Gay author Bruce Benderson is best known for writing about junkies, hustlers, and New York's Times Square, but in his surprisingly sweet new memoir, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, Benderson recounts his obsessive romance with a male Romanian prostitute who refuses to admit his homosexuality. The French translation made Benderson the first American to win the Prix de Flore, a French literary award; the book makes its English-language debut this month.
MERCURY: How would you describe your novel?
BRUCE BENDERSON: First of all, it's not a novel, it's a memoir. It happened. I'd describe it as an exhaustive study of romantic love and sexual obsession. It's a deconstruction of my own case of sexual obsession, until I finally get to understand the real nature of the beloved at the end. There are millions of books, including mine, written by people who were in love. But how many are written by the beloved? I'd hope people would think about that: What are the thoughts of the beloved? That is what I, the lover, tried to understand. This book is also part travelogue. And Americans tend to become a bit land-locked, too mono-linguistic, so I hope this book will introduce Romania in an intriguing way.
There's a moment in your book when Nina Cassian, a Romanian poetess, wonders why so many people who write about Romania write about prostitutes.
I was amazed by her reaction. First of all, there are a lot of prostitutes in Romania. Second, I don't look down on prostitutes. And third, I never question the subject matter or content of a book, I only question how well the content is dealt with or how good the language is.
Why do you think it won the Prix de Flore?
Surprisingly, I had a large female audience for the book in France. Critics said the book was "fleur bleue," which means "starry-eyed." They liked the fact it managed to be that way in a sordid context. I'd already had a fairly extensive career in France for the past 10 years, but this boosted it a great deal.
Being the subject of so many magazine articles, why do you think people enjoy reading interviews?
Here's an amusing anecdote: Shortly after Le Monde did a full-page profile of me, a small zine called Butt requested an interview. It's a gay zine, published in English in the Netherlands, with an international distribution in fashiony boutiques and gay bookstores. I was absolutely exhausted by the time that interview came around, and I arrived a little drunk.
When the interviewer, Gert Jonkers, asked me about my book, I barked, "I don't want to talk about my book, I want to talk about this guy who isn't calling me back!" Jonkers asked, "Why didn't you bring him with you?" and I said, "Because if you two even looked at each other I'd have to kill you both and then commit suicide."
It was all downhill from there. I was outrageous, saying anything that came into my head. The next day, I had a hangover, and I had to pose for photos, and after four hours, when I was exhausted and my defenses were down, the photographer talked me into posing in these transparent net French underpants I happened to be wearing—so I did.
Later, I said to myself, "Oh my God, what have I done? It's obvious I need a rest." I was dreading the publication of the text and picture. Well, as soon as it came out, my email box was full, about 80 messages a day. The interview was a sensation. John Waters, the film director, invited me to dinner. A journalist offered to interview me in the nude. In Paris, I was pulled into bed for two weeks by the very attractive ex-lover of a well-known writer whose name I won't mention.
Why? Because, I suspect, people are tired of synthetic, strategic interviews. They want to feel a real personality when they read these things, and my lack of discretion created that effect. Ninety percent of interviews are shaped by publicity concerns, so when someone finally steps outside the mold—no matter how bizarrely—people prick up their ears.
What do you think about Portland?
Outside of New York, Portland is the only American city I could live in at this point. And it's the only city in America that's preserved some of the old urban values: the importance of multiple class encounters, the importance of street life as opposed to decentralized automobile-focused life (which I hate), the importance of intimacy and community. When I visit Portland it's like a journey into the past, because some of the pleasures that it offers only existed in other cities in the past. I love Portland.
A lot of aspiring or established writers live here—so why don't you?
You should be prosecuted by the Chamber of Commerce for asking that question. Most of Portland's charm and advantages come from the fact that not everybody lives here. Are you trying to turn this town into another New York? Suffice it to say that I've lived in New York for 35 years, and many other writers live there, so I haven't seen a need to emigrate.
Here's an impossible question: What's it like being gay?
I'll bet I've slept with more women than you have.