be good for some laughs, no?

Selby: Yeah! [laughs] No, I think it would piss me off to think of all the time and money they’re wasting–getting a file on me, for Christ’s sake! Maybe we should do something more important with all this stuff!

Couteau: It pisses me off that people like Frank Sinatra get the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or whatever it’s called …

Selby: [laughs] Yeah!

Couteau: And not people like you!

Selby: [laughs]

Couteau: I mean, that really pisses me off!

Selby: You know, fuck the medal–I could use some money! [laughs]

Couteau: Dough-ray-me, right?

Selby: Yeah! And don’t forget, sixteen years ago, I was on welfare for Christ’s sake, with my son. We were on welfare for a year.

Couteau: Well, this is coming off the top of my head, but do you have anything to say about how America treats its artists? Or maybe not just America but governments in the world, in general? I mean, you must still have some bitterness about that, no?

Selby: No, not bitterness, I just … I get sad sometimes. I was certainly sad at the time when, you know, you have to scrounge for money to support your family. And I never could really earn a living because of my physical condition, lack of education, and so forth. But you know, governments … the only government I really know is this government. We don’t have a cultural affairs department or anything like they have in some of the European countries. Now, whether that’s any better or not, I don’t know! I’m sure there are plenty of artists who really oppose all that bureaucracy dealing with the arts. But it would be nice if, somehow, you could get some money. You know, I’ve applied for the NEA a couple of times, and the Guggenheims, and things like that. And I’ve always been turned down by everybody. According to them, there are at least 2,000 writers in this country that are better than I am. Which could very well be true. And I would love to read them …

Couteau: But the question is: where the hell are they? [laughs]

Selby: Yeah, where are they? [laughs] You know what I mean? [laughs] Where the hell are they? It’s true.

Couteau: Henry Miller was also turned down for a Guggenheim.

Selby: Well, I can understand that–because he was a dirty writer! [laughs] You know, in those days? To write the way he was writing? You know.

Couteau: When Picasso was living in Paris, he was approached by a group of artists, and they asked him to sign a petition demanding that the government give more money to artists. And he refused to sign it. He said, of course I’m not going to sign that petition; the state, the government, is the enemy.

Selby: Mm-hmm. Well, but we must remember that he was a Communist, so his attitude was a little different. But that’s why I say I’m not sure if it’s beneficial to have an official government bureau. And who’s going to head it? Jessie Helms? [Laughs uproariously] Dan Quayle, that’s who! [laughs]

Couteau: Right! Talking about Murphy Brown!*

Selby: [laughs]

Couteau: If Murphy Brown gives him a hard time, what about Hubert Selby?

Selby: Oh, my goodness! [laughs] Yeah. So, I don’t know about governments as far as individual artists are concerned. I suspect it wouldn’t be worth it to have them poking around. I think it would be nice if governments could be a little more helpful with, say, orchestras, ballet companies, and so forth, which can’t sustain themselves. Maybe they could get a tax break on tickets or something. There might be some way of doing it where they could keep them out of it. But the individual artists … I think we just have to go our own way.

Couteau: I agree with you.

Selby: Yeah?

Couteau: Yeah. I think in a way, the great irony, or paradox, about America is that it makes it so hard for the sensitive person, the artist, the impressionable person, the person whose raison d’êtreis to incarnate the creative will rather than to just make money, and yet that extreme difficulty that the culture poses for us has created some of the best artists in the last hundred years.

Selby: Correct.

Couteau: You would agree with that?

Selby: Oh, yeah. I mean, how is a pearl manufactured?

Couteau: Beautiful answer.

Selby: Right? Yeah, that seems to be a necessary part. Because the artist by definition is outsidethe mainstream of society. Wasn’t it Yeats who said that the artist is the antenna of the race? It’s so true. It seems to me that what the artist sees is the simple and obvious that is invisible to everybody else. And it’s always there; it’s all around us. The artist magnifies what’s invisible to other people so that they’re capable of at least realizing there’s something here.

Couteau: What is the artist’s relationship to the childhood experience? Were you, for example, the classic “artist as a child”: the sensitive, impressionable person?

