From Gadfly July 1999 


Unlike his peers, Mailer and Bellow, the audience for Vidal's writing has always been broad, extending beyond the Academy to homemakers, vacationers and commuters. In short, people who are not employed as literary professionals read Gore Vidal in a way they don't, for example, read John Barth. Gadfly approached a variety of Vidal readers, including the editor of The Yale Review and the founder of hardcore music legend Hüsker Dü, to inquire, "If you could ask Gore Vidal one question, what would it be?" Here are their questions and Vidal's answers.—Richard Abowitz

Q: Identity Politics. You have written a number of historical novels, or, at least, (researched) novels based more or less on the lives of real people and treating real historical events (e.g., Lincoln, Burr). If you were to undertake to novelize the life of an actual woman (Myra Breckinridge doesn't count), who would it be and why?—Karen and Dana Kletter, musicians

Vidal: Woman protagonist. Eleanor Roosevelt. I'm trying to work her out now.

Which is the greater threat to the American democracy: the zombified culture of mall and multiplex, or the self-righteous, gay-bashing religious right?—J. D. McClatchy, editor and poet

I think the approaching economic crunch will undermine—or bury, to complete your metaphor—the zombies. I have a dream—that evangelical Christians return to their catacombs and stay there and leave gay-bashing to consenting adults. If I were [a] dictator, I'd abolish Judaism, Christianity and Islam from public life. These sick religions would, in a moderately sane world where they may not proselytize, fade away.

What do you think of Edmund White's fiction?—Alfred Corn, poet

I praised publicly Nocturne for the King of Naples. The "gay" fiction is good in its way but why accept as category a non-category? There's only human fiction.

Do you feel that your formidable public persona is significantly different from the private Gore Vidal?—Dana Gioia, poet and critic

You are what you are. [Andre] Gide at the end of his life said that the one thing that he most detested were those who affected to be other than what they were in truth. I have an over-developed sense of justice. This means a lot of wrath which comedy alone can siphon off. I was asked by a French reviewer of what I was most proud. I said, considering my nature, that I have never killed anyone. It is, of course, never too late.

If you could rescue one of your works from the wreck of time, which would it be and why? Which of your books do you think will be the most lasting?—Norman Fruman, biographer and scholar

As Groucho Marx so wisely said, what has posterity ever done for me? You future freaks are on your own. The one book of mine that I wish everyone in the world would read is Creation. At great effort, I've "explicated," in novel-form, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, Lao Tse, Socrates... all more or less contemporaries and one man could, theoretically, have known them. I invented a Persian ambassador of the Great King who did. Since these figures are the ones from which our civilizations, east and west, emerged, and we can never understand the world as it is without knowing them, I've made, in my way, a useful introduction.

Is there any historical figure that is too imposing for you to write about? Why?—Steven Kotler, novelist

I suppose God because I don't believe in him. Anyway, the wildly underestimated Joe Heller has done him proud.

By your standards, in terms of artists as self-created people, at what point does the maintenance of a public persona result in an artist who is formed by his environment instead of by his talent? What is the cheapest cop-out Gore Vidal could do?—Grant Hart, musician

Cheapest cop-out? Show Tom Wolfe how to write a really big bestseller with more knowing brandnames. Public persona? See above, #5.

Ask him how he'd go about writing an historical novel set in Clinton's Washington. What would he focus on? Who would tell the tale?—Thomas Mallon, editor and essayist

Chelsea. To be called What Chelsea Knew.

What do you think of novelists like Faulkner, Ellison, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Wolfe, who depict more than one racial or ethnic group in their work? Do you think that is a challenging direction for the future of American fiction?—Stanley Crouch, essayist and critic

It always has been the case since Huckleberry Finn. Our mixture is some times painful for many of those in the minority to live through but it makes Americans a lot more interesting than, say, the Dutch, who are happier and more civilized than we.

You are a consistent and witty critic of the American Empire. But if it weren't for the American Empire, wouldn't your adopted home of Ravello be located today in Bega, Germany?—Michael Lind, social critic and poet

No. It would be a part—worst-case scenario—of European Russia. The Germans were well and truly defeated by Soviet ground troops, not by ours. Curiously, after Yalta, it was the U.S. that betrayed every agreement with the Russians, including allowing them some twenty billion in reparations that they needed to rebuild a wrecked economy. Thanks to the American empire, I live in Ravello, USA, land of the ski-lift. But not for much longer.

What are you doing next? I'm a big fan of your historical novels; I really liked Burr. Do you have any more planned?—Tim O'Brien, novelist

Answered above.

How serious a threat to democracy does the current, all-pervasive corporate culture of America represent?—Anthony DeCurtis, critic

I answer that at great length—and still only partially—in [the] November 1998 Vanity Fair. All media and all politics are controlled by the great interlocking corporations, and that is why we may never discuss real politics as opposed to sex lives. What is real politics? In one sentence: Who collects what money from whom to give to whom to spend for what. This is the question that may not be asked in a militarized society where dissent is kept to the margins. Democracy? A form of government the U.S. has never tried. We began with a constitution created by well-to-do white males to protect their property. Others were later given the franchise but the original oligarchs and their avatars are still in place and none dares challenge them.

Is there anything in Beat writing that scared you as a writer when you first read Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs?—Ann Charters, critic

Yes. That they might get away with automatic writing and put literature out of business entirely. I liked On the Road. I liked the letters of Bill, much better than the "novels." I liked Allen.

If you could be born in any time period, which female sovereign would you be?— John Cale, musician

Queen Anne—with that hot Marlborough girl.

I am a big fan of your work and read all of your books. My question is: what do you think of the [Irish] peace process?—Marianne Faithfull, musician

And I'm a fan of yours. Our mutual friend Mick J. took a film option on Kalki but our director, Hal Ashby, sniffed himself out of our Ken and into Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Ireland, Balkans, Israel—If anyone doubts the sheer evil of monotheism in conflict with itself, there are three examples. Ireland's new prosperity and arrival in Europe should cool things down. The Gores, my mother's family, are protestant Irish with no sentimentality about their roots in Donegal. But then we got out in the seventeenth century, stone-headed protestants still at large in the old Confederacy.

What about the Emperor Julian is pertinent in our time?—Annie Finch, poet and critic

How he nearly de-railed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, which would have saved us centuries of religious wars, pogroms, autos da fe.

Do you see any similarities between a character like Burr and a character like Julian? Even though they lived in different times, is there anything that unites them in your mind?—Lenny Kaye, musician and author

Each said no, emphatically, and each was demonized by those who said yes unto the last generation.

In the future, someone is writing an historical novel in which you are the main character. What is the central theme of your life?—Kelly Cherry, novelist and poet

Finding new ways of saying no.