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 Frederic TUTEN 
 in Conversation

A few months ago Frederic Tuten published My Young Life, his long-awaited memoir about his childhood in the Bronx, his student days at City College, a heady Mexican sojourn, and his settling in the East Village neighborhood that he still calls home. To celebrate the occasion, the two of us spent a few quiet mornings chatting together in Tuten’s walk-up apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park. What follows is the fruit of those conversations.

            Jon Auman

JA. / Now we’re here.

FT. / Should I interview you?

You interview me. You can ask me about my life. It’s one of the coldest days of the year.

Oh, this is one of the coldest days of the year?

I think it’s going to be. Don’t you think so?

Yeah, well it’s like six degrees.

It’s like six degrees... Let’s see. Where do we want to start? I think that when you told me you were writing a memoir I was expecting something else. I’m not exactly sure what, but I think I expected something different. I know a little bit about your life, and I think I was expecting a kind of—I don’t know—a greatest hits, ‘all my best times’, ‘the best nights of my life’. All of that stuff. And then, when I picked up the book, it was something very different. Did you always want it to cover just that period in your life?

No. What happened was that I had started writing an entirely different book. I started writing about people in my life. The memoir is a little like that now, but the first time it was very different. It was sort of essayistic. There were people who meant a lot to me and I wanted to talk about them, and I wanted to talk about my life as I lived it with them, through them. Most of them were very very famous. One was Hergé (Georges Remi), who did Tintin. One was the director Alain Resnais. One was the writer Raymond Queneau, whom I didn’t know very well, but I had a very affectionate, very marvelous relationship with him. He published the French translation chez Gallimard of my first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. And then there were other people, like the writer Paul Bowles. With whom I spent two summers in Morocco teaching in Tangier. So, I have those pieces still. A piece about Susan Sontag. A piece about Peter Hujar. One about, I think, Paul Thek. All those famous types, you know. So, it really was sort of me in the world already doing different things, seeing different people. I think I had called it “Portraits” or “A Mosaic of Portraits.” Some of them were long. The Paul Bowles piece is forty pages. But, I thought that just having these pieces and weaving myself through it in some way would be an interesting book. And then I thought, that’s not my strength. Do you know James Lord’s work? He’s great. He did a book on Giacometti. But he also did a book about women he knew, a book about men he knew. They’re wonderful, lively, engaging portraits. And I realized mine didn’t even have that! And so I’m thinking, “What am I doing here?” I also thought—I don’t know if I just had a revelation, or if it was an epiphany, or what it was—but I also thought, “Fred, what are you doing? There’s things you want to say, people you really want to talk about in your life, and your life. How much time do you have?” It’s very vain perhaps, but I just felt it—I actually felt it. I have no children. I have a wonderful godson, Kenji Yamada. I have friends I love very much. A lot of my friends are dead. All the people I just mentioned are dead. And I loved them. I loved Resnais. We were very close for the last forty years and I loved him and all of his films, the Last Year at Marienbad most especially. He had my name on his doorbell instead of his. It said F. Tuten. You had to know that that was Alain and not me.

I miss them all terribly. But, my point is that I thought—I don’t know if it’s vanity or stupid hubris or whatever it is— that I didn’t want to leave this earth without having left an imprint that showed that I actually lived a life here and how I lived here. I wanted to tell it before there was no time to tell it. I did an earlier draft of this memoir which was a kind of an overview, general stuff.  All the stuff that’s in the present memoir was there, but it had no concentration. It had no affect. It was just the facts. It wasn’t demanding—of me as a writer, or of anyone who would read it. It was a breezy account of my life as a young man. It was Iris Smyles [the novelist] who said to me, “Fred, no. You’re on the wrong track again.” I showed Iris almost 250 pages of it, of this breezy account—the lives and loves of Frederic Tuten. I have to laugh. Iris read the whole thing, and she actually said, “What is this? What are you doing here? What is this book? It’s… Yeah, it’s passable. I’m sure you could even get it published. But it’s not you.” And I owe that to her.

So, I started again. For example, the version I’m talking about, prior to this one, had been: “And then I went to City College, and I studied with interesting people, and among the people that were there…” It was just glossing over everything. Then I came to this point where I thought, “No. Do it as if you were doing a novel. Be detailed. Describe. Go into it. Put your feelings into it.” And I tried to do that. So, that’s why this book took me much more time. I also wanted very much to leave a record of my parents—my mother and my grandmother especially, and my father, who was a runaway father, a complex, interesting scoundrel. I wanted them to come to life again. I wanted them to not just—I mean, it sounds terrible, but I don’t want these people to vanish. I don’t want myself to vanish entirely. Knowing, of course, that everything vanishes. That everything is forgotten. The most famous writers vanish. The most famous artists vanish. I know that. But at least I know I took the chance in doing it, that, whatever comes of it, it’s there—even if it may not be there in two years or one year, six months. You know, there’s a wonderful essay – the conclusion to Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. It’s just called ‘Conclusion.’