Selby: Oh, God, yeah! Oh, Jesus! [laughs] And not only that–my name is Hubert, and I’m born and raised in Brooklyn! Everybody’s Mikey, Vinnie, Tony–it was like being a Jew in an Irish neighborhood! [laughs] I mean, everybody’s poking fun at me. And I could never, never deal with it. I could never deal with it. Oh, God almighty. And of course, I don’t know that, inside, I’m different from anybody else. And everybody else seems to be taking care of business. And I’m in this constant turmoil. I see a cat going through a garbage can getting something to eat–I fall apart; I’m crying, I’m dying! I can’t stand to look at it, you know? Oh, man. You know, bringing home crippled birds. You know, that kind of thing.

Couteau: Was there an adult who was any kind of a role model; or was there a singular defining experience in your childhood that marked you to be an artist, later on, do you think?

Selby: No, I think it’s just something there. Again, it’s that accident of birth that I don’t understand. I think it can get nurtured. You see, you don’t decide to be an artist; you accept the fact that you are. But you don’t decide to be one. Now, who the hell could be that dumb? Can you imagine deciding to live this kind of life? Oh, good Lord! [laughs]

Couteau: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Mircea Eliade’s work on shamanism, but he says that when the old shaman, or when the tribe, decides to select the young boy who will become the next shaman, it’s like a fate worse than death. And the boy tries to run away and to escape, and it’s the worst thing imaginable, because he’ll be wounded in some way–in a psychological sense–and it’s through that wound that the unconscious will be channeled. The sacred world will come through that wound, through that hole inside of him.

Selby: Yeah. Boy, does that sound accurate. Wow.

Couteau: You can relate to that?

Selby: Oh, dear Lord. Yes, indeed.

*     *     *

Couteau: What’s your parents’ background? Are you Irish?

Selby: No, English. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years: all English.

Couteau: On each side?

Selby: Yeah, my family on both sides has been in this country for more than 350 years.

Couteau: They were probably the last English family left in Bay Ridge!

Selby: I was a member of the smallest minority in the country, for God’s sake! [laughs] I want minority rights, God bless us! [laughs]

Couteau: You’re working on an autobiography now?

Selby: No, not really. I was writing a memoir. I wanted to put down as much information as possible about myself for my children. Because I realized: who the heck can know their parents? Even if you have a whole bunch of facts. I know nothing about my father, not even the facts or anything else. But who can really know them? When you’re a kid, they’re God: they’re all this; they’re that. I just thought it would be nice to leave a document for my children where they can see the humanness inside of their father. It’s not finished, because I’ve got so many other things happening. Suddenly, I was writing The Willow Tree, and now something else. Also, I was writing a thing called “Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love” that is very autobiographical. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back and organize that and finish it. It’s just … I never know.

Couteau: I understand you’re currently working on a book that deals with the theme of suicide.

Selby: Well, not really suicide. What the theme is … it’s hard for me to say, because this thing evolved from a joke, just like Requiem for a Dream evolved from a joke. It might be, simply, having a purpose in life.

The thing started: this guy is very despondent; he’s very unhappy. So he’s trying to figure out how to kill himself. And eventually he decides he’s going to–this is a long thing–but finally he decides he’s going to get a gun and blow his brains out. And so he goes to get a gun, and they need information to okay it: you know, to get a permit, whatever it’s called. And the computer system breaks down, and he has to wait five days. He becomes pissed off at all this, and in that five-day period he goes from being suicidal to homicidal. So he figures: oh, he’ll kill this guy at the Veteran’s Administration who’s been breaking his balls.

He doesn’t want to just murder him; he wants to make it look natural, so he doesn’t have to pay a price. So he goes on the Internet, and he finds out how to culture E. coli and salmonella bacteria. And to make a long story short, he drops it in the guy’s Coke one day at lunch, and the guy actually dies. And he goes and he visits the body, and he’s really delighted over this, really happy: “I killed a man; I killed a man!”

And then, of course, he’s even more depressed than ever. And he sits around for about three days with the gun barrel in his mouth, hoping that if he can’t pull the trigger maybe he’ll fall down and accidentally pull the trigger. So then the TV is on, and suddenly something captures his ear.

