Thursday, October 20, 2011

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling's 1950's Paris Love Affair with Susan Sontag

(A nude of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, which is the cover of her book)

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling was born in New York City in 1928. At 17 she was a student at Washington Square College, NYU. After classes she started frequenting the San Remo Cafe on MacDougal Street, a hangout for writers, artists and bohemians, including the crime photographer Weegee, the author Anatole Broyard, and the poet Max Bodenheim.

Harriet transferred to avant-garde Black Mountain College where she had her first lesbian relationship with the painter Peggy Tolk-Watkins who convinced her to move out to San Francisco. Enrolling at Berkeley in 1949, she was working at the university bookstore when a beautiful olive-skinned girl walked in...16-year old Susan Sontag. Approaching young Susan with a copy of Djuna Barnes' "Nightwood", a lesbian classic, she asked, "Have you read this?" She had ,and Harriet became her first lover, an event chronicled in Susan's early diaries, "Reborn" published in 2008.

In 1950 Harriet moved to Paris where she had many lovers and adventures. She worked at the International Herald Tribune, published three stories in New Story magazine and translated the novel Les Infortunes de la Vertue by the Marquis de Sade for the famous Obelisk Press. In 1957 Susan Sontag was on a Fulbright in Oxford. By this time she had married her professor and had a son. Abandoning the Fulbright, she came to Paris and moved in with her ex-lover Harriet. Harriet was still reeling from the end of a passionate love affair with Maria Irene Fornes, a seductive Cuban-American and later a famous playwright.

The sexual affair that Harriet and Susan rekindled in Paris was ambiguous and tumultuous, and even occasionally violent. Susan returned to the States in August 1958. In 1959, Harriet went back to New York, initially living with Susan until Susan broke off the relationship because she had fallen in love with Fornes. It was Irene's betrayal that devastated Harriet and led her to give up homosexuality for good.

Harriet fled New York for Provincetown where she became involved with the poet Bill Ward, who was just launching his literary journal, The Provincetown Review. Harriet became an editor just in time for the controversial 1961 "tralala" issue, which contained a chapter from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Ward was arrested on obscenity charges but they were overturned at trial with an all-star defense witness panel, including Norman Mailer.

During the early 60's Harriet worked as a nude model in New York and even as a "Beatnik for Rent". She met and got involved with a merchant seaman named Louis Zwerling, married him, and had her son, MiloZ, now a well-known musician.

For 28 years Harriet taught in a New York City public school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. After she retired, she published "Notes of a Nude Model", (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2003), autobiographical stories that chronicle her wild youth in New York City. This book put her back on the literary map. She has starred in the documentary "Still Doing It" in 2004, about older women and sex. In 2010, she appeared in the documentary, "Norman Mailer the American.”

Here is part of an excerpt from Harriet Sohmers Zwerling's "Expatriate Diaries", originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, November 2006.

Brooklyn Rail
November 2006
Memories of Sontag: From an Ex-Pat’s Diary
by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

December 15, 1957
Susan Sontag is coming to Paris next week—Will it be good to see her?
(Susan and I met in 1949 in Berkeley where she, a sixteen-year old prodigy, was auditing classes. I was in my junior year at the university, working at a bookstore to support myself and in love with Peggy Tolk-Watkins, my first lesbian lover, who owned a jazz bar in Sausalito called The Tin Angel. Susan and I connected and I initiated her into the world of women lovers, by which she was already fascinated. Before I left for Paris in 1950 she came to visit me in New York and we renewed our relationship. She went to the University of Chicago, married her professor and had a son, David. In 1957, she came to Oxford on a Fulbright fellowship and contacted me through the Herald Tribune where I worked. She relinquished her Fulbright and stayed with me in Paris for nearly a year.

