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Bruce Benderson

By Posted on 29 25 m read 6.2K views

McSWEENEY’S Kevin Dolgin interviews Bruce Benderson.

Bruce Benderson has spent the last twenty years or so building a reputation as an underground writer; a voice from the gay scene in New York. He has been particularly successful in France, where he won the Prix de Flore in 2004 for his memoir “The Romanian“, the story of his obsession with a Romanian hustler named Romulus. I had a chance to meet him in Cafe de Flore itself, on Paris’s left bank, where he sat behind a glass of wine and a cigarette, blue eyes sparkling through the smoke. I had the pleasure of spending two hours with him. Some of our conversation is below.

Interviewer, Kevin Dolgin. (You’ll have to wait till the end of the interview to see him in cornrows.)

KD: The writers who have won the Prix de Flore, at least those that I’ve read, seem to employ a consistent sexual element to what they’re doing.

BB: Oh yeah, it’s kind of a sex, drugs and rock and roll prize. It’s supposed to be for young French talent. How I got it, we’ll never know. I have kind of a strange career here, in some ways it’s chic to like me. It’s always been like that, ever since “New York Rage“. I’m a fashionable writer.

KD: Why do you think you’re fashionable here? For that matter, why is it that you’re so linked with France, especially when you don’t actually live here?

BB: When I went to college I had to major in something, so I majored in English literature and I hated it. I was always more attracted by French literature, literature from catholic cultures. I had maybe a semester of French in college and I read a lot of French literature in translation I was highly influenced by it, then I came here for the first time in 1973 and I stayed for six weeks and loved it. And as it turned out the French were more interested in my writing than Americans. I’ve always had a better reception here. I speak French now and I’ve translated several books from the French. It’s a comfortable place for me for several reasons. I don’t relate well to Anglo-Saxon literature.

KD: Not catholic enough, eh? What about the Irish? They’re Anglo-Saxon and catholic?

BB: Well by catholic literature I really mean Latin literature. Literature from France, South America, Italy and Spain. Books I read usually come from those countries.

KD: You mentioned doing translation, isn’t it frustrating?

BB: Yeah, translation is horribly difficult. For one thing, you get very little credit for it no matter how hard you work—I mean it’s almost like rewriting the book. You’re not just looking the words up and writing down their meaning, you have to recreate a voice. It really has all the elements of good writing except you don’t have to have the ideas for a story or for a theme; but to recreate the style is almost like inventing a new style that’s comparable to the author’s. It takes a very long time even when it looks simple, because there’s a certain tone that’s very difficult to convey in English. It doesn’t pay that well either.

KD: What about the other way around, what about seeing your own work translated by someone else into a language you speak? When you read your own work in French, what does that do for you?

BB: I like it a lot. I always had the same translator up to now and that translator knew me very well. He came from a perfect background to translate my books, he came from a bourgeois background but he left home at the age of fifteen and hit the streets, got involved with drugs, so he knew the world of the streets and he was perfect to translate me. On the other hand, one’s relationship with one’s translator is never that smooth, it sets up a strange situation: there are jealousies that come, especially if the translator is also a writer.

KD: Which is usually the case, isn’t it?

BB: No, quite often not, quite often they’re just good literary translators. The translator I’m about to have now is only a translator. But there can be a lot of tension; and then also if your translator doesn’t like the book and you get the feeling that he doesn’t like it, it’s a horrible feeling.

KD: Now that we’re talking about translation, let’s jump to this question of your translation of Celine Dion’s autobiography. Do you think there’s anybody who even knows Celine Dion who would ever read The Romanian? Have you had any feedback from her or her entourage?

BB: My American publicity people tried to exploit that, the idea of attaching the book to a better-known name, they thought they could attract the attention of journalists to it: “Oh my god, this guy is Céline Dion’s translator” and that helped to market it. They didn’t do that here, but they did in America and it drew some attention because journalists are getting thousands of books a year and a lot of them just slip by, but this one had a little red light on it: “look, this guy’s associated in some way with a famous person and famous means money, so we should pay a little attention to this”.

KD: But I assume she has no idea that you’ve written this.

BB: I don’t know, I never met her. I imagine she probably has a group of people who are combing through the media looking for mentions of it as a kind of marketing thing, so I have a feeling it might come to her attention, but I don’t know.

KD: Do you care?

