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
*Update: Please listen to the live interview "Cubby" and I did at his West Hollywood apartment in December 2003. It's more a revisit of two people who knew one another for decades and were catching up. We had talked about wanting to get a documentary of his work done before he died. Some of this audio is in a documentary after he died entitled: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow. A resurgence generated by two of his books made into films, "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Requiem For A Dream" brought a new fan base while paying homage to a man who was largely ignored for many decades, living on welfare and snubbed by the literary elite.
I became aware of Hubert Selby, Jr. after Andy Kaufman gifted me a copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn. I devoured it within two days. I went on to search for and find four of his most known books and felt - like so many who know his work - that somehow this man stepped inside my very being or had been in my house growing up. Andy, then popular in the last year of the hit show, Taxi brought an older man to my 25th birthday party in West Hollywood. The night was packed with people from all walks, the comics came and went with the timing of their sets that night at the Improv or the Comedy Store. Andy entered my standing room only living room with a friend, smiled and introduced him as "Cubby". I offered "Cubby" a drink and he declined. We spoke briefly before Andy couldn't contain himself any longer and giggled loudly saying, "Eva-Marie do you know who this is?" "Yes, Cubby." "No, this is Hubert Selby, Jr. I brought him for your birthday!" I screamed and leapt up and down - the entire party stopped with someone asking if I was okay? "Yes!!! Do you know who this is?!" A resounding, "No." I repeated his name and I yelled out, "He's a rock star!!" Cubby roared with that cackling laugh of his. Instant friends.
Cubby would move me many times over the years - we kept in touch infrequently as friends in LA do while trying to survive, have relationships, family, keep a career going or beginning - in my case. I've never forgotten his laughter, his wisdom and I will always miss what I lovingly refer to as "my raging Ghandi."
The audio is below his photo - relax, enjoy a truly remarkable human being who I was fortunate to know. It covers much of this piece and more, Jim Carrey playing Andy, what Andy was like, his outlook on so many things.
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.