They’re talking about the thirtieth picnic and barbecue celebration in some place, and you get the distinct impression that it’s Mississippi. What it’s about is: thirty years before, when they were integrating the hospitals for Medicare. The doctors were going all over the country doing this. And there was a black doctor working in this particular town, and he was murdered. And everyone knew that this guy had done it. Then they brought him to trial, and they found him not guilty. And everyone celebrated right after the trial with a barbecue and picnic. And every year since then, they have this barbecue and picnic celebration. So this guy–“Ah, ha!”–now he has a purpose to his life, see?

So he’s going to get this guy. And he’ll get this guy in the same E. coli kind of manner. But then what he’ll do is: he’s going to see if he can start a mafia war between different gangs and have them eliminate each other. He’s going to go around–I don’t know how many: three, four different cities–and blow up some mafia people, hoping they’ll all start shooting each other and all that kind of thing.

Couteau: You’re currently working on this?

Selby: Yeah.

Couteau: What about writing in the first person? When I read the little that’s available about your biography, it seems it would be a natural thing for you to write in the first person. Is your memoir in the first person?

Selby: Oh, well, yeah. And this “Waiting Period” thing that I just told you about, the suicide guy, that’s first person. There’s actually no narrator. There’s actually no narrator at all.

Couteau: It’s first person?

Selby: Yeah. It’s all inside this guy’s head, like in The Room. There’s no narrator, but there is a commentator that kind of pops up, every now and then. Sometimes he seems to be the devil, and sometimes he seems to be Jesus. I don’t know who he is. He just pops in and out. And makes comments about things.

Couteau: Maybe back to that thing about the two sides, the two faces, right?

Selby: Yeah, who knows? [laughs]

Couteau: It seems to me that would be a natural thing for you to do, given the incredible life … you know, you’ve had a very rich life, and a very intense life. Is this the first time that you’ve had the impulse to write in the first person?

Selby: No, there are some things …

Couteau: I know you have some short stories …

Selby: Some stories are in the first person. And then, oh, that thing, the “Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love,” the autobiographical thing: that’s first person. But I jump from first to third. I do that a lot in all my work; I’m sure you’ve noticed.

Couteau: You listen to Beethoven every day and you’ve mentioned Céline, who’s a very musical writer. When you’re writing, do the words come in rhythm or melody?

Selby: Yeah. Depending upon what’s needed. See, I always try to fulfill the responsibility to the story: whatever is needed at the moment. But yeah, I write by ear. Yeah, the rhythms of the writing, even in the narrative, are important. For instance, if I’m writing a narrative about a particular person, dealing with a particular person, the rhythms, the syntax, and so forth, should reflect that person’s personality.

Couteau: It was obvious to me that you were writing by ear; I just wanted to make sure. It’s one of the reasons your writing is so beautiful, and so different, from many other writers.

Just a couple of last questions. Are there any nonfiction writers or books that were a big influence?

Selby: Well, maybe when I was … when I was a kid, I did read one book. And that was calledHeroes of Science. And it had Edward Jenner, Lavoisier, and, oh, I can’t remember the various scientists. But I do remember reading that book. And I remember, when I was eight or ten years old, making a decision that I was going to find a way to stop the suffering in the world. [laughs]

Couteau: Well, that’s interesting!

Selby: [laughs] Yes, indeed. I think about that now. And, you know, I think about it, and it really wasn’t an ego trip. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to do this.”

Couteau: It wasn’t coming out of a power complex.

Selby: No, it was a real sincere thing. I was that kind of kid. I guess I had, by that time, seen enough suffering. And I just really wanted people to stop hurting each other.

Couteau: You said you don’t know much about your dad. I imagine your mom must have been an incredible influence.

Selby: Yeah. They were both very, very influential. My mother’s a very strong, powerful woman. And my father was a drunk. He died drunk at the age of seventy-eight, so it wasn’t like a premature death. And I’ve just cloned myself after my father. Oh, in so many ways. Violent, drunk, maniacal. I left home and went to sea, and he went to sea. And oh, just … oh, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, my mother was a reader. But she just couldn’t stand bad language! [laughs] I used to get a bar of lye soap in my mouth for using words like lousy.