BB: No, I don’t care. I’m a little worried about some of the statements I made in “The Romanian”. I mean, I’m not a lawyer so I wouldn’t know which statements may be dangerous, or could lead to legal suits, but according to the lawyer who vetted the manuscript, both here and in America, he said there’s nothing to worry about.

KD: Well, it could hardly be taken as libel to be calling her insipid. How could they plausibly prove the contrary?


KD: On to more important questions. You seem to have this kind of nostalgia for a kind of illicit gay scene, before being gay was accepted. I’m not gay, but I would assume some people would take exception to all that, would say “wait a minute, we’ve fought hard for all these rights and here you’re expressing nostalgia for the way it was before.”

BB: Well there are people who argue with me about it, but actually there’s a large amount of people who find it refreshing. I was surprised by that, but I think the reason is that at this particular time the really dramatic struggles have been won, at least in the free world, and they’re finding out that there is no such thing as gay identity, that it makes almost as much sense as someone saying “I’m a heterosexual and that’s my identity.” Imagine the ridiculousness of a straight guy saying “my identity is straight, and here in straight culture, we think”¦” he wouldn’t say it, he would say, “that’s just my sexual taste, my culture is white Anglo Saxon, or Jewish or Chicano or French, that’s my culture.” A struggle always gives someone identity, and once the struggles are over I think a lot of gay people are finding it’s just a sexual taste and it doesn’t really define us.

KD: But wasn’t that the goal of the struggle in the first place, to reach that point?

BB: Yeah, it’s really contradictory in a way, but still the media and certain political people for various reasons try to keep going the idea that there’s this entire rich gay culture that can be compared to afro-American culture or Chicano culture—we have our clothing, our humor, which is only true to some little extent. That’s why I think that a lot of especially younger gays are saying, “I’m glad somebody said it, I thought something was wrong with me, I don’t really relate to this empty stuff”, so actually I think I’m getting good response.

KD: I talked about your statements with a friend of mine in New York who lived through the gay underscene that you describe, and I asked him what he thought. He said something I found really interesting, he said “finding your freedom is like having been at war, once you’re at peace there are times you remember the heightened sense of battle nostalgically, but most people don’t want to be back there.”

BB: I don’t think we were at war then. I believe a lot of that has been distorted. There have been a few films made about the Stonewall rebellion that tried to show the Stonewall as this paranoid place run by the mafia where the police could come in at any moment. That may have been true of people who were in powerless situations, who had no money and had to make their living by prostituting themselves, but the majority were middle class, even at the Stonewall, and it was fun! We never thought for a moment that we were at war. Sure there were things you were supposed to keep quiet about, but I would compare it to being a regular marijuana smoker. You’re not going to run to the office and light up, and maybe you’re not going to tell your mother about it, because she’s from a generation that would think you were a junkie and be really shocked, but you don’t go around now because it’s illegal saying “I smoke marijuana, society is killing me and making me hate myself, I could get arrested any minute for what I do.” That’s how it felt, it was like smoking marijuana. We saw it as festive.

KD: And exciting.

BB: Yeah, we weren’t sitting in a bar waiting for the police to come in and tell us we didn’t have rights. We knew that there were certain limits and certain laws that we thought were silly and unfair. It’s like nowadays a lot of people think that the law against marijuana is unfair, but we didn’t feel like oppressed, shadow people, not by any means, at least not by the time I got into that scene, and I got into it as early as the late sixties. So why am I still, as you call it, nostalgic for those times? Because a lot of things from those times have been lost. The sexuality used to be an adventure, so if you went to a gay bar in a medium-sized city. It wasn’t just gay middle-class guys there, everyone was there because they weren’t accepted any place else. So there were a lot of people from other races who went there—urban people. It was a place for outcasts.

KD: Straight urban people?

BB: Straight urban people: drug dealers; prostitutes; unmarried women; hairdressers who weren’t even gay but who worked late nights and found themselves downtown; petty thieves”¦ but the best thing of all, it was a catch-all for all the classes. How many places now can you go where you can mix with all the classes?

KD: So it’s not so much the homosexual scene you miss, it’s the disappearance of a gathering place for the margin of society.

BB: Yeah, homosexuality put you in a situation where you were going to meet a lot of different people from very different backgrounds, and that does not happen any more.

KD: Are you sure? Isn’t there someplace in New York where you still find that mix?

