Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance is a cornerstone of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS gay literature. The novel captures the 1970’s queer scene in New York and Fire Island with writing that is just as funny and carefully observed as it is wildly emotional and haunting. This same gorgeous prose is found in his new novel, The Kingdom of Sand. The story is set in northern Florida and centers around two older gay friends: Earl, and an unnamed narrator who reflects on his dread of death, aging, and loneliness. We spoke over email about these topics and more, including a detour into the works of Saint Benedict.
Emily Saso: I have seen your work described as “evocative” before, and I think I would agree with that. Your prose is exceptionally vivid and often reads like it’s preserving the memory of a place or a feeling. Has this style of writing always been organic for you? And what, if anything, did you set out to capture in The Kingdom of Sand?
Andrew Holleran: Thank you—your words “a place and a feeling” are, I guess, what I do: the two of them together make me want to write. And I’d say it always has been “organic” if you mean something one does without thinking about it. In Kingdom of Sand, the place was Florida, and if I have a favorite passage in the book, it might simply be the part where I list the sounds I associate with the state, including “the drone of a small plane in the middle of the afternoon.” It’s that sort of sensual detail I gravitate to in writing.
What did you want to express about Florida? What do you think other people miss?
I wanted to express the pokeyness of North Florida, as it used to be, that is. The quiet, rural, forlorn quality, the wealth of nature, all vanishing under current development, as has been the case, of course, for decades now. I wanted to write about a lost Florida, my Florida, if you will.
I’m curious how you constructed the narrative framework in this book. The last three quarters are mainly our unnamed narrator describing his relationship with his older friend Earl. There is a similar narrative distance to Malone in Dancer from the Dance. What draws you to this narrative structure? Do you tend to think of either the narrator or the subject as your protagonist, or both equally?
Good question—I’ve always been drawn to the invisible narrator, the one who stands between the author and the protagonist—it’s in Gatsby, it’s in Conard—though in this book, for some reason, the narrator took on a life of his own, and ended up, I’d have to say, being as much the subject as the friend who is dying.
Can you elaborate on the idea of the invisible narrator? It’s interesting that you bring up a voyeuristic and moralistic character like Nick Carraway. Is that the purpose of this narrator in fiction—to separate the author from the narrator’s judgments?
I suspect it’s not to allow the author to make judgments under cover of a created character. I was just reading a book about Proust that dealt with the question of who is making the observations in his book. Proust or the narrator? I think Nick Carraway allowed Fitzgerald to make moral judgments, which I suspect were probably Fitzgerald’s own. But then why did Joseph Conrad, who really distanced his narrators from the story—what was his motive? To make Lord Jim more mysterious, exotic, romantic? I don’t know. I suspect there are many reasons for using a narrator—whether a character, or just an I—and they can overlap. Third person and First person are to me astonishingly different. The mood they put you in as a writer, when you use one or the other, is profoundly different.
Have your influences changed over time? Was there something specific you were reading while working on this book, or watching? Film plays a huge role in these character’s lives.
Film does play a huge role but the films belong to Earl, not to the narrator; the narrator is a reader who listens to the radio—which I think is an important distinction. The narrator is still obsessed with the news, the fate of the world; Earl has in a sense checked out. But nothing I was reading at the time had a direct influence; I can’t remember really what books I was reading, though I’m always reading something. This book was a hodge-podge, something that I kept trying to shape as I wrote but never quite got control over; it was like being on a horse that’s running away with you. I don’t think I ever caught up with it. This is a very mixed metaphor.
When you talk about the narrator still being obsessed with the fate of the world in his old age, do you think that’s a tragic thing? To obsess over life continuing without us? Or is it meaningful to be interested in the world outside our existence?
Are you asking if I think it’s narcissistic to be upset that we die, and is it an escape from self-preoccupation to worry about the world’s fate? I do think most people worry about the world outside of our own existence, and an aspect of that is the knowledge that you will not be able to know what happens to the human race after you die. That familiar saying, “Well, I won’t be around to see any of it,” is usually taken as a statement that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Which I think is one reaction to the pessimism about climate change, overpopulation, etc., so many people are feeling now. It’s startling to come upon articles about people saying they don’t want to bring children into this world. What a comment that is.
I was more asking what you actually ended up hitting on: what your thoughts are on the “Well, I won’t be around to see any of it” attitude that you mention. I think I was wondering this because in the book, Earl, who has cut himself off as you say, seems so much more at peace in some ways than the narrator. The narrator is more connected and more anxious, but maybe that’s necessary to be part of the world in a meaningful way. Maybe it connects to when the narrator talks about trying to hide from the brutal parts of life.
I’m glad the difference between the narrator and Earl came across because you’re absolutely right—the narrator is paradoxically the more anxious, nervous, worried, and Earl is the calm one. As for the feeling that one will be glad to miss the future, and wanting to hide away, I would say they are totally the same. The narrator is just over-wrought, and does not consider the bliss of oblivion worth the horror of extinction.
The narrator’s preoccupation with death is central to the plot, but I’m particularly interested in one aspect of his preoccupation: the location of one’s death. This is also ties into what seems to me a lovely and melancholy meditation on home, and what it means to us as we age and become more isolated. Can you speak on this intersection?