Couteau: Wow!

Selby: [laughs] Oh, boy! But at the same time, she got me to museums periodically. At least a couple of times a year we went to museums, things of that nature. My father went back to sea in 1942, and I always had a part-time job after school or before school, whichever. Which meant I used to work a half a day Saturday, and quite often we’d meet, go to a movie. And once we saw Othello, with Paul Robeson. Oh! Boy, what an experience that was! And so, there was a balance.

You know, as we’ve said, there are no absolutes. There was a lot of conflict. I wanted to please my mother, and I wanted to please my father. And so, [laughs] it’s pretty hard to please them both when they were so opposite in personality. So, I was always caught up in this conflict.

Couteau: Was your father kind to you? Was he loving to you?

Selby: Well, not overtly. I realize now that he felt so incredibly inadequate. He didn’t know what the hell to do.

You know, there’s one thing I do know about him. He was twelve years old; he was all alone in the world and working in a coal mine. So you know, that’s not exactly a great background to bring to a marriage.

Couteau: His parents were both …

Selby: Dead. Yeah.

Couteau: They died at about that time or …

Selby: Well, first his mother died when he was very young. He comes from Island, Kentucky. And then, when he was about twelve, I guess, his father died, and his stepmother just packed up and left. So, he went to live with an aunt in Indiana and worked in the coalmines. And he was just a little guy.

Couteau: He was confronted with a whole lot of reality very early on.

Selby: Oh, yeah! Right.

Couteau: And your mother, I would imagine, was more overt with her affection?

Selby: Oh, yeah, with her affection. And she sang in the same choir for more than sixty years. She’d still be there, but she can’t get out of bed.

Couteau: How old is she now?

Selby: She’s eighty-nine.

Couteau: What does she think of your work? What was her reaction?

Selby: Well, I’ll tell you, man. Her reaction to Last Exit was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten. Because I told you her thing about language.

Couteau: Okay! So if lousy was a bad word, what did she think of Last Exit?

Selby: Well, she read the book, and this is what she said. She said: “Oh, those poor people.” Wow. So, I mean, I really must have succeeded in doing what I planned to do. And that is: to put the reader through an emotional experience, because the experience of reading that book transcended all her prejudices, her ideas, her beliefs, and she just responded to the pain of the people.

Couteau: That must have been the ultimate compliment.

Selby: Oh! It’s the greatest compliment that I’ve gotten. Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Because I know how she feels. [laughs] You know what I mean?

Couteau: Has she read your subsequent books?

Selby: I’ve given her a copy of each one. I don’t know if she’s actually read them all. I don’t know if she was able to get through The Room. Some people can’t.

Couteau: I think it’s one of your best.

Selby: I think it’s the most disturbing book ever written by a human being. But I think it’s a masterpiece.

Couteau: Is that your own favorite, of all your work?

Selby: Well, I can’t say it’s a favorite. In one sense it is, because … after I finished writing that thing, I stayed away from it for twelve years. It was really disturbing. And then I went back to it, and I was just delighted. Because, in Last Exit, I was struggling so hard to learn how to write. Oh, God, I can’t describe to you the pain and torture: every night, for six years, trying to learn how to write. And so, I’m so involved in it that I can’t see what I’m learning. But in rereading The Room all those years later, I could see so clearly how, in Last Exit, I had learned how to write. Because I learned how to put down a simple line–that is so simple, and so obvious, and that, hopefully, contains a certain degree of profundity.

Couteau: You were channeling the creative will in a much easier way.

Selby: Yeah. And I had acquired tools and techniques that I could utilize whenever the need arose. I could see that when I reread The Room. I think it’s a remarkable book. I really do.

Couteau: I agree with you. What’s incredible about that book is its minimal beauty. The setting is a single room. The “characters” are just one person. The dialogue is a monologue. Were those intentional things or was that just something that evolved?

Selby: The basic premise of the book was totally musical: variations on a theme. And I wanted it just as simple, as simple, as simple as possible.

