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.
start by talking about your background. What led you
to become a fiction writer?
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.
at a young age.
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.
it quickly, please."
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.
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?
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.
years passed between Requiem for a Dream
and The Willow Tree. Why was the gap
so long between novels?
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
did you specifically decide to make the character
of Moishe not a Jew? Why have him be falsely named
by his business partner?
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
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.
absolutely. As a matter of fact, that title story
was obviously a prelude to The Willow Tree.
did this shift come about?
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.
the novel set in any particular time? I ask because
the black slang seems to be from the 1970s.
that's what I had in mind. Late '70s, maybe 1980—right
the time you had originally started making notes for
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.
has the book been received since it came out in 1998?
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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.
1989 film adaptation of Last Exit
brought you and your work back in the public eye.
Have any of your other novels been optioned?
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
involved with that production?
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.
you working on the script as a cowriter?
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.
long have you lived in Los Angeles?
been out here twenty-eight, twenty-nine years altogether.
there a literary community in Los Angeles that you
feel part of?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
is obviously a loaded word.
just like "God." There's a
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.
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.
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
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
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?
haven't looked at that in years. I got involved in
finishing The Willow Tree and, as I
say, getting through each day.
the excerpts that have been published, or that you've
read on your CDs, I'm hoping to see the rest of it.
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.
do you have planned for the future?
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?