By Kelsey McKinney
Spalding Gray was an actor, performer, and writer. He appeared on Broadway in various one-man shows and is widely accredited with the invention of the autobiographical monologue. His archive, recently acquired by the Ransom Center, is composed of more than 100 private journals that span more than 40 years of Gray’s career. Nell Casey, editor of the book The Journals of Spalding Gray, which was released today, distilled the mass of journal entries into a portrait of the man behind the magnetic performer who ended his life in 2004. Cultural Compass spoke with Casey about her interest in Gray, the surprising notes she found in the journals, what she admires about his work, and more.
Casey’s interaction with Gray began in 1992 when, after moving to New York, she wrote one of her first magazine articles about him. After Gray’s death, Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, created the play Leftover Stories to Tell, which told the story of Spalding Gray’s life through excerpts from his monologues and journals. Casey interviewed Russo for The New York Times and says that the journal entries that appeared in the play were “incredibly beautiful.”
“One of the things about the play was that with other people reading [Gray’s] work you got a sense of his incredible talent as a writer,” said Casey. “When I saw the play and the writing was taken out and away from him and other people were reading it, I realized that his writing was a talent that had been sort of overshadowed by his personality and performance.”
When Russo approached Casey to ask if she would be interested in writing a book about Gray, Casey enthusiastically agreed. She had always loved Gray’s work. Her first step was to read the journals. Initially, she was concerned that the material found in the journals would be repetitive of what Gray himself told in his monologues. What she found was anything but.
“[The journals] are this incredible under life and sea of experience that he had not included in his monologues, and part of that experience was the struggle he had,” said Casey.
The writings are so raw and intimate that Casey says she was “caught off guard by almost every journal entry.” On paper, Gray reveals himself as a more extreme version of the person he portrays in his monologues. Casey describes him as a self-reflective narcissist with a broad sense of himself.
“He had this unbelievably broad sort of analytic and therapeutic sense of himself, so he could explore himself, even though he could not stop himself from actions that were very self-destructive and brutal,” said Casey.“The monologues are where he found perspective. The journals were where he showed himself to be completely lost.”
While Gray’s entries do correspond to his monologues, his writings are not for performance but for his life. Casey says, “There is some similarity, but you see in the journals that he just hasn’t gotten his footing yet.”
The themes present in his monologues come up in the book, but they are explored more deeply. As Casey read through the thousands of journal entries, she found that there were very specific themes: his drinking, his narcissism, his performance, his struggle with relationships, his mother’s suicide, and his fantasy life. These themes acted as a guide to help Casey winnow the mass of information into a chronological account of Spalding Gray’s private life.
Above all, Casey says that her years with Gray’s journals have led her to admire him for his writing. She admires it for “its beauty but also for the incredible, tender, searching thought that went into what he wanted to find in life.” Gray’s quest for truth was relentless. “Honesty is really guesswork, isn’t it?” Casey questioned, quoting British editor and writer Diane Athill.
“The point being, what is truth?” Casey says. “Your own truth is just a stab in the dark, and I admire Spalding Gray for his endless attempts at trying to find his truth.”
“We have lost Gray,” Casey writes in her introduction to the journals, “but there is still more for him to tell us.”
The New York Times recently published an article containing excerpts from the journals.
Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour. The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available for purchase October 18, 2011.