Frederic Tuten interrogates his past and a changing world in Self-Portraits: Fictions, his accomplished latest.
The book is suffused by a spirit of painting, and I understand that growing up in the Bronx you first wanted to be a painter. How did you become a writer instead?
I briefly attended the Art Students League and was a terrible failure. I couldn't do life paintings—the fallacy was that you had to paint from life. Then I was introduced to John Resko, a painter in the New York galleries. He had been imprisoned for 20 years and had just published a book called Reprieve. He tried to teach me things; he encouraged me. I had wonderful artist friends, like Roy Lichtenstein. [His Self-Portrait with Cheese graces the cover of Tuten's book.] He changed the way I think about painting and, by implication, fiction. That is, that one should approach art and writing with questions and not with ready-made, accepted answers.
How does that play out in your writing?
I hope my own work contains a freshness, a mystery. With works we love, we feel the harmony and mystery, but also a residue of some experience you are left with—a residue that is ineffable. I wanted to make stories that are exciting and engaging, but not just well-made. I wanted to present the mystery of our experience.
In the prologue you describe how growing up you would trade stories with your Sicilian grandmother.
This is the storytelling I came from. My grandmother came from dire circumstances in Sicily, where her husband received threats as a policeman. She didn't speak English. The storytelling was what engaged me about her, and we sat and told stories in English and Sicilian.
Is Self-Portraits fiction or memoir?
This is part of an ongoing memoir. These stories feature a fictionalized self as well as people I've known in various guises. I traveled all over the world and led a very varied life. I've known Paul Bowles, Hergé, Alain Resnais—who's still alive, he's unbelievable. These stories are fairly new, written over the last five years. There is the feeling of design, and each is dedicated individually to people I've known, but I try to depict in the stories the feeling of clinging to longing, and the profound beauty around us. They are about loss—what we're saying goodbye to. I hope this book is a celebration of the mystery of living, the engagement we have with living. And love, many kinds of love. These characters are souls in love.
Many of the stories take place in public spaces.
I've lived at Tompkins Square Park since 1964. I have a nostalgia for parks from my upbringing in the Bronx. My grandma took me as a boy to the Botanical Garden: it was peaceful and also kids had fights in the park. So for me parks are both serene and a place of menace. One day, years ago, I had a very interesting girlfriend who said to me: I know you, you would be happy living in the park reading on a bench your whole life! She said it as a curse, but for me it was a blessing.