December 22

Susan is here. What a beauty she is! But, sadly, I dislike so much about her—the way she sings, girlish and tuneless; the way she dances, phony-sexy and unrhythmic. I was annoyed with her (poor kid) for having an upset stomach at the Eiffel Tower and especially at the Cinematheque last night. Does she attract me at all? I really don’t think so, but then, she says she loves me, and I certainly need to hear that!
Saw Han the other night with his German painter friend, Reinhard—a very attractive man.

Have had no word from Irene.[ed.’s note: Maria Irene Fornes, the playwright and later Sontag’s lover.]
I may still love Romaine; think of her constantly.

Susan’s vulnerability and insecurity annoy me. She seems so naive, so easily flattered. Is she too honest? No, no, I can’t believe she really means what she says.

 (Harriet, Pont Neuf, 1950)

January 13, 1958

Irene, Irene—my real and only love. Last night in bed with Susan I said, “Move up, move up, pupi,” and shocked us both with my old pet name for her. And I wept but tried not to let S. see so she wouldn’t comfort me, as she did, by throwing her big body over me protectively. How heavy, how brusque she is!

I haven’t written about my visit to Dublin where my sister is living. I had sex there with an Irish actor named Charley Roberts, very male and charming, who kept his socks on in bed. (It’s cold in Dublin). My sister’s lover Paddy is an exciting man but so afraid of feeling; he won’t be good for her in the end.

What shall I do about Susan? Just lie back and enjoy being loved? But my sick jealousy is already starting. Everyone wants her, men and women, and although I don’t really care about her, my envy reflex is still there. We are moving to the Poitou, my old hotel. Probably a mistake.

I don’t like her smell. Bobbie said, “That’s more important than anything else.”

January 21

Blessed solitude! Susan has gone back to England for a week. Yesterday I felt a bit lonely but today I am enjoying being by myself again. I am back here in Irene’s room which is mine now. Moving into the Poitou with S. was painful. My pitiful brain rejoiced at the memories and balked at being there without Irene, with someone else. But here in this room I am happy, recalling our crazy afternoons of sex when we just at the last minute remembered to turn off a light or pull a curtain…

January 22

Here’s a description of Charley Roberts whom I slept with in Dublin. Long greasy black hair, very Spanish, slicked back with occasional loose locks hanging down around his very white face. A big American Indian nose, small thin crooked spitty mouth, dark shifty wicked eyes. When dressed up, wears a rather grubby red wool vest, dandyish, and a dirty shirt with a removable celluloid collar…Never removes his socks; feet seriously stink! Best sex I’ve had in a long time—The stove is not working right—it’s freezing!

February 5

I’m working hard on the translation, a way to gain my freedom, at least from the job. But how free can I be with this choice of burdens: loneliness or Susan! I am already dreading the thought of our travel plans, of being with her in cities where I don’t know anyone. I don’t think I have ever been in such an absurd situation. At least with Sven there was sometimes good sex and the security of being with a man in social situations. I’ve never before lived with someone I neither desired sexually nor felt strongly about. It’s so decadent! I feel terrible about it all, brooding depression—

February 25

Just a few more days at the Herald Trib. Susan and I are living in a flat borrowed from Sam Wolfenstein. It’s great to be in an apartment, but it also means that she never lets me out of her sight. What will happen when I am no longer working at night? Will she stop seeing other people and spend twenty-four hours a day with me? Our sexual relationship is really bad. When I do, infrequently, make love to her, I am either drunk and totally incompetent or technical, brutal, and cold. It’s hideous of me but what can I do? I am simply not attracted to her. Even her tenderness repels me; her tentative touch, so unreal.

Today I had a date at the Flore with a Negro man who stood me up. Susan insisted on coming with me in the Metro; she’s going to the Deux Magots. I guess it serves me right that he didn’t show, but I had really been looking forward to getting fucked!

March 15

The bottom line is, I think, that I’m really fed up with women. Susan is more relaxed than she was but still so quick to take offense, so vulnerable. Those anxious eyes probing my slightest mood remind me annoyingly of my mother!