BB: There was in the 1970’s, maybe —if you went to Studio 54 there would be people like Truman Capote but there would also be an attractive bicycle messenger who got in for his looks, maybe dancing with Liza Minnelli. If you go to the clubs in New York now they’re all from the same class. They’re all white professionals, or you go to a black working-class club where everyone is from the black working class and where you’re not going to be comfortable. The gay life was part of that mix of classes, that festive mix of classes. Even though you’re from New York, you’re probably too young to remember.

KD: When did it change?

BB: That changed in the 80’s, when New York attracted a lot of young white professionals while at the same time crowding out the lower classes. The city filled up with one certain class that was suddenly making a lot of money. It continued right through the dotcom explosion, and those were the people who took over nightlife and took over culture. It became very uniform.

KD: Do you still find places like that here in Paris?

BB: No, not any more. But everywhere in the Western world used to be like that. The Latin quarter in the 70’s was a completely different place. I stayed in a hotel – it was five dollars a night. There were prostitutes and the whole Piaf atmosphere, the whole vivacity of the streets. La rue St. Denis used to have hundreds of prostitutes. There was a much stronger working class energy at that time too. That was what the city was, it was a place where all the classes could show off their energies. It’s not like that any more.

KD: So you can’t find that in New York and you can’t find it in Paris but you can find it in Budapest and you can find it in Bucharest. What do you think—were you looking for Romulus or were you really looking for a different lifestyle?

BB: I know what you’re asking. I don’t know if I found it in those different cities. I found exotic and different cultures that I didn’t understand very well, but I certainly didn’t become more deeply integrated into those cultures. I was just one step above being a tourist. But you’re asking me about what I was getting from Romulus?

KD: Yes. If you observe the relationship as you describe it in the book, it seems like you guys weren’t exactly at cross purposes, but you were looking for different things from each other. From your perspective, you’re genuinely in love with this guy”¦

BB: Yeah.

KD: ”¦and by the end, it seems that he’s genuinely fond of you”¦you explain in the book that he regarded you as a friend with unfortunate occasional sex. I guess my question is, when you look at it do you think you were really in love with him or were you in love with something that he represents, in love with the life he was leading, with a kind of excitement that had disappeared from your life as New York itself changed?

BB: I think I was in love with both, but in a way it’s an unfair question. That’s what love is. When Woody Allen falls in love with Annie Hall he’s in love with her body and her looks, her bone structure and her personality, but also he’s in love with what she represents, the untouchable lily white wasp world that Jewish boys always dream of, so I think there’s always an element of that. That’s the idealization element, the fantasy element. There’s always a fantasy element when you’re in love. I think if that’s the only element then it’s a fake relationship, but I don’t think that was the only element for us, although it definitely was one of them.

KD: Do you still see Romulus?

BB: I do, yeah. The things we went through were so dramatic that I think we probably have a friendship for life. It’s almost like family, we have a very intimate friendship and we understand each other deeply, especially since I wrote this book. He’s read it three times, in French, and his French isn’t good so he had to read it over and over and there’s a very deep bond between us that continues. It’s not the same bond that it started out to be, and that’s part of what this book is about, it’s a journey into the different stages of love. At first it’s 90% projection and then it’s disillusionment and then finally there’s a realistic affection when you can see who the person really is and you can imagine that he loves and how he feels. That’s real acceptance and that’s real love. You go through that with anything you have affection for. I recently went through it with France. You know a tourist comes to France and they like it and they see only the most wonderful things about it, they see what the French don’t see, and they think “Oh my god, I just love the way these people hold their glass of wine, I love the way their hair is a bit messy, you know that negligent style, and I love—and the French look at them and they shrug and they say “oh you’re just an idealistic tourist.” That’s how France was for me for years, and then something bad happens, which happened to me last time I was here, I was robbed in a gym, and suddenly it’s like god damn it, and you try to get your phone back and you try to talk to the police and you find this horrible bureaucracy and this horrible red tape and you realize that nothing works here and nothing official functions right, and you suddenly get this horrible idea about France. Then there’s a third stage in which I realized that all these bureaucratic problems were part of what really made France what I like, that because things work so slowly and they’re so complicated, people have a lot of time for leisure and that’s why they’re sitting around in cafes and drinking fine wines, which is what I love about France. If I like one, how can I reject the other? That becomes the more moderate and the more mature phase, after the disillusionment.

KD: So you see three phases, the infatuation phase, the disillusionment phase, and then this…

BB: …realistic affection which kind of combines both, and the big trick in the case of France for me was not to lose the things that I’d seen at the beginning, which most people who live in a place a long time lose. You no longer notice the interesting way the hair falls, you no longer notice the way the wine is drunk and you just see what everybody else sees. If you can hold on to the innocent phase and add the more experienced phase to it, that’s real love of a place and that’s real love of a person.