Yes, there is an intersection. I think if you asked most people where they wanted to die, they’d say: at home, in my own bed. And that’s basically what the character Earl wants to do, and what the narrator wants for himself. Home is the place you want to die, though most of us die in hospitals, or on the road, or somewhere else. It’s a very powerful instinct—though I’ve noticed over the years the way people tend to abandon the place that has been their home for years, and build or buy or move to a new home elsewhere, as if they can run away from the inevitable moment. I call it One Last Move. Check out the epigraph to John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra for a wonderful treatment of this.
The loneliness of the narrator is exquisitely described. To me it read as tragic, defiant, and erotic all at once, as well as uniquely queer. Would it be a stretch to call this depiction of isolation a political one?
Political in the sense of being from a gay standpoint? Probably. My first novel Dancer from the Dance was in a sense about youth; this one is about old age. I guess I wanted to make sure I told the whole story, and not just a part of it. Of course in real life gay people solve the problem of old age and dependence the way straight people do—any way they can. Though a friend whose letter I quote in the novel asked me once if I was going to let life make the choice in this matter for me. It’s hard. Gay people may very well end up alone if they survive long enough—we have to improvise a way out, as we’ve had to improvise so much of our lives—with, I hope, the help of our friends, or neighbors, or some money in the bank.
I was thrilled to see you used my favorite quote from The Great Gatsby: “…it occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” How has this dichotomy informed your writing over the years?
Thrilled you were thrilled. I love that book and have never forgotten that line. It’s something so fundamental that all human beings know in their bones; Fitzgerald simply expressed it unforgettably. When AIDS came along that line became quite pointed and stark—the dividing line became a trench, a crevasse, and one that still haunts all survivors I think. The Covid pandemic has only resuscitated all those feelings, made literal by the isolation, the bubble, many of us have lived in.
Dancer from the Dance is often referred to as one of the last important pre-AIDS novels. In your mind, do you divide the history of gay literature into pre- and post-AIDS? Is that a useful distinction? How do you think AIDS figures into present-day writing at this point, both personally and broadly?
I guess I do divide gay lit between pre-AIDS and post-AIDS and of course During AIDS. Ed White once said that whatever else AIDS did it gave gay writers a subject to write about; straight people only had adultery. Though I may be grossly misquoting. But I thought it brave of him to say something so unsentimental—to admit that AIDS is a rich subject. So much so that straight writers have taken the subject up. The danger is of course exploiting it. I didn’t stress it in this book because I thought that would be exploitative, but just mentioning the subject once or twice makes it a background, a sub-text, I think. A little bit tinctures the whole work. I guess the subject of this book is: how do gay people die, if it’s not AIDS—if it’s just the pathos of an ordinary death?
Finally, how did you come to your epigraph for this book? It’s a great one, from Saint Benedict: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” I get the sense epigraphs are important to you.
You’re right again, they are important to me, and I had six or eight for this book, and could not choose. They were high/low, one from The Office of the Dead (Timor mortis me disturbat), followed by one from Drue Heinz, the socialite, who said when dying, “They won’t even let you take a book.” One from Carlos Andrade, a Brazilian poet, so good I’m keeping it for future use. Another from Candice Bergen, one from Walt Whitman, two from Cary Grant! I really think the Drue Heinz was most on target, in a way, but . . . we went with Saint Benedict.
I thought the quote meant you should remember every day that you are mortal. But I asked a friend, a Benedictine monk who first told me the saying, and he wrote back thus:
Below is the context for “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” among the Instruments (Tools) of Good Works (Chapter four of the Rule of Benedict). The sentiment is found in the earliest monastic sources, Lives of the Fathers, Words of the Seniors, Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences of the desert monks.
44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.
47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.
48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.
51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.
It seems to me to be a reminder to be careful about how one lives one’s life. To take responsibility for one’s life and to live it seriously because a good life here is the passport to eternal glory.
It seems to me they are all vibrating around the same idea: live a good life because you are going to face the Day of Judgment.
A friend who read my book said it’s really not about the fear of death, but the narrator’s feeling that he’s wasted his life—though the two things are connected, I think. People who have led a full or meaningful life are said to not fear death, those who feel they never accomplished anything do. Or is that a myth? I don’t know.
Then my friend the monk sent me more:
All four of these aphorisms [RB 4:44-47] from the chapter, What are the Tools of Good Works? Relate to death. But a closer inspection reveals that three of them have to do with fear, while the third one is much more positive. There is no doubt that people throughout much of the history of Christianity have had a powerful fear of death and the judgment. As for a desire for eternal life, that is usually found only among the saints. Still, every now and then one runs across an “ordinary person” who looks forward to heaven. But in our age of advanced secularism, the typical attitude toward the last things is neither dread nor longing, but indifference. Recently a monk returned from a family visit to Las Vegas and his remark was: “No wonder people no longer long for heaven. They have it here and now.” Another monk responded, “That’s funny. When I visited Vegas twenty years ago, I experienced it as a foretaste of hell!” It all depends on your point of view.
I do think it’s about fear of death—that’s the narrator’s problem—even without reference to life after death or if there is a heaven and hell. It’s about the basic fear of being extinguished.
The Kingdom of Sand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Emily Saso is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, LitMag, and Harpur Palete. She was the recipient of a New York State Summer Writers Institute Merit Scholarship. She currently works at Columbia University in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.