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.