of his books are bestsellers, and as a public figure
his fame extends far beyond even this substantial
readership. Even as he predicts (as he has for decades)
the death of the novel, Gore Vidal, the novelist,
has thrived. For more than fifty years—from
the publication of his first novel, Williwaw (1946),
through The Smithsonian Institution
(1998)—Vidal's "inventions" have shown
him to be a novelist not only of great imagination,
but also possessing a vast technical range. He is
staggeringly prolific: twenty-two novels, at least
two hundred essays, various screenplays (including
Ben-Hur), five plays, a memoir and numerous
in his seventies, Vidal is working on The Golden
Age, the final volume in
a series of historical novels that, placed together,
make up a biography of the nation that opposes prevailing
national myths. If individuals can shape history,
Vidal has known those who did and has watched them
do it. There are, of course, many good vantage points
from which to write about America, but Vidal's must
be counted as one of the most unique: he is the grandson
of a senator, an intimate of the Kennedys and a relative
of the current vice president. Over the course of
his life, Vidal has also kept company with the world's
political, cultural, artistic and intellectual elite.
Often the A-list didn't make a good impression, and
Vidal's writing frequently depicts the failings of
the self-declared best and brightest.
has twice run for office himself, but it is hard to
imagine—especially if you share Vidal's view
of the political process—that a man so given
to notoriety and public candor could ever win an election.
Imagine a senator who figures prominently in the diary
of Anais Nin. Then there's Vidal's willingness to
explore taboo subjects and the obvious relish he takes
in public feuds. The homosexual relationship depicted
in The City and the Pillar (1948) created,
as Vidal recalls in this interview, a public "firestorm."
That pales next to the time Myra Breckinridge
(1968) was attacked by William F. Buckley, Jr., on
ABC: Mr. Reserve lost it and called Vidal a "queer"
before the national audience. Vidal's feud with Norman
Mailer almost turned The Dick Cavett Show into
Jerry Springer. Vidal has also developed a
small career as an actor with roles in recent films
such as With Honors and Gattaca. All
of this should make for lively reading in October
when Gore Vidal: A Biography, by Fred Kaplan
(Doubleday), is published. In addition to the first
full biography of Vidal, Kaplan has also edited The
Essential Gore Vidal (1999), a good introduction
to the work. Gadfly interviewed Vidal
by faxing questions to his home in Italy.
the pleasure you take in reading, the amount of time
you spend reading or the speed at which you read changed
significantly over the years?
recent acquisition of glaucoma—every family
should have one—has somewhat slowed me down.
I've always been a slow reader; mistrust speed-demons.
You cannot become a partner of a writer if you're
conducting a one-night stand. On the other hand, there
are writers one skims as opposed to reads. Biography
is currently disdained largely because this has been
a great age for biography and not much for history
and literature (Creative Dept).
are your recent interests and enthusiasms?
Morgan—about J. P.—is splendid.
Portrait of an age, etc. And how money works in the
world. The only two novelists who ever had a sense
of this were [Honoré de] Balzac and [Theodore] Dreiser.
you use the Internet?
you have any sense of what sort of president your
cousin Al Gore might make? Will you vote for him?
haven't voted for president since 1964 when I voted
for LBJ, "the peace candidate." Cousin Al
is probably not as mediocre as he seems but that is
the cross vice presidents must bear. Do anything interesting
and the Pres takes credit. I think he lies more than
he ought, out of compensation for not being in a position
to do anything memorable. Love Story!
your memoir, you frequently discuss your own drinking
and that of other writers. Has your drinking had any
impact on your writing?
generation drank and so did everyone else in American
history, literary and otherwise, until the stoned
'60s, the white wine and coke '70s, and so on. Fitzgerald
was dead at forty or so, Hemingway non compos, Faulkner
incoherent after four good early novels... drink did
not serve them well but Prohibition and its pressures
contributed to their disintegration, along with a
lot of others. Americans like to make laws forbidding
people to do what they want to do. This produces lawlessness
at every level. Ours is an intrusive and fundamentally
evil state now heading for an all-out war against
its own people since we had trouble defeating even
you remember a moment during the writing of The
City and the Pillar at which you considered
or imagined how it would be received?