KD: The title of “The Romanian” in French was Autobiographie Erotique (“Erotic Autobiography”), was that your choice?

BB: No, that was the choice of the publisher and I think it was an attempt to tag along on this craze in France, of women writing erotic literature. There’s a whole genre like that, and I think it was an attempt to latch onto the sales of that genre, but it backfired. I didn’t like it, I thought “OK, you know better than me” but most of the French journalists said, “we don’t like that title, it’s too obvious” and the book was not really that erotic, it’s more about love. I’m sure you wouldn’t have enjoyed if it was just a descent into homosexual erotica.

KD: That’s a question in itself, what’s so homosexual about the book? The other question is what’s so erotic about the book, because in the end I don’t necessarily see it as a homosexual story”¦

BB: Me either!

KD: I mean, it’s not about being gay.

BB: That’s true, and in the end I found I had a lot of woman readers. It’s more a women’s story, because that’s the way a lot of women have loved, I think: someone unmanageable, someone unattainable, someone whose masculinity was a mystery and a draw. Not every woman, but a lot of women read it that way. So many women come up to me at book signings and readings and stuff and said “Oh I loved your book, I thought it was the story of my life—women, not men, and it’s also proof that there is no special gay identity, I just loved Romulus.

KD: Speaking of gay identity – Romulus clearly doesn’t see himself as homosexual.

BB: Right. That’s normal in his milieu, in a certain milieu which is usually associated with the working classes or lower than that, the real street class. For them, the definition of masculinity doesn’t necessarily have to do with what you do with it, it’s where you put it. A lot of North Africans and Greeks also believe that if you’re the one sticking it in, you’re a man, and if you’re the one getting it you’re a whore. You know, it’s a lot less surprising if you think about it—I mean you must have known some gay people who slept with women, right?

KD: Sure.

BB: Everyone says “sure”, but when it’s reversed it’s like wow, what a phenomenon! But why is it different? If you’re anything, you’re also a little of something else. I’ve slept with a lot of women in my life, and there’s 20 percent of me that gets a great deal of pleasure out of it.

KD: So it’s a cultural thing I suppose, that line where you say “I’m gay”, or “I’m not gay.”

BB: I think so. You know, I used to hang out in Times Square and the majority of the hustlers there were Puerto Rican, they were from the South Bronx from very poor families and almost 90% of them preferred women, but they were able to do it with a guy to get money. And all my politically correct friends can say “oh they’re really gay, they just can’t admit it to themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sleep with a man.” But these same people, if I tell them that I’ve slept with women they never say to me “oh, you’re really straight but you can’t admit it.” Why does it only work one way? Is everybody gay, but the only difference is that there are those who do it a little and those who do it a lot? The other equation doesn’t exist for them. I think that’s ridiculous.

KD: There are erotic scenes in the book all the same—do you hope that even a straight guy would get aroused by them? They’re written beautifully.

BB: Thank you. No, I just try to express it honestly and I’m worried about taste. I don’t want to shove anybody’s face into any kind of bodily fluids. I want to describe it in an elegant way, but I also want to describe exactly what happened. That’s all I’m really thinking about and actually, most of my straight friends hate those parts, they go, “oh I skipped through that.” But I’m glad it didn’t bother you.

KD: Oh no, I thought it was”¦

BB: I’m sure you didn’t get an erection though.

KD: No. True enough. (laughter). But speaking of libido, you have said “I definitely feel that libidinal indulgences that provide some risks to your health are extremely good for a writer’s consciousness.” You also said “writing is about breaking down your defenses, writing is a direct attack on the survivalist mentality, writing is about dying, loss”¦

BB: What!? I don’t remember that.

KD: ”¦ “and any activity that challenges the notion you can live forever is good for your writing.” That’s interesting.

BB: Are you sure that was me?

KD: Definitely you, in 1991.

BB: OK, well I guess I have to stand behind it.

KD: No, you don’t have to stand behind it, but do you still think that? Do you think that writing can never be about growth?

