The Tao of the Willow Tree 
An interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.
By James Lindbloom

From Gadfly August 1999


Allen Ginsberg once said that Hubert Selby, Jr.'s debut, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), "should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years." Its shrapnel continues to fly. An acknowledged classic of outsider literature, Last Exit to Brooklyn immediately established Selby as an author with enormous power and a style as individual as a fingerprint. The Room (1972) was a Kafkaesque novel about an unnamed prisoner awaiting trial for a vaguely defined crime that he may or may not have committed. In The Demon (1976), Selby took aim at the American Dream and shot holes in its clichés to reveal the sickness within. Requiem for a Dream (1978) charted the descent of three kids who hope to make a quick million in the drug trade and a mother who believes she has been picked to appear on a television game show; their dreams and lives are horrifyingly undone by deadly sins. A collection of short fiction, Song of the Silent Snow, appeared in 1986, but Selby was otherwise absent from bookshelves, although the film of Last Exit and a handful of spoken-word recordings helped keep his name remembered. Last year, Selby reemerged with a new novel at last. The Willow Tree is the story of Bobby, a young black kid from the Bronx, and Maria, his Hispanic girlfriend, who are attacked and beaten by a Hispanic gang for the perceived offense of race-mixing. Bobby's body is found by Moishe, an elderly survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. As Moishe nurses Bobby back to health, the two form a friendship that leads the way to understanding and forgiving the unforgivable. Gadfly spoke to Selby at his home in Los Angeles.

Let's start by talking about your background. What led you to become a fiction writer?

HS: Well, I went to sea when I was fifteen. When I was eighteen, I was taken off a ship in Germany with tuberculosis. They said I couldn't live more than two months. Both lungs were totally shot. Anyway, I got back to this country, and I was in the hospitals for, altogether, three and a half years or so. At the end of all that, they had taken out ten ribs, collapsed a lung, cut a piece out of the other lung. They had used an experimental drug to keep me alive, but which my mother had to buy on the black market and then take it to the hospital, where they injected it. And that petrified all my muscles, fried my brain, almost destroyed my inner ear, my eyes—all kinds of toxic effects from it. But it did keep me alive long enough to undergo the surgery. I couldn't walk; I'd fall down in the dark. It was just a real drag, to say the least.

Especially at a young age.

Yeah, I was just six weeks past my eighteenth birthday when I went into the hospital. But that's when I started reading. I started reading detective stories. God, I don't know how many I read. Everything from Mickey Spillane to S. S. Van Dyne. Eventually I got out of the hospital. I started hanging out with some friends of mine in the neighborhood in Brooklyn. One of them was Gil Sorrentino, who is an extraordinary writer—one of the greatest writers of my generation. Anyway, I'd listen to these guys talk about books and writers. I'd sneak off to the library, get these books and read them. Eventually, that led to a desire to write. But what happened was this: After a couple years, I was back in the hospital again, this time with asthma. I had one doctor—a so-called consultant, a specialist. He came around—he didn't even come into the room, he just stood out in the hallway and said, "Look, you can't live. You don't have enough lungs. Go home, sit quietly for a while, and you're going to die in a couple of weeks." And he walked away and sent me a bill.

"Pay it quickly, please."

Oh, yeah! "Hurry up!" I was married at the time. We had a daughter who was a couple of years old. And I had this profound experience. I knew someday I was going to die, and it wouldn't be like what had been happening—just almost, and somehow stay alive. I knew two things were going to happen before I died. Number one, I would regret my entire life. Number two, I would want to live my life over again. And I would die. That terrified me. It absolutely terrified me to think I would live my entire life, look at it and say, "Jeez, I blew it. I blew the whole thing." So, I got a typewriter—I was on disability at the time—and I sat there a couple of weeks. Eventually I wrote a letter to somebody. They answered the letter. And I started writing.

You emerged alongside the beat writers in the 1950s. Although your work seemed to come from a different place than that of your contemporaries, you are still associated to some degree with the movement. How do you view your place in that scene, and what are your thoughts on the beat generation in general?