I’ve read it about a hundred times. Its cadences, its rhythms, and its sentences are just mesmerizing.i He talks about the need to follow nothing that isn’t germane to you, whether it’s religion, philosophy, etc. Then he has a whole thing about what it is to live and get the maximum pleasure from life. That’s very hedonistic. Which is why the pulpit went against him in England when the book came out. ‘The Conclusion’ was suppressed. I mean he suppressed it. He was frightened. The implication was that you don’t even have to believe in God, you don’t have to believe in religion. You have to live. And that means to burn with a “hard gem-like flame,” as he puts it. Only art, he says, does that. Art offers the longest duration of pleasure. I’ll never forget the line: “Art for art’s sake.” Not didactic or educational. Then he says, “When we’re gone, our place shall know us no more.” That just struck me: “…our place shall know us no more.” That’s it. That is true for even renowned people, famous people—our place no longer knows them––we have lost them. We don’t know them. I didn’t read Pater until I was in graduate school––so, in a sense, he didn’t exist for me. This marvelous, incredible, strange, interesting writer.

People don’t read him.

No, they would think he’s some ancient, creepy guy. But he influenced Oscar Wilde. He was a powerful influence on writers. He’s a marvelous writer. I can’t read some of the longer works. I don’t enjoy them.

I think it was when I read The Adventures of Mao on the Long March…

I have a long Pater quote embedded there.

When I saw that, I said, “Who’s Pater?” And then I immediately went out and bought The Renaissance and started reading it.

There’s a section in the novel where Mao Tse-Tung is addressing his very tired, weary soldiers at night by the campfire. He begins to lecture them, and the whole lecture is a quote from Pater’s conclusion to The Renaissance. I thought that was kind of a funny thing to do.

That’s fantastic.

Mao the aesthete. I thought that was funny.

There are points in your memoir—in those nice footnotes—where you’ll mention, for example, that an aspect of someone that you are talking about showed up later in one of your novels. You jump forward in the footnotes.

Well, I thought the following: many of the people in the memoir are gone, are dead, so really to talk about them in the period that I was experiencing and knowing them is not to give any information about what happened to them. Who are they? What became of them? I thought that maybe I would have it at the end of each chapter as a kind of supplement. Then the great artist David Salle said to me, “I’m never gonna read that. If it’s not on the page I’m never gonna read it.” So I hit upon the idea of footnotes.  For example, let’s be concrete: one of the people in the book, who I really wanted to pay homage to, for how he was with me as a young man, was my professor Leonard Ehrlich. He taught creative writing at City College. I wanted to be sure that I said who he was, what he was, and what he meant to me. He felt himself a failure, and felt himself defeated, which broke my heart—I didn’t know how to change that when I was a young man—I felt guilt. I felt terrible guilt. I still feel the guilt that when my first novel came out, Leonard Ehrlich helped me so much, in so many ways, even financially. When I was studying in Mexico he sent me a check for $25, which was a fortune then, with a note saying “Fred, have a good lunch.” But I felt guilty because, after the book came out, I never sent him a copy, and I didn’t really keep up seeing him.

I think I say it in a footnote, that I thought I was afraid that he wouldn’t like the book because it was exactly the kind of book he would hate, the opposite of everything he worked for and thought about and cared about. Which was, most importantly, as he used to put it, that the work had dignity. He would say of a story or a book: “This work has no dignity.” And he meant that the sentences were careless, or the sentences were, you know, off the cuff, that they weren’t considered, that they were just slovenly, and therefore had no dignity. And thus, as a writer, you had no dignity. So, I thought my first novel, a book of quotations mixed with dialogue and a narrative line, would have made him feel upset. I think I didn’t want to upset him. So I pulled away from him.

I wanted very much to redeem my feelings and my guilt in some way by having him know, in some cosmological way—wherever you are Leonard—that I still love him and miss him, and I’m sorry. I regret that I did that. It may seem a minor thing, but it was an important thing, an unforgivable thing. You have someone who’s worked with you, who reads your work, and then you don’t give them your first book? That’s horrible. But also, I wanted to tell his story. I wanted the world to know that this unknown person, this totally unknown writer—unknown now—still has viability. He’s exciting, and he was interesting. So, a lot of what I wanted to do in the memoir was to say that there are people like that, like my parents, with vital and interesting lives. They’re not famous, but their lives are interesting, and their story is interesting. I wanted to tell that. I wanted that to be on the page. It meant a lot to me. It meant an awful lot to me.

Well, it also seems like you learned a lot from these people. Even in the section about Leonard Ehrlich you talk about seeing, through him, the traps that “perfection” can get you into.

Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Which is a lesson that’s worth learning.