At the flea market today I was aware of how totally I dominate her. If I picked up some buttons, looked at a doll, pointed out a necklace; she immediately enthused. “Oh, I like that! Oh, they’re the prettiest!” That over-eager desire to please is pathetic. I simply must do something about this relationship. It is hurtful to her and makes me feel guilty. Even as I write this, I worry that she might come in. What a coward I am! I should have simply sent her packing. Soon she will leave and then I’ll suffer through my usual abandonment anxiety all over again.

April 3, Sevilla, Spain, Holy Week

We just got here after two days in Madrid. Now I sit on the bed in the typical dim Spanish electric light. Susan is under the covers with her eyes closed. Music comes up through the open patio doors from the fonda downstairs. We’ve just been to watch a Semana Santa procession. The crowds are noisy and detached, as if they were at a movie. But it is tremendously moving to me. To add to the pathos, a saeta (lament) rose up from a corner of the square. My eyes overflowed, watching the penitentes in their pointed hoods, their wind-stirred gowns, bare, bloody feet; some with chains clanking on their ankles; some carrying heavy wooden crosses or the gaudy candle-lit figures of saints in velvet and gold. Susan drives me mad with her long explanations of things one only needs the eyes and the sensitivity of someone like Irene to see. She discoursed on Bosch at the Prado and was just now explaining that women are the main support of the Church. She launches into these textbook dissertations, like footnotes, which I find unbearable.
(Susan Sontag in Sevilla)

Of course, being here, I can’t get Irene out of my thoughts. That was inevitable, given this language, these streets and tapas bars, these beautiful small plump Spanish girls with their gorgeous round asses. I was wretched in Madrid, felt ill and off balance. It’s better here. But God, when I remember the awful fights we used to have and realize how patient I am with S., who is a far greater nuisance! It’s a measure of my weakness and dependency.

April 30, Paris

In the Jardins du Luxembourg on a bright warm day. The gardeners are spraying something onto the grass. The sun is so real; it is melting down all my terrors, longings, boredom.

Oh, I wish Susan would go away; she bores and depresses me. Strangely, Bobbie is becoming a good influence; she is so alive now, especially sexually; she inspires me.

Irene is living her new life in NY and forgetting me. I am forgetting her too. Not exactly forgetting, but the remembering is becoming a sort of option. I’m not forced to do it as I used to be.

(Harriet Sohmers and Irene Fornes in the 1950s)

May 14

It’s her birthday and I haven’t heard from her in weeks. In spite of what I wrote above, I can’t really forget her and am terribly dragged with Susan. Yesterday, she said she was moving out. If only I had the strength and the money to let her go instead of weakly saying, “I’d rather you didn’t,” which she only too eagerly seized upon as an invitation to stay.

We’re living in the Hotel Ste. Marie Gallia , a charming place. I love the dark wood floors and the patronne and the polite, gentle maids. Last night, because I had told her it was Irene’s birthday, Susan came to me in the dark bed and we made sweet love. But I just don’t love her.

June 7 Berlin

It is seven years since my first trip here and the city has changed enormously. This afternoon I lay in the sun by a stream in Tiergarten, now rich and fruitful, not like the wasteland it was in 1950. I’ve been really cold to S. for the past three days until sex this morning broke the deadlock. Why am I taking my frustrations out on her? Some of it is jealousy; she gets so much more attention than I do. Not her fault. But I pick on her annoying little mannerisms like, “As you know, VW’s are very popular in the States,”
“As you know, of course, etc—” It’s mean and petty of me to attack her awkward use of her hands when she speaks. I shouldn’t be taking out my helpless furies on her!

June 23 Paris

Being on the whore street at night with Susan and Reinhard, alternating malaise and enjoyment. Mainly anxiety. Susan’s terrible beauty eclipses me totally. How I wish she were not my only source of love—back here there’s a letter from Barbara Bank (none from Irene). She says, “Irene has probably written you that I am coming to Europe, etc. Feel very warm and good towards you”—Sure, now that Irene has left me!

