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February 22, 2011


CR Interview: Alexander Theroux On Edward Gorey

imageEdward Gorey would have been 86 years old today. Gorey has only intermittently been accepted by the world of comics -- an exhibition here, a place on a list of popular or influential comics there -- despite making book after book of mordant, morose and insanely funny work that obviously encompasses both major, working definitions of the medium: sequential narrative and verbal/visual blend. The writer Alexander Theroux's recently re-released The Strange World Of Edward Gorey engages with the life and art of a unique and admirable individual in a sprawling, non-linear way stuffed with hidden treasures in terms of detail, insight and language. I was pleased that he agreed to speak to me about both book and man. -- Tom Spurgeon

TOM SPURGEON: One thing I noticed during research is that Mr. Gorey passed away the year the original book came out.

ALEXANDER THEROUX: That was a complete coincidence. I remember getting a phone call from a friend of his in 1999 saying that he died. I couldn't believe he died at 75 years old. He never did athletics, he had a bad heart, he had diabetes. When I first met him in 1972 he was kind of heavy, but he had lost a lot of weight. It just so happened that I had been writing that book. As a matter of fact, I was going to go over and show it to him. Read him parts of it. It was a complete coincidence that it was published the year that he died.

I didn't really see a lot of him the last seven or eight months of his life. He became very busy doing these plays. I was also teaching at Yale at the time. So I was gone for most of the week. To make a long story short, in the drives from Cape Cod to New Haven and back I used to think a lot of things about him. I always thought he was a subject worthy of a small memoir. It just happened to coincide, his last year and that book.

SPURGEON: What kind of source material did you have? You had the 1972 interview that you did, of course. Had you done other formal interviews? Did you keep notes over the years?

THEROUX: I was asked in 1972 by Esquire to do an article on him. That was the beginning. I was always interested in him. The source material was nothing but talking to him and my own reveries.

SPURGEON: The structure of the book is remarkable, I think. A lot of memoirs, a lot of biographies, they tend to be much more straightforward than this one. This is very elliptical, but it never seems like it rambles at all. I wonder how you approached that.

THEROUX: You've seen the second book, the hardcover, right?

SPURGEON: Sure.

THEROUX: Gary [Groth] asked me to expand on the paperback. I didn't know I was going to add to that. I originally typed that manuscript. I got the paperback on-line, and started to see where I would expand it. That's why it's occasionally repetitious. If there was a paragraph on what Gorey collected, I would build on that for the hardcover. So we never really foresaw that it was going to be a much longer book. But once I got the bit between my teeth in looking at him, I had remembered a lot of things and interviewed a lot of people... it just builds. Since the hardcover has come out, I had about 20 new thoughts about him. Recollections, new things, that come every day.

I wrote several books on color, primary colors and secondary colors, and in a way they're kind of jazz riffs on the colors. You know? There is no real A to Z or particular chronology to those color things, they're really jazz riffs on the colors, serendipitous at the same time. With Gorey, there's no actual sort of floor plan to that book, I basically tried to travel from when he was born in 1925 to when he died, but with a lot of recollections in between. I stop time a lot of places to make a digression. That probably irks a lot of people, but that's the nature of my writing. My novels are pretty much like that, too.

SPURGEON: Was there any feedback after the paperback was published that led you to make changes in the hardcover?

THEROUX: I never heard anything back from the paperback. I never even thought anybody read it. I never really knew anybody that read it.

SPURGEON: So these are mostly your own continued thoughts on the subject matter.

THEROUX: These are solely my own thoughts. His nephew gave me some information, but I found that I knew much more about him than anybody I talked to. For instance, I was going to talk to several people at the Gorey Museum. I had a hard time getting in touch with them. Then I realized that these people really came along late. That was originally his house. I thought, "Bugger it, I'll do my own spade work." And that's what happened.

imageSPURGEON: Gorey had a very strong fan base, very devoted fans. They must react to something in his work, but it's not something that connects to the artist you describe.

