Daniel Mendelsohn is a prolific writer of essays, criticism, and books, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 1999 and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, and the international bestseller The Lost, which won the National Books Critics Circle Award and the National Jewish Book Award, among other honors. He has also published a collection of his critical essays, entitled, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, and an acclaimed two-volume translation of the complete works of C.P. Cavafy. His writing has appeared in countless publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and New York, where he was book critic and won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He received a BA from the University of Virginia and a PhD in Classics from Princeton and is currently a Professor of Humanities at Bard College.
Reading Mendelsohn is like being invited into the inner machinery of his mind, and while perched rather perilously there, watching him work things out. Because that is, fundamentally, what characterizes his writing: a kind of working out on the page, a willingness to reveal the scaffolding of any carefully constructed argument, to even take apart and re-build everything from the ground up before the reader’s eyes.
Mendelsohn’s own eyes are a startlingly fierce yet friendly blue.
In The Lost, you describe your grandfather as an amazing storyteller. Was listening to him what first made you interested in narrative?
I don’t think there is any question that it was listening to my grandpa’s stories that made me a story person, a narrative person. I didn’t have any clearly formulated plan as a child that I wanted to write; I didn’t articulate it to that extent. I kept a journal from the time I was, like, seven. But I always was attracted to people who told stories, of which there was no better local model than my grandfather.
What I think happens is that the appetite for stories is implanted—in my case by close proximity to a very funny, very good storyteller—and then that makes you a reader because you realize that there are a lot of good stories out there and they’re all in the library. So I think that’s what made me a reader as well.
But these ‘oral’ beginnings very much influenced the kind of stuff that I ended up writing. I would say that the rhythms of my writing, when I’m writing as a nonfiction narrative person, are very oral; they are often conversational. So many people tell me after they read [my writing], “It was like listening to someone tell a story.” And I think, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.”
When you went to college, you were a Classics major. Where did that interest come from?
Well, I was already interested in the ancient world as a very young child. I was very seriously reading about Ancient Egypt when I was nine, ten, eleven. I was reading stuff that was way over my head, which is, of course, the only way you should read as a kid. I taught myself to read hieroglyphics.
Yes. I kept my diary in hieroglyphics. It’s in my papers in the closet.
I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Actually, I wasn’t a Classics kid, I was an Egypt kid, as many kids are. Then, when I was eleven, my dad came home from a trip to the library once and he put in my hands a Mary Renault novel called The King Must Die, which is the novelization of the Theseus myth. By that time she was very famous for these historical fictions set in ancient Greece, which were great bestsellers at the time. That was like the moment of truth. Then it was Greece from then on out, basically.
Pretty early on you knew where you wanted to go.
Well, I mean I never had a plan—I still don’t have a plan, I’ve never had a plan. I just knew what I was interested in. So then I just started, you know, reading everything I could get my hands on about Greece, including this writer [Mary Renault], whom in fact I later corresponded with for many years until she died.
So, it was a natural, a no brainer, that when I went to college I would be a Classics major. I went to the University of Virginia and they had a special program called the Echols Scholars Program, which releases you from all distribution requirements. You can basically take whatever you want for four years, and you have priority getting into classes so you always get the classes you want. I was all Classics, all the time.
Did you go straight for your PhD after graduating from undergrad?
No, no, no. As I said, I didn’t have a plan as an undergraduate. I just wanted to study Classics. Everyone wanted me to go on right away to grad school because I was a very good student. But I was feeling restless, as often I do. So I wanted to get out of the university setting. And I was very interested in music. In fact, I come from a musical family, was always from an early age a wild opera person, and had briefly dated this girl in high school who was studying to be an opera singer, who became my best friend and is still a close friend of mine forty years later. She said, “We can’t date if you don’t like opera.” So I went to the library and took out LP albums and listened to librettos and learned opera.
That’s some commitment.
That’s a true story. I once knew most of the recitative to Cosi Fan Tutte because she was studying the part of Despina, the maid, and I had to practice the recitative with her.
So you wanted to do something with music after college?