July 16 Athens

In the white room on Evripidou Street, late afternoon. I lie naked on the white bed. Out the window is the ruined roofscape, crumbling buildings with their innards exposed, a swatch of wallpaper, a corner of vanished floor. The trolley car goes roaring by. Much talking and shouting in the street. The heat gets me very sexed-up but there’s nothing to do about it. At least, when she’s not here I can enjoy my fantasies.

I am being awful to Susan as always. This morning, when she asked why I was “angry,” I said, “I just can’t stand seeing you twenty-four hours a day!” and she answered mildly, “It won’t be much longer,” which is true and made me feel even meaner. Now she’s gone up to the Parthenon and I’m enjoying the cooling of the day. I like the food here—rice pudding for breakfast, fish and salad for lunch in the workmen’s tavernas. Yesterday I had a plate with one stuffed zucchini, one stuffed pepper and one stuffed eggplant. Lovely subtle differences between them.

Just a thought; could I live here? I like the men.

July 25 Hydra

Another island in my life. I sit at the cafe on the windswept quay in bright sunshine.…Susan has gone to Athens to see about money. Our landlord just rushed out screaming for two hundred drachmas. What a fright! He probably saw Susan leaving and thought we were trying to pull a fast one. Or did he really need the money, as he shouted?

I stretched dinner out as long as I could. Now I’m at the cafe sitting not too close to the foreign in-crowd… I don’t intend to be depressed. In fact, I feel better than I usually do when S. is here. She has a way of making me feel isolated, alone with her. God knows, though, this group is repulsive.

Susan is leaving soon. I suppose I will miss her, probably more than I did Irene, since we were already estranged before she left. Susan truly surrounds me with affection. Too bad I can’t enjoy it and am always rejecting and criticizing. I should be grateful for these nine months with her. Maybe I will be some time. I often feel a certain tenderness towards her, like today, when she left. She really is such a child, and though she can be annoying, her warmth is a child’s, her sulking and suffering too.

August 12 Athens

It’s our last night here. Evripidou Street is quiet, except for the occasional rumble of a late tram…Barbara Bank is here and gave me a tiny bouquet of wonderful white perfumed jasmine. She insists on talking about Irene, causing me much anguish. Susan takes it well, after her first neurotic protest. Barbara kissed me, stroking my face, promising to write me in Paris. “Judas kiss”, said Susan, correctly.

August 26 Paris

Susan left three days ago and, wonder of wonders, I am suddenly surrounded by men. Surprise! There is sex on every corner—the Negro on Saturday, the painter on Sunday, and this big handsome perverse man named Henri whose looks kill me! He is like a dark version of the actor Peter van Eyk, complete with scar on his lip.

Poor darling Susan; how little I miss you!

About the Author

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is the author of Notes of a Nude Model.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

James McCourt on his Writing Process, his Opera Classic "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" and his new 3200-page Fiction

My goal with this interview with Jimmy McCourt was to capture the talent and genius of a great writer. I also wanted to fill in some holes in the biography that is out there about Jimmy McCourt, including his successful battle against alcoholism and his 48-year love affair with Vincent Virga, the brilliant novelist and photo editor. Jimmy McCourt turned 72 on July 4, 2013. McCourt is presently at work on a family memoir.

(This interview originally appeared in The Recorder in 2007)

James McCourt burst onto the New York literary scene in 1972, when the New American Review published his short story “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” about a tempestuous red-headed Czech opera star, the over-the-hill diva out to destroy her and and the fans who adored her. The story caused a stir in New York intellectual circles, beginning McCourt’s illustrious literary career

McCourt, 65, was raised in New York City and educated at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School and Manhattan College, when it was considered the Irish-American Harvard. McCourt briefly studied acting at the Yale School of Drama, but left with fellow student Vincent Virga in 1964 to go to London, to experience the exploding theater scene there. McCourt and Virga have been a couple ever since then. They stayed in London for two periods, from 1964 to 1967, and 1969 to 1971, resettling in New York City.