BB: I think that writing is about growth, and those words are too strong. I see writing as psychoanalytical. You’re looking for things that are semi hidden inside you and have not become fully conscious, and the act of writing is bringing these truths to consciousness, but there’s a lot of resistance in your ego. You can’t walk around at the level you write or you’d go insane—it’s too heightened, it’s too strong, so writing is just like psychoanalysis, you’re battering away at your defenses to find the truth inside. A good sign of that is that whenever I go to bed, just before I go to sleep I quite often have an idea and I have to drag myself out of bed and turn on the light and write down the idea, so I thought of putting a pad and a pen right next to the bed. As soon as I did that, I never got any ideas at night, and when I got rid of the pad, the ideas came back. I think that’s because what’s inside flees when you pursue it, just like in psychoanalysis, the psychoanalyst can’t just go directly into you and say “tell me that you love your mother,” he has to get to it indirectly and let it come forth. I think writing is the same process.

KD: What are you writing now?

BB: Right now I’m not writing anything, I have too many books to publicize. Plus there’s the publicity for THE ROMANIAN here. All of that year [after winning the Prix de Flore] was a nightmare for me, and I thought it was going to be a wonderful year. You’re constantly getting emails from young writers who are attaching their manuscript and begging you to read it, you’re constantly getting requests for interviews, sometimes they just send them attached in an email without even asking you, saying “please send this back in a week”. You’re constantly getting phone calls and you’re constantly getting proposals for new projects and new ideas, and you have to feel your way through it. If you’re really famous then you have breakfast with your lawyer, if you’re not famous at all then you don’t have to worry about that stuff, but if you’re in-between like I am then it’s awful, because you’re constantly having to manage your career, all the time. And then the book came out in America.

KD: It came out here first, didn’t it?

BB: Yeah.

KD: Though you wrote it in English.

BB: But no one was interested in it in the States, they were like “Romania, where’s that?” I finally found an editor for it, but what really gave it a big push was after I got that prize, and then lots of people in America were interested in it.

KD: This is a really atypical route to publication in the States—you win a literary prize in France for the book in translation, and only then find an editor in the States.

BB: It does happen quite a bit. Not recently, but in the 30’s through the 70’s there were a lot of underground writers who became famous in France first, and actually, Paul Auster’s career got its biggest boost in France then kind of leaked over into America.

KD: Speaking of Paul Auster, I’ve always wondered about this French fascination with New York writers and New York city in general. Do you think you’re part of that, this love for Woody Allen and Paul Auster?

BB: New York used to be incredibly important to me as an author. My other novel, “User”, is all about Times Square and for at least ten years, that’s what I was, I was a person who wrote about the streets and Times Square, and the energy of New York and the people of New York.

KD: You once said, “we’re the only people who can write, but we’re the least qualified people to have a voice, we have nothing to say.”

BB: I remember that, yeah.

KD: What are you thinking of when you say things like that?

BB: When I said that, it was about 16 years ago. What I meant was, I was speaking in the context “User”, in which I wrote about people who don’t read and don’t write, some of them were even illiterate, but essentially it was a non literate culture I was writing about, the culture of Times Square, and people would say “why would you write about that, you’re from the bourgeoisie, aren’t you exploiting them?” and I would answer “don’t you think it would be nice for someone to give those people a voice, or do you just want to pass them in the street and turn your head the other way?” Middle class life had become so predictable and so mediatized, and the stories had all been told, but there were all of these wonderful stories and this class wouldn’t write the stories themselves and that was one of my goals, to tell these stories to people who could read them.

KD: Do you think you would have written anything or lived anything differently if you weren’t Jewish?

BB: Definitely. That has a very strong influence on me. I didn’t grow up in New York city, I grew up in Syracuse, so I was a Jew with a provincial background; and my mother was born in Russia, so I had a strong European element in my upbringing, but unlike Jews who came to New York there wasn’t this large support community, so there was a lot of isolation for me and a lot of alienation. I remember they used to make us sing Christmas carols, and we were worried as kids that we were going to go to hell or be struck by lightening if we said “Christ our lord” so we used to mouth the words. But there’s other elements to it too, there’s the steel trap, verbal mind of the Jew, you’re born with books and I’m sure that had a lot to do with my growth as a writer. What about you, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?

KD: My mother’s Italian. My father is Jewish, actually. You know, I’ve thought a lot about the comparison of the two cultures, from a historical perspective as well. Historically if you were going to be a good catholic then the last thing you were supposed to do was to read the bible because it might lead you to heresy. During the middle ages, the church considered it to be at least dangerous if not a sin for a common person to read, because then he would read the bible, since it was pretty much the only thing around, and then he’d draw his own conclusions and end up going off to become a Cathare or fomenting a theological revolution and end up going to hell. Whereas to be a good Jew, well you can’t really be a good Jew if you can’t debate the law, and I think that’s one of the principle reasons that so many Jews became lawyers, as well as writers.

