Don't Take The Last Exit
Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. refuses to die

Born in 1928 in the Badlands of Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. stomped a new asshole in the face of literature with his first novel Last Exit To Brooklyn. Published in 1964 and committed to film a decade ago, it remains one of the most harrowing and influential works of this century.

See also...
... by Lydia Lunch
... in the Dirt section
... from January 21, 2000

With each consecutive masterpiece (The Room, The Demon, Requiem for a Dream, Song of the Silent Snow and his latest, The Willow Tree) Selby forces the reader into an emotional battle where obsession, violence and madness color the scars that bear witness to lessons learned the hard way.

The film version of Requiem for a Dream is due out this summer. Co-written with director Darren Aronofsky (responsible for the wonderfully paranoid film Pi), the movie stars Ellen Burstyn in a story that chronicles the parallel downward spirals of a mother and son who, losing all hope, both succumb to drug addiction: his, heroin; hers, diet pills. "I was on the set for 10 minutes and she already had me in tears," Selby says of her performance.

This interview was conducted under interrogation lights in Selby's Los Angeles bachelor pad.

GETTINGIT: Your books have inspired the last three generations of writers, myself included. Has writing saved your life?

HUBERT SELBY: The basic thing was, it gave me a purpose. It gave me a reason to bother living. I started writing because I wanted to do something with my life before I died. Because I kept dying. It became a way of life. I think that was the most important thing. Everybody needs some reason to live. There may not be a reason for this life, but we all need a reason to live. It has a very therapeutic value. If I wouldn't have written, I might have exploded, who the hell knows.

GI: You enlisted in the Merchant Marines... Why?

HS:It only lasted a couple of years before I got sick. I always wanted to go to sea, there was a war going on, and it became easy for people to lie about their age. Who knows how many millions of kids did... I was 15 when I first started in the New York City Harbor. At 16 I started sailing to Europe. That was 1945. In September of '46 I got pulled off the ship. They said I was going to die.

GI: Most people who caught TB at that time didn't survive.

HS: The stress of the war, the hygiene conditions, lack of nutrition... I was in the hospital for about four years. I had ten ribs cut out, the whole story...

GI: So, if you weren't tortured enough by having TB, multiple operations and being incarcerated in a hospital for four years...

HS: Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but I became institutionalized... any time the world became too much, I could always end up in an institution. The great thing about institutions is that you can bitch and moan and everybody agrees with you, yeah, we've all been screwed. There's no responsibilities, you don't have to worry about anything. Except it interferes with your freedom.

GI: Drug bust?

HS: I got busted in September of '67 for heroin. Boiled down to possession or driving under the influence. Out here in L.A.

GI: You're occasionally painted into the same corner as the Beats. What's the difference between you and them?

HS: When they talk about the Beats, they're talking about 40 or 50 different writers. What I disagree with is the people who called themselves beatniks had the idea that if they just put words on paper, it was good. No technique, no discipline, no craft, no art. Just "I DID IT." If you picked up an instrument and tooted, or threw paint on something, then that's Art. I just don't believe that.

GI: The Willow Tree. Last time we spoke, you referred to it as a 16-year-long incubation. Relief at last? The longest pregnancy on record?

HS: I don't know about that, but I can sure look an elephant in the eye with that one... It was very difficult. The end of something and the beginning of something else. I had to break through somehow. I had the book clearly in mind since 1983. But when I actually started writing, I'd write for a few weeks, then one day I'd get up to go inside and write and I'd get close to the door, but something would just pick me up and throw me out of the room. Sometimes I'd have to try for a few weeks just to get in the room. The actual writing took maybe six months, but it happened over a period of many years. Each time I did get back to work, I had to write my way back into the rhythm of the book because there might be six months to a year between writing sessions. It was originally 700 pages. I had to cut out about 300 pages. It was a strange, painful experience. The most painful book to write.

GI: The main theme of The Willow Tree is that in the face of desperation and violence, one man who has overcome the nightmare of his life and has survived is trying with all his strength to not relinquish hope. Was it difficult as a writer who concentrates on the darker side of life, to detail redemptive themes in a way you as a reader can respect?

HS: The actual writing was not the problem...

GI: Just the ghost in the doorway...

HS: It might be as simple and obvious as my past had me by the fruits and didn't want me to do this, didn't want my freedom. It tried to prevent me breaking loose from the past.

GI: When were you the happiest?

HS: Before I was born....

GI: In the womb?

HS: No, no... that was horrible... That's when I started to die....

GI: Torture begins in the womb...

HS: That's right, man, I started to die 36 hours before I was born. By the time I was born, it was hopeless, I was blue from cyanosis, I had a couple kinds of brain damage, my head was out of shape, it was just extraordinary. My mother had toxemia, she didn't know what to do about breast feeding, the doctor said don't worry, he'll eventually suck out all the poison... so that's how I started life. Pissed off...

GI: The man who refused to die. Are you a dirty old man?

HS: Am I old? I guess I am. I'm 71. I was born a dirty old man.

Lydia Lunch has looked death in the face for four decades and still she refuses to die.