Well, I had nothing to do with them, really. That was happening at the time, no doubt about that, but I'm not a part of the Beat scene, so to speak. I try and put a new skin on it, but I'm really an old-fashioned kind of writer. There were a lot of people who considered themselves beatniks, hanging out in the bars, talking about writing, and I always disagreed with everything they said. That doesn't mean that they were really following the precepts of what [Jack] Kerouac or Allen [Ginsberg] may have put down. They had the attitude that "Whatever I do is art, because I did it." And that's just not true.

Twenty years passed between Requiem for a Dream and The Willow Tree. Why was the gap so long between novels?

Well, most of my energy goes into staying alive. It's very, very difficult. I still don't know what to make of The Willow Tree. I started making notes for that book about twelve years before I started writing it. And the writing was such a [drawn-out] process. I'd work for maybe a couple weeks. And all of sudden I just wouldn't be able to work for maybe a year. Then I'd work for a couple weeks. It went on like that for quite a while. It was just agonizing. Each time I went back to work, half the time was spent working my way back into the rhythm of the book. There was a tremendous amount of repetition in the book that had to be cut out. Editing was really a very difficult job because of the way in which the book was written. But basically, there was a big lapse because my energy and time is spent in just staying alive.

Why did you specifically decide to make the character of Moishe not a Jew? Why have him be falsely named by his business partner?

Because I think that adds even more to Bobby's ability to identify with him. He not only was a survivor of the camps, but he wasn't even a Jew, and he got railroaded in there. Now that's something that Bobby can really identify with.

I think of The Willow Tree as an answer to The Room, in which the nameless prisoner is consumed by his grotesque revenge fantasies; The Willow Tree looks at how to work through them. Some of the newer stories in Song of the Silent Snow pointed toward The Willow Tree, which has a more hopeful tone than your past novels.

Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, that title story was obviously a prelude to The Willow Tree.

How did this shift come about?

Any shift is over a period of years, like your whole life, you know? It's a gradual thing. As a writer, I had examined the problem—the pathology, as I understand it—from as many different points of view as interested me. I just didn't want to bother with that anymore. I wanted to not only expose the darkness, so to speak, but I wanted to show how you get from the problem to the answer.

Is the novel set in any particular time? I ask because the black slang seems to be from the 1970s.

Yeah, that's what I had in mind. Late '70s, maybe 1980—right around there.

About the time you had originally started making notes for it?

Yeah. Plus, by the time I'm starting to work on it, I have no idea what the language is in the streets. I went back to what I knew, and what was familiar to me. Also, I wanted to be sure that it was early enough in time that Moishe would still be alive and still have the strength to move, and so forth.

How has the book been received since it came out in 1998?

I have no idea. It's been pretty much ignored in this country. There were a couple of reviews. Booklist, I think, had a little two-line mention.

Let's talk about your work in other areas. Although you published no books in the decade leading up to The Willow Tree, you appeared on several spoken-word recordings, reading both old and new material. Was this shift in mediums a choice on your part?

It's just something that happened. It came about as a result of my friendship with Henry Rollins. He came over here one day—it must have been about ten years ago—with a Dutch photographer. This fellow called me and asked if he could come take a picture. Henry came along with him, because by that time he had at least read Last Exit; Lydia Lunch had turned him on to my work, and he admired it. So he came over and we got to be friends. I took an instant liking to Henry, and evidently, he did to me too. And then he and Lydia were reading someplace, and they asked me to join them. So, periodically, I would read with them. Then we did a tour of Europe in '89, he and I, which was really exciting. First time I'd ever done anything like that. I think we did twenty shows in twenty-two days. He taped everything, and eventually he put out that first CD [Live in Europe 1989]. A few years ago, I did a CD with Nick Tosches [Blue Eyes and Exit Wounds]. That's a good one; it's a really well-balanced CD. And then I ended up recording all of Last Exit for Henry.

The entire novel?

Yeah. The whole thing. I don't know what he'll do with that, but he has it. I guess he's probably looking for a distributor.

I recently unearthed a 1976 screenplay that you cowrote with Richard Romanus, entitled America One, that was to have been a Ralph Bakshi film. What's the story behind that?

I don't even remember. Ralph would come up with ideas every now and then. I did write a screenplay for him called Looking for Lenny Berkowitz, which nothing ever happened with. America One, I don't even remember what the heck was in it.