Kevin Dolgin

BB: That’s interesting. I think the reformation was partly a reaction to that.

KD: Absolutely. Part of what Martin Luther was saying was, “no, you have to have an individual relationship with god” and you can’t have an individual relationship with god if you’re not allowed to understand for yourself what god has said.

BB: Right. You know, I’m really interested in that. The lynchpin of research for my book, “Sexe et solitude,” was “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber.

KD: I only found a fleeting reference to that book. It sounds interesting.

BB: Incidentally, I appreciate the research you’ve done on my work. I don’t get that very much from American interviewers, but I suppose you’re not really that American any more.

KD: I guess not. Certainly my wife would agree with you, but then she’s French. But is there really a significant difference to the way you get interviewed in the States as opposed to in France?

BB: Oh yeah. It’s better here. Everything is contaminated by commerce in the United States, so whatever’s happening at the moment – it’s always going to be a topical interview. Right when my book came out there was the James Frey scandal, so I got questions of the caliber”¦ well one person said “are all the conversations verbatim?” I said “yeah, I carry a tape recorder, even in bed. Very smart question.” Since it was a memoir, that was the first thing everyone asked.


KD: You once said: “I consider myself a retroactive writer and in that sense I’m conservative.” What on earth do you mean?

BB: What I meant is a Céline kind of thing, I meant that I was disgusted with modernity and that I was more interested in older values, retroactive values, you know like the beats.

KD: That probably wouldn’t be the same set of retroactive values that typical Americans identify when they talk about retroactive values.

BB: No, but I like playing with those words to frighten liberals.

KD: Well why the hell write if you can’t play with words?

BB: Yeah.

KD: I had a question that you’ve actually already answered, but while you never describe yourself as bi-sexual, you’ve slept with more women than I have.

BB: I would describe myself as bi-sexual. I think I’m more homosexual but I can imagine having a relationship with a woman. At this stage it might be the only thing viable.

KD: Why?

BB: Because again you have this problem of the law of opposites. Traditionally, it’s the woman who puts the brakes on a man’s libido, she insists on fidelity and insists on building something, insists that deep feelings are more important than surface excitement. It’s always been that way, right?

KD: You just explained another reason why more women seem to connect with your book.

BB: Yeah. But when you put two men together there’s no brakes on libido, and both of them want to fuck everybody and both of them want to chase bodies and there’s nobody insisting on a deeper meaning like women usually do in a relationship.

KD: But why look for that now?

BB: There’s another thing that happened that changed gay culture, there used to be a place for old gay guys, they were people who could get somebody because they had money, or they paid for it, or because they had wisdom, and that’s all but gone.

KD: I had never realized that money and wisdom could be so sexy.

BB: Or character, or paternal powers or something like that. That’s all but gone from the gay world and when it exists, it exists as a fetish: “oh man, I’m into silver daddies.” It used to exist in a more stable way. Old gay guys were not supposed to be part of the sexual merry-go-round but they did have a position, they could get what they wanted in other ways. It doesn’t seem like that any more. At least not for me.

KD: Interestingly enough though, at a certain point you say things that infer that the reason you prefer men to women is because of what comes after sex with a woman.

BB: Yeah, it’s true. In the past the feeling that I got from women was that it’s almost like they were collaborators, they were there to enforce the status quo, sort of like, if you’re going to have a relationship with them then this was the way it was going to be, it would lead to a nuclear family, you were going to play a certain role, they were going to play a certain role, and you’d hold to certain standards of decency, certain expressions of sexuality were now taboo because you’re in a relationship and it just seemed at the time too conventional for me. It’s actually looking a lot more appealing these days.

KD: You said you’ve had 4,000 partners.

BB: It’s not that unusual for my age, because between, say 1969 and 1983 there was no AIDS, and it was very normal for a guy to go to the baths three or four times a week, and you’d have some kind of sexual contact with maybe ten people each time. You might even have a lover at the same time—I did, but you know that was just recreation. That’s what men do when there are no women to stop them.

KD: Or help them I suppose.

BB: Yeah. I mean if women were like men you could walk out and probably get laid right now. You would do it, too. If women were as willing to have sex as casually as men, you’d probably have had 4,000 partners yourself.