My thought in my last year of college was that I was going to be a performing arts administrator. That is really where I thought my life was going to go. Because I was already tired by that point of the academic thing. Which is odd, since there is something very appealing to me about the scholarly life, inasmuch as I have a kind of hermetic bent; I would always much rather be at home with a book than anything— and yet, whenever I’m in a totally academic environment, I get claustrophobic and I want to be on the other side, so to speak. I’ve always been oscillating between these crazy impulses.
So I moved to New York when I graduated college in 1982. There was a nutty opera impresario named Joe Scuro, who had a one-man office operating out of the Economist building—the Steinway building, on 57th and 7th. 111 West 57th, I still remember the address—who was a friend of someone I knew, and he needed a guy Friday, so I interviewed with him and got the job. I worked for him for three and a half years.
What were you doing for him?
Everything. It was like Broadway Danny Rose. Every time I see that movie I think of Joe, who’s now dead. He was brilliant, mercurial, the most foul-mouthed person I have ever met in my life. But I learned a tremendous amount from him. We went to the Met every night. We had house passes, we saw every performance. I got a real education from him. He was always giving me LPs, stacks and stacks, telling me I had to listen and learn these things over the weekend. And I did, because I was twenty-two and had no life, and why not?
That was a great education for me. That was sort of being in the world. I handled everything for him, his correspondence, phone calls, I translated his letters into French and German and Italian. I accompanied him, I stepped and fetched , I made coffee, I opened his mail, I just learned a lot about music.
But he was also a nut. He was a funny, tiny, Napoleonic guy with blond hair. He was Italian-American, grew up in Utica, New York. He had worked for Sol Hurok, the great impresario, and was a great storyteller. Again, that was the connective thread. He told me stories of the music world he’d known when he was my age, in the Sixties and Seventies… Actually, he wasn’t that much older than I was. It’s funny now, looking back—I thought he was so old, and he was only 37. I was 22.
Well, that is really old when you are 22.
Yes. And he worked in the Seventies at the Hurok office and dealt with all these great performers. He would love to tell me stories, and I was, as usual, eager to soak them up. But it became unbearable because he was kind of violent personality—not physically violent, but, you know, the office was this [gestures a small space] big and there was a walled-off inner sanctum. He smoked cigars, I remember. He was this tiny guy with this blond hair, smoking the cigar, and would sit there shrieking at recalcitrant sopranos in Switzerland while jabbing his cigar into the air. I mean, the things he said over the phone…I would be sitting at my typewriter— this was all pre-computer— in the outer office weeping, literally weeping with terror.
No, for the world! You know? But he was a great figure and I learned a tremendous amount from him. But he made me do terrible things. I remember we had this Swiss soprano called Evelyne Brunner, who came over to perform at the Baltimore Opera in Tosca. When the run was over and she was stopping in New York en route back to Switzerland, he made me go to her hotel room at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, which is now gone, and get his commission from her in cash, which was like twenty thousand dollars or something. And she didn’t have it. She hadn’t even been paid yet. And he forced her to, you know, God know what, sell pencils on the corner of Broadway… I was weeping and she was weeping and it was so awful. I quit, like, the next day. I couldn’t deal with that side of the high cultural world.
So I went back to Charlottesville [Virginia]. This was the spring of ’85. I had been working for him for three years, which people told me at the time was a record.
Before you go on, what was life like in New York during the years you worked for the mercurial impresario?
I lived in a little apartment on Third Avenue and 75th street—it was 1313 Third. In the back room of the tenement apartment with two huge double hung windows facing a brick wall, I remember.
I was not social, I had no social life. I just worked very long hours. I got in at nine in the morning and then I left often at seven or eight in the evening, and most nights Joe and I would go to the opera or the symphony or whatever. I was an apprentice, basically. I didn’t know anyone my age, really. It was only when I started to know more people that I began to see that I was basically this slave of this crazy guy.
You did everything with this guy.
Yeah! I don’t regret it, as I don’t regret anything because it’s all the grist for the mill.
I was dating now and then. There was a very cute redheaded architect, I remember, in my building, who had a rich boyfriend, and they were sort of the first gay people I connected to. By this time I had moved to SoHo, with a friend of a friend, sharing this apartment on Thompson Street just south of Spring. I loved that place. In, like, ’84-’85. I had some friends my age, and the sweet architect who was very nice to me, and they were like, “This guy is a crazy person, you can’t work for him!” I was like, “Really?” [Chuckles.]
