Hubert Selby Jr.
Interviewed by Ellen Burstyn
ELLEN BURSTYN: Cubby, I’m interested in your spiritual journey. I want to know where you started out spiritually and how your path went.
HUBERT SELBY JR: I don’t know. I probably won’t find out where I started spiritually until I leave my body. But I’m sure it started a little before I was born. Thirty-six hours before I was born I started to die. Dying became a way of life. By the time I was born, I had cyanosis, brain damage. I was even unattractive, believe it or not. And then I came screaming into the 20th century, and I’ve just been in a rage. I’m not sure exactly if I know everything about the rage and why, but I was in a rage. And it’s a funny thing because all my life, as a little kid I used to look around at the world and say, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.” I could not, and I still don’t—but as a child it baffled me even more—why people are always hurting each other. I could not understand that. And when I was a kid I remember my...I had two heroes. One was Paul Robeson, the other was Mahatma Ghandi. I don’t know why but I just loved these men. And I actually got to meet Paul Robeson once. Anyway it’s a whole nother...But it’s really part of it, but...And then a conscious decision was made based on a spiritual experience—but I didn’t know it at the time—that’s when I started writing.
ELLEN BURSTYN: How old were you then?
HUBERT SELBY JR: About 28. I’d spent about four years in the hospital. I had ten ribs cut out. I had TB [tuberculosis] during the war. I went to sea when I was 15 during the war.
ELLEN BURSTYN: World War Two?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Yeah.
ELLEN BURSTYN: And you were in the navy?
HUBERT SELBY JR: That’s the only real war, isn’t it? No, I was a merchant seaman. And I loved going to sea, but I paid a price for it.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Why do you get TB at sea?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Well, during the war there was a lot of TB because of stress, because of malnutrition, because of sanitary conditions—not on the ship but all through Europe. And you’re just exposed to it. There was an awful lot of TB in the armed forces and in Europe during the war.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Excuse me for interrupting, but just you said in the womb you had cyanosis?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Yeah.
ELLEN BURSTYN: What is that?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Cyanosis is lack of oxygen. You turn blue. The cord was wrapped around my neck for 36 hours. So by the time I was born I was, so to say, brain damaged, unhappy.
ELLEN BURSTYN: How brain damaged were you?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Well I don’t know exactly. Just a couple different kinds of brain damage. One is a genetic thing. I don’t know what the name of it is, but it’s a rage dispenser that is inherited from from father to son.
ELLEN BURSTYN: A rage?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Rage, yeah.
ELLEN BURSTYN: No kidding? I didn’t know you could inherit rage.
HUBERT SELBY JR: Well, evidently there is a brain condition that you can inherit.
ELLEN BURSTYN: So do you experience this rage very often?
HUBERT SELBY JR: All the time.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Yeah?
HUBERT SELBY JR: But I don’t inflict it on anyone anymore. I’ll get in a rage for a second or two and then I let it go. I allow myself—that part of my humanity—to just be out of my head for a few seconds because it’s the only thing that at times relieves me. I just get overwhelmed with the pain of living. Like now, I haven’t felt this bad in so many years.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Why do you feel that?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Oh, there are some things—family things—that are going on that have just absolutely devastated me the last few days. I just...just so devastated. And then my mother went into the hospital last night and...You know, she’ll be 90 years old the 20th of the month. So it’s not like a sudden tragedy. She’s been bedridden for years. It’s been something I’ve been expecting for a long time. It’s just that, you know, things pile up. You have to do certain things that you know absolutely have to be done, but that doesn’t relieve the pain of doing them.
ELLEN BURSTYN: My mother just died right after Easter, and...She was 92 and had not been in good health for many years. And, you know, it was time, and all of that. But it’s just amazing. It doesn’t matter what was the relationship was with your mother, what kind of...how old they are, if they’re ready or not ready. It’s always too soon.
HUBERT SELBY JR: That moment, yes.
ELLEN BURSTYN: There’s a child —what I found, that the adult in me said, you know, she’s out of her misery, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all the rationalizations, but the child in me was absolutely devastated.
HUBERT SELBY JR: Yeah, “I want my mommy.”
ELLEN BURSTYN: “I want my mommy.”