I forgot that we would have so much to talk about. But, going back to what Ehrlich was saying—about the prose not having dignity, that was his greatest condemnation. He was a man who published his first novel when he was 25. He became instantly famous. Suddenly, from obscurity, he was thrust into the highest literary circles. He became friends with Carson McCullers. He knew everybody. And this young genius was supposed to deliver another book that would be just as remarkable, if not better than the first. The burden was terrible for him. As I say in the memoir, he dideventually write a second and a third novel. I was in his apartment and held the manuscripts in my hands. They were there. I read them. I mean opening pages of them anyway. He could not finish the last chapters of either. Now think about that. You think to yourself, “This is crazy.” He couldn’t finish the last chapter? I was nineteen years old. I was in his apartment looking at the two unfinished novels. I was shy. And I couldn’t say to him, “Well, get someone to write the last chapter. Dictate it to someone. Do anything, but finish it.”

He had been in psychoanalysis—that waste of fucking time—for years. For years! To find out why he had a block? I mean, it’s pathetic, it’s sad. But that was the thing then. The fashion of that moment was psychoanalysis. If you had any money, you go to psychoanalysis and spend the rest of your fucking life on a couch weeping and getting nowhere—actually never getting anywhere. Except of course, getting poorer. So, I think the fear I had was of that perfectionist ideal, and not only because of him. I had my own feelings about that. I also sort of believed in it. The work had to be perfect, perfect. Otherwise don’t show it, don’t do it, don’t finish it. And I thought: I don’t want to become like Leonard. So, you’re right. That was part of what that world of being his friend meant to me. It was an avoidance, I hoped, of his mistakes, of his psychological mistakes. He had plenty of time and money to get beautiful apartments. You know, he didn’t only live on his professor’s salary. He had a certain independent income. Every summer he went to Yaddo for three months. I even quote something from Truman Capote in the book. Talking to someone, Capote said, “Don’t become a Yaddo person like Leonard Ehrlich.”

So, the book is also about people like Leonard Ehrlich. I’m glad you brought that up. Someone said to me, “What is a memoir? What happens?” I said, well, a memoir is a curious thing because you’re the writer of it, so you’re the observer of the book, of the situation, of the experience, of the life lived. But you’re also the person who lived it. It’s very odd to be both. As I was writing it—I hoped that it wouldn’t just be my story. “Oh, a young guy from the Bronx wants to be an artist.” Okay. Tough luck. I wanted something that would resonate. That what I lived, what I experienced would mean something to others. Especially young people. That there’s a way, but it’s hard. My life—my young life anyway—was really injured by poverty as a child, and that injury has stayed with me all my life. But it didn’t make me stay injured or frightened. Not too frightened anyway. You can make your way no matter who you are if you do the work and you believe in the work. You have to believe in the work. I don’t mean in your ego. You have to believe in the mission of literature. That sounds pretentious, but that’s what I mean. I mean that there’s something much more than just the words on the page; that you’re part of a world that came before you, an inheritance of writers and poets, and also painters; that you belong to part of it; that you’re not just putting out a well-made product; that there’s something that you reach for that has significance, that touches people because it’s true.

I don’t mean just telling the truth flat out. Remember what Emily Dickinson said. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” That’s a great line. My memoir isn’t just about how I became a writer, or wanted to be a writer. Because I wanted to be a painter when I first started out. But it’s about experience. I look at the back book jacket copy of authors, and it says B.A. from so-and-so college, M.F.A. from so-and-so. Everyone’s gotten an M.F.A. And, I think, well, what do they do for life? Did they just go to workshops? Did they do anything? Did they ever work as a waiter? Did they ever go to sea? Did they ever get a crummy job or even a great job that lead nowhere? I mean led nowhere to their soul, to their dream of being an artist. Did they ever do anything except earn a B.A., M.F.A.? I remember—the exaggeration of one mode to another—in my period, my time, when you’d read the back jacket copy about an author it would say things like, “He went to sea at 18.” Or, “Became a truck driver.” Or, “He was a strike organizer.” I mean, the credentials were all experiential.

Something sexy.

Today it seems that a writer has to have advanced degrees to even get the attention of an agent, let alone an editor. And of course, the more prestigious the university that issues the degree, the greater the attention is given to the writer. I find this disgusting. Herman Melville and Jack London and Djuna Barnes never went to high school.

It once didn’t matter where you went to college. Does the book reflect the quality of experience earned by the person who wrote it? When I say, by the way, that the prose has no dignity, I don’t think either Ehrlich or myself mean that it’s not well made as a sentence.  That’s nothing. That’s just a learned skill. You can create a smooth sentence, a sentence that seems writerly. I don’t care about that. I want life. I want the sentences to have blood in it. I want there to be life in the sentence. I want every sentence to tell me that the person that wrote that sentence had a living thought and feeling about what was being written. That’s what I want. And I’m amazed by what—you know, you’re a writer, you know what happens––you discover in the writing, you might even discover yourself.  And the reader too, might discover himself or herself. 