Tell me more about what you were up to in the city.
I would go to gay bars. Everyone went in those days to a place called Boy Bar in the East Village. And I dated this guy for a long time named Alexander Vachon (no relation to the movie producer). He was a psychologist and ten years older than I, very intelligent, very plugged-in, kind of impish. He was kind of a club guy—someone who liked to go out and who seemed to know everybody. After I met him I went from being a total sort of frumpy, all-work-and-no-play person to—this was certainly true when I was in my mid twenties, right before I left New York—someone who was going out every night. To Area, to Danceteria, to Limelight, which had just opened. In fact, I remember going to the opening of Limelight in ’83 or ’84. You know, I was the ten-year-younger boyfriend of this guy who was very much in that scene and I was sort of the eye candy, the plus one.
I did a lot of that, I enjoyed it a lot, but I was always…I always wanted to be educated. I don’t mean an educated person; I always wanted to be around people who had things to tell me. And Alex was that, in a different way; he seemed to know a lot about the world, to me who was so green, and I realize I later mimicked his manner, to a great extent.
I remember when Tama Janowitz started writing these great books of downtown New York in the eighties, and having a sense of recognition—that was definitely my life in those years [chuckles]. But really as a kind of bring-along. I never had the initiative to go myself. But I was lucky, because I was in a lot of interesting places at the right time. I always think that was the great era of New York clubs, nothing I’ve seen since has impressed me very much. But of course you get older. I’m fifty-one now, I have no desire to do that.
But back then you were wide-eyed and excited.
Yeah, it was great. I remember the opening of Limelight, they had livestock wandering around the dance floor. Goats and sheep…
Oh, it was so great. You know, it was such a different world it’s hard to imagine it now—partly because I changed, and partly because the world changed, in all these concrete ways you forget about. Like, for example, there was no such thing as an ATM machine. back then. You would cash a check on a Friday during your lunch hour, and there would be a long line at the teller since everyone was also cashing their checks. I remember every Friday I would leave the office and go to the Chemical Bank, which is what Chase was then, and cash a thirty-dollar check and that is what I would have for the weekend. And it was enough!
There was a place on lower Broadway called the Antique Boutique. It was the eighties and the whole Desperately Seeking Susan ethos was in the air. And there was a vintage clothing store there, and there was a boy there, this very fey, bleach-blond sales boy. I wish I could remember his name— a sweetie pie, I hope he’s alive— and every weekend I used to go buy some vintage something. That was a big excitement.
Anyway, I got fed up with this life. And I was always yearning for something a little more substantial. Because I wasn’t going to grow up to be a club kid, that was clear. I decided I had to go to grad school because I couldn’t think of anything else I would do. I did try to write. I wrote a lot of poetry in college, as one does. I hope I burned it…!
[Laughs] It’ll surface!
Yeah, right, like on the Internet. Oh no…
I tried to write some reviews back then, just for myself. I was always very attracted to criticism.
What about criticism attracted you?
I grew up reading The New Yorker in the seventies. Pauline Kael, Andrew Porter, Helen Vendler wrote huge columns on poetry very regularly, Kenneth Tynan…so, you know, The New Yorker was a sacred object in the nineties seventies. I tried to write a couple of things on student productions [in college], I remember very consciously trying to ape a New Yorkerish style.
Tell me more about the decision to move away from New York and go to graduate school.
Well, I thought maybe I was destined to be an academic. What happened was that I had this big blow-up with Joe [the impresario] about the way he treated the Swiss soprano—that was really the last straw. And I just couldn’t bear it anymore. He was brilliant but totally whacky.
That was in March of 1985, but I had just missed the deadline for applications [to graduate schools] for the fall of 1985. So, I thought, “I’ll go back to Charlottesville, which I had always loved and where I’d always been happy, and bone up on my Greek and Latin.” I had a great mentor, who was my undergraduate mentor, Jenny Strauss Clay, who is a Homer scholar [she is the daughter of Leo Strauss]. I called her and asked, “If I move back to Charlottesville, can I work with you and work up my Greek and Latin so that by January of 1986, I could apply for grad schools for the fall of ’86?” And she said “Come on down,” and that’s what I did.
When you were living in Charlottesville, what were you doing for work?
