Terre Haute is a two-person play set on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. The man on death row is Harrison, “lean and with a light brown brush-cut,” but he’s clearly modeled on Timothy McVeigh—he’s about to be executed for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 5. He’s visited in jail by an urbane American named James, clearly modeled on the author Gore Vidal, who says, regarding Terre Haute and America generally, “If I had to live here, I’d become a terrorist, too.” In reality, McVeigh and Vidal never met, but they did correspond by mail, the basis for some journalism Vidal did about the bombing. In this theatrical work, the dynamic between the 71-year-old writer and the 28-year-old criminal is lightly flirtatious and then explicitly flirtatious—they both want to impress each other, but for very different reasons. As we learn early on, the 28-year-old reminds the old man of an ex-lover of his. Earlier this week, White and I spoke by telephone.
When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building, I was a teenager, and I remember seeing him on TV—I thought he was as handsome as a movie star.
Edmund White: I think so, too. I always had sexual fantasies about him. It’s that he looks very masculine with that huge Adam’s apple and those intense eyes.
Gunshot eyes, you call them in the play.
Yeah. Right. And all that willfulness. But in his own way, he was kind of an intellectual. He really had a point of view. He wasn’t like a lot of dumbass people who believed the same things he believed in. He was really moved by the nightmare at Waco. That’s what really set him off. He was from upstate New York, the same world that Joyce Carol Oates comes out of—very poor white people. Rural people. And usually quite decent and idealistic. And anyway, I think he was so upset by the Gulf War and all of our atrocities there—and then when he got back, he was just penniless and treated in the bad way that so many GIs are treated. I’m not trying to justify him. I hope you get the feeling from the play that he committed unforgivable atrocities. But I do think he had a point of view, and he had thought about it a lot. But, you know, this is the play that Gore Vidal sued me for.
Yeah, why did Gore Vidal sue you?
Well, I mean, I talked to him about it originally, and he was very helpful and nice. And then I showed him the play, and I told him he had to approve of it in writing because the BBC wanted to put it on the radio but wouldn’t put it on if he disapproved of it. So he sent a fax that said it was fine with him. And then the next day, he went into hip surgery, and was on all these drugs, plus the fact that he was drunk every day by noon, and he’d forgotten he’d said all this. Then suddenly, I get a call from a journalist in Canada who said, “I’m sitting here with Gore Vidal, who says he’s gonna sue you.” So my first remark was “That’s silly—he’s already given me permission.” But it dragged on and on. I wrote a long letter in which I reminded him we’d met in 1974, and he’d blurbed Nocturnes for the King of Naples in 1978, and I made it almost sound like he was a mentor, which he never was. But I wanted to appeal to his humanity. So after that, he never bothered me again. Do you think his reputation will last?
Gore Vidal’s? Well, he said some saucy things, and we all love an insult.
That’s true. And some of his essays are very clever, but I think the novels are like taxidermy—those big, fat historical novels. I think he was bitter because he could sense his novels wouldn’t be ranked very high. And I remember going to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and paying $10 to hear him talk, and he only talked politics. He never talked about art or literature.
Whereas you’re not really a politics guy.
That’s true. But I sort of boned up. The way this whole thing started was I had a boyfriend who looked like Timothy McVeigh, who was an actor, and he asked me to write him a play. So I thought, “I can write that, I guess.” But I couldn’t really think myself into it. But when I discovered Timothy McVeigh had a correspondence with Gore Vidal, I thought: Gore Vidal I can understand a little better, he was a Europeanized American and gay, and I’d met him many times, and I knew people in his world, so I thought, “Well, I can write it that way, I guess.” So then the play—like everything in my life—it had to do with flirting.
Does a lot of your literary imagination come out of lust?
Yeah, I think so, I definitely think so. It’s what irritates people about me. I think I’m a fairly good writer, but I’m not that well-known, because of what I call the cock-and-balls problem. People don’t want to read about it. People have gotten really puritanical. Or not that, but hypocritical. All the gays are getting married and adopting children and pretending to be respectable members of the PTA—and they’re all on Grindr constantly. Don’t you think? I think boys will be boys, and all these gays who are trying to be so domestic and respectable—well, the animalistic comes out of them every once in a while.