A big part of the memoir is your relationship to New York, the Bronx in particular. It seems like the city played a huge part in your life. When was the first time that you left that axis of the Bronx and Manhattan?

Ever see the film Saturday Night Fever? It takes place in Brooklyn.  Remember when they talk about “going to the city,” as if it was a separate place, like they weren’t living in New York City? In a way they weren’t. Going to the city meant Manhattan. So, when I was a kid in the Bronx, my idea was that one day I could go to Manhattan. One of the reasons that meant so much to me was because New Directions publishers were there. I was 15 years old. I was trying to paint and write, and write poetry. I thought they were all connected in some way, and they probably are. For some poets anyway, like Wallace Stevens. And I remember sending my poems to New Directions because they had a New Directions Annual, which I used to find in second-hand bookstores on Fourth Avenue. I loved them. I thought they were the greatest thingin the world. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll get published in the annual maybe.” So I sent them these poems, and they were the most pathetically ridiculous, adolescent… I don’t mean sentimental. They were the opposite. They were highfalutin and—how can I say? They weren’t things like, “I’m the man, I suffered, I was there.” They were things like, “Kyphosis of the mind / Is no crime.” That’s exactly a line I wrote. I’ll never forget that I wrote that line.  Kyphosis… Because I thought kyphosis was a very important word. It was a high word, so it gave dignity to the poem. “Kyphosis of the mind / Is no crime.” I even thought it was brilliant that “mind” and “crime” were kind of off rhyming. Wow! And I would send these poems to New Directions like that, you know. I had my little typewriter, a little baby typewriter, a portable typewriter on a little piano stool, which was my desk. Because that was all I had. I lived there with my mother. I didn’t have my own room or anything like that. So my bedroom was my living room and my office, so to speak. I remember getting letters back from New Directions and them saying, “Thank you very much for your poem Mr. Tuten. I hope, Mr. Tuten…” Oh, they thought I was an older person! And I was 15! “Thank you for your poem. We thank you very much. Do keep sending us more.” And it was a handwritten note. I remember—this is why I mention that—that Manhattan meant art.

Manhattan meant poetry. Manhattan meant books. Manhattan meant the life of the artist. Manhattan meant going to Greenwich Village. I mean I just wanted to be in Manhattan all my life. That’s all I thought about. How am I going to get to Manhattan? But first I wanted to get to Paris. Get to Manhattan via Paris. I wanted to go to Paris and become a painter. I dropped out of high school. I didn’t know French. I had no money, absolutely none. I got a job to save enough money to go to Paris to be a painter—as if I was going to go there and be a painter. Anyway, I was soon dissuaded of that idea.

That’s fantastic.

Well, I’m laughing at it. Part of what I feel about this book is that, when I look at this guy, this boy, this young boy, I feel such sympathy for him. Which I hope the reader will feel. I see what kind of sweetness there was and what kind of hope there was, and the kind of desire. I mean that’s what I love in people, especially young people who have it. Not all young people have it. They know what they’re going to do. They’re going to get their degree. They’re going to become doctors or lawyers, or they’re going to become hedge fund managers. I see very little aspiration in the way I’m talking about aspiring. You know, you’re aspiring to a kind of dignity of art. I think I mentioned this in the book—forgive me for saying it again, but I think it’s kind of worth saying—that, at the time, I was reading George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man.

It’s about his being 19 years old and living the bohemian life in Paris. He had gone to art school in London, which he hated, and someone said to him, “You’ll never learn anything from art school in London. Go to Paris. You’ll learn everything there.” So I said, yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to go to Paris and learn everything there. Not realizing that George Moore had a stipend. He had an income from his family. Originally, I’d thought, “Oh, I see, he went to Paris.” But he didn’t get a job and save money. He went to Paris because he had the money from his family. That was another profound lesson in humility––or maybe even reality.


A big portion of my life was spent teaching at my beloved City College, and then later on at the New School. There were those Saturday classes at The New School that I loved so much. I know there are people, older people, who don’t like to be too much in contact with young people. They don’t think it’s worth their time. They think they’re not going to learn anything from them, that there’s no advantage to be gained. Because you’re always the person who has to be the helper rather than the person who gets helped. But I don’t feel any of that. I feel—not in every case because there are moronic people everywhere, in every strata of society, in any group—but I find being with young people very exciting. Especially when they’re interested, and when they have passion, and they want to learn. That thrills me. I remember I had a Saturday class called Radical Approaches to the Narrative, and another one was called Experimentation in the Arts. I remember asking to this graduate M.F.A. class, “Do you know who this writer is?” They had never heard of any of the people that, at least, I mentioned. And then I said, “I’m so glad because now you’re like a blank tablet. I can just give you all the ideas I have, and you can use them or not use them. But, it may be interesting to you.” There were people who had never read Djuna Barnes, and read Djuna Barnes, and others they hadn’t known, because of that class.