I waited tables. I always waited tables. I waited tables all through undergrad, I worked my way through school, and I waited tables in grad school, too. My father always says to me, “Well, you know, it’s always a good fallback.” He says it even now. I’m like, “Dad. I’m okay.”
So I lived in Charlottesville from March of ’85 to September of ’86, when I went off to Princeton, which is where I wanted to study for a Ph. D. in Classics.
[Going to graduate school] also had to do with Mary Renault, the author of these novels that I was corresponding with from the age of fourteen. I said, “One day I might even want to be a writer like you…” And she said, “That’s all well and good, but you need to know something.” She is the one who said that if I’m so interested in Classics, I should get a degree in Classics and know something solid. She said, “Then you can do whatever you want.” And so I did it.
When did you really start writing, then?
Basically, my writing career started in my third year of graduate school. There was a student literary weekly called The Nassau Weekly, edited by an undergraduate called Ariel Kaminer, who is now an editor at The Times, and in fact has been my editor at The Times Magazine, funny enough. I started writing pieces for her. I would write reviewy things. I wrote humor pieces, I wrote satirical pieces. It was just so much fun.
And to see it published somewhere, to see people reading what you’d written.
Yes. Seeing yourself in print is a kick that you never get over. I remember reading somewhere that John Updike said something about that one time, – that you never get over the pleasure of seeing your stuff in print—and I remember thinking, “If John Updike still gets excited about seeing his name in print, there is nothing wrong with me doing it!”
I suppose that’s why Internet publishing, to me–to someone of my era and my age– doesn’t feel quite as real as print, as holding in your hands something you’ve published in The New York Times.
Well, I’m in my twenties and I still feel that way. But I’m—
Yes. I want the feel of paper.
Yes! And also, that someone else thought your stuff was worthy enough to publish it on their nickel. That is the big difference. Of course I could create my own newspaper and spew endlessly, but it’s not the same.
So you loved getting published.
I just thought, “This makes me so happy. When I’m doing this, I’m not looking at the clock, I’m not wondering what else I could be doing.” It was the only time I felt that I was totally centered. And Ariel said to me once, ”You know, people will pay you for doing this.” And I said, “Really?!” She said, “Yes.” She knew a guy who was an editor at the Voice, so my first published piece was little book review in the Village Voice. It was of a novel by someone called David B. Feinberg, a comic gay novel. I was going for a PhD in Classics, but since I was gay, people threw gay stuff at me.
Simultaneously, I had sent out all these Nassau Weekly clips. I had heard from someone that there was this new gay magazine that was being formed by a sort of coterie of Outweek people who had sort of broken off; Outweek was then the big, sizzling gay magazine, very political—it was there that “outing” was invented and perfected by Mike Signorile. The spinoff was going to be called QW, and was going to be much less political and much more cultural, as I recall. So I sent a bunch of clips. The editor-in-chief’s name was Maer Roshan and he had a sort of deputy, Helen Eisenbach, who was in charge of culture. She read my clips and called me and said, “We need someone to do an every-other weekly culture column and you’re perfect and you’re hired.” That was great. That was really my training.
It was writing routinized.
It was routinized, it was 1400 words, it was every other week, there was a deadline. I could do anything I wanted. But I had to keep coming into the city, because remember, I was still living in Princeton, finishing my dissertation. And I would go to whatever. There was a new Traviata at the Met, very traditional, very Zeffirelli, and at the same time there was a new production of it at the City Opera, updated to the AIDS era, which I thought was just right—that was the first piece I did for them.
It was such good training, covering all kinds of things—the gimmick of the column was that I’d combine two ostensibly unlike things and find the points of contact: having to cover a Walt Whitman exhibition at the New York Public Library at the same time I was writing about an exhibition of Vogue photos, combining Paris Is Burning, the tranny documentary, with a review of Atys, a Baroque French opera, at BAM, stuff like that…there were also one-offs: I did a piece when Dietrich died, and when Tina Brown took over the New Yorker, I remember. Anything I was moved by. I was going into the city a lot and I got a lot of good clips out of it. I learned a lot. And I learned how to write to length.