You’re far more likely to share some bit of sexual gossip than you are to share your views on the Bill of Rights.
I guess so. I think gay men of my generation felt so alienated from the culture that they didn’t feel like participating in the political process. I remember all my straight friends were so worked up over Watergate, and I was just completely indifferent to it, because I thought, you know, it’s not my government, because gay people those days felt so isolated and alienated from the country.
Do you think Timothy McVeigh was gay?
No, no, I don’t. I just kind of wrote the ending the way I did because I thought he could be accommodating to the Gore Vidal character without having to put out.
You let Gore Vidal have what Gore Vidal probably wanted.
Yeah. That’s what I thought! But he didn’t take it that way. But Vidal had very extreme politics toward the end of his life. I softened all that and made the character seem more reasonable, but he really had more radical views than I do, or than more reasonable people do. He really thought armed revolution was a good idea in America, and I don’t know, the outrage of Waco and Ruby Ridge and all those things that got those gun nuts worked up in America—he sympathized with them. And [I imagined for Terre Haute] that the McVeigh character wants to get his side of the story out. McVeigh spoke very little during the actual trial. He very seldom defended himself. He’d probably been instructed by his lawyers not to talk very much. So he didn’t present his point of view very well or very copiously. But I thought it’d be interesting to have him want to get his story out through this writer who’s infatuated with him.
This production of Terre Haute seems especially timely now with that botched execution of the prisoner in Oklahoma a few weeks ago.
I was so shocked by that. And Texas is going to forge ahead. They kill more people than anybody and they’re proud of it. They stayed the execution not because the death method was deemed cruel and unusual, but because the guy was deemed retarded. But they had files dating back years and years showing that he was retarded, but they had never bothered to produce those. But just at the last minute a psychologist tested him and found he had a 70 IQ. And the Supreme Court is the body that decided you can’t execute retarded people. So the means of execution is already a nightmare—European manufacturers, who are the source of the lethal drugs, decided they didn’t want to sell them anymore to America because they disapproved of the death penalty. So all these efforts are states trying to approximate those drugs and not getting the formula right.
Did the guy you wrote this play for like it?
Oh, well, he broke up with me. But he did like it. And he performed it on the BBC. He was American, but he performed it on BBC with Ian McKellen—they aired it on the radio—and then he and Ian McKellen led the gay parade that year, in front of about 100,000 people. This guy had that kind of Timothy McVeigh look—skinny and blond and tall and kind of butch.
I love that you wrote it for a man you were seeing.
You’d probably do it, too.
Both of these characters are sort of using each other. A writer is always selling someone out.
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s something very treacherous about writing. Even in my latest book, Inside a Pearl, about Paris, people I’ve written about—that I thought were fairly positive portraits—have felt very betrayed and denounced me.
And you had a feud with Susan Sontag, who was the basis for a character in a novel of yours years and years ago and stopped being friends with you after that.
We had a huge feud that went on for like 20 years, but that got kind of resolved shortly before she died. I was in a restaurant with some friends, and I saw this guy on the other side of the room who was a friend from Paris, and I went over to say hi to him, and then I realized, Whoops! That woman with a gray crew cut is Susan Sontag, who’s just gone through chemo, and that woman is Annie Liebovitz, and there was some other dyke there, so I went back to my table with my tail between my legs. And all of a sudden, Susan was standing there, saying, “I hope you don’t think I was ignoring you because of our silly little feud.” And I stood up, and she embraced me. I think she knew her days were numbered, and she didn’t want to waste her energy on having a feud.
How is it possible you are so prolific? It’s amazing.
[Laughs] Well, I’m always broke. I do it for the money. But Terre Haute I never made any money off of. It’s been done all over, but I think I’ve made a grand total of $300 from it. I’m aware of time’s winged chariot. I am 74 years old. You start speeding up when you get older.