I thought that was exciting. I think the class meant a good deal to some of the students, to thinking of their life as a writer, and to their thinking about writing. That meant a lot to me. Many middle-class people come from families where there are books. Maybe not anymore. It used to be a mark of your place in life that you had books in the house, that you read them, and they weren’t just trash books. But a lot of young people come from families of affluence or respectable wealth, or, if not affluence, then some kind of solidity. There’s enough food on the table. They’re not going to worry about whether the lights will go out because you can’t pay the bill—as we had to do in my house when I was a kid. I’m saying that I find them deprived in other ways. It’s not food, it’s not shelter, it’s not clothing—it’s information. The kind of information that, at least, matters to me. So, when I look at this boy, this Frederic in the book, what touches me about him is the sincerity of his yearning. His want to know more, and know the better. Again, it’s about discovery. You had to go to bookstores. You’d go into the Fourth Avenue bookstalls, you browsed and you found a book. That was all about discovery. Reading would lead to reading. That’s the adventure of it. I think part of the memoir is about that, the striving towards the higher, if I can put it that way. It sounds so elitist, but there is a higher. There is a higher. If you don’t think that Proust is a better writer than Romain Gary, then I feel sorry for you. That’s all.

But isn’t it partly that those things weren’t necessarily around when you were a kid? They weren’t things that were handed to you by some authority figure. It was something that you went out and took for yourself. Even a great painting in The Met or something. Those are things that you chose to go and look at. They weren’t things that you were indoctrinated with.

Exactly, exactly, exactly. It didn’t come from the family or the classroom. But, again, we are going back to people in the book. There are people in the book who did help me a lot, in every way. One was this woman—I don’t remember what I call her in the book.

I think you call her Elizabeth...

Yeah, I think I call her Elizabeth. Her husband was a painter, an artist. She asked me to come and visit, and I went to have coffee at her place. Her house was full of books. She was the one who put me on to Rimbaud, just about the time I dropped out of high school, at around 15 or 16. Then, when I met John Resko, the painter who had been in prison for 20 years, he told me about Kafka. No one in high school was reading Kafka or Rimbaud. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. You read The Mill on the Floss, or you read The House of Seven Gables. Which are good enough books. But it’s the standardization of it. It’s like this is the curriculum that they’ve all decided upon, and everyone is going to read those same books. They’re okay. They’re not offensive. But they’re not exciting. They’re not frightening. They’re not engaging. So, John Resko is the one who told me about Kafka. And she, Caroline, told me about Rimbaud. Then I was enchanted. Because, after all, when you’re young, is there anything more exciting than knowing that there’s another poet who was 19 when he stopped writing poetry? And that he was writing poems that changed poetry when he was a kid, like you are? That’s what you think.

You mention in the book—you must be about 18, and you say, “I’ve still got one more year to be Rimbaud.”

“I’ve got another year. I can be Rimbaud. I still have time to do it!” But those are the kinds of things that, you know, when you’re a kid you’re naive and innocent in a way. I guess what touches me about this boy, this Frederic boy, is his certain kind of innocence. You want to reach out to him and say, “Oh Fred, don’t do that. Don’t be silly.” I got off the track. So, from the Bronx, Manhattan was everything. But then Paris took over. So, I read everything I could about Paris. I looked at French paintings. But then I went to Mexico. There is a whole business about Mexico, studying Mexican mural painting and being the pet of a famous American call girl on the lam. I made a trip to Havana where I met Hemingway and had an afternoon with him. Then I came back to City College. City College was my home. It was so much my home that, when I graduated and got my doctorate, I went back to teach there. I still think about it. I still smell the kitchen, the cafeteria. I can still see the steam coming off the dishes behind the little plate glass windows. I remember the cafeteria, the students, the arguments, the discussions, the learning. It sunk into me. In fact, I never wanted to leave. I extended it in a way by teaching there for 30 years. But then, you know, other things happen in the book. I went to Syracuse University. I was a teaching assistant working to get a doctorate. The worst two years of my life. They were the most miserable years of my life, in the most miserable place of my life, whoever’s in charge of it now is not going to bring me in to do a reading.

They’re not going to hire you…

That’s for sure. Snow and poverty. I mean I was practically just as poor there as when I was a kid in the Bronx. I was teaching two classes at the university, making barely enough money to pay the rent and buy food. It was just like being in the Bronx again… in the snow. It would start snowing fucking September 1st and ended like May 30th. It was never ending. It’s snowing on me, even now.

Then I left and I came back to New York without a job—no money, no job. I went back to living with my mother until I found some way to live. I found this job in a bookstore. The guy who owned it had been a friend of mine when I was a kid in the Bronx. And I got a little apartment. I remember saying to someone who was helping me with the memoir: “I had to pay key money.” And she said, “What is key money? I’ve never heard of key money.” I guess no one knows now. Let’s say you had a friend, Jerry. And Jerry had an apartment, and the apartment was rent controlled. Let’s say the rent was, in my case, $26 a month. And then Jerry wanted to leave. So, in order to get his apartment, you have to give him some money. And then, with that money secured, he would take you to the agent of the building and say, “This is my friend Frederic and he wants to take over the lease.” So, you got the apartment with a slight bump in the rent. That’s how it worked. You had to pay key money. So I had to pay key money for this apartment on 8thstreet, near the East River, to a waitress at the Cafe Figaro and her husband who were going back to live in Rome.