KD: You’re definitely trying to give me that erection, eh? You didn’t manage in the book”¦


BB: Well I bet I could. You’re definitely a sexual person, I can tell.

Which is a good place to end the interview, or at least my transcript of it.¦

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  • Lance Reynald
    October 4, 2006

    brilliant interview. I have to read this book.

    great worldview there Bruce. Simpatico.
    and just a great easy flow to the conversation there Kevin, so enjoyable.

    I could go on and on but it just seems best to leave it; thanks for the great thoughts to start the day.

  • Kasper
    October 4, 2006

    A richly textured commentary on the realities of the “gay scene”, past and present. Love, as BB points out, and so do my gay friends, is another matter entirely. I enjoy Mr. Benderson’s comments about the writer’s joys, tasks and chores. His analysis of American culture and self-promotion for a writer are also revealing and have the ring of truth about them.

    I was in Paris in 1973-1975 and had two very good American friends at the time who were gay. Straight myself, I nevertheless sometimes found myself in gay bars with them– once with my wife in tow, which got us politely, but firmly, ejected.

    At that particular time, the French were crazy about American junk, and elevated ” le drugstore”, for instance, to the status of a pop temple.

    One of the nicest and most entertaining things about the interview with BB above is his ability to tell the truth about those times. His observations on the stages of evolving love affairs are particularly discerning.

    Thanks to Susan, Kevin Dolgin, and Bruce Benderson.


  • amy
    October 4, 2006

    What a fabulous interview! And the book sounds fantastic, I must go out and buy it immediately.

  • Sarah Roundell
    October 4, 2006

    This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever read. Kevin really did his homework and Bruce was very forthcoming in all of his responses. I am looking forward to reading Benderson’s book even more now. What a brilliant mind!

  • Robin Slick
    October 4, 2006

    This is probably like the only time I’m ever going to make a comment like this but what the hell, there’s a first time for everything.

    Bruce makes me wish I were a gay male.

  • Susan Henderson
    October 5, 2006

    Lance – I know, it’s like being right there at the cafe with them.

    Kasper – I’m glad to hear of your time in Paris. The interview (and the book) are refreshing in the way truth isn’t pinned down by political correctness.

    Amy – I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. My mom, who read it also, thinks it’s a book women can really identify with in terms of a love affair where you are never sure where you stand. Also there is a beautiful thread throughout the book about his visits with his dying mother.

    Sarah – I agree about Kevin! At first, I was disappointed I couldn’t do the interview myself but it turned out to be a wonderful thing.

    Robin – Ha! Hold on a minute. What I meant to say was, Ha ha ha!

  • Shelley Marlow
    October 5, 2006

    Bruce, who shot those photos of you posing like Genet? You both look very sweet with your shirts off.

    (Along parallel lines,last night I attended an after party at the Cock for ShortBus, the new John Cameron Mitchell film, which was generally witty and wonderful.)

  • amy
    October 6, 2006

    Susan — I bought the book yesterday, and am already enthralled. You couldn’t possibly know this, but the majority of my reading list consists of books about tragic, impossible queer love stories. And in fact, my own novel (believe it or not) is also of that catagory.

    So… I think I will have no trouble relating to the story. 😉 But I’m definitely interested in the question of when and why queer-male lit appeals to women.

  • josh kilmer-purcell
    October 6, 2006

    i regret that i was traveling the day that this came out, but wanted to stop back to say that i found this to be one of the most insightful interviews with an author i’ve ever read.

    “You seem to have this kind of nostalgia for a kind of illicit gay scene, before being gay was accepted.”

    great catch. i find this concept prevelant in homosexual culture, tho’ rarely stated. and i also fall victim to it.

  • Kevin Dolgin
    October 6, 2006

    I’m inordinately glad that everyone seemed to enjoy this interview so much – but trust me, as fun as it is to read, it was thousands of times more fun to do.

  • n.l. belardes
    October 6, 2006

    Robin, for a minute after reading this, I was a gay male.

  • Susan Henderson
    October 6, 2006

    Shelley – I wonder, too. And I second the sweet shirtless comment.

    Amy – Are you still writing your novel? If it’s available, come back and give the title.

    Josh – I was just yesterday thinking of that cute picture of you picking a wedgie and holding your mom’s hand. (It’s under JOSH in the LitPark Interviews if any of you want to see what I’m talking about.) Congratulations on the 2-book deal this week!!