knew there would be a firestorm that I would survive,
you forgiven William F. Buckley for his behavior on
ABC in 1968?
sued me for my response to a piece he had written
about me in Esquire. Finally, he backed
down; dropped the suit. I had to pay lawyers for his
madness. One never forgives that.
you have any opinion on Norman Podhoretz's recent
book on his former friends?
he wrote Making It, I asked Poddy, sort
of a friend, what on earth makes you think you've
made it? Editor of Commentary? Come
on. I haven't read his book. Runt of the litter complex
who wants to be up there with the big guys—Norman
[Mailer], Saul [Bellow], Gore.
you have any reaction to Mailer's The Time of Our
Time and the critical response to
don't read book-chat in general. I didn't read the
book because I've read most of the pieces in it already.
I gave Advertisements for Myself a good
review when it was published.
Bloom writes, in The Western Canon,
"Vidal's best fictions... are distinguished historical
novels—Lincoln, Burr and several more—and
this subgenre is no longer available for canonization...
" Do you have any idea what Bloom means by this,
and, if so, do you agree?
general point is well-taken. Americans hate history,
which is why we do so badly in the present. From Aeschylus
to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoi, reinterpreted
history has been the backbone of the canon; I consider
myself in that tradition, and so does Bloom, who includes
Lincoln and Myra Breckinridge
in his Western Canon. My satiric comedies,
like Myra or Duluth, are
too unsettling for school teachers, too funny as well,
while the re-imagining of American history which they
know nothing of falls outside their minute range.
B. was thinking of current lit reputations and why
I so trouble the mediocre—surely a proof of
have the editors with whom you have worked been most
helpful? For example, what was it like to work with
unusually intelligent and very interested in history.
We parted company over my inventions like Myra,
etc. He dislikes invention, satire, comedy. He gave
me a ms. to read. Short novel. He didn't like it.
I said it's wonderful. Publish it. The Breast
by Philip Roth. Then Philip left him for another publisher.
Jason was upset. I said, "Writers know what you
think of them."
write in Palimpsest, "Old
age is turning out to be like youth." How so?
there a reason you chose not to make the selections
for The Essential Gore Vidal
yourself? Is there anything you felt should have been
put in that was left out? Is there anything in it
that you would not have collected?
can't reread myself. I did help Kaplan get the point
to some of the historical novels: key scenes that
he had eerily missed.
you intend to read Fred Kaplan's biography of you?
being an actor brought you any benefit as a writer?
wish I'd done more acting earlier... for my dramatic
pieces. Actors from Shakespeare to Noel Coward to
Harold Pinter make splendid playwrights and once you've
been out there—or up there on the screen—you
are in the belly of the beast in a way that no mere
novelist can ever be. If nothing else you learn timing;
a Pinter pause says more than most novels. But then
just turning playwright without success made Henry
James an even greater novelist when he came home to
prose and wrote Turn of the Screw, What
Maisie Knew, etc.
you approach the writing of The Smithsonian Institution
differently from your other "inventions"?
wrote it very slowly, page a day, like a poem, waiting
for the inventions to find me. Tom Stoppard said he
read it wondering how I was going to get out of all
the traps I kept setting for myself, particularly
do you think scholars (and other assorted pointy heads)
have been quick to embrace the literary merit of your
essays while ignoring your fiction? Considering your
views on most critics and reviewers, were you surprised
to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for
are short and even they [scholars] can get through
one. Novels take time. Thought. Since I don't write
about marriage and/or getting academic tenure, I have
cut myself off from the serious world. Did I win a
described yourself as the biographer of this country.
If you were to write another historical novel set
after Washington, D.C., what years or
events would you choose?
am writing the seventh and last volume, The Golden
Age. It's 1940 to 1950: how we were got
into World War II and then the Cold War; it runs alongside
Washington, D.C., with many of the same
characters from different angles.