After McCourt’s story was published in the New American Review, the legendary writer and social commentator Susan Sontag helped McCourt find a publisher. In 1975, McCourt published the expanded “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” in book form. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times called the book “A gloriously flamboyant debut. Take it in spoonfuls and you'll find passages to fall in love with. Sooner or later, you may even find yourself reading them aloud to your friends.”

McCourt wrote short stories for the New Yorker, edited by the late Victoria Geng, which were later published in the collection “Kaye Wayfaring in ‘Avenged’”(1984), introducing readers to the movie star Kaye Wayfaring.

As the AIDS crisis exploded in the 1980s, the devastating personal toll on McCourt and his circle of friends inspired him to write two long fictions that were collected in “Time Remaining” (1993). The critic Harold Bloom has called “Time Remaining” one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

Later fiction by McCourt included “Delancey’s Way”(2000), and “Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake”(2002), revisiting characters from his earlier books.

In 2003, McCourt published “Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-85,” a glorious examination of gay culture in New York and America. The New York Times called the book “A heroically imaginative account of gay metropolitan culture, an elegy and an apologia for a generation."

Though McCourt’s work has been championed by such prominent literary figures as Sontag, Bloom, Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy and the poet Richard Howard, fans of his fiction have often formed a select club, championing his books and hand selling them to other readers and writers.

The novelist Dennis Cooper has written that “McCourt is that rarest of contemporary American authors -- a true iconoclast, a devoted high stylist, and a holder of the unfashionable opinion that prose is a natural extrovert and beauty that deserves the brightest polish, the best accessories, the most extravagant costumes.”

McCourt is now finishing up “Now Voyagers: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein,” his 3200-page fictional saga picking up the story of Mawrdew Czgowchwz. McCourt started this reworking of his fictional diva’s life 33 years ago, shortly before his first book was published. “Now Voyagers” will be published in four books by the Turtle Point Press, with the first part, “Book One: The Night Sea Journey” coming out in the fall of 2007. For the uninitiated, the name of McCourt’s lifelong opera heroine is pronounced “MAW-DEW GORGEOUS.”

The Recorder had previously published extensive excerpts of McCourt’s 1950s Dublin scene from “Now Voyagers."

McCourt and Virga split their time between New York City, Washington, D.C., and County Mayo, Ireland. McCourt spoke with Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Washington, not far from the Library of Congress, where both McCourt and Virga have offices.

Q. What is your family background?

A. My father started out as a banker, but then the banks closed during the bank holiday (of the Depression). By the time I was born in 1941, he was the head timekeeper on the (Manhattan) waterfront. This meant that he was management, but he was on the piers. Later, I called him “a suit on the waterfront.” He was basically an accountant, but had a great relationship with the men, specifically the checkers, who determined who was going to be in the shape up that day. My father mostly worked on the docks of what is known as the North River, which is what the Hudson is called below the George Washington Bridge.

My mother was a schoolteacher, teaching music. Both my parents were from Yorkville. My father’s family arrived in 1830. They had a quarry in the Hudson Valley. In the second generation, they became stonecutters. My great-grandfather worked on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My mother’s family came to Philadelphia in the 1760 from Dublin..

I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. Back then, half of Jackson Heights was Irish, half was Jewish.

Q. How did you wind up becoming a serious opera fan?

A. I’ve always had a love of music. My mother and her friends used to go to the opera. When I was a teenager, the opera became a place to hang out. Another thing was that it was bohemian. The opera always had an aura of the sexual to it, because the fans are sort of febrile. Straight and gay sex were discussed. There were more gay people “on the line,” but there was a strong straight influence. It was very bohemian, like the Village. Every night, the opera line stretched down Broadway. There were a couple of hundred people. I started going to the opera at 15, for Maria Callas’ debut in 1956.

I was on the line from 1956 to 1965. When I started going to Manhattan College, I went all the time, maybe 40 times a year. I followed Victoria de Los Angeles, a soprano from Barcelona. She eventually became my friend.