THEROUX: First of all, people don't know anything about him. The one service I do provide is something about the man, because every book on Gorey is all about the macabre. "He wears a beard." "He has rings." "He's eccentric." You get the same baton passed along with everybody. It wasn't particularly on my mind when I began this book, but nobody that knows him has ever bothered to write about his personality, what he collects in various details. There's a guy writing his biography that's on the Cape right now. I'm going to talk to him probably sometime this weekend. I told him there are whole areas of Gorey I never touch, like his parents. Stuff on his father, stuff on his mother. His father remarried that woman that was in Casablanca. There's a whole world available to a biographer that I never get in touch with. Friends of his from all over the country, people in California, the whole New York Edward Gorey. There's tons more to know about that man.

I just kind of went along having known him for 30 years in the Cape, my little visits to his house and that sort of thing. I make comparison to Aubrey Beardsley and WH Auden. He proclaimed that he had memorized all of WH Auden. You probably read the book, but I went into the things about Beardsley and Auden. As I say, there's a whole world. There would be a lot of work, because there are a lot of things about that man. He was very complicated.

SPURGEON: Is there any worry from you that these aspects of his life may not get explored because of your work, that your work focuses subsequent attention on a certain number of aspects about his life at the expense of others?

THEROUX: Every book that's connected to him, things about his pictures, I've always been completely dissatisfied. Often they've quoted me: quoted my article in Esquire in 1973, or quoted the paperback. But I've always been kind of disgusted that nobody ever bothered to get to the man. He did many interviews, but he never descended into particulars. I always thought people covered the same old path when they wrote about him. I know there are a lot of new things I've said about him that nobody's ever said or seen.

SPURGEON: He seemed to be not interested in presenting himself a certain way.

THEROUX: I mention in this book that there were several Goreys. If he was very well-rested and well-fed and happy in an interview, what he would give you was a lot more fun. I think he would gauge his interviews with how intelligent or interesting, how comfortable he was with the person doing it. I've seen him do the same old thing: "What are your books about?" "Oh, I don't know." I've seen him give perfunctory responses. I remember many conversations where we'd be talking about fascinations of his that had nothing to do with his books. As I say in the book, he didn't like flattery, he didn't like to talk about his books. He certainly didn't like to talk about the meaning of them. He hated gushing. Mostly he wanted to talk about movies and books. He didn't get biographical. I knew him for so many years, but I never even asked him questions about his sexual preferences, or about his mother or his father. I didn't think it was my right to know any of that.

imageSPURGEON: One thing that comes through is that you admired the way he operated as an artist, the focus and even the disconnect he brought to his work.

THEROUX: I totally admired the way he worked. He'd get up in the morning, he was very productive. And then he would stop at 1:00 to watch soap operas. I think he gave away the afternoons. Most nights he went to the movies, and would see anything. He watched a lot of television in the afternoon. He was always diligent about work, every day. He gave away every morning to working. He was a serious artist.

One of the points I also made is that he got very little recognition in his life for what he did. I always thought it was kind of shocking. It's really amazing. This is 2011. He's been dead 11 years, and there's been no biography of him. It's kind of shocking to me.

SPURGEON: Is there a general reason why you think that is? Is he a hard person with whom to connect?

THEROUX: People want to read Stephen King novels. I don't think, first of all, that the publishing industry is really with it. I think we live in a very slovenly age and it gets worse by the year. People just aren't interested. People that work in publishing are not acute. A really good publisher should have nailed someone, even called me, and said, "Would you like to write a biography of him?" There is a man writing his biography right now, as I said, I'm going to talk to him this weekend. You'd think the publishers would get off their ass and say to someone, "We want a book about this man." But they're all chasing Justin Bieber. The era of good books and intelligent editors and really awake agents I think is gone.

Even in my lifetime I've seen such slovenliness in the American world. It's a lazy country. People walking around malls in baseball hats, not doing anything. There's such a slovenliness that's taking over America. Gorey was very down on the way things were. He was very satirical about the morons in the public eye. Part of the joy in talking to Edward Gorey was to delight in his sarcasm, his sardonic asides about everything.

SPURGEON: You see that also in his work.

THEROUX: It was much more controlled and boxed in his work. His books are little art objects. he was ready to fulminate against many many things. Political, religious, economic excesses of the world. There was a decadence about him. He inherited the satirical quality of Beardsley. People like Harold Acton, the 1920s, the Edwardian era. He was in the tradition of the sardonic.