Couteau: Was there any particular thing that inspired that idea, that concept to create a sort of minimal masterpiece?

Selby: It grew out of a story called “The Sound.” I don’t know if you remember that story or not.

Couteau: Is it in Song of the Silent Snow?

Selby: Yeah. A guy is locked in a cell, and he hears a strange noise. And he’s looking out, and he becomes scared and so forth. Turns out, he’s having DTs [delirium tremens]. But that’s where that originated. That was the germ of the idea for The Room.

Couteau: I understand you were actually locked up for a month.

Selby: Yeah. That’s where they both come from.

Couteau: Was that the germ for the short story then?

Selby: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I wrote that in jail. I was in solitary a month, and then I was in population for a month.

Couteau: Why did they put you in solitary? Because you were detoxing?

Selby: Yeah. And because … This wasn’t solitary, like in the hole. This was, you know, a single occupancy room, an SRO! [Laughs uproariously] Because of my tubercular history, I was put in isolation, I guess. So I had this single- room occupancy cell. [laughs]

Couteau: My astrologer friends made me promise to ask if you know what time you were born.

Selby: Oh, dear, I don’t know. I think it was something like 11:00 a.m. And that would be New York time. But I’m not certain about that.

Couteau: I remember reading, years ago, in the Village Voice that, because of your health problems, you turned to astrology. Is that true?

Selby: No. What happened was: when I was very young, we lived in a luxury building. My father was the super: 59 West 12. Across the street from where the New School is now. It wasn’t there at the time. But it was a luxury building. And there was an older lady in there that really took a liking to me. I was maybe three years old when we lived in there, or four. And she had my horoscope drawn up by somebody that I’ve been told is a very famous astrologer: Alan Leo.*

Couteau: Yeah. He’s from an older generation of astrologers.

Selby: Yeah, I guess he would be, because this was maybe 1931 or ’32 that it was drawn up. And what happened is: many, many years later, I found, I came across this. I had it, and I read it. So, I never had one made up.

Couteau: Was it accurate?

Selby: Well, yeah, there are some interesting things. Like: “Stay away, be careful about going to sea,” and stuff like that. [laughs]

Couteau: Really, he said that?

Selby: Yeah! [laughs] “Be careful of things like alcohol and drugs.”

Couteau: And “Be careful if you leave your house. Better to stay at home!”

Selby: Yeah! [laughs] And you know, “You might want to look into the arts.” Things like that.

Couteau: Actually, he’s a very respected astrologer. He’s published quite a bit.

Selby: Yeah. But it doesn’t say on there about what time I was born. So, that’s why I couldn’t really say. And it’s got all these figures. I guess these … not illustrations …

Couteau: The glyphs for the signs?

Selby: Glyphs! Yeah. Those things for the different months and stuff. So, I don’t know what’s what.

Couteau: Obviously, you’re a spiritual man, and you’ve developed a philosophy that comes out of spiritual experience. Was there a point in your life when that started to happen? Was there something in particular that occurred?

Selby: Well, boy … You know, when you start looking back on your life, you see it happening all along. But the big thing, the big thing was: thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. And that gave me a chance to get in touch with, shall we say, my own reality, as far as this world is concerned. Veryuncomfortable! [laughs] But that, of course, was the big thing.

But I can look back on things that are just remarkable. We had a little thing called “Poetry in Motion” out here. We had poetry readings every week for about four years. And the fun part of it was that each week they’d have a topic. Just some arbitrary thing. You know, like “fashion,” “passion,” “terminal cool,” “it takes one to know one,” you know, “sports heroes,” that kind of stuff. And then you’d write something around this topic.

So I wrote a thing about what happened when I was about eighteen years old in the hospital. And what it was: this old guy, Hocus Pocus, he was a little old Estonian guy; we used to kind of make fun of him because he was a religious man. And he had this very deep affection for this young Greek boy. He was probably still in his teens, too; he was a Greek from Egypt. And he was going for his routine operation. Every three weeks, he got another three ribs cut out. It was one of those things. And he went for his first operation, and he didn’t come back for a while, and … Well, anyway, it turned out … he died.