Then my real life in New York began because I had never really lived in New York. I had lived in the Bronx. I had been in Syracuse. I had been in Mexico. But never, never New York. The first apartment, where I lived from 1962-64, was on 8th Street between Avenue C and D. It was a walk-up—six flights—with a bathtub in the kitchen and wooden floors. I had a bathtub in the kitchen, but it was a bathtub. But I also had my own little bathroom, not one in the hall. Some of those places from the old tenement days had one bathroom in the hall. The place had been cleaned up and painted. So that began my life on the Lower East Side.

You wouldn’t recognize it today. When I was there on Avenue C there were places where people put huge barrels of pickles for sale out in the street. Everyone was here. There were Italians here. Ukrainians were here. Old Jews from Russia and Poland were here. It was extraordinary. The area wasn’t deep Lower East Side. It wasn’t Delancey, but it might as well have been. And I loved it. The building was filled with old and young people. There were old old people who had been there, God knows, forever. One was a Polish carpenter who built my door so it wouldn’t be broken into. It was, but it held fast. He was a beautiful, old Polish guy, and I used to take care of his cat once in awhile when he was sick, when he had to go away to the hospital. Then there were other people in the building—painters, writers, and poets. The rent was $26 a month. It wasn’t as if you made a lot of money. But, still, you could pay it. You could even have an apartment by yourself if you wanted to. So, the building was full of fascinating, interesting people. I reveled in it. I love going to Tompkins Square Park, and seeing the various people, and the various sections of the park. One was a sort of hobo’s section. I wrote about that in the memoir. There were, I guess, these kinds of migrant people. By migrant I mean hobos who chose a certain life. They weren’t bums. They weren’t even drug addicts. Maybe they were winos. But they would know where to go, where to migrate to. In the winter you go to places in Florida. In the summer you come back to the city. And there was a section near Avenue B where the benches were all full of these people. They talked, they knew each other, and there was a kind of soup kitchen in a church across the street from there on Avenue B. They knew where to get soup. They knew where to get free meals. They knew everything. That was how you lived. I used to hang out with them a little bit. I’d bring them a little flask of wine like Thunderbird—some crummy, shitty wine—and they were all happy. I’d give it to them, and that was the end of it. We sat around, talked. It was fascinating.

There was a section of the park where people were selling stolen stuff. People were selling stuff on a blanket that was probably stolen from people in my building. It was alive. It was so exciting. And I stayed in that building until I got married and we found this apartment where I am now on 10th Street between Avenue A and B. I have a park view. This place was never put on the market. None of these places that are on my street were put on the market or given to an agent or anything like that. It was word of mouth. I had become sort of friendly with a sculptor who lived on 10th street between A and B. I said, “If you ever hear anything, please let us know if an apartment is available.” He called one day and said, “Please rush over right now.” And we rushed over to see the apartment. We met the doctor who owned the building. He liked us and we got it. The rent was $106 dollars a month. And we thought, “How are we going to pay that every month?” I was teaching at City College as a part-time lecturer. I was getting my doctorate. And Simona, my wife, had a job at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. She was a reader of foreign books––French, German, Spanish, Italian––for them. With both of us we could do it, but we thought, if we just lapsed one month… We were frightened. That’s $106 a month, plus gas, plus electricity, plus laundry—the overhead. But we did it. When I walked in and looked at the empty rooms, I remember going into what is now my bedroom, looking around, and I said, “I’m going to die in the this room.” And I was happy about it. I was happy. I thought, “Oh, this is where I’ll die. In this room. I’ll die in this room.” I hope it can still be true. I don’t want to leave this place. I want to die in my own apartment.

As I was reading the book I kept waiting for, or was kind of expecting that somewhere—maybe around the middle part—the breakthrough would come: the words would start flowing, the novels would start coming thick and fast. But when we get to the end of the book you still haven’t published much.

No, I was 24.

On the last page of the book you get a call about a job offer at the Welfare Department, so that the book ends, rather ambiguously, with you saying that this job could give you the chance to write—if you want to take it. You don’t really give us the big, cathartic, “And now literary success is achieved.”