So, all of 1992 I was writing this column “Culture Shock” until the magazine [QW] went belly up. Poor things—they could never make money and God knows they couldn’t always pay. I was supposed to get eighty dollars a column or something and, believe me, I needed it. They went belly up and at that point I was close to making a mental decision that I wanted to really do that [write] and not be a classics scholar. I was also writing my dissertation. It was a period of a lot of tortured, tumultuous decision-making.
A pretty big decision to make after being in graduate school on the academic path for over seven years! So what happened?
What happened was that just after QW failed people said there was going to be a new gay magazine that had real financing and that had real editors and real professionals, that was going to be called Out. So I sent them a bunch of my clips and the Deputy Editor, a woman who later became one of my closest friends, Sarah Pettit, called and asked me to come for a meeting in her office. She was this beautiful tough dyke, totally adorable, and we became good friends. She started assigning me stuff. The first thing I wrote for her was, I think, a review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was just these little 400 words things. But eventually I started doing big features. They didn’t pay well, but to get a check for 500 dollars for something in those days was great. It was so thrilling. The biggest thing I ever did for her was a kind of personal history essay about contemplating becoming a gay parent, some of which later made its way into my first book, The Elusive Embrace.
And then what happened was, I got a phone call one day. I was living with my roommate, another Classics grad student called Nancy Worman [she is now a Classics professor at Columbia] above a bookshop in Princeton. So I pick up and a guy announces himself and says he is an editor in New York at Saint Martin’s and he had been reading my “Culture Shock” columns and had I ever thought of writing a book? He said, “Will you meet me in the city and have lunch with me?” I thought, “Wow!!”
He turned out to be Bob Weil, who is now a senior editor at Norton. We had lunch and he said, “You should write a book about gay culture, as a cultural critic not as a gay activist.” At that period, the height of the culture wars, everything that was coming out was incredibly polemical. And I’ve always been leery of the way politics can infect aesthetics, so to speak, and his proposal appealed to me. We stayed in touch. And then on the train home from that meeting I thought, “I think I want to do this.”
So, I was writing for Out all through 1993, waiting tables in Princeton, finishing a dissertation about Euripides and toying with the idea of what a book might be. I announced to my advisor that after I finished my dissertation I was not going to go on the [academic] job market, but was going to move to New York to be a writer. It was torturous. Because I was, you know, a kind of golden boy at Princeton. I was working on this dissertation that was very well thought-of and I was this protégé and very close friend of Froma Zeitlin, who was a great Euripides scholar, and they had high hopes for me.
I finished by PhD in early ’94— it took me so long to write my dissertation because I was already freelancing very regularly, trying to write this thesis about Euripides, waiting tables at night…it was crazy, but it was exciting. I defended [my thesis] in May of ’94, and then I told Sara Pettit that I really needed to be writing for her often— I didn’t know anyone else. I had a lease in New York starting June 1st. A friend of a friend was moving out of her studio in Chelsea, it was 600 dollars a month and I moved in there and started trying to freelance.
Kind of crazy!
Now, I look back on it and I think, “What was I thinking?!” I didn’t know anyone, I had no connections…but it was exciting. That was sort of the beginning. Then I was just scrambling around looking for work.
Then, what happened was, I think in the late summer of ’94, I had an assignment for Sarah to do a thing about Camille Paglia, she had a new book coming out I think, a collection of her periodical stuff. I went to Philadelphia and for seven hours I sat with Camille. You know, she is so amazing. We talked, mostly about her and the book, but also it was the culture wars era, you have to remember that. We were people with politically liberal sympathies but were suspicious of the aesthetic manifestations of party lines. I had begun to make a little name for myself because I was writing for these gay publications, first at QW and then at Out, and was giving bad reviews to gay books, which you weren’t supposed to do. You were, basically, supposed to cheerlead for anything gay.
You were actually reviewing them.
Right. And she [Camille] loved that. So at the end of this epic conversation that went on until dinnertime— for a 400 word piece!— at the end of this conversation she said, “What are you doing? What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I’m writing these articles and I just got to New York and I’m freelancing, and I have this idea, this editor told me I might want to do this book…” And she said, “You have to write this book. You have to be a real critic looking at gay culture and figuring out all of the confusions and inconsistencies and sort of tortured accommodations.” And she said, “I love you”—this is just the way Camille talks—“I love you, you’re great, and I’m going to give you my agent’s fax number.” Camille, I remember, only communicated via fax. For a long time after I published something she liked, I’d get a fax: “Great work! Camille.”