So this old guy Hocus Pocus was really broken up over this. And one day he came over to my bed, and he asked me to write him a letter. Now, I never wrote a letter in my life; I didn’t know from nothing. And I said yes. I guess I was just moved by his need. So he said he wanted to write a letter to Alex’s–that was the boy’s name–Alex’s parents, and to say he was a good boy, and that we’re sorry.

So, I don’t know, somehow, I wrote a letter and it met with his liking. And we mailed it. And then we got a reply back. And the parents said they were so happy to hear from us and that sort of thing. And they exchanged a few letters. And then I realized, as I was writing this (and I wrote this forty years after the fact), two things:

First, in the story itself, I say: why did this guy ask me to do this? There were plenty of people in this ward who were better qualified; everybody was better qualified than I was. In addition to that, they had Gray Ladies* there, social service … anybody … but he asked me. And the conclusion I came up with–and this only happened as I’m writing; see, that’s why I say I don’t know what I have to give until I’m in the process of giving it away–as I’m writing this thing, on the paper it says: “Because I was in more need of the miracle he was offering than anybody else.”

And because I had said yes to life, I found out that I always have within me the infinite resources necessary to fulfill my responsibility at the moment. And what he was giving me was the gift of love. The gift that I could love. And then, later on, I realized–and again, this is maybe forty-two years after the fact–that is where I made the decision to be a writer. Now I know that, absolutely. Now I may be talking about a spiritual decision. But that is where it really originated. I said yes to writing a letter.

Couteau: It’s very interesting, because my question was about spiritual experience, and you immediately focused on your role as a writer.

Selby: Mm-hmm. Right.

Couteau: So in a sense, this is your spiritual raison d’être: what you’re doing, what you do.

Selby: I believe so. But see, I believe the first thing I mentioned was that he gave me the gift of love. That’s the first thing I recognized. The gift of love. That I could commit a loving act. And that was vitally important to me, because I thought I was the lowest form of animal life in the world. I was totally incapable of loving. And I wanted to be loving more than anything: more than I wanted life itself. And it tortured me …

Couteau: Your own judgments?

Selby: Of myself.

Couteau: The way that you looked at yourself?

Selby: Yeah.

Couteau: As a result of the illness?

Selby: No, just a result of everything. I always felt that way, all my life. I just … and there’s no reason for it: no reason, in fact. I just thought I was evil.

Couteau: And you don’t know why?

Selby: No. Just … the way it is.

Couteau: You know, when we read things about you, writers always sort of draw this vertical line: Before the illness; after the illness. Do you feel that? Or do you feel something else that is a continuity, which is not separated in that way? I mean, did it fundamentally change you?

Selby: Oh, yeah. Well, yes, absolutely.

Couteau: Your soul?

Selby: Well, no, I don’t think it changed my soul. But it certainly changed my perception of it. And it changed my perception of my place in this world. See, I had no education; I left home at fifteen. And when I was a kid, I was a very physical kid. I was maybe six feet tall, 170 pounds. I was just a physical kid. And now, all of a sudden, I have all these ribs removed. I’m just devastated. The physical world is no longer my friend. I can’t function in the physical world. And I am terrified. Now, let me tell you something I just remembered that’s indicative of the opinion I had of myself.

When I was finally brought back to this country, they said I was going to die. They didn’t tell me; they told my mother. And they had me in this little, itty-bitty room. It was just big enough for the bed. They just stick you in there to die. When I was in there, I couldn’t lie down. I had to sit up in bed all the time, because I couldn’t breath. And it was like, I gasped for air. You know, always gasping. And I remember so clearly the thought that just went through my head. It was: God put me here in order to atone for all my sins.

Now, what in the hell kind of an opinion did I have of me?

Couteau: Where did that come from?

Selby: Don’t ask me!

Couteau: No idea?