SPURGEON: When you speak of the Edwardian Era in the book, was there a time when the interest in the virtues of that period was at a higher point in the culture, or was that always an odd, arbitrary choice of Gorey's?

THEROUX: I was telling someone the other day, there a division in the 20s and post WWI era, especially growing up in England. I think Gorey inherited this. There were the athletes, the muscular types -- on one side of the tennis court, as it were. Then there were these kind of fey, bright young things on the other side of the tennis court. There has always been a kind of mocking, derisive look that they took regarding each other. I think Gorey grew out of that kind of gay interest, that fascination with '20s movies, '20s styles; there's a tradition, I think. He was unhappy in the military and when he was at Harvard he was always in an artsy world. He went to the ballet every night in New York. He was almost a caricature of that Ronald Firbank type of character. He was very fey. He didn't hide any of that.

I'm trying to think of the center square from Hollywood Squares.

SPURGEON: Paul Lynde?

THEROUX: Yeah. He was very Paul Lynde-ish. That sardonic, slightly ghoulish wittiness. I would pick Paul Lynde as a very Goreyesque person.

SPURGEON: [laughs]

THEROUX: In his books he was much more controlled. He was obviously less loose in his books. He loved to puncture balloons. I mentioned that book The Beastly Baby. He always had a kind of anti-family theme in his books. The Beastly Baby is a good example of the kind of excess that he was willing to make.

SPURGEON: One thing that's always been curious to me: do you have any idea of what constituted the genesis of a book to Gorey? From reading your book I have an idea of the process, how he executed his books once he started them, but I still feel in the dark about how an idea turned into the beginnings of a book, what he latched onto.

THEROUX: That's a good question. Take The Loathsome Couple, that was based on Myra Hindley and the moors murders in England. He was a big reader of newspaper and the ghoulish things. The Loathsome Couple is an example of something he took from real life, but most of it was little stories that occurred to him all on his own. He put himself -- this kind of tall, elongated bearded figure -- in his books. But I think there's very little connection in terms of this as the source of a story. He loved the idea of Agatha Christie. The Dwindling Party, I think he dedicated one or two to her. Do you know the French writer Alphonse Allais?

SPURGEON: Not at all.

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THEROUX: He loved him, and illustrated several stories of Alphonse Allais. He had this friend Felicia Lamport that wrote poems, in Cambridge, and he illustrated several books of hers. He was given to illustrate books from friends of his and books he liked.

A biographer would have a lot of fun with your question. He had a corner of the world the way that Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Gorey fabricated these little stories and went with them. I used to always tell him in relation to The Unstrung Harp that he should write more. He used to say, "Oh, you say that because you're a writer." I think he would have written a very funny novel.

He did have a kind of lethargic gene, too. He worked all his life, but he had so many interests: television in the afternoon, movies at night, and then the last decade of his life he turned to plays and really got the bit between his teeth in regard to plays. He never wanted to undertake a novel. The phone was always ringing, he had more friends than he would admit to. He had a whole library of CD and video movies. A biographer could have a field day connecting some of his ideas to certain events, but I always thought it was mostly sui generis.

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SPURGEON: You're very precise with your language. In one of your interviews you said, "Making sentences is creating jewelry." As a writer who has that kind of skill in building sentences and then making works out of it, how do you judge Gorey's ability to use words and pictures together?

THEROUX: You see it in other places. Hilaire Belloc was an example of a person who could write well and draw well. Cautionary Tales For Children. There are certain people... I always thought that Al Capp, the cartoonist, I'm not sure how much he wrote of his own, but I always thought the storylines for the Li'l Abner comic strips were good: a lot of wit and a lot of satire.

Gorey inherited a lot of that... I think his fascination with art, castles, topiary and ballet lent itself to a sort of exaggerated writing. Precise, very ornate, overstated sentences. He loved names, he loved crazy verbs. He was a real rhetorician. Like I said, that led me to ask him why he didn't write more. He had great talents in both.