Not in this book anyway. No, when I got back to New York, the only job I had was at the bookstore that I mentioned. I was working there seven days a week. I opened the store at eight, and I closed it at seven. Sometimes, to make extra money, I kept it open another hour—I was paid overtime—if it was needed. So, I had little time to write. But that wasn’t the only reason. I don’t think I was ready. But, I did start to write a novel. I have it, in fact. I sound like Leonard Ehrlich. It’s on this thin pink almost tissue paper. Typewritten. It was about a guy who I thought—it was very clear in my mind—was going to be a sort of urban Thoreau. So much in Walden is about ‘how I lived’, ‘what I lived for.’ I mean it fascinated me, how you can live without having to work all the time. Thoreau became a surveyor so he was able to get some cash. So I have my character—and this is before it was as common as it is now—collect bottles and cash them in. That would be his nighttime job. He would walk around and get bottles from the parks and from other places. Now you see old Chinese women doing it on the street. They have tons of fucking bottles on their backs and in little carts. They cash them in. How much money can they make? But if you only paid $26-dollars-a-month in rent, you know, you could do it. So that was my central character in the novel. Meanwhile, all they way through it, there were references, sometimes oblique, to a life lived as an urban Thoreau. And, of course, there’s a love affair with a girl. So it’s a kind of love story with a wonderful, interesting woman. And that was it. That was the book. But other than that, nothing really happened as far my writing went. Then I went to graduate school, and that was the end of writing until my first book was published in 1971, but I began it in ’68. That was The Adventure of Mao on the Long March.

But the memoir ends before that.

Before that. Absolutely.

Did that just feel like the natural place to end it?

Well, yes. It ended with the idea that I no longer had a job in the bookstore, and I could work in the Welfare Department. I used to joke and say that the Welfare Department in my time was what the Ambulance Corps was for Hemingway’s generation.

We were talking before about Leonard Ehrlich and his difficulty in finishing his second novel. At one point in the memoir you quote Gauguin…

Gauguin said, “When you begin to make a drawing hold the pencil loose.” I thought that was applicable to everything.

To everything.

To everything. Lovemaking… Maybe that’s not a good analogy. Is that a Freudian slip? I think that’s a slip there. Is that a Freudian slip or just a moronic slip?

A Dr. Tuten slip.

“When you’re about to make love hold the pencil loose!” Isn’t that great advice? For a surrealist, maybe.

That’s probably what Gauguin meant.

But, you know, he meant don’t tighten up. Relax. I think that’s true when you’re going to write or do anything. What I love about the Surrealist Manifesto—the 1924 one I think—is what it says in the introduction. It says: when you go to your desk don’t think about your career or success or failure, but just obliterate all concerns, and let your mind flow. Images flow out of your unconscious. But, the point is that “hold the pencil loose” means don’t think about if this book will get reviewed, if anyone will publish it, or if you’ll get an agent. That doesn’t matter. Just close yourself off from the outside world and live only in the world of the work. Live with those characters if you’re writing fiction or stories. Live with those people. Live with that. That’s your world. The world is what you’re writing.

It seems like you did that with the memoir. It’s surprising how loose you seem to be holding the pencil.

Loose, but not without a grip, I hope. I wanted to tell the truth—I mean, it sounds pretentious—without fudging it, without lying, without glamorizing too much. To make it real and make it honest. There are things about the young me in the book that are embarrassing. I thought: Do I want to be seen this way? But, what’s the point of not telling it? You know, I thought many times about self-censoring. “Uh oh, this won’t look good.” “Uh oh, people are going to be upset with me because of this.” I mean, that kind of stuff. And I thought, “No listen, take your chances. Do what you have to do. Just do it.”

This sets me up for one last question. I’ve got something for you here. Maybe this will be cheesy, but…

What’s that book you have?

So I got this—this is…

Oh, Duras.

It’s her writings about movies.


There’s one thing in it, which—I don’t know why this is in here because it has nothing to do with movies. It’s an unpublished mini-interview with Raymond Queneau where she just asks him about what he looks for when he’s looking at manuscripts as an editor at Gallimard. And there’s a little section that I wanted to read to you and ask you about. I thought you might like this. Queneau says that he can figure out pretty quickly if someone is a professional writer, a future writer, or an amateur. So he sort of breaks down what they are.  

This is his description of a professional writer:

A writer is someone who realizes that one doesn’t write only to give pleasure to one’s self, someone who is conscious of not being alone. The man or the woman who is truly concerned with writing knows he belongs to a community of other writers, that he has contemporaries who will judge him, who will criticize him, who will be writing in a parallel way. The amateur is, unfortunately, someone who stays in himself, who may write pleasant things, but who does not have the power necessary to communicate with others, with the public, even with a limited public. What has struck me most in the course of these years of reading manuscripts is that one sees very quickly if an author—even totally unknown—already belongs by vocation, in some way, to the guild of writers.

That’s wonderful.

Like we were talking about before, your book ends on an ambiguous note. You still haven’t published your first novel.

I hadn’t written it.

And every now and then in the book someone asks you a version of ‘What do you want to be?’ or ‘What do you want to do?’. Usually, you say something like, “I wantto be a writer.” Then you wonder when you’re actually going to be able to say, “I am a writer.” It seems like that question was often on your mind—whether you were a writer, or just a fraud or a fake.

