|Illustration by Santiago Uceda|
[Editor’s Note: Hubert Selby Jr. died Monday, April 26, at his home in Highland Park. What follows is “Why I Continue To Write,” a piece he wrote for the Weekly’s literary supplement in 1999.]
I started writing because I wanted to do something with my life before I died. I still do.
I went into the hospital in 1946, with advanced tuberculosis, and altogether I spent three and a half years in the hospital. By the time I got out I had had 10 ribs removed, one lung collapsed, a piece of the other one removed, and there were some severe complications from an experimental drug that was used to keep me alive. During these years I was given up for dead several times. One doctor told me that I could not live, I just didn’t have enough lung capacity, and I should just go home and sit quietly and I would soon be dead. Now, I am blessed with a rotten attitude, and my response to statements of this nature is, Fuck you, no one tells me what to do!
Anyway, I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn’t be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. The thought that I would live my entire life, look at it and realize I blew it forced me to do something with my life. This did not make me a writer, but provided the incentive to discover that I am a writer.
I wrote every night after work, struggling to learn how to write, and at the end of six years Last Exit to Brooklyn was finished. In 1964, thanks to Barney Rosset and others at Grove Press, Last Exit became a huge success. There were interviews, articles, photographs, all manner of publicity (positive and negative), and it was all very intimidating. What was frightening was the responsibility. I was unaware of this at the time, but in retrospect I can see that it was relatively easy to write when no one knew I was alive. The world had no expectations. But when the world is watching you, and you believe, in your heart, that you are really worthless and someday they will find out, the pressure is unbearable. I simply withdrew into a shell, and didn’t write for six years.
And then I began writing again. Since Last Exit I have published five books, and my life has gone through many changes. In 1988, the movie version of Last Exit once again brought a lot of attention. This was followed by more obscurity, broken occasionally by my association with Henry Rollins. The strange thing about all this is that I am still here, and periodically I publish another book.
Unfortunately, a great deal of my energy is expended in just staying alive, which doesn’t leave much for the other things. Yet I do keep writing whenever possible. Writing, like any art, is a continuing process of discovering the infinite possibilities of Life. A blank piece of paper can be terrifying. It can also be exciting when ideas, images and sounds come together and sing off the page. For me there is no other experience like it. When I just touch the keyboard a part of me comes to life that at one time I did not know existed.
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.
Hubert Selby Jr.’s most recent book, The Willow Tree, is available from Marion Boyars Publishers.