Last Exit to Brooklyn: An Interview with Hubert Selby

By S. E. Gontarski

SEG: Why don't we begin with your assessment of Grove Press?

HS: I'll be sixty years old this year [1988] so everybody certainly from my generation on is indebted to Barney. It's hard to believe that it was not so long ago where D. H. Lawrence was banned in this country. I mean, I can understand the English banning it, after all, he was a commoner with a lady, but Barney brought that about--Henry Miller, Marquis des Sade, Beckett--I mean, how many people, how many people did Barney not only publish, but make their publication possible by other publishing houses? He opened a whole new thing that nobody, nobody thought of. Plus a lot of those reprints, those public domain things that he kept that nobody . . .

SEG: A lot of classic American literature, Herman Melville, Henry James.

HS: Yeah, people were putting him down, because look at this reprint stuff, but he made it available. He was terrific, just absolutely terrific.

SEG: Can we start where you start with Barney, your own writing career, and how you and your work get to Barney and Grove? Can you fill in some of the historical background?

HS: Well, I started writing, and actually I started hanging out with other writers, and so, the main individual in my life has been Gil Sorrentino. We come from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn -we went to the same school, P. S. 102. We didn't know each other then, but when I got out of the hospital around '49, '50, we started hanging out with each other in neighborhood bars. And I used to listen to Gil and other people talking about writers, and I hadn't read a book and didn't know from nothing, and here I am listening to them talking about Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, all these names. And I'd try and remember as many as I could, and the next day I'd sneak over to the library--make sure nobody saw me--I'd sneak over to the library and I'd start reading these guys, and then eventually I started to write, and by that time Gil had gotten in touch with the old Black Mountain people--Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Creeley, and all that--and we all started hanging out. And we started a little magazine called Neon that's become a sort of classic. In those days there weren't many little magazines around, and so we started a few. LeRoi Jones started Yugen and we all kind of worked together on these things.

SEG: All in Brooklyn essentially?

HS: Brooklyn and in the Village. Kind of back and forth.

SEG: What period is this, now?

HS: Let me see, that's a good question. This is the second half of the fifties by now. We started in the early fifties- first started hanging out with them. And then I started writing around '58--no, no, before then--'54, or something like that. I started right around '55-'56. And I'd go over everything I wrote with Gil; he'd read it and we'd go over it. Sometimes we'd spend an hour on a word. That's one of the reasons I can tell you exactly why every syllable is where it is, every fuckin' little letter. And I just kept writing--we all just kept hanging out together, and then eventually every weekend we'd spend over at LeRoi Jones's house, because he always had a big apartment. Then people were reading my stuff, and they liked it.

SEG: Any of it in print yet?

HS: No. We'd just sit around and talk, read each other's things, you know, that kind of stuff. Nothing formal, totally informal. Just the kind of thing you do. And people liked it, and they wanted to help me get it published. Somebody gave something to the Provincetown Review--gave them "Tralala"--I can't remember the guy's name now, who was doing it. And anyway, I had most of Last Exit written; I think it was Seymour Krim had some friends at some publishing house and suggested that they look at it. So I sent them a copy of what I had, and we got together for lunch--two editors and myself--and what they wanted me to do was sign a contract and agree to write a novel, and they would publish this book, because they said, you know, books like this don't sell. That's the way we have to do it. I didn't know what the hell I was doing; I was in a bar that night--the Cedar Street bar--and Roi was there--LeRoi Jones--and I was telling him what had happened that afternoon at lunch, and he said, "Why don't you get an agent?" I said, "Nah, I don't know any agents." As I said, I'd never tried to get anything published. I just wrote. So he said, "Sterling Lord is Jack's [Kerouac] agent; why don't you try him?" So anyway, I called him and I kind of ended going up there with the manuscript and I left it with him. A few days later I went back to his office and he said, "I read your book and I think we can make money together." And I liked that, None of this "I know what it is to be. . . " You don't know fuck about me; you're an agent! So anyway, he sent it to Grove and Barney accepted it. It was a while before it got published; that was one of the problems with Barney. I guess maybe Barney was locked between his desires and dreams and the pragmatics of publishing, I don't know. But he always wanted to do it his way--might take him a while to get it.

So it was a while before I actually got published, but what they did, as I understand it, I'm not certain about this, but by that point Gil was working at Grove, by the time the book was actually published. He was an editor or assistant editor at Grove and he had written like a definitive analysis of the book because he had been reading it from the inception. As I understand it, what they did at Grove, they sent a copy of Gil's critique--guide to reading it--along with the review copies to everybody they sent it out to in the beginning. Which was like a stroke of genius because, you see, I don't think of the last pages of Last Exit as being strange; I don't know what the hell they are talking about. Never having gone to school, I didn't know you weren't supposed to do that. I had read people like Celine and Genet and I didn't know you weren't supposed to do that; they did it. There was nothing new here--Homer did it--nothing new as far as I can tell. So this is what I think--so it gave a lot of these timid reviewers something to work from, a point of reference and foundation, because I noticed that some of them, and one in particular I'm thinking of, was afraid to take a stand, was afraid to say yeah, this is great or this is shit--just really afraid to take a stand. But then there were people like Webster Schott who perhaps wouldn't have needed it, but I think it helped, I think it was a great help.

