In 1952, writing as Edgar Box, a young Gore Vidal published Death in the Fifth Position, the first of three tawdry, pseudonymously published mystery novels that boldly defied the era's prudish conventions. With Vintage Crime/Black Lizard bringing the Box books back into print this month, Vidal recalls the circumstances that led to his adopting a pen name. Never one to pull punches, the literary icon also makes some typically barbed remarks about the state of the world as he sees it.
DETAILS: What were the circumstances that led you to use an assumed name?
Gore Vidal: Well, they were dire. In my third book, The City and the Pillar, I described the normality of homosexual relations. The New York Times was always hysterical about sex of any kind, and Orville Prescott, then the principal book reviewer, said that under no circumstances would any book written by Gore Vidal be reviewed there again. Ever. Newspapers have always been lousy in America, but then it could be said that the whole country's been lousy, so who am I to complain about the general condition? Then again, it's my job: to complain about the general condition. Necessity is the mother of invention, and one of mine was writing several novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box. I didn't know much about mystery stories, but I knew enough to work the field plowed by the great Agatha Christie, and so Edgar Box became a big seller throughout the fifties. Not to be mentioned in the New York Times is, I have always thought, a point of honor. So I survived and I notice that the New York Times did not. They can't get any advertising, and I chuckle over that as much as possible.
DETAILS: How did writing under a pseudonym feel?
Gore Vidal: It came as a kind of relief. Because a young writer, when he's loose in the world, is going to reflect the world he sees about him. It might not be altogether a good idea, but what you do do is you develop in public. And one book leads to another, and one expansion leads to another expansion. As you go through life's journey, you come across situations in which you think, "My God, wouldn't that be interesting to write about?" When I got out of the hospital in World War II, my left leg was not working, and in fact I lost the knee. To repair my leg, I spent one winter studying ballet. I not only enjoyed it, but I thought, "My God, what a rich, comic subject the ballet is." The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo—all those dancers crashing around the stage wandering into the scenery in intimate moments, and it was just glorious comedy. And I thought this was stuff I was never going to use in a serious novel, but I think it might amuse some people if I visit it in something comic. And so I did, and that was Death in the Fifth Position.
DETAILS: Obviously things worked out in the end, but were you frightened for your career at the time?
Gore Vidal: Well, I had England. That was a hell of a lot more than the United States, because people could read and write there. They actually knew how to review a book without worrying about the author's sexual status. So I survived around the edges, and then over the years I watched Edgar Box become a hit in France, which doesn't take well to the American product, and also in England, and I think in Germany, too. And it was very nice, you know. Serendipitous is the word that springs to my lips.
DETAILS: You say you were not very familiar with the mystery genre. Were the books difficult to write?
Gore Vidal: Well, I'd read them all. Any writer who knows how to write knows how to mimic. Not a wise thing to do, but anyway, you certainly know how books are put together. And I like the form. Anyway, they kept me alive, those books, for 20, 30 years.
Vidal with authors William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
DETAILS: Have you been following the news regarding the recent shooting in Tucson?
Gore Vidal: Of course I have.
DETAILS: The reason I ask is because of the famous, sympathetic essay you wrote about Timothy McVeigh. Obviously this is a different case in many ways, but I wondered if you had any comment on it.
Gore Vidal: Americans are brought up from childhood to have no curiosity about anything, because they might not like the answer. So we disguise everything for the little tots, and that is why Americans know nothing about anything. But I don't mind that. I mean, there have been many noble peoples on earth who did not know much. What bothers me is there is no interest in learning anything. I thought there would be a debate after I published Timothy McVeigh's letters to me. He had extremely good reasons for what he thought and what he was doing. He was going to show the federal government was in violation of the military strictures that we have against American troops being used upon American citizens, which were integral to our entire sense of the nation. Well, here we are, and we go marching in and slaughter a whole bunch of religious nuts, and damage ourselves in the eyes of the world, and enrage a young soldier war hero in the Gulf called Timothy McVeigh. Do I approve of him killing little children? I say he didn't know he was killing little children. And unlike everybody else dealing with that case, he didn't tell any lies, as far as I could tell. He was just trying to be accurate. He was a real soldier, and I think we were better for knowing him, though I am certainly on the side of his victims. He didn't know that he was killing children, but he knew that the federal government was a vicious and lawless—in the true sense of the word—entity, and the enemy of the people of the United States. Because that is where the dictatorship is going to come from.
DETAILS: In regards to this more recent shooting, a lot of people have been speculating about the possible role of violent political rhetoric, and some have suggested that people should be careful about what they say. What do you think about that?
Gore Vidal: I think they should be careful about what they say to me.
DETAILS: The book you claim got you blacklisted, The City and the Pillar, depicted homosexuals in the military. Were you pleased by the recent repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell?
Gore Vidal: Well, it was terribly idiotic. You know, the Clintons were kind of weird. They were as bright a couple as ever ended up in that dismal White House, but they were pretty naive, and, of course, they went where the votes were. You had a lot of people screaming about how the faggots were going to take over the world and so forth and so on. You know, I lived much of my life in Europe disguising myself, whenever I went forth across the lands, as a Canadian. I just didn't want to get into a quarrel about why Americans were so stupid. I said they are ignorant, not stupid. We have no education for the general public. Just look at it. I used to check every year what they were going to teach the kids. Boy, oh boy, if they're taught that, they don't know nothing.