Q. Was Victoria the model for Mawrdew Czgowchwz?

In the book, she’s Mawrdew’s friend, but she’s nothing like Mawrdew. The model for Mawrdew Czgowchwz is hard to figure out. One is Jarmila Novotna, who was Czech and a partisan during World War II. There’s nothing about Callas in Mawrdew, but I used the fact that Callas got fired from the Met, and had that happen to Mawrdew so the plot would thicken.

Q. What was your inspiration to be a writer?

A. I have no idea. It just started when I was 11. I started writing neighborhood plays. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper.

Q. What were the seeds of “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”?

A. When I was in college, I wrote a story about the opera line called “Vesti La Giuba,” which is an aria from “Pagliacci,” because there was a guy in front of the opera who sang it all the time. Leoncavallo wrote it.

I wrote this story for the college literary review called “Mawrdew Czgowchwz.” It didn’t take long to write. Donald Lyons, who is now a theater critic for the New York Post, got me to take it to the New American Review in 1971. I handed it to the editor Ted Solotaroff personally. We went back to England. Several weeks later, he sent me a telegram telling me it was great. That year, I wrote the rest of it in New York. Ted put it on the cover of the magazine and it caused a small literary sensation in New York. That’s when Susan Sontag read it. We had come back from England and Vincent was working at the New York Review of Books, where he met Susan. She asked, “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”? Vincent told her the book was in trouble, for Ted had left Simon and Schuster. Susan said, “That’s nonsense. There is only one publisher for the book, and it’s my publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.” Vincent, my agent and Susan sent the book to FSG without telling me.

Q. Were you satirizing the opera world with “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”?

A. I wasn’t trying to satirize anything. I was trying to write a fable, where it is necessary to have an adversary. It was easy to create an old bag of an opera singer, a superannuated diva to try to undermine Mawrdew. It’s necessary for the protagonist to have an antagonist. It’s a simple story. It’s not a novel. It’s a fable because it is mostly dialogue and atmosphere. One of the most interesting things said about the book was by this guy who loved the book, but he said it’s odd, she’s a ghost in her own story. That hit home. That meant that I had to develop her as a real woman, which I did. I put her in other stories and aged her. I had been writing the sequel, but then I got the idea a few years ago to frame it as a story told by her from the point of view of now, and to incorporate the first into the new book as a text written by several schoolboys.

Q. Is this 3200-page fiction a novel?

A. No, it’s not a novel. It’s a saga. I always try to avoid the word novel. Any way I can get out of it, I use it. I don’t like the idea of the novel. It’s commodified. Nothing I’ve ever written has ended. They don’t end. They stop, then start again in another book. Novelism almost always means using a linear narrative.

Q. You’ve been with your lover, the novelist and editor Vincent Virga, for 42 years. How did you meet?

A. We met at Yale Drama in 1964. We were both in the acting program. He didn’t want to stay. He was unhappy with the acting teacher. He wanted to go to Catholic University. I said, “In a pig’s eye.” I couldn’t follow him to Washington. I didn’t have the energy to look for another guy. I spirited him to England. I got two English people, a married couple, to sponsor us in London. We were together in London. We bonded. We studied acting, then we got jobs. Vincent got lots of odd jobs and made a lot of money because he is so smart. He’d work for temp agencies, then he’d end up running the show. We quit acting so we could go to the theater all the time. I wrote a couple of plays. One was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Scarecrow.” Another was a kind of farce. A third was a play about twin brothers, an O’Neillian type of thing. I was very taken by O’Neill.

Q. What effect has your partnership with Vincent Virga had on your writing?

A. It’s very hard to say. I just do it and it is appreciated. He is critical sometimes. We don’t exchange ideas and he never reads the manuscript until I am finished. It’s like living with Virginia Woolf in that respect. He doesn’t read it, then he does. We are just supportive of each other’s work. We are also both crazy about the theater. We’ve fueled each other’s passions for the theater. We have both written about theatrical situations. His novel “Gaywick” is very theatrical. It should be noted that he is the author of the first gay gothic novel.