I'm sure you know this, but his illustrations were amazing. I've gone to several shows of R. Crumb. Crumb's a genius, but I'm always amazed by how much whiteout he used in his drawings. I have several Gorey drawings. I used to see the things he threw away in his wastebasket, and sometimes I would ask him if I could have it if I was there for an hour talking to him. His artwork was really impeccable. It's amazing how good a writer he was and how good an illustrator at the same time. I'm always amazed that people didn't badger him a lot for his art.

imageI know that he was very frustrated. He told me several times that The New Yorker had several covers of his work and didn't run them for five or six years. I was always amazed that The New Yorker would be blase about a Gorey cover and not run it as soon as they got it. I never thought he got the respect that he was due. He won the tony for the Dracula set. He did the drawings, the original mark-ups for the Mystery! television show. I always got the impression that it was a little too late for him. "Where were you back in the '60s?"

SPURGEON: Would you have any idea why comics people have been so slow to embrace Gorey as a maker of words and pictures?

THEROUX: I honestly couldn't say. I first saw his work in England in 1970. I was amazed to find out that he was still alive and in fact lived in the Cape. In the summer of 1970, 1971 maybe I found out from a bookseller he lived in the cape and I went over to visit him. The first time I read Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, do you know that novel?

SPURGEON: I do.

THEROUX: When I read that book, I was teaching at Yale at the time, and I actually called Baker and said, "I love this novel. This is a masterpiece." He was very grateful for that phone call and more or less told me that it went to five or six publishers. I'm getting back to this again, but the point is how could a person read two page of the mezzanine, a publisher, and not buy it? It was published in a very small way. I don't know how a person could pick up a Gorey book, especially in the comic world, the cartoon world, and not immediately be blown away. People are dumb!

imageSPURGEON: The Esquire piece was done at just about the time he did the first of those big paperbacks, the Amphigorey books. That's where a lot of people saw his work for the first time. Did those works change the way people felt about him?

THEROUX: That first Amphigorey book, and they did about three or four more as you know, that gave him a lot of attention. That first edition is worth a lot of money. That's about 18 works of his, and that got a lot of attention.

SPURGEON: Do you have any idea who's in charge of his publishing legacy?

THEROUX: He did a lot of his smaller books in private for Fantod Press. He did some of them in very small editions. He was very generous. If people would go see him, he would give them one or two of them. I never understood why. I'm recalling he was kind of dissatisfied with some of the printing of his books, or that publishers didn't want to do them, but I know that he was dissatisfied with the state of publishing his work.

SPURGEON: One thing I thought really fascinating about the book, something that was widely known of him and something you've even mentioned in this interview: the amount of TV he watched, the amount of pop culture he engaged. Television and film in particular. You suggested that this was an expression of how he engaged with the wider world?

THEROUX: He was one of these people that had to have something flowing into his head all of the time. I have a couple of friends from graduate school, one of them was kind of an eccentric. He had to be reading something all the time. It could be the back of a box of Rice Krispies. He was driven to read things all of the time. It was almost a psychosis. Gorey needed and wanted to know a lot of things. There were whole areas -- sports is a good one -- that he didn't care at all about. Not surprising. Ted Williams, the Red Sox? He didn't really care at all -- any more than a Red Sox fan would care about who's on the docket for the New York City ballet.

I can tell you one truism about Edward Gorey is that he needed to see, he was driven to hear music. He loved Mozart. He was fascinated with the stories of soap operas. I could never understand it. I joined him in a lot of his fascinations: outré literature, certain music. His nephew mentioned this group Phish; Gorey went out and got these Phish CDs. I think he had the time, not having children, not having a wife. These were opportunities a single man could have. I don't think he wanted a family to get in the way. I said in the book that he was one of the few people I've ever known that did exactly what he wanted. Just don't get in his way. He was always heading somewhere. To a movie. He had to have that cultural water floating along all the time.

He thought Golden Girls was hilarious. I mentioned Pamela Franklin, this English actress. He used to rave about her. She was really just this teen-aged girl, talented but... he thought Charlton Heston was a genius. Sometimes, by the way, I think there was a kind of idiotic hyperbole to some of his fascination, he wanted to show the world was upside down. The last thing you would expect is to hear that Charlton Heston is a great actor. Nothing against him personally. I think Gorey loved the iconoclastic mode.

SPURGEON: As someone who has re-examined his works, where would you have people to go to read Gorey? What are the works of his that you think are key to understanding him?