She said, “I have this agent, Lydia Wills at Jankow Nesbitt, and you should talk to her about your book.” And, of course, being shy and retiring, I didn’t call the agent. But she had given the agent my number and Lydia called me. And that was how my first book happened. I went to Lydia’s apartment— she is still my agent— and I met with her; this was in the early autumn of 1994. I had this idea about this book and she sold it to an editor at Little, Brown on December 1, 1994. I had been living in New York for five months and I had my first book contract.
Wow! How were you feeling about everything at this point? What was life like?
It was very iffy. For the next five years, financially, it was very iffy. It took me five years to write that book. It was very hard to write that book, and it ended up being something totally different from the proposal. It ended up being The Elusive Embrace, because I just didn’t want to be some critic sitting and making pronouncements, I realized I had to be in this story of these conflicts and contradictions. But, I had an agent, I had a book contract.
I remember Lydia [Wills] gave a dinner party in December of ’94, a few weeks later. She had just done this deal for me, and she was giving a dinner party for her father, Garry Wills, in her loft down on 18th street. At the time her live-in boyfriend was Stefano Eco, Umberto Eco’s son… I went to this dinner party and I was so dazzled. I was sitting there next to Barbara Epstein who, of course, six years later would become my editor at the New York Review of Books. Garry Wills was there, Stefano was chatting about his father, and all these famous writers were clustered around drinking wine, Murray Kempton, all kinds of people. And I was just completely dazzled and thought, “Wow, here I am.”
Also, in 1994, which in retrospect was a golden moment, I met and became friends with Bob Gottlieb [Robert Gottlieb, the legendary editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker] and he has been an incredibly important mentor for me. By then he was no longer the Editor of The New Yorker, he was no longer the editor-in-chief at Knopf, he was no longer running anything, which I greatly regret because I would have loved to write for him as a New York writer. But he really mentored me tremendously, with incredible generosity and patience, from the start (as he likes to say). Everything I have ever written, I have given him to look at and go over before I turned it in. When I haven’t, it’s usually to my cost.
I mean, I had the best possible editorial support you could get in New York City—in the United States of America, I would say—as a writer, because of Bob’s tutelage. And it was through Bob that I hooked up with Chip McGrath [the then-editor of the New York Times Book Review], in around 1995. Bob said, “You should meet Chip McGrath, I’ll pass along some of your clips.” You have to remember, at that point I had a bunch of clips from some gay magazines, and one long one from The Nation, and I was rather self-conscious about it. And there was something else. I was very uncomfortable at that time with the idea of coming to an editor’s attention through a mutual friend, through a connection, rather than having them notice something I’d published. And Bob, I remember, said, “You should meet Chip. It has nothing to do with friends doing friends favors. He’s an editor, he needs writers, you’re a good writer, there is no shame.” And I remember him lecturing me about all this over lunch once, giving me a talking-to. “You have to get over this thing. You know, I can and will introduce you to Chip, but he’s not going to use you if you’re a crappy writer. So, it’s about your talents, ultimately.” I remember sitting in a diner in midtown and him reading me the riot act, because I hadn’t followed up. I hadn’t called Chip, or whatever.
In 1996 I wrote my first piece for Chip, and that began what would be a fabulous ten-year relationship with The New York Times Book Review. A lot of my reputation as a critic, I would say, was made by writing many, many pieces for Chip where he let me tackle increasingly big things—and not just gay things. Dante, Rilke, Anne Rice, Robert Harris novels, Bret Easton Ellis, Greek tragedy translations, whatever—it was fabulous and we had tons of fun. That was sort of recreating, on a much higher level, what I had been able to do when I was first writing “Culture Shock” for QW five years earlier. Just being out there, covering everything, turning in the copy to the right length, on deadline. I think that sort of put me on the map to some extent, because it was The Times.
And what was the living like for you in New York this time around?
You know, I was broke all the time. I think The Times paid 600 dollars a review or something like that, back then—if you did a 1500 word review, which was their standard, which I did many times.
