By E.M. Fredric
In my lifetime, there hasn’t been one single, blood-thirsty, murdering, head-of-state that we haven’t helped for the most part. — Hubert Selby, Jr., December 2002
Los Angeles, CA - Known as simply as “Cubby” to friends, this frail yet immensely powerful writer evoked emotions that fueled an end to the reign of censorship in British culture. Selby’s powerful prose was written with a sense of pathos, humility and humor, while alternately shocking the reader’s soul in short staccato punches with the grace of a prophet’s fierce moralism and truth. He was America’s conscience.
The only child of a drunken and absent Kentucky coalminer, he and his parents settled in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. Selby survived drug addiction, financial ruin and stood in the shadows of death throughout his life — after having ten ribs and one lung removed when he contracted tuberculosis as a merchant marine in his teens (a WWll veteran) — penned seven novels as well as screenplays, poems and short stories and taught writing at USC. He got sober at age 40 and remained so until his death.
I’m so afraid I may die without finishing my work. That’s a real fear after all the effort I’ve put into learning how to write. That pisses me off. - Hubert Selby, Jr., December 2002
It has been said that Selby liked to wear his red China communist hat when he’d visit the VA hospital to “push their buttons” because he’d been denied his benefits for so long.
Cubby, both friend and mentor, spoke with me for two hours in his West Hollywood apartment in December of 2002. His eyes danced effervescent blue. We both had hoped we could get a documentary made of his work for his family during his lifetime. It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (a line from his book: The Demon) — meant it won’t be, was completed posthumously. A portion of this interview is in the documentary narrated by Robert Downey, Jr. — Cubby would’ve loved that bit of casting irony.
On becoming a writer…
“I had TB and I was supposed to die 3 or 4 times. Dying became a way of life. This so-called specialist came around, he wouldn’t come into the room where I was—he stayed in the hall. He said, ‘You know, there’s nothing we can do for you. You can just go home and relax. You’ll probably be dead in a couple of weeks.’ And THEN, he sent me a bill! (laughs)
I couldn’t stand school. I finished the 9th grade but I figured I could write because I knew the alphabet and I wrote about an incident in the hospital. Then some more spiritual experiences happened where I understood what I had to do as a writer, which can be summed up with that word ‘artist.’ But it wasn’t until 40 years later that I look back on a particular incident in my life and saw that was where I decided to be a writer.”
On being an artist…
“Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it’s no big deal. They are one in the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So, when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this meaningless gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.”
On his creative process…
“I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience. I also knew I’m a frustrated preacher and a frustrated teacher and that has no business being in the work. I didn’t realize at the time, I was talking about the essence of life, freedom from the human ego.
I’m not a messenger. If there’s a message, it’s in the people’s lives. When I wrote ‘Tralala’ (a short story–about a prostitute–that became Last Exit To Brooklyn) it took me 2 ½ years to write twenty pages. In retrospect, I don’t know how to think constructively. I call it thinking, but it’s really brooding. (laughs) It was a maddening six years (to complete the novel) and in order to project these people’s anguish so that the reader can experience it; I have to create these feelings in myself. By the time I’d finish a piece of work - I’d pass out and be in bed for a week or two.”
On his favorite book.. (Many consider Requiem For A Dream to be his masterpiece. Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the film.)
“I loved The Room. It’s the most disturbing thing ever written by a human being. I think it’s a masterpiece to tell you the truth. I couldn’t read it again for 12 years after I wrote it. The Room goes through space and time, reality and fantasy just so easily.”
On being American…
“I’m very, very American and I think I expose raw nerves and the very things people don’t want to exist. I do love this country’s possibilities. However, I am disappointed in its realities from time to time. Number one, what we’re doing to ourselves and others. You can’t separate the two. The other anguish is, we believe we’re right. Not everybody, but it’s heartbreaking. I think perhaps, my work reflects that. That anguish, the justification and the rationalization. I’ve always considered Last Exit a microcosm of this country and I’ve always thought of it as the horrors of a loveless world.
Somehow, I can’t see the richest country in the world having fourteen million children going to bed hungry, starving to death in some cases. What in the heck is that? I don’t believe in handouts anymore than anyone else, but these are children. (The war) It’s about the Holy Grail of profit margins.”
On going from the darkness to the light…
“I’m so afraid I may die without finishing my work. That’s a real fear after all the effort I’ve put into learning how to write. That pisses me off. I try and remind myself that everything changes in the wink of an eye. I always get what I need but I have to say yes to giving it away. It’s so difficult to do, but, if life presents something? I have to say yes and it’s never failed.
I always loved the sea, absolutely loved it and would still be on the sea if I hadn’t gotten ill.”
Selby’s ashes were scattered into the ocean and he’s immortalized through his books, films, and in the documentary, It/ll Be Better Tomorrow.
*Writer's note: Knowing Cubby was one of the great privileges of my life and another huge fan of his work and mutual friend, introduced us - Andy Kaufman. When I showed Cubby the hard copies I had gotten of his books from bookstores around the state, his mouth fell open. Then Cubby gasped in awe and with childish delight - as he gently held the books like sacred treasues - he asked, "Eva-Marie... where did you find these? I wanna sign 'em!"
Hubert Selby, Jr. (July 23, 1928-April 26, 2004) books: Last Exit To Brooklyn, The Room, The Demon, Requiem for a Dream, The Willow Tree, Waiting Period, and a book of short stories, Song of the Silent Snow and films can be found on Amazon.