The 1989 film adaptation of Last Exit brought you and your work back in the public eye. Have any of your other novels been optioned?

Yeah, Jean-Jacques Beineix bought The Demon, but that was eleven years ago. Requiem for a Dream has been optioned, and we may start shooting that next month.

Who's involved with that production?

A young fellow named Darren Aronofsky. He made this movie called Pi, which is a marvelous flick. He got the Director of the Year award at Sundance last year. It's one of the most interesting and unusual stories I have ever seen on the screen. And he became a "hot property," as they say. He optioned Requiem—he's always wanted to do it—and it looks like we're going to do it. Of course, with a small, low-budget, independent film, you never know from day to day. But as of now, he's been working on it. I've been working on the script with him. They've been in pre-production for quite a while and should start filming in mid-April.

Are you working on the script as a cowriter?

We go over it together. I had done a first draft, maybe eighteen years ago. So we're working from that, and he's working from his own approach. It's looking good. He's a marvelous director. He's only just turned thirty, but he's really a terrific filmmaker, and a nice guy. So we'll see what happens.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles?

I've been out here twenty-eight, twenty-nine years altogether.

Is there a literary community in Los Angeles that you feel part of?

No. No, there's no real community of any kind out here! It's lacking in community. I have a great group of friends—almost all ex-New Yorkers—that I have a sense of community with.

In praise you have given other works, you've stressed the importance of a book seeming "artless," with no authorial intrusion. However, your own output is indelibly marked by your style; one can read a page of yours and immediately recognize the punctuation, the paragraph layout and the voice as a Selby construction. Is there any contradiction?

No, absolutely not. You can always tell a Picasso, a Beethoven, a Melville—no, there's no contradiction. You have your own singular "voice," to use that word. There's no mistaking it. But that doesn't mean the writer's intruding between the reader and the work. Just like Beethoven can jam something down your throat, your eyes, your head and your kneecaps, but it's not necessarily intruding.

In your work, there's a sense of struggling to maintain faith in a loving God in the face of the cruelty seen all around. How do you see God? Does your faith sustain you, or do you find it a battle?

"Faith" is a word that I don't use. I may have faith, but I don't really know if I do or not. The word can be misleading. I used to hear people use the word "faith," talking about "my faith, my faith." Especially back in Brooklyn; we had a lot of Irish. It took years and years—I was not a kid, I was in my forties—until I realized that when they were using the word "faith," what they were talking about was their religion. They were only using it in that sense. So, it's a very difficult word sometimes. What I really believe in is my experience. My experience proves to me that this world that I perceive is not real. It is not reality. There is something that can be experienced and must be experienced at some point that goes beyond this physical world, and everything does work out. My experience proves that absolutely to me. So, I don't know about faith. Striving, yes. I have a spiritual hunger. A real, insatiable spiritual hunger. But I don't know about striving for more faith. Perhaps what I do would be defined as such, but I just don't think of it in those terms.

"Faith" is obviously a loaded word.

Yeah, just like "God." There's a loaded word.

I wondered if perhaps you might have some Buddhist leanings. The story "Song of the Silent Snow" ends with an epiphany that has a distinctly Eastern feel.

Not in a conscious way. However, through these years, I've found myself drifting more and more toward the East. I've read just a couple of Buddhist books in the last few years—I've also read Hindu, yoga books—and I find myself feeling really comfortable there. What they say makes absolute sense to me. So from that point of view, maybe you could say I have Buddhist leanings. However, I read the four Gospels, and they make sense to me. And they make sense to Buddha. I can't tell the difference between Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. Now, there's a big difference in what I see Christians doing, and in what I read that Jesus said—if he said it, I don't know—but the point is, what's written in those Gospels is absolutely beautiful. Just magnificent. But I'm not a Christian, just as I'm not a Buddhist. I guess the closest thing I am to anything—and this just based on my experiences and what information I've gotten from them—is a Taoist. I can't define a Taoist. But I believe that's probably what I am. Taoism just resonates. I remember the last time I read the Tao Te Ching, I suddenly realized, "Hey, wait a second. I've done this." And it precipitated a most remarkable experience. So to answer your question, I guess I'd have to say I'm a Taoist, but I couldn't possibly explain what that means.