I was living in Chelsea at the time. I literally knew every Rite Aid in Chelsea where you could get 5 packs of Ramen noodles for a dollar, instead of four for a dollar. I mean, I lived on Ramen. I was starving. You know, there were weekends when I couldn’t leave my apartment because I didn’t have subway token money.
Look, I had been in grad school for over seven years, from my mid-twenties to my early thirties, a crucial period in the economic lives of normal people. I would go to dinner parties and meet people in their mid thirties and they had bank accounts and retirement funds and vacations, and here I was living on twelve dollars for the weekend. But I didn’t care! Sometimes it was depressing, sometimes I had to borrow money from people. But I didn’t really care, because I was writing. I’d go and get the Sunday Times, and there I was—in it. That seemed worth a lot to me.
Still, the financial aspect was worrisome. In fact, I remember talking to my parents, and they said, “At a certain point you have to see if this is going to work. You can’t keep borrowing three thousand dollars and fifteen hundred dollars every few months.”
Did you ever reach a point where you felt like you should try to do something more stable—
No. Because I was doing exactly the thing that I am able to do better than anything else I could do. And I somehow just knew that it would all work out.
You had faith in that.
Yes, you have to.
Did you face some major early challenge?
No, I have to say that I was very lucky. Look, I started writing as a professional in June of ’94. I had a book contract in five months, which came with some money, which, at the time, seemed an immense amount, the advance I got for that book. So that helped. And I published my first piece with The New York Times in January of ‘96, that’s a year and a half. And I was regularly in The New York Times from ’96 on. I published The Elusive Embrace in June of ’99, so that is five years within landing. And I was writing for The New York Review of Books, which was my all-time goal, starting in the beginning of 2000. I was made the book critic of New York Magazine in 2000, which I did for three years, until 2002.
So, you know, basically, within five years of landing as a nobody in New York City, I had a salaried job at a major magazine writing book reviews, I was a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, and I was now at what I continue to think is the pinnacle of publishing if you want to do what I am interested in doing, which is being a critic, at The New York Review, which has been my home ever since.
So, it went very well for me very fast.
There are a lot of triumphant moments, but is there one triumphant moment that stands out?
At first it was the book contract, because it was a lot of money then, and I’d had no money for such a long time. And of course, beyond that, there were the great satisfactions— “Yay! You’re in The Times!” That was a big moment, to be in The New York Times. But I think you only have these kinds of insights of what was a “big moment” retrospectively. Because when you are doing all of this, you’re just moving on to the next thing. You’re always just trying to get to the next deadline, the next goal you set yourself.
You just keeping going. I always joke with Lydia [Wills] that I always have a kind of five-year plan. I don’t have an immediate plan. When I got to New York in 1994, I wanted to publish my first book by the end of the five years, to write for The Times Book Review and whatever else—
Check, check, check.
And the next five-year-plan was to be working on The Lost, from 2001-2006 and to be writing for The New York Review of Books. When I finished writing The Lost in 2005, we agreed that the next five years, I should finish my Cavafy translation, put out a book of essays and come up with a new book idea.
So, I don’t have short-term things, but I like every five years to feel like I’m moving.
Your work habits, have they changed a lot over time?
No, not at all. I get an assignment, I procrastinate, and three days before it’s due, I work incredibly hard. Most of my work, since I don’t do features or whatever, it’s just a matter of doing a tremendous amount of reading and studying. And that, I do. But actually writing I always do all at once at the last minute. I tend to write fast so for me the hard part is building up the well of reading and studying.
I read everything I can— this is where the academic training comes in— I read everything, I have note files on everything. Like this Fontane thing I published recently in The New Yorker. I spent probably four months reading and putting it all in a notes file: quotations I’m going to use, extensive notes on each of the primary texts, reading notes for each article, each secondary source—apart from everything else, it’s always good for the fact checkers later on. So by the end of the reading phase there tends to be 50 to 80 pages, one and a half spaced pages, of notes, by the time I’m ready to write. My thoughts, things I want to remember, quotations, whatever. And then, a few days before it’s due, I’ll sit down and I usually write through a whole draft in a day and a half.
How does the actual writing happen?
What happens is, the day I start writing I sit down with the notes file and I just scroll through it, reminding myself of everything I’ve read and thought. And then I put it away and open up a new file. And if I have a lede, it usually works pretty well—if I have the first sentence of a piece, I can write the whole thing fairly fast; finding the opening is usually the tricky part.