Not a fraud, but a wannabe.

A wannabe!


A wannabe, excuse me.

No, a fraud is someone who knows that he or she isn’t going to do the work, but they want to pretend to the world that they are. No, what I was asking myself as a young person was: am I able to do it? Do I have the credentials to do it—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically? Am I a writer? Can I become a writer? Will I become a writer? I was always writing little short stories in college and other places. I started a novel at City College for my honors thesis. It was a very Malcolm Lowry-ian kind of novel. It was really a mixture of Under the Volcanoand On the Road. That’s what it was. About a young man in Mexico. Guess who that young man was? But it was that kind of novel. I started it. There were also fits and starts of stories. I got a prize for a short story I wrote in the college magazine. I got a prize for that, which I was very moved by. Paddy Chayefsky was the judge. You know Paddy Chayefsky?

Yeah, I know about Paddy Chayefsky.

He was a City College graduate, he wrote for television and the screenplays for Network and Marty, among others. In those days, the City College short story contests were judged by well-known people from outside of the college. Paddy Chayefsky was one of them. He liked my story and was very encouraging in his comments. But I also think—to key into what Queneau was talking about—that there are people who write and write; they can write well; they can be wonderful writers; but I’m not sure that they would fit into Queneau’s idea of the writer that has a sense of belonging to the “guild”, as he puts it. I wouldn’t call it a guild because a guild sort of supposes a certain kind of ‘secrets of the craft’ that the guild is privy to; that you’re part of an association in close unity with each other to protect those secrets, or to release them at will. I don’t think the word “guild” is appropriate. The feeling that you’re part of a community in history—I think that’s what I’m talking about. And, whether it’s presumptuous of me or comes from a feeling of grandiosity or hubris or megalomania or pure self-deception, I always felt that I belonged to that historical community. I felt that I was part of a community of writers that goes back to the early days of Anglophone fiction, to Smollett, to Fielding, and to that marvelous and wonderful experimental writer who set the tone for all experimental writing: Laurence Sterne. All experimental writing in the Anglophone world comes from Laurence Sterne. All of it. Every trick. Everything that ever came out afterward comes from him.

That’s what Joyce said as well. He said it’s all in Sterne.

So yes, I felt that way. I’ve always felt that way. I mean that feeling can be there even if you’re not touching the page. You might then say that you’re feeling a part of the community of readers, maybe. But, I don’t—for me, no. For me it was always the feeling that I belonged to this community, if you will. And not all the writers that I know feel that way. They’re happy to write their books. They’re happy to get published. They’re happy to get good reviews. They want to write another book. They’re happy to be famous. I never felt that way. I’m not sure if it’s a delusion or a wish I have to sugarcoat the daily realities of life, to see myself in this community as a way of softening the hardships of publishing or the difficulty of rejection. But I do feel that I’m in a room with other people who’ve been writing books. I’m familiar with them. I know them, not based on their biographies, but through their fiction or their poetry or their painting. Of course, for me, painting is very important in that regard. I don’t, however, see myself in the continuum of the huge art world that stretches from prehistoric cave painting to now. But, I do feel that I am in some proximity to Cervantes and to all the wonderful writers. Not that I am allowed at the same table to sit with them, but that I am allowed, at least, to wander in the same house. I can walk around the rooms and wave to them if I want to—if that’s all I can do. Now, I guess, this is when the music rises, and then the voice-over starts with Laurence Olivier speaking for me. Maybe, as I keep saying, it’s a fantasy to comfort myself. But I feel that, at the end of it, what is left except the work that belongs with the work that’s come before you—all of it—and will come ahead of you?

i. ex. “While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

Frederic TUTEN grew up in the Bronx. At fifteen, he dropped out of High School to become a painter and live in Paris. He took odd jobs and studied briefly at the Art Students League, and eventually went back to school, continuing on to earn a PhD. in early 19th century American Literature from New York University. He travelled through Latin and South America, studied pre-Columbian and Mexican mural painting at the University of Mexico, wrote about Braziliian Cinema Novo, and joined that circle of film makers, which included Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Tuten finally did live in Paris, where he taught film and literature at the University of Paris 8. He acted in a short film by Alain Resnais, co-wrote the cult film Possession, and conducted summer writing workshops with Paul Bowles in Tangiers. Tuten’s short stories, art and film criticism have appeared in such places as ArtForum, the New York Times, Vogue, Conjunctions, Granta and Harpers. In addition, he has written essays and fictions for artists’ catalogues including John Baldessari, Eric Fischl, Pierre Huyghe, Jeff Koons, David Salle and Roy Lichtenstein. He has published five novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; Tallien: A Brief Romance; Tintin in the New World; Van Gogh’s Bad Café; The Green Hour; and most recently, Self Portraits: Fictions, a collection of stories. Tuten has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction and was given the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His memoir, My Young Life, was published by Simon & Schuster in March, 2019. 


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