And then there were some really outstanding reviews, and then what happened--and again, this is my understanding of it--which is really very amusing, Time magazine reviewed it and called it "Grove's dirty book of the month. " Like really attacked the book. Which was nice--it really gave it a lot of exposure. And, of course, a lot of people don't like Time, so . . . And Newsweek I guess might be considered a competitor, and the fellow there liked Last Exit so they gave me a big spread in Newsweek, a review-interview kind of thing, and then there was an interview in the Saturday Review. So it was used by some people to attack Time magazine. It became a big thing. And then Barney took out this big full-page ad in the Times, and I remember they had in big caps, they had a quote from Allen Ginsberg and it was something like: "THIS BOOK SHOULD EXPLODE LIKE A RUSTY BOMBSHELL OVER AMERICA." And that certainly didn't do any harm. Then it had a whole bunch of quotes from people. And they really pushed it. As I understand it, What's-his-name, Nat Sobel, I think, was head of the sales department at the time. I understand they sold out the first edition before publication date. And they really got together and did a job.

SEG: How big was that first run, do you remember?

HS: I have no idea. Maybe it was 6,000 or something. I guess it was the usual thing, whatever that means. But . . . then from there it kind of took off and of course there was a debate in the House of Commons in England, which is a whole other thing. Everything kind of conspired with Grove, all the forces there at Grove seemed to conspire for the success of the book. And it seems like, as far as I can tell, not knowing the business aspects of it, they took full advantage and didn't just sit back and see if the book would sell itself and then take out a little ad somewhere. They really went all out with the book. So it still sells all these years later, after its 1964 publication. So Grove, you know, like really took a chance, I guess.

SEG: Was any of it published before the book version?

HS: "Tralala" was published in the Provincetown Review. They had a court case over that one, too, which was thrown out on appeal.

SEG: That is, the Review had a court case, not with the press, but with somebody that tried to censor the story?

HS: Yeah, up in Provincetown the local court arrested the editor--I've forgotten his name now- for selling pornographic literature to a minor, and it turned out the minor wasn't a minor; he was nineteen years old. Turns out it was all a kind of setup. And the thing was so flagrantly illegal that after he was found guilty in a lower court, the state attorney threw it out, and then the Provincetown Review printed the transcript of the whole trial. It seems to me that something was in Evergreen; there was also something in the Black Mountain Review. I don't know what the hell it could have been. . . . When did Evergreen Review first come out?

SEG: Really pretty early--1957.

HS: Okay, so it was out. I can't think offhand what the hell it could have been that was in Evergreen Review, unless "Baby Makes Three"?

SEG: Well, "The Queen Is Dead" appeared in December of '64, and then you published two other stories later, "Fat Phil's Day" in August of 1967 and "Happy Birthday" in August of 1969. But essentially this manuscript was presented to Barney finished and not very much changed between that time and its publication?

HS: No change at all. That was part of the contract, and that's always a part of my contracts- you can't change anything. They make suggestions and most of the time I take at least 90 percent of the suggestions. I don't want somebody arbitrarily correcting spelling and things like that.

SEG: So you worked primarily at Grove with Sorrentino?

HS: No, no, it was with a young lady--I can't remember her name--she was fantastic, she edited the things. She was marvelous; she made some suggestions that were right on and caught things, you know, that you can't see. I mean the whole thing was like all the gods got together; really, people were so wonderful, really wonderful.

SEG: During this period did you have much contact with Barney?

HS: No, no, never. I think I met him once, but I wouldn't recognize him.

SEG: And where did you go from there, from Last Exit?

HS: Well, the next book was quite a while later. I stayed drunk for about six years. And then, I wrote The Room out here, and that was really a great experience for me because I realized my debt to Grove Press in an indirect way. I had gotten totally screwed up with booze and drugs- didn't even file an income tax-just pretty screwed. And I finally got sober and I got back to writing. I guess this was around the end, yeah, just around the end of 1969, the beginning of 1970-I started writing. Took me six months to write the book and by then I was involved with the IRS. I had gone down to the IRS and told them I owed them some money. Anyway, it turns out that in the contract for Last Exit there was a little thing at the bottom. The last part of a contract, usually the publisher has first refusal on the next manuscript but this also had something about an advance would be paid of such-and-such an amount. I just signed it, but turns out that the little thing makes it a binding contract and I would have to fight to have it published by somebody else. I was given some, I think, inappropriate information; anyway, at the time I owed the government money, and I was told that I could get a whole lot of money in advance on this book from somebody else because of the success of Last Exit. So, I was upset about having to go with Grove and the most they were giving me was $5,000, and by that time Grove had gone through its changes--the movie stuff and whatever that was all about--but Richard Seaver was driving a cab. So things had changed at Grove, and I was upset about it. I did a lot of praying over this thing, trying to figure out, not figure out, but trying to understand the appropriate action for me to take. I was told that I could get a lawyer and I could probably win in court, however long that would take, but what I finally realized . . .

SEG: This is all because you thought the advance was too small at Grove?

HS: Yeah, I was told that I could get like fifty grand from somebody else as opposed to the five grand that Grove would pay me. I was also told that I could go to court and break the contract. But then I finally realized that the only reason someone else would pay me fifty grand for this book--if, in fact, they would--is because of the success of Last Exit, and the reason that Last Exit had become a commercial success was because of what Grove Press had done for me. So I had, for me, an obvious moral obligation to give the book to Barney. So that just resolved the problem, and they published the book.

SEG: And how did that do?

HS: Well, it got the greatest reviews I've ever read in my life. And no one knows that it's been published to this day! It still sells in England--a used copy sells for $75.00, if you've got one. Also, it's the most disturbing book I've ever written in my life . . . that's how I came to realize my real obligation to Grove and what they did for me.

SEG: There are a lot of writers who have felt that--you're not the only one that Grove has really gone to bat for, and many have stayed with Barney because of that.

HS: Barney, not Grove.

SEG: That's right.