I’m an early riser and I usually start very early. If I’m not finished by cocktail time, then I will finish the next morning. Then I’ll have a draft and then I’ll tinker with it and then I’ll send it in. But it usually happens very fast.
When you say you procrastinate, what is your procrastination occupation of choice?
Oh, I garden, I shop, I go to the flea market, I think I am going to write and then I go call a friend and say, “Let’s go see a movie.” All the usual. Cleaning my bathroom.
Since you’re a critic who also writes non-critical things, do you ever experience anxiety from your own critical self scrutinizing what you are writing?
I don’t think so—not more than any writer has a kind of internal critic, the thing you have to silence in order to write. But I don’t think because I’m actually professionally a critic that that aspect is any more salient than it is for anyone else. I am not evaluating what I’m writing with my critic’s eye. I think all writers have an internal voice usually saying, “That’s crap.”
A lot of writers say they find the actual act of writing excruciating. You procrastinate, but you also said, when you were just starting out, that you felt like writing was the thing you could do and be totally immersed in. So, are you someone who enjoys the actual writing part?
Once I’m in the zone, I’m happy. It’s always hard to say what you mean, but that’s not painful, not like going-to-the-dentist painful. It’s like swimming laps. You wouldn’t say it’s painful, it’s challenging. The problem for me is always getting into the zone.
How do you do that?
I trick myself. I write in bed with my laptop, that’s why you don’t see a desk. When I’m about to start writing a piece, I turn on the television. It’s the loneliness that’s the most anxious-making for me. The fact that you are going out of the world, you know? So, I trick myself. I turn on the TV and watch TV and while I’m watching TV, I’ll think, “Oh, maybe I’ll just write the first sentence.”
No, really. I still do this, twenty years later. Then, of course, once you’ve written the first sentence you feel, “Oh, I know what should come next. The second sentence.” Then you’re writing. Then you’re there. It’s that sense that you have to go out of this nice world and into this other place that I’ve never gotten over. You’re alone. But the minute I’m actually writing, I’m happy.
You know, it’s like working in the garden. It’s not necessarily without labor or frustration, but you’re making this pretty thing happen, you’re making this flower grow.
It’s incredibly satisfying.
You teach now. How do teaching and writing work together, or don’t they?
I find it incredibly productive. In fact, every time I think of not teaching anymore, Bob Gottlieb says, “That’s crazy, you have to teach. Because that’s what you’re doing in your writing.” He means the critical stuff. “That’s what you’re good at. You’re explaining these texts that you really love.” And I do see a connection. I am a person who writes about culture and literature, and the culture and literature of the past and how it relates to the culture and literature of the present, and there is no better way to think about that than to explain to a bunch of eighteen year olds why it’s worth thinking about.
So there tends to be a thematic connection for me between the writing and the teaching. That is very fruitful. I’ve been working on this book called Odysseys, and thinking a lot about The Odyssey, and I’m teaching a course on The Odyssey precisely because I wanted to think about it. And I’m using the experience of this class in the book. So there is quite a bit of seamless overlap.
Also, I think teaching is good for me. It is the loneliness of writing that is the hardest part about being a writer. Wait, take that back. Not loneliness, the aloneness of being a writer. Because I’m not lonely, I am often alone and I’m not lonely, but it’s hard sometimes to get back into the world. You have six days in a row and you realize you haven’t talked to anybody! It’s a crazy way to live. So I think it is good to be interacting, sharing, bouncing ideas back and forth— not only with students, but with colleagues, in a social environment. Because there is no such thing for writers. For me, teaching and my community at Bard is where I get to be in the world more.
Do you have any advice for the young writers currently surviving on Ramen and hope?
My advice is always the same: Don’t go to publishing parties, don’t think the point of being a writer is about “connections” or “networking,” just keep reading and writing and sending your stuff out. I really believe what Bob told me years ago: unless you’re good, even the best connections in the world aren’t going to help you. You might get one piece somewhere, but you’re not going to have a career if you’re a crap writer with fabulous connections. Well, actually, I guess some people have—but would you want to be one of them?
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Author photo by Matt Mendelsohn.