You spoke earlier of how your near-death experience gave you the impetus to begin writing. Is that what keeps you going at age seventy? If so, how do you sustain it?

It's funny, I just wrote something for the Los Angeles Weekly about why I keep writing. I don't know if it keeps me writing, but it's the thing that made it possible for me to become aware of the fact that I am an artist. And an artist is a sentence. You don't get pardoned from it. If you're an artist, you're an artist. You really have no choice. Nobody would choose to be an artist. So, I just keep going because I keep going, I guess. See, part of that spiritual hunger is also a curiosity about becoming aware of what it is I don't know. There's always that thing each day, of another revelation. And that's one of the things that happens when you sit down to write. You start with a blank piece of paper; you don't know what may come up, what may be revealed in this process. So, it's an exciting thing. When I sit down to write, if I just touch the keyboard, something inside of me starts to come awake and alive that's dormant or sleeping at all other times. And I don't have to be writing fiction; I can just be writing a letter. And whoomp! That thing goes, "Ahhh... "It's a process that I just can't stop. It's a process I don't want to stop, because it helps make me feel whole.

You told me in a letter in 1994 that you had essentially finished an autobiographical novel you had been working on called Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love, and that you just needed to go over it and re-edit. How's that been coming?

I haven't looked at that in years. I got involved in finishing The Willow Tree and, as I say, getting through each day.

From the excerpts that have been published, or that you've read on your CDs, I'm hoping to see the rest of it.

Oh, me too. It seems not just pathetic but criminal not to finish it. What I did do—and I haven't done anything on this since October—I started to write a memoir for my children. I don't know about everybody, but I never really knew my father. I assume some things now because of what I've learned in life. But I could tell you in one minute the facts of his life that I'm aware of. And it occurred to me that nobody can really know somebody else—not in their innermost self, in the marrow of their bones, what they feel, what they fear. Nobody really knows anybody else, although we come close sometimes. And what child can really know their parent? It's just impossible. From the time you're born, they're God; to try and work through that takes a while. And the relationship is such that you really don't get to see all of them. What I wanted to do was leave some kind of document for my children so they could see, as much as possible, what I went through each and every day. The pain, the torment, the insanity, my arrogance, my ego; all these things that make up a human being. I wanted them to be able to see that, however they may feel about me—and the fact that I became famous can also cause them trouble—that underneath, I'm just another human being with all these same kinds of fears and guilts, and so forth, that everybody has. Maybe it'll take some pressure off them. At least, it gives them information that I don't think most children have, with respect to their parents. Maybe it'll help them get rid of some guilt. Kids tend to feel that if they had done better, maybe their parents would have this or that... you know how that is. So maybe it could be valuable to them. But I haven't been at that since October. For one thing, it's not a very exciting thing to write, you know what I mean? Just putting down the facts. It goes on and on and on. I think I have almost three hundred pages, for crying out loud.

What do you have planned for the future?

Well, it depends if I have one! Sometimes I think I can't die. I've been given up for dead so often. In 1988, two doctors said to this friend of mine, "According to all accepted medical evidence, your friend is dead." And here I am. I don't know... how can I explain this? Gee, just searching for the words, I get these chills of recognition. Periodically, things sing through me. I hear these most remarkable and beautiful pieces of music, just singing through me. And I want to put words to it. Maybe I'll be able to; it's hard to say. I spend a lot of time, as I say, and a lot of energy just staying alive. In addition to everything else that happened back in the '40s in the hospital, I got hepatitis C in blood transfusions. So I've been living with that for more than fifty years. And all these things are starting to catch up with me. I just can't move my body the way I used to. My brain doesn't function the way it used to. I have difficulty breathing and moving. It takes me maybe hours to do what I used to do in five minutes. But what happens, as you know, is the more you do, the more you can do—to a certain point, of course. When I get into the rhythm of writing, and it brings that thing alive, and the energy that's needed to get those words down and to make sense of it—it's there. It's just there. And I manage to do what I need to do. But I just don't know what that may be, or what it won't be. I have no idea what the future holds for me, and that's all right. Because the only time you can really live is right here, right now. There's nothing else, you know?