Q. What was the London scene like during the 1960s?

A. It was wonderful. I was more into the actors than the playwrights at the time. The older actors were Edith Evans, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Peggy Ashcroft was an enormous influence at the time. The actors of today’s generation were just staring out. They included Judy Dench, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Maggie Smith was becoming a big star in “Othello” with Olivier.

What did you do when you returned to America in 1971?

A. That was when I was drinking heavily. Vincent was working at the New York Review of Books. As they say, I was “home for the day.” I don’t really remember the seventies that well. My story was published in the New American Review in 1972. The book was published in 1975. The reason it took three years was because I was drinking all the time.

Q. You've written about the Everard Baths, the gay bathhouse on 28th Street. What was the environment like?

A. It was the late 1950s, early 1960s. I was already legal. It was basically a lot of very literate guys without their clothes on, in white robes having sex and talking, talking, talking. A lot of them were on speed. The Everard closed after a fatal fire in the 1970s. The heart and soul had already gone out of it by then. The Everard succumbed, like all the other gay baths, to the drug culture. We didn’t consider speed to be a drug. You could easily get a prescription for it. We called it pep pills. Typically people would come in smash drunk at the Everard and would sober up in the steam room, then take some speed. The baths couldn’t regulate marijuana and other drug use, so they went straight downhill.

Q. Was the story that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association owned the bath true?

A. The PBA owned it. How they did, I don’t know. They ran it. The Everard was one of the most lucrative venues in town.

Q. On June 27,1969, you were at the Stonewall Bar in the West Village at the time of the famous riots. The mood was tense because Judy Garland’s funeral was that same day. The fighting between the cops and the drag queens started early the next morning. What did you see?

A. It’s all described in “Queer Street.” I thought I had been to the riots. There were two “takes” (cash pickups of bribes) by the police that night. The regular precinct officers came earlier and there was no riot. Then the vice quad came by later in the evening for a second take. The bar refused to pay and the vice squad got rough. The queens started carrying on. They were on amphetamines. Everyone at the Stonewall Riots was on amphetamines. I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got a call the next day that the Village was burning and I never went back. We went back to England the next week.

I witnessed an incident around the first pickup. A drag queen threw a stinger in an Irish cop’s face. One cop restrained the other. It was the Italian cop stopping the Irish cop. He said, essentially, “We have to cut them some slack. They are in a bad way because of Judy.” There were a lot of straight guys involved with Judy Garland. Judy was a universal. The straight guys into Judy would understand. While this was happening, Judy was lying in state uptown at the Campbell Funeral Home.

Q. “Time Remaining,” your collection of two novellas, has been acclaimed as one of the more poignant depiction's of the human toll of the AIDS epidemic. What were your motivations with the book?

A. lot of my friends had died. I used to take the Long Island Railroad out to East Hampton, often late at night, both drinking and sober. I decided it was a perfect set up. At every station, the conductor would come by and call out a station. That would signal a turn in the story. Once you have a set up like that, you have a highly formalized structure. As The New Yorker said, it was a kind of travelogue. Basically, it was a wake with stories, like an Irish wake. The bodies weren’t there. They were distributed all over in the text. It was my most highly formalized and most successful book in aesthetic terms. That is why I want it republished.

Q. As a younger writer, you drank very heavily, but you stopped at age 38. How do you compare writing while drinking and writing while sober?

A. When I was drinking, I lived in a very enclosed world. The problem with “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” even though I loved it, it was a world in a bubble. I wanted to break out of the bubble, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t stop drinking. When you are drinking, you are very isolated. When the bubble finally burst, I couldn’t write for a year or two. I didn’t know if I would ever write again. A woman from The New Yorker came in and she was responsible for my new beginning. Her name was Veronica Geng. She got me on my feet again. She said she wanted me to write a story for the magazine and you don’t get offers like that. In her brother’s memoir, he wrote about Veronica screaming in The New Yorker offices, “I don’t understand why you people don’t think this story is terrific.” That was me she was screaming about most of the time. I based my movie star character Kaye Wayfaring on what Veronica would be like if she was a movie star like Faye Dunaway.