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THEROUX: This is going to sound like a really odd and self-congratulatory answer, but the book that I wrote is the one I think people should read. Do you know Baron Corvo the writer? He was an eccentric turn of the century English novelist. His name was Frederick Rolfe. There's a book called The Quest For Corvo. I read the book one time and it's a great portrait of a really eccentric fellow. He was also a person that Gorey liked to read. Once you read Corvo... Corvo was a really strange, eccentric, Catholic, gay writer. You have to read this book Hadrian the Seventh, a novel. It's a masterpiece. I read The Quest For Corvo, that tells you all the directions to go to read Corvo's work.

To answer your question, which is a good question, and without patting myself on the back, I think reading my book would give you a great portrait of this man and what would be good to know as you approach his work. I can look at the most minor Gorey card or fable or wordless drawing -- I find everything equally valuable. I have no one favorite work of Gorey's, because I just love to see his drawings, I love to read what he writes. Some of the poems are a little silly. Some of his drama scripts are a little thin. But it's all related, it's all part of one rosary. People do have fascinations. Gashlycrumb Tinies is a huge favorite. I can still look at that with enjoyment, I can look through those Amphigorey books and enjoy each one. I think his high point was in the '60s. I think his drawing was the best in the '60s.

There is one book of his I particularly love. It's called... It's a cookbook. I've had a long day. It's a big cookbook. The something cookbook. It came out in the '60s. The drawings are great, the cookbook is fascinating. It's considered a real collectible book. I bought my copy for 15 dollars. That's the one I would single out as totally unique.

He told me his lost his talent around 1990. He was doing a drawing once and said that. I think illustrators get a little loose. I think Crumb's earlier work is better than his later work. I think Gorey's later work isn't as great. Some of his works in the '60s and early '70s are really amazing.

imageSPURGEON: This is a rudimentary question, so I apologize for it, but his books in a lot of ways resemble children's books. Did he have an opinion about that audience reading his work?

THEROUX: He illustrated a lot of children's work. He illustrated Rumplestilskin. Children love his drawing, but you soon see the taste is so much higher. I think you know this, but these flipbooks with the text on the bottom and these drawings, they mime in a way that form of the children's book. When I first started treading him, I thought it was for children. Children see the form, but the exoticism is way beyond children. And once you start to look at his work, you can point at his drawings, and kids will be thrilled with them, the sarcasm and the outré qualities of the book go way beyond that. I'm not answering your question very well. He's often been thought of as a children's illustrators. He did veer off into children's books. He did covers for these John Bellairs books that are really young adult books. But the central Gorey is for fine book collectors.

SPURGEON: I agree with you, but I think children ended up encountering them -- the kids from the 1960s and 1970s certainly did. Did he ever think of that audience encountering his work?

THEROUX: An interesting way to answer that question is if you look at my book, there's a picture of him holding a baby. Did you see that picture? It looks like he's holding a pumpkin [Spurgeon laughs] He was ill at ease with women and children. He once said, "I don't know any children." He did things like The Bug Book, that's a real children's book. The Fatal Lozenge or The Wuggly-Ump, some of those you can give to a precocious eight-year-old. The Lost Lions. Fantod Press. I think he loved to think of himself writing these limited-edition books for passionate Gorey-ites. You could do a whole book like Amphigorey of Gorey's children's works.

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SPURGEON: Are you optimistic that people will continue to come to his work? You seem fundamentally pessimistic about the culture, but do you think Gorey will have a place? Will people still read Gorey a quarter century from now?

THEROUX: I'll answer this by way of saying about my own life: I've written several novels where I thought as soon as they were published I thought I would be famous. I thought that people were going to love them, and they were just given mediocre reviews and went into that back room. I have no faith in the logic of buyers. People seem to want to watch Hannah Montana, and listen to the Black Eyed Peas. I stand incredulous before the tastelessness of the world. It really does apply to Gorey. I'm amazed it's taken so long for him to have attention.

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* The Strange Case Of Edward Gorey, Alexander Theroux, Fantagraphics, Hardcover, 9781606993842, 168 pages, February 2011, $19.99

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* the cover to the re-released edition of Strange Case
* illustration from the Dracula program
* I just like this page
* an Alphose Allais work illustrated by Gorey
* words and pictures together
* a New Yorker cover
* the first Amphigorey book
* a 1967 cookbook cover
* a John Bellairs cover
* one of the small-press books
* a random Gorey panel that amused me (below)

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