The third installment of Wes Del Val's excellent interview series on books & reading, hosted by Book/Shop. This time Wes interviews author Luc Sante, a vivid chronicler of the rough edges of society & the characters who thrive there.
One Great Reader No. 3: Luc Sante
I mentioned in my interview with Tosh Berman my wish for an IMDB for the book world where you could search by editor or cover designer or printer or other specific parts of the publishing process. Well nearly equal to “editor” for me (depending on my mood) would be the “blurber”, and I hold none in higher esteem than Luc Sante. Same goes for the book reviews and introductions he’s written. No algorithms for me. Rather, since my early teens, I’ve relied partly upon my seasoned elders with good taste to guide me and I note below that Luc’s judgment has always served me well, as I know it has for many others.
He’s given us the classic Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991) and the future classic The Other Paris (2015) and I believe both will continue to be read for decades to come. Forty years ago he started in the mailroom at the New York Review of Books, then assisted co-founder Barbara Epstein for a few years, and I would LOVE to read a memoir about his time there woven in with a personal history of the paper’s cultural significance. He wasn’t allowed to graduate from Columbia University due to several incompletes and outstanding library fines—that is one great reader! And it’s not Luke Santay. Don’t say it like an American. Just pronounce his social handle @luxante and you’ve got it. - Wes Del Val
WDV: What’s a bestselling book about New York City that deserves all the praise?
LS: Gotham by Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows. It’s the definitive New York book for our time. I haven’t yet made it to the second volume, by Mike alone, but hope to before long.
You’re one of my favorite blurbers and I’ll gladly look into any book with your name attached to it. Does or has anyone ever done the same for you?
The late John Ashbery played that role for me. He may have been slightly over-generous in his poetry blurbs, but whenever he recommended a book of prose I knew I absolutely had to read it.
Speaking of, how many requests would you say you get each year to blurb? And how many are not for books having to do with urban hip, underclasses, and/or NYC and Paris historical life?
At least thirty or forty. I refuse all New York history requests, because that line has receded into the deep past for me. But I get sent all kinds of things: graphic novels, academic monographs, mysteries, memoirs, novels in translation—almost everything short of self-help and business.
You’re given a year to write a biography about anyone who doesn’t already have one and have to rely on a) what you already know about them and b) only two published books. Who do you choose and which books are assisting you?
The most interesting and eminent person I can think of who has not yet been the subject of a proper biography is Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944): poet, playwright, photography critic, anarchist, performance artist, movie actor, all-around eccentric. The two books are his own The Valiant Knights of Daguerre and Gene Fowler’s Minutes of the Last Meeting, which covers his last years in Hollywood—but between them those two only cover about 20% of his life and career. A tough question.
You see, this is why I rely on you, Hartmann is a new name to me and you already make him sound fascinating.
What was the first book you read when young which made you feel like an adult?
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, which I plucked off my father’s shelves when I was 12.
What was your first day like when you worked at the New York Review of Books? And your last?
On my first day at the NYRB, in 1980, I was basically feral, with little knowledge of the world, but I was starting in the mailroom, which was familiarly ungroomed and ad hoc. I quit four years later, on my thirtieth birthday, determined never to have a full-time job again. In the meantime, after three years as Barbara Epstein’s assistant, I had become a professional writer and had learned an enormous amount about life. I may not have been quite ready to support myself by freelancing—I starved for a few years—but I was a different person from the one who started there.
Did you keep any galleys from your time there which you’re particularly pleased to still have all these years later? I’m surprised there were never any book avalanche casualties in that office.
Nope. When I moved into this house twelve years ago and was thinning out my library, I made the semi-arbitrary rule: no galleys. So I sold them all.
What’s a topic from the past 50 years which has gone under-reported but would find a captivated audience if a rich oral history of it were published?
I would like to see an account of some of the many extraordinary lives cut short by AIDS. There have been many books about AIDS, but so little on the people who would have been significant in art and society had they lived longer. Offhand I can think of dozens of people who fit that description but whose names return nothing in a web search today.
Any facts you learned later which you’re sick didn’t make it into either Low Life or The Other Paris?
Well, ten tons for Low Life, because I really didn’t know what I was doing or how to conduct research—although it was never meant to be a history book properly speaking, but rather a somewhat impressionistic literary evocation. But when I learn that historians think that the Dead Rabbits, e.g., were probably an invention of the newspapers, it makes me rethink the entire undertaking. As regards the Paris book, nothing major, although to this day I keep turning up small piquant details that would have been nice to include.
Which non-fiction book do you most wish there were a volume two?
I wish Nick Tosches had followed Dino with a biography of Jerry Lewis.
Who are your favorite writers who only wrote one book, but it was a fabulous one?
I immediately want to say Michael Herr, although he did write a couple of other books--they just weren’t anywhere near Dispatches in scale or ambition. So I’ll say Jacques Yonnet, author of Rue des Maléfices (available in a so-so translation as Paris Noir) an astonishing book about the intersection between the occult and everyday life during the Occupation. Oh, also my late friend Louis Sarno, who wrote Song from the Forest about his life among the Ba’aka pygmies in the Central African rainforest. He never succeeded in interesting publishers in a follow-up.
Do you have any exciting tales of coming upon coveted books discarded on a sidewalk?
Sometime around 1978, before there were street vendors who’d scoop up such things, I came upon a box on Second Avenue that contained Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist in its original Mother Earth edition, published by Emma Goldman on 13th Street, as well as a first edition of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.
I think bibliographies are highly underappreciated, I often begin there when starting a book I’m excited to read and over the years I’ve picked up countless leads I’d not know about otherwise. Looking over your shelves right now, which three books have been most valuable to you bibliography-wise?
It’s striking how few books I cherish contain bibliographies, so I have only two, rather obvious answers: Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York—I read every single work in his list—and Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: its immense biblio- and discography, which expands with every succeeding edition, is an entire education unto itself.
What books have been on your to-read list for the longest and at this point you think you may never actually get to them?
Oh god. Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, Frances Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Christina Stead’s House of All Nations, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.
You get to drive across America from coast-to-coast in any year and with two other writers living at that time. Which direction do you go, what year is it, and who is traveling with you?
East to west, 1933, Nathanael West and S. J. Perelman.
What is the best piece of writing you’ve read online so far this year?
I really can’t read much sustained writing on a screen, but Hua Hsu’s “What We Lost in the Chinatown Fire” (newyorker.com) made me cry.
Reader, follow that blurb. Thank you Luc!
Luc Sante in the basement of his Kingston, NY home, from the NYT.