As a drinker, I was acting out, and then I found a way to act in, which I had learned at Yale Drama, but I wasn’t able to do because of the drinking. “Acting in” has become an important part of what I do and what I taught. I taught a version of the Stanislavski Method applied to writing. The Stanislavski Method came to America in the days of the Group Theatre with Stella Adler, and was perpetuated by Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagan in all different ways.

Method acting features things like sense memory, emotional recall and the object. In other words, each scene has an object and four questions.--who am I, where do I come from, what do I want and where am I going? They are very easy to apply to writing, characters and situations, as well as to the narrator himself. I used this method when I taught writing at Princeton and Yale.

Q. You and Vincent Virga spend several months living in Co. Mayo every year. When did your annual Irish sojourn start?

A. We’ve been going since 1985. We first went to Ireland in 1966 and I went back several times after I decided that Mawrdew Czgowchwz was part Irish. In the new book, there are extended sections that take place in Dublin, and I couldn’t have written them without being in Dublin. Vincent and I went to Dublin for Joyce. We went to Mayo to see “The Playboy of the Western World” territory. We fell in love with Mayo because it is beautiful and remote. The people love us and we love them. It’s village life in the village of Crossmolina.

The verbal culture, the rural quiet and beauty are conducive to writing, as well as the interest of the people. They are not necessarily interested in what you are writing, but that you are writing and how many books you have written” “Ah, those two fellas are out on the Errew Peninsula writing books.” They mean it, because they are very literate people.

Q. How did your idea for “Now Voyagers,” your 3200-page fiction, start?

A. I started working on it right before “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” was published in 1975, as an extension. It was written in the same style as the first book. I began to realize that it wouldn’t work. It was repetitious. When I finally quit drinking, I figured out why. I started in earnest in 1979 recasting everything. The book is modeled on the epics, “The Odyssey” and “The Aneid,” and “Moby Dick.” All those epics are used.

Q. How did you find a publisher willing to publish the book in four parts?

I am publishing “Now Voyager” with Jonathan Rabinowitz of the Turtle Point Press. I’d admired what he’d done is his beautiful bookmaking. I’d only met him once, but I called him up to ask if he’d be interested. After he read the manuscript, he said it was the book that he was born to publish. He’s in seventh heaven now because he’s been getting great advance quotes from writers like Colm Toibin.

Q. Will this be the definitive story of Mawrdew Czgowchwz?

A. It will be Mawrdew Czgowchwz, as revealed by the people pictured therein, in letters, voices and things like that. I was hellbent to create a heroine who was not a ghost in her own story, and who was a great artist.

Q. How do you describe your work habits?

A. I work all the time. I write in the afternoon and through the evening, with a break for dinner. A lot of work is wool gathering, going along, thinking about nothing and gathering impressions. I write them down on anything, scraps of paper, anything that there and put them in the computer. I do a lot of writing by hand, but all my rewriting is on the computer.

Susan Sontag once said an important thing to me about writing. She said, “I am not so sure I can write when I sit down, but I am sure as hell that I can rewrite.” In my case, the writing grows by accretion, piece by piece. I work constantly and steadily, usually on three or four things at once.

Q. You’ve been called a writer’s writer’s writer, which means that you are read by writer’s writers like the novelist James Salter. What do you think of that label?

A. When I was called that, it was rather disconcerting. It was the playwright Bill Hoffman, the author of the wonderful AIDS play “As Is.” It was 1993 when “Time Remaining” came out and he interviewed me. It was meant as such a high compliment and I took it as that, but it is difficult. It abstracts you one more degree in terms of general readership. I don’t get anything out of being a secret. I’m convinced that there is a wider readership for me, if it can be reached.