Selby: No. But that’s the opinion I had of me. That I’m just … I’m really … And I told this to a shrink once. And then he asked me, he says, “Well, what did you do that was so terrible that you deserved to die like that, at the age of eighteen?” And I lay there a while [laughs]–I had no answer! Finally–this is so insane, when I think about it–the only answer I could come up with, after many minutes of thinking, was: I quit school. Now, isn’t that insane? That’s the kind of thing I’m working with internally! [laughs] I quit school. But I mean, if you know the whole background, it does make a little sense. Because my parents wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to go to school, get a good job, and so forth. And I left school. And that hurt them. So, in a sense, it does make some sense. But still, that’s really crazy.

Couteau: You describe yourself as being a very empathetic child and adult. And this is what I feel, even when I read Last Exit, which, as you’ve said somewhere else, you said something like: There is no light in this book. And the reader is forced to turn to his own light, you know, inside.

Selby: Mm-hmm. Yeah. He has no relief.

Couteau: There’s no relief in that book. Except maybe in that story, “And Baby Makes Three,” which I think is a fun story.

Selby: [laughs] Well, yeah. And that was there just for that reason. I put it right there just because I had the sense that, if I don’t change the tempo of the music, the rest can start to become a monotone and lose its power.

Couteau: I see. But again, when I read Last Exit, there’s an authorial presence; your presence is in the book, and we feel it during those brief moments of empathy when, for example, Georgette imagines a different world …

Selby: Mm-hmm.

Couteau: … a wonderful, loving world. And there are other characters, in other moments in the book, through which that occurs. Was that an intentional part of what you tried to do in Last Exit? Or was it just that you were sort of “leaking” into the book?

Selby: Well, it must just be “leaking,” because I never wanted me to be in there in any way whatsoever. But as I said, I put the reader through an emotional experience. I have to write from the inside out. And it seemed absolutely essential that that romantic image, which can be so lyrical within Georgie and, at the same time, so deadly, be expressed.

Couteau: Because it’s part of the human condition.

Selby: Yeah.

Couteau: And you’re writing about the human condition.

Selby: That’s right.

Couteau: Well, Mr. Selby, this has been an emotional catharsis for me, talking to you!

Selby: [laughs]

Couteau: I really want to thank you for your time.

Selby: Well, thank you! It’s been a really very interesting interview. You asked some really interesting questions. It was a lot of fun.

Couteau: Thank you. What did the guys in Brooklyn think when you published Last Exit? Did any of them read it?

Selby: Well, a couple of them read at least part of Last Exit. And [imitating a Brooklyn accent]: “Say, man, this ain’t the way it was!” [laughs]

Couteau: They said that?

Selby: Yeah, they all said the same thing! [laughs]

Couteau: Were they just giving you a hard time?

Selby: No, no! It’s just, you know: poetic license! I mean, it’s based on my experiences in life, but: “It’s not the way it happened.” [laughs]

Couteau: Were any of the stories in Last Exit things that actually occurred?

Selby: Well, yeah, a little bit. “And Baby Makes Three”: it was kind of … that sort of happened, at least part of it. There was a time when somebody was fucking around with a knife and stabbed Georgie.

Couteau: Georgie really existed?

Selby: Oh, yeah, Georgie’s very real. What else? There was a strike.

Couteau: That’s an amazing story, “Strike.” It really makes you feel as if you’re inside a little Brooklyn office somewhere.

Selby: I mean, the strike was real, but everything else of course was just pure imagination. “Tralala”: there was a person named Tralala. I never saw her. That’s the only connection with reality, the name.

Couteau: Two last things that pop into my head: let me throw these at you. Why is there so much homosexuality–you know, the drag queens–in Last Exit? Why does it happen so frequently? And the other question I wanted to ask: you were saying that you felt as if you were at the bottom rung of humanity. How do you feel about yourself now?

Selby: Oh, I’ve come to terms with all that. Mostly, by correcting the errors I’ve made on the outside: doing all I can to compensate for any pain and misery I’ve caused people. And through these experiences that we’ve talked about, I get a greater glimmer of my reality. So, I just don’t believe the lies that go through my head anymore.

The homosexuality really stems from just Georgie, for one thing. And there is this connection through it so that the guy in “Strike” is actually going out with people that were introduced to him through Georgie. So, that’s just the thread. It’s not …

Couteau: It’s just the thread that runs through the book then.