HUBERT SELBY JR: Yeah, oh yeah, absolutely. Right. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Those kind of things I don’t think are unavoidable. I think one of the major forms of suffering is—as opposed to just pain—but suffering is trying to deny that and deny that part of the human condition that has to experience that kind of grief and pain, and “I-want-my-mommy.”
[6:40] ELLEN BURSTYN: So what is the function of suffering?
HUBERT SELBY JR: I think the function—if I understand your word properly—the function of suffering is to let me know that my perception is skewed. What I am doing is judging natural events in such a way that I am creating suffering within myself. For instance, you have pain over certain conditions, certain situations that occur, and if you just say, “Okay, here I am. I’m going to experience the pain,” you don’t suffer. The resistance and the degree of the resistance to the natural phenomenon of life causes tremendous suffering.
ELLEN BURSTYN: That’s what Sara Goldfarb was trying to avoid.
HUBERT SELBY JR: That is the Great American Dream is to avoid that. That’s why it’ll kill you dead.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Yeah. I kept feeling as I was playing Sara that if she would just turn off the TV and put down the candy and sit there and say, “I’m lonely, I hurt,” that there would be some opportunity for change in her life.
HUBERT SELBY JR: Oh. I don’t think life ever presents—that’s not the right word, but—I don’t think you can ever encounter a problem in life without life having already given you the answer. I think it’s a spiritual impossibility to have a problem without having the answer, but my judgments cloud up everything so the answer just can’t go through into my consciousness.
[8:30] ELLEN BURSTYN: Well, I interrupted you. You started to say about a spiritual experience when you were 28.
HUBERT SELBY JR: Oh, yeah. As I said, I’d been given up for dead about four times in the hospital, and I had just gotten out of the hospital again with asthma, and this time the doctor said—I love this. I love the AMA [American Medical Association], oh, I love...God bless them all. They...I was in the hospital and this so-called specialist came—and he didn’t come in the room, he just stood out in the hallway—and he said, “There’s nothing we can do for you. You don’t have any lungs, and you just can’t live. Sit down and take it easy, and you’ll be dead.” And he walked away and sent me a bill. I love...I dearly love the AMA. But you see...
ELLEN BURSTYN: Do I detect a note of irony?
HUBERT SELBY JR: I have such a rotten attitude that I refused to die: “Don’t tell me when I’m going to die.” So I’m still here. But I went home. I was living behind a barber shop at the time. And I remember having this experience. Now at the time I didn’t realize it was a spiritual experience, but that’s what it was. And, as such, as you know, those experiences are far more real than any experience you can have on this level of consciousness. Every cell of your soul is: BOOM! And at the time of the experience you’re connected to Experience. But I didn’t know that at the time, so in retrospect I didn’t understand that, but I knew that someday I was going to die. And it wouldn’t be like what had been happening—almost dead, but somehow I stay alive. But I was going to die. And just before I died, two things would happen. Number one: I would regret my entire life. And number two: I would want to live my life over again, and then I would die. And that terrified me. Oh, what a thought! To live your whole life—whatever it is, 60, 80 years, 135, whatever—and at the end you look at it and say, “I blew it. I blew the whole thing.” And then: WHEET! ZAP! So I had to do something. I had to do something with my life. So I knew I could never go to school. I mean, I finished the ninth grade—I’m not totally without schooling, but that was enough for me to know that I just can’t take it. So I knew I could never be a composer or anything that required me going to school. But I knew the alphabet. So I figured I could write. Sometimes distortions and insanity and arrogance—all these things can work to your advantage. But I didn’t know.
ELLEN BURSTYN: But why writing? Why not painting?
HUBERT SELBY JR: I realize now that I’m a writer. That’s why. But I had to come to that conclusion in my own erroneous and serendipitous kind of reasoning, you know. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I can’t draw a straight line. I have no talent. I’m probably the most untalented person that has ever lived. I don’t have any natural abilities. None whatsoever.
ELLEN BURSTYN: How can you be a writer and not have natural ability for writing?
HUBERT SELBY JR: By sitting down and writing every day of your life. Until you’ve learned how to write.
