Hubert Selby Junior on Writing

My road to Hubert Selby Junior was an inconspicuous one. It actually started with an edition of Bizarre magazine — which if you don’t know is a kind of Trash/Outrage mag of the 90s which targeted anything extreme — from body modification to diseases to hard edge news stories, always featuring some gorgeous Suicide Girl-type model on the cover.

Yes — pixels

I kept this particular edition, not fully read, propped on my bedside table to encourage me to go running everyday. I can’t remember if that worked, but one day I noticed it contained an interview with Hubert Selby Junior. I’d seen — and like everyone else, never forgotten — Requiem For A Dream, so I started reading. In the interview, [Selby] said something along the lines of

“Stop judging your insides by other people’s outsides.”

In other words, everyone always looks so relaxed and together, and inside you feel like you’re falling apart. Stop doing that. After all, someone is looking at you thinking you’ve got your shit straightened right out but we know the truth.

After that not insignificant revelation, I got on Amazon and ordered a few of his books, Requiem amongst them. I’d enrolled on a Journalism degree at the time and was in my first week. The book arrived. I read the thing in two days. On the third day I switched my degree to Literature. I studied Literature for about two weeks and after realising it wasn’t going to feature the complete works of HSJ , I reverted back to Journalism. But this goes someway to showing the impact that book had one me. I simply did not know a book could be written like that. Then I read Last Exit To Brooklyn — the one the UK created the Obscene Publications Act for. I didn’t know a book could be written like that either. Then The Room, and the same reaction.

I get he is considered by some to be one of the all-time great American authors — yet I still have no idea why he isn’t talked about more. Part of the DVD of Requiem contains the most extraordinary interview between the man himself and Ellen Burstyn (played Sarah Goldfarb in Requiem). I must have watched that interview thrice as many times as the movie. For within that interview are revelations that in his words , you feel “with every cell of your soul”

I’ll stay focused on the writing but honestly to get the full impact, time is needed — a whole 20 minutes — to sit and watch the interview. If I could splice some of the words into a daily waking mantra, I would. I really should.

Here’s the excerpt:

Hubert ‘Cubby’ Selby Jr

(Talking about the spiritual experience he had in the aftermath of WW2)

HUBERT SELBY JR: “I knew that someday I was going to die. And it wouldn’t be like what had been happening — almost dead, but somehow I stay alive. But I was going to die. And just before I died, two things would happen. Number one: I would regret my entire life. And number two: I would want to live my life over again, and then I would die. And that terrified me. Oh, what a thought! To live your whole life — whatever it is, 60, 80 years, 135, whatever — and at the end you look at it and say, “I blew it. I blew the whole thing.” And then: WHEET! ZAP!

So I had to do something. I had to do something with my life.

I knew I could never go to school. I mean, I finished the ninth grade — I’m not totally without schooling, but that was enough for me to know that I just can’t take it. So I knew I could never be a composer or anything that required me going to school. But I knew the alphabet. So I figured I could write. Sometimes distortions and insanity and arrogance — all these things can work to your advantage. But I didn’t know.

ELLEN BURSTYN: But why writing? Why not painting?

HUBERT SELBY JR: I realize now that I’m a writer. That’s why. But I had to come to that conclusion in my own erroneous and serendipitous kind of reasoning, you know. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I can’t draw a straight line. I have no talent. I’m probably the most untalented person that has ever lived. I don’t have any natural abilities. None whatsoever.

ELLEN BURSTYN: How can you be a writer and not have natural ability for writing?

HUBERT SELBY JR: By sitting down and writing every day of your life. Until you’ve learned how to write.

There is is — 15 words and the best writing advice from someone who made writing something I didn’t even know it could be.

HUBERT SELBY JR: By sitting down and writing every day of your life. Until you’ve learned how to write.

Full interview :

Hubert Selby Jr / Ellen Burstyn ‘Memories Dreams and Addictions

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