undefinedTaken in Hubert’s Museum on Forty-Second Street, New York, 1976.

Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium, in 1954, and emigrated with his parents to the United States as a child. The family settled in northern New Jersey, where his father, Lucien, found work in a Teflon factory and his mother, Denise, worked in a high school cafeteria. Sante was educated in Manhattan, attending Regis High School and then Columbia University, which he left without a degree. After stints as a critic—for Interview, Wigwag, New York, and Spy, among ­other ­places—he won a Whiting Award and published his first book, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991). This was followed by Evidence (1992), a volume of crime-scene photographs; The Factory of Facts (1998), a memoir; Kill All Your Darlings (2007), a collection of essays and occasional pieces; The Other Paris (2015), which serves as a sort of bookend to Low Life; and several other books, anthologies, and introductions.

  The following interview was conducted over three sessions in January and February of this year, at Sante’s house in Kingston, New York. The first two sessions took place in his home office, which is lined with eight miles of books. Then Sante flew to Paris, where he read from his new book at Shakespeare and Company. Upon his return, we met again in his kitchen, continuing our conversation over tea, seltzer, and electronic cigarettes.

Sante is casually handsome, with sensitive, old-world features and a slightly hangdog expression that might have to do with his basic dislike of the countryside. (He dreams of returning to Manhattan.) He’s also modest and unassuming—something you wouldn’t necessarily guess from his books, which are remarkably trenchant and self-assured. It’s not hard to picture him at CBGB (Sante was a regular in the club’s heyday) or as a clerk at the Strand (where he worked beside Lux Interior, among other luminaries). But it’s just as easy to see him in Paris (another city Sante would happily live in) or somewhere in the Southern California desert, where he sometimes imagines himself living a parallel existence. 

Alex Abramovich

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you arrive in the States?

SANTE

The first time was in 1959. The textile industry in my town, Verviers, which had existed since the Middle Ages and employed all my ancestors, collapsed, and my father was out of a job. A childhood friend who had emigrated earlier, claiming he had a great job at a pharmaceutical plant, offered to get my father a similarly great job there. As it turned out, while he’d been representing himself as having some important, semi-executive role, he was actually in charge of the lab animals. We flew over on Sabena and lived with them for a while, in a cramped apartment in a Victorian pile—the house in Psycho, basically. We arrived in February, and the landlord didn’t want unemployed women and children because he didn’t want to turn on the heat during the day. We had to find another apartment, and the only job my father could find was mowing lawns for fifty-four dollars a week. Meanwhile, another opportunity came up in Belgium, a job at a factory that manufactured scales. So that October we sailed back on a Belgian freighter. I remember going through New York City. It was Halloween, and the streets were filled with kids running around in costume. I’d never seen anything like it. I was just flabbergasted. That was my first view of New York City. But back in Belgium it turned out that my mother’s parents, who had been living in our house, didn’t get along with my father. It was a very hostile atmosphere. We had to leave. So we sailed back on the SS United States sometime in the spring or summer of 1960. In 1962, my mother and I went back because her mother had terminal breast cancer. She died while we were there. She was laid out in the living room—there were no funeral homes in Belgium then. My mother and I returned to the States, this time on the SS France. But the following year we returned to Belgium. This was in the winter. We always seemed to go in the winter. And now it was my mother’s father who was dying. We stayed for four months. I went to school, et cetera. But for some reason or another, the decision was made to sell the house and stay in America. By now, it was the spring of 1963. 

INTERVIEWER

Your father had been a factory worker in Belgium?

SANTE

Yes. 

INTERVIEWER

And your grandfather?

SANTE

Also. 

INTERVIEWER

And your grandfather was the first literate member of your family?

SANTE

Yes, my great-grandfather, who died in 1900, was illiterate. What that means, within the context of the Belgian nineteenth century, is that he was a Walloon speaker. Walloon did not have a codified writing system until after 1900. But my father and grandfather both read a lot. My father’s tastes were all over the map. In the acknowledgments in the Paris book, I mention his devotion to a writer named G. Lenotre, who wrote the petites histoires of the French Revolution—something like fifty books, which my father owned and read again and again. My father was also fond of dropping allusions in conversation. He had a kind of self-constructed grandiloquence that he would trot out at times. When I was writing The Factory of Facts and all of a sudden had AltaVista, or whatever search engine was available in 1997, I was finally able to find out where all those phrases my father used came from—I couldn’t ask him because by then he’d lapsed into dementia. Things like “Je veux, dit l’enfant grec, de la poudre et des balles.” An awful lot of them turned out to be from Victor Hugo. But my discovery of French literature was of the French literature he never taught me about, that he probably wasn’t ­interested in or didn’t know about. With French culture, in general—the movies, the music—the stuff I like is the stuff my father either didn’t know about or actively disliked. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you discover French literature?

SANTE

I picked up a book called Le livre d’or de la poésie française, flipped through it, and stumbled upon Rimbaud. The first thing that struck me was the biographical note—because he was born, a hundred years before me, at one end of the Ardennes, and I was born at the other. I was fascinated by the fact that he alternated verse and prose in the same piece. And the prose itself was very compelling. That riff in A Season in Hell about liking idiotic paintings and reading outmoded literature and dreaming of unrecorded voyages of discovery and seeing carriages on the roads in the sky—that was virtually the template for my entire life! I could almost say that everything I’ve done has come from that poem. There were other people I noticed in the book—Blaise Cendrars, for example. Breton, too, although it took me a bit longer to work out what that was all about. That was the foundation stone of my interest in French literature—maybe literature, period. 

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading in English at the time?

SANTE

Every kind of shit you can imagine. I was very well served by my local public library in New Jersey. A very small library, just one room, but they had a record collection as well, which was also small, but amazing—the country blues, Eric Dolphy, Edgard Varèse, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Among their books was an anthology called Writers in Revolt edited by Terry Southern, Richard Seaver, and Alexander Trocchi, which had bits of Naked Lunch. I think Howl was in there. All kinds of scabrous stuff, except they’d artfully edited it so it could be in public libraries. I took that book out over and over and over again. 

Also on the shelves was V. by Thomas Pynchon, which I was led to by my other great source of enlightenment as a youth, the rock press. There was a little head shop that opened in ’67 in the town next to ours that sold black lights, posters, incense, and one magazine, Crawdaddy!, which was ­incredibly important to me. They published the great Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman, Jon Landau, and the editor, Paul Williams. It was Paul Williams’s recommendation of V. that led me to read it.

 Robert Christgau wrote an essay called “Rock Lyrics are Poetry (Maybe),” which was very instructive because he knew the difference between poetry and ersatz. It ends with the suggestion that if you want to know what the poetry of the present day truly is, you should take a look at Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett’s Bean Spasms, which I promptly did. I fell headfirst into the New York School of poetry, furthering the impulse that had begun with my discovery of Rimbaud. That’s when I became a poet.