Selby: Yeah. It’s not that there’s so much homosexuality, although it may appear that way. It starts with Georgie, who’s a neighborhood kid. And then he brings around some of the others, and that kind of thing. Also, you must remember that most of these guys that we’re talking about here, and writing about, had been in the joint for a while. So, fucking young boys in the ass is S.O.P.

Couteau: What’s S.O.P.?

Selby: Standard Operational Procedure.

Couteau: [laughs] That’s true. You even use the word “con” at some point in the book. You say, “a bunch of cons.” And someone “had never hung out with cons before”: one of the girls.

Selby: Yeah, right. I remember once seeing a couple–two males–on a subway, many years ago. And this one guy had a real typical Irish ex-con look. And he was big. And he just had that look. And he had this frail-looking little guy with him, and they were holding hands, you know. But nobody was going say anything! [laughs]

Couteau: Nobody was going to fuck with him, right?

Selby: [laughs] No way!

Couteau: By the way, it’s interesting that you’re using some Internet stuff in your latest book. I mean, that’s something we’d never expect in a Hubert Selby book.

Selby: Well, I figured: where else is he going to find that? It seems everybody’s got a Net, an Internet thing.

Couteau: That’s a great idea.

Selby: Yeah, so …

Couteau: Is living in L.A. changing your writing in any way, or what you’re writing about?

Selby: Well, you’d have to answer that. I mean, has it? I don’t think so …

Couteau: I meant, for example, are there any L.A. characters or … Well, I guess you’re still writing about New York, obviously …

Selby: Uh-huh. I think I still write with … whatever power I have is still there, I believe.

Couteau: I just meant in terms of something you might experience in L.A. that you would never experience in New York and that eventually finding its way into your writing.

Selby: Who knows? It’s possible. Well, the guy with the suicide-murder thing, I guess that could be L.A., why not?

Couteau: What was the origin of “Psalm 16”? That has to be one of your most incredible short pieces. I was telling my friends that, when I die, I want the priest to read it at my funeral!

Selby: [laughs] Really? Well, that was those poetry readings I was telling you about. And the theme one night was “Song of Forgiveness.” And this is what I ended up writing. A song of forgiveness.

I’ll tell you something interesting about that. I sent a copy to my mother. She was still ambulatory at the time, so it must have been like ten years ago. And she showed it to her pastor in her church. And he wrote to me asking if he could have a copy of it to use. He said, “I never read religious literature, because it’s just too easy. But you ask hard questions.” [laughs] So, he was fascinated by it.

Couteau: That’s an amazing little story.

Selby: Yeah, isn’t it?

Couteau: It really is, yeah. Of course, he’ll probably never read it at the church but, still, it’s a great story!

Selby: [laughs]

Couteau: I was reading Van Gogh’s letters the other day, and I noticed that Vincent sent a copy of one of his sermons to his brother Theo.

Selby: Yeah, Vincent was a preacher up there in the Belgian coal mines for a while. He was a religious fanatic. He just couldn’t come to terms with it. You know, God is love–and look at the suffering. It was … whew. Oh, who can come to terms with that?

Couteau: It’s one of those questions that will always haunt mankind.

Selby: Mm-hmm. Yeah, as long as we have that personalized God.


* From a two-hour phone interview conducted between Los Angeles and Paris on 20 September 1999. An abridged version was featured in Rain Taxi Review of Books (online) in December 1999.

* Although Tropic was published by Grove Press in 1961, it wasn’t until June 22, 1964 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the book to be not obscene. In Florida and Philadelphia, however, litigation continued until 1966.

* An American television comedy about a journalist named Murphy Brown, which aired from 1988 to 1998. After “Murphy” decided to raise a child as a single parent, Vice President Dan Quayle denounced her for “ignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone.”

* Leo died in 1917, so Selby must have had someone else in mind. * Red Cross workers, who wore gray uniforms.

The complete interview is featured in:

Collected Couteau: 
Poems, Letters, Essays and 
Interviews by Rob Couteau



Updated: 11 June 2011 | All text Copyright © 2012 | Rob Couteau |