    Kevin – Hi handsome! I owe you a scotch, no rocks. But you still owe me Indian food.

    n.l. – Ha!

  • carol
    October 7, 2006

    I was Bruce’s girlfriend for some time in college.he was an amazing person from the first words out of his mouth to me which I don’t exactly remember but it was something like “what are we doing here?”in an intense and odd tone of voice, almost play-acting an other-worldly creature, and what I do remember is the playfulness I was suddenly catapulted into: the freedom of it and the comfortableness to take a risk and the excitement at the unpredictability of what might come next; what he might say or do that left me open to be odd, quirky, coming from a place too deep and free to be predictable to myself, but it was SO much fun, and yes,also he was a thrilling lover, having never slept with boys yet,he was emotionally present and playful and so alive, intense, real..I am gratified that thru this interview, others are discovering his enlivening quality..

  • amy
    October 7, 2006

    Susan – unfortunately, my novel is still seeking representation. *fingers crossed*

  • Susan Henderson
    October 7, 2006

    Carol – Welcome! What a dazzling description.

    Of course, I can’t stop thinking about that 4,000 number.

    Amy – Ah, yes, the never-ending hoops in this business. I’m thinking I might invite Miss Snark over for a visit sometime.

  • Robin Slick
    October 7, 2006

    Let me get this straight, n.l. I wish for something and it happens to you? Okay, okay, that figures. So tell me. What would you like next?

  • Bruce Benderson
    October 8, 2006

    Thanks to everybody, and especially to Susan and Kevin. You’re a generous and warm-hearted bunch.I’m really glad I did this.

  • Susan Henderson
    October 9, 2006

    Bruce – My pleasure. I’m only sorry I couldn’t be there in Paris, too.

  • amy
    October 10, 2006

    Susan, I’m sorry to clog up your comment trail, but I thought you might want want to know that I posted a review/analysis of The Romanian on my blog just now. Thank you again for turning me on to this wonderful book!

  • Susan Henderson
    October 10, 2006

    Amy – I’m absolutely thrilled to know you went out and nabbed Bruce’s book!

    Here’s the link to your review of it:

  • Bruce Benderson
    October 11, 2006

    Um, I’m really overwhelmed by all this positive attention. It’s hard for me to express it, because normally, the drill is that you give an interview and then fly away to the next experience. You certainly don’t want to give the impression that you’re hanging out, eager to bask in every compliment that comes. But out of the literally hundreds of interviews that I’ve given in the last 15 years, this was really the best experience, and I’m really grateful to everyone. Alright, I shall snap my fingers and disappear into the ether now.

  • Susan Henderson
    October 12, 2006

    That’s an awfully fine compliment. I think there are a lot of us looking forward to your next book!

  • Alice
    October 12, 2006

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this interview as well, and I plan on reading Mr. Benderson’s book as soon as possible! I agree that this interview was entertaining, thought-provoking — it made me want to have the opportunity to meet the author himself. In the meantime, again, I will be sure to read his memoir.

    My time in Paris over the past four years has really opened my eyes much more to the literary world, and I am extremely grateful for that! I will be sure to return to your site to read more.

  • Susan Henderson
    October 12, 2006

    Alice – Welcome to LitPark!

  • Alan Rossett
    September 20, 2007

    I came across th_is interview quite by accident.
    I am an American playwright, writing in French for
    20 + years plays in French that have been performed here and abroad and published. Long long ago I was in contact with Bruce Benderson when he put a play of mine into a play bank he then ran in New YOrk. I would like to contact him again somehow. Télephone in Paris :
    01 42 63 98 14

  • Susan Henderson
    September 20, 2007

    Welcome, Alan! I’ll let Bruce know you left him a message.

  • […] I know I’m supposed to be finishing Madame Bovary, but less than twenty-four hours after reading the brilliant litpark interview with Bruce Benderson, I found my way to an English-language bookstore and purchased a copy of his memoir, The Romanian. To those who know me well, this should come as no great surprise: it’s the story of a torrid (if mostly one-sided) homosexual love affair, carried out in a succession of exotic locales, and tempered by the regular ingestion of opiates in various forms. Basically, if there is a blue print to all of my favorite books, this story follows it to the letter (indeed, those who have read drafts of my own novel will notice certain common themes). […]

  • Last Thursday « Catskill Girl
    November 19, 2007

    […] Bruce Benderson, who we met through Layman, was reading from his new book, Sex and Isolation at NYU. […]

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Susan Henderson