David Leavitt: Candid
By Owen Keehnen
The following interview originally appeared in the December 1993 issue of Chicago Outlines.
In 1984 David Leavitt burst onto the literary scene with a stunning collection of gay short stories entitled Family Dancing. Two years later he published his first novel that later went on to become a successful BBC film, The Lost Language of Cranes. These two critically acclaimed works were followed with two more, Equal Affections and A Place I've Never Been.
At 32 David Leavitt has just released a new novel, While England Sleeps. The book is a courageous but sure departure from his earlier works. This historical novel takes place in 1930s Britain against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The book succeeds wonderfully in being both intimate and epic. Above all it is a tragic, romantic, sexy, wonderfully told love story. Leavitt has never been better.
However, recently the praise has been some somewhat muffled by accusations from author Stephen Spender who claims that While England Sleeps is literary thievery and is based on his 1948 memoir World Within World. In fact, approximately one week after talking with Mr. Leavitt, Stephen Spender filed a lawsuit to stop While England Sleeps from being released in Great Britain. Simultaneously Leavitt ceased discussion of the issue. His comments in the following interview were given prior to that legal filing.
I thought While England Sleeps was an incredible book. The content was so different for you. Did you set out to write this sort of sweeping historical tragic/romance, was it intended as a class commentary, or a novel on the ramifications of our political decisions? There's so much.
All those things, but initially I envisioned the book as having a much longer contemporary section. What was on my mind was the similarity between the 1930s and the 1980s. I wanted to write a book about gay men at a time of war that explicitly had nothing to do with men now at a time of war. And we have been at war for these past 10 years. Implicitly I wanted to write something that had a lot to say about the situation, but as I continued writing I became so absorbed in the story and period that the contemporary sections got smaller and smaller until finally there was only the prologue and the epilogue.
The sex scenes are hot as well. That's a departure for you. Were they difficult to write?
They were the easiest thing in the book.
Why did it take your fiction until now to really jump into sex with both feet?
There was no delay. I would never just sort of stick sex in for no reason, they you're writing pornography. The Lost Language of Cranes and Equal Affections both had sex, but neither had as much as this book. In While England Sleeps I was describing an intense relationship between two young men 19 and 23 who are very attracted to one another. How can you talk about a relationship like that without talking about sex? I also wanted to explore the way a relationship develops sexually and how what happens between two people sexually reflects what's happening psychologically. Gay male writers write about sex all the time, but it's usually of a fly by night variety. I can't think of too many examples of gay fiction that describe sex within a relationship.
Would you care to comment on Stephen Spender's recent charge of plagiarism regarding While England Sleeps and his 1948 memoir World Within World?
It was unfortunate. It has finally been resolved. The bottom line is there should have been an acknowledgement of World Within World and then none of this would have happened. I wanted to put an acknowledgement in, the lawyer told me not to. I was advised badly. An acknowledgement will go in the paperback. It didn't occur to me that there would be a problem, but then again most people don't write a historical novel using as a source a story from the life of a man that's still alive, and famously irritable.
From the clippings I've read he seemed mainly offended by the inclusion of sex in the story.
He's of a different generation. It surprised me because Spender has always been so open about his homosexuality, but he wants to control its presentation. From his point of view I think this also was the straw that broke the camel's back. Last year there was a biography of him published in England that was quite critical of him. He had a fit and wrote a number of articles. The irony was that biography sold more copies than it would have otherwise. I think at the age of 85, after getting over the ordeal of having his biography published, and then this novel comes along… As far as I'm concerned the real culprit in all this is the journalist at 'The Washington Post' who sent him the book and set the whole thing into action for what seems like his own purposes.
Along similar lines I know you've experienced homophobic mainstream book reviews, most notably the Christopher Lehmann-Haupt review of The Lost Language of Cranes from 'The New York Times'.
And have you seen Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's review of While England Sleeps? He loved it, and more importantly, he got it.
I haven't seen the review, but then is it fair to say that homophobia is becoming less prominent or at least less blatantly acceptable as a literary criticism?
I've dealt with it but I hesitate to call it homophobia because when you’re a writer it sounds like an excuse. I have noticed that gay men in the mainstream press very rarely review my books. It's as if there's a conscious decision to assign my books to heterosexual reviewers as a test. They think gay critics will be too easy on me.
Were you pleased with the BBC production of The Lost Language of Cranes…and to what capacity were you involved with the project?
I liked it. I was involved in an advisory capacity. I didn't write the screenplay, but I was around for a lot of it. I became close friends with the producer and screenwriter. I sat in on the casting. I credit myself with discovering Angus Macfayden. When he walked in I said, "That’s Philip." It’s a good film. I think it preserved the spirit of the book well.
In Chicago Cloud 42 Productions recently did a wonderful staging of 'Family Dancing' adapted and directed by Justin Hayford. Are there any other adaptations of your writing in the works?
Yes, in Amsterdam a theater company is going to do The Nathan and Celia Stories, but in Dutch.
You've lived in Spain and recently moved to Florence Italy with your lover Mark Mitchell. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing as an expatriate?
There are no disadvantages.
I knew you were going to say that!
It's an enormous advantage because it now only allows you to experience a whole other way of life, but it also casts all your assumptions based on growing up in America aside. Gay life in Italy is fascinating. The attitudes towards homosexuality are so different.
Speaking of Mark, you two have edited The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories due out in January. What were the challenges of doing that anthology and was it difficult to tackle a project that big with your lover?
It was easy because we weren't writing together, we were choosing. It worked out well because I had all these contemporary contacts and Mark knew a lot more about the earlier part of the century. While I was chasing down Michael Cunningham, Mark was off finding the one gay story Grahame Greene ever wrote or DH Lawrence or Noel Coward. He was finding all these things I never knew existed. They're so unexpected and they really enrich the anthology.
Which is the favorite of your books and why?
Probably A Place I've Never Been is my favorite because it includes stories which I think are the best I've written.
Do you have different approaches for writing short stories and novels?
Writing a short story is like having really hot and torrid affair that last three weeks. It's romantic and sexy and exciting and then it's over. A novel is like being married. It's a long relationship and you're with it all the time. Some days you love it and some you hate it.
Do you see a common thread or element running through your work?
Usually I can never answer questions like this, but I think it would be questions of identity. I keep coming back to the questions of to what extent does what we do reflect who we are. In While England Sleeps and The Lost Language of Cranes it's a matter of having sex with men versus defining oneself as gay. That's gotten stronger in Italy where the relationship between homosexual behavior and homosexual identity is so much more complex than in the states. Here it seems there are two models for being gay. One is you're secretly gay and the other is you're open about it. In Italy there are many married men who don't consider themselves gay but have sex regularly with gay men. The attitude of the wives is that they would rather have their husbands fooling around with another man than another woman. It's made me see that what we do and what we are can be culturally defined.
That's interesting. When Family Dancing came out to rave reviews in 1984 you were 23. Shortly thereafter you were called "The gay author of your generation" Was and is there a great deal of pressure attached to a label like that?
There was, but the way I handled it was to ignore it. So much of this is public relations bullshit. If you listen to it and take it seriously you'll be disappointed because soon enough there will be another literary boy wonder. I distanced myself from all that for the sake of my writing.
Any long-term career goals?
I'd like to write novel that I could consider a truly great novel, something on par with Howard's End or A Passage to India. Of course E.M. Forster was 30 when he wrote Howard's End. At this point I'm fairly in control of the short story as a form, but I have a lot to learn about the novel.
Well, you sure made it seem easy with While England Sleeps, congratulations.
Thank you Owen.