ELLEN BURSTYN: But what I mean is that, if you’re a writer, isn’t one of the things that defines what you are, that you are gifted in that direction?
HUBERT SELBY JR: It depends on how you’re defining it. I have no natural talent. I could never write a letter, I could never draw a line. I was not an exceptional mechanic. I was never an exceptional athlete. No natural talent. I mean natural talent like some people pick up a pencil, you give them a piece of paper, and they draw.
ELLEN BURSTYN: You had a talent for staying alive.
HUBERT SELBY JR: That. Or they write poems, or they can write lovely letters and things like that. Nothing. But I had this obsession to do something with my life. I didn’t want to waste it. And so I came home every night and wrote and wrote. And I went through reams and reams of paper. Like this one part of “Last Exit [to Brooklyn]”—“Tralala”— it’s about 20 pages long, it took me two and a half years. I just sat and wrote over and over and over. Throw it away, write it again. And I got so involved with the people that I created, that when I finished the piece of work I’d be in bed for a week or two. I’d conk out at the typewriter. You know, I...just totally obsessed with doing something with my life.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Now both “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream” are what almost anyone would call very dark pieces. Why are you attracted to the dark?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Now I suppose that I know more about the darkness than the light, and it’s easier to write about the darkness than the light.
ELLEN BURSTYN: Why?
HUBERT SELBY JR: Because I know more about it. And what is the point...you see, unless I can relate to the suffering of people, I cannot offer a solution to the suffering. When I was about 8 or 10 years old, I had my first goal, first ambition, was to end the pain in the world. I was serious, I don’t think it was just a...I don’t know why, but evidently I saw the world filled with pain. I mean that was all I saw was people hurting each other, killing each other, beating each other—just pain everywhere. reading about it. And then, of course, that was during the depression and the war came and it got even worse. And I couldn’t understand it as a child. I still don’t. Well, maybe I do to some extent. But I’m very familiar with this darkness from an inner point of view, I think, primarily because I started dying at an early age. And also from an outward point of view. When you have this awareness of anything internally, you perceive that externally. We really do, I believe, create the world that we live in. If I remember correctly, the word “eye”—the physical eye—the Sanskrit root and the Hebrew root, I believe, is “ayin,” meaning “fountain.” In other words, this is not an organ that’s receiving vibrations from what’s out there and going through them and interpreting; it’s a projector. We project it. So the world that I live in, I’m projecting. So it seems to me that if I’ve got such an inner awareness of darkness, that’s what I’m going to perceive is darkness. So I became—not consciously—but I became obsessed with learning how to write and learning how to get as deep into the darkness as possible and then bring it back and say, “OK, here’s the problem. I’m not giving you any answer, but here is the problem. Here’s the darkness. Now what do you want to do about it?” That’s not consciously what I was about, but that’s kind of what I ended up doing. Because the first four books are pathological without any catharsis, any relief, any answer. But what has happened is something very very amazing, I think. During these years I’ve talked with thousands of people, or gotten letters, and there is one thing, one word that everyone uses with reference to my work, and that’s “compassion.” And they found within themselves the compassion and ability to not judge the people that ordinarily they would judge into the grave. Suddenly they have compassion for these people. Which is extraordinary. That’s not what I set out to do, but evidently that’s the result, because I hear that from so many people. So the first four books are an attempt to really look at the darkness in as many different ways as I could. Then I wanted to not only go from the darkness to the light, but to show how you get from the darkness to the light. You see I’ve never wanted to just tell a story. I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience. And I believe the reason for that is that I’ve always been a frustrated teacher and a frustrated preacher. And I’ve known that. So I very consciously work to keep that out of my writing, because I believe that the writer has no business being there, that the ego has to go. And that’s certainly something you understand, as an artist. The idea is to get rid of you, right? And I believe I don’t have the right to put me, the ego, between the people in the story and the reader. They should have an interrelationship and experience each other. Because if you really want to teach, you have to do it emotionally. What is, what is...the intellect doesn’t...They can get a whole bunch of information, but it doesn’t turn it into wisdom, and it’s wisdom that we need if we’re going to save ourselves, our souls and this bloody thing here. We need wisdom.
Part One: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1Zcf1maJlE