Interviews

Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work

Interviewed by James Linville and George Plimpton

Fran Lebowitz’s trademark is the sneer; she disapproves of virtually everything except sleep, cigarette smoking, and good furniture. Her essays and topical interviews on subjects ranging from the difficulty of finding an acceptable apartment to the art of freeloading at weekend houses have come to be regarded as classics of literary humor and social observation.

Lebowitz was born in 1950 in Morristown, New Jersey, the daughter of furniture store proprietors. While working in the local Carvel ice-cream store, she attended an Episcopalian day school until she was thrown out for “non-specific surliness.” Certain that she would starve to death following this banishment, Lebowitz skipped college and moved to Manhattan, where she pursued such jobs as taxi driving, belt peddling, apartment cleaning (“with a small specialty in Venetian blinds”), and selling advertising space for Changes magazine.

Her first published work, movie and book reviews, appeared in that magazine when she was twenty years old. At twenty-one, she began a column, “I Cover the Waterfront,” for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before moving to Mademoiselle. Lebowitz maintains that she wrote the columns with the intention of building a distinct collection of essays. In placing them in magazines she was merely pursuing her policy of selling a piece of writing as many times as possible. The essays were published in Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981).

In the past ten years, Lebowitz has been a regular guest on the television show Late Night with David Letterman. “I’m not a nervous person. I’m not afraid to be on TV. I’m only afraid when I write. When I’m at my desk I feel like most people would feel if they went on TV.”

Some years ago, Lebowitz sold a proposal of a novel entitled “Exterior Signs of Wealth,” a reference to a French conspicuous-consumption tax figured on the basis of display of wealth. The novel is reputedly about rich people who want to be artists, and artists who want to be rich people. When asked about the long delay in its delivery to her publisher, she explained that she only works on it on the side. “Full-time I’m watching daytime TV.”

The following interview took place one afternoon in an apartment overlooking the East River. Lebowitz discoursed without pause for two hours, chain-smoking all the while. A brief follow-up conversation took place over the phone to Lebowitz, who had decamped to Princeton, New Jersey, where she was renting the house of a noted architect and sometime furniture designer. “There are these prototypes all over the place, mixed in with my own crummy furniture. I’m speaking to you from a priceless, one-of-a-kind chair. I’m afraid I’m sitting beyond my means.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Young people are often a target for you.

FRAN LEBOWITZ

I wouldn’t say that I dislike the young. I’m simply not a fan of naïveté. I mean, unless you have an erotic interest in them, what other interest could you have? What are they going to possibly say that’s of interest? People ask me, Aren’t you interested in what they’re thinking? What could they be thinking? This is not a middle-aged curmudgeonly attitude; I didn’t like people that age even when I was that age.

INTERVIEWER

Well, what age do you prefer?

LEBOWITZ

I always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them. I like people older than me and children, really little children.

INTERVIEWER

Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom?

LEBOWITZ

No, I’m just intrigued by them, because, to me, they’re like talking animals. Their consciousness is so different from ours that they constitute a different species. They don’t have to be particularly interesting children; just the fact that they are children is sufficient. They don’t know what anything is, so they have to make it up. No matter how dull they are, they still have to figure things out for themselves. They have a fresh approach.

INTERVIEWER

If you were going to have dinner with some of those “older people” you mentioned, say writers, which ones would you pick?

LEBOWITZ

If I had to, I would rather have dinner with James Thurber, than, say James Joyce. I’m not the biggest James Joyce fanatic and I would rather have dinner with someone who was funny. I would have liked to have met Nabokov. When I first came here, meeting writers wasn’t available to me; but now that I have met tons of those people, I wish I hadn’t. I never make the connection between someone’s writing and who they are. In the case of most good writers the writing is better than they are. I mean, knowing James Joyce . . . was he fascinating? No. He was probably grumpy. Meeting James Joyce would be more on the order of sightseeing, like seeing the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial.

There are some great writers who are great talkers, but there are more great writers who are not great talkers. People seem to think there is some connection between talking and writing, but I love to talk and if there were some connection between the two of them I would be the most prolific writer in the history of the world.

INTERVIEWER

What if you dictated a book?

LEBOWITZ

Then you would have a dictated book.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the difference?

LEBOWITZ

That’s not writing. Talking is not writing. To me, it would be even a slower way to write. To me, dictating a book seems impossible. But what would also be impossible, would be to write on one of those word processors. There’s too much distance.

INTERVIEWER

What do you use then?

LEBOWITZ

A Bic pen. I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. I think if there were no such thing as men, there would be no word processors. Male writers like them because they have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession. This is why you have so much idiotic behavior among male writers. There are more male writers who own guns than any other profession except police officers. They like machines because it makes them seem more masculine. Well, I work on a machine. It’s almost as good as being a mechanic.

I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection. A pen goes exactly at your speed, whereas that machine jumps. And then, that machine is waiting for you, just humming “uh-huh, yes?”

It reminds me of when a choreographer I know was creating a ballet. He was stuck, and he asked me to come help.

I said, How could I help you choreograph a ballet?

He said, I’d like you to come and sit there while I’m doing it. You’re so judgmental I would find it helpful.

So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.

Plus they are paid by the minute. And a piano player is sitting there as well. Twenty-five people sitting in the room staring at you while you are thinking. I can’t believe anyone has ever made a ballet.

INTERVIEWER

Were you expected to criticize what was going on?

LEBOWITZ

I was expected to sneer. I did sit there several afternoons in a row, kind of sneering. I don’t know why he needed me, because the dancers were doing that. They were finding it hard to mask their contempt, which was: why is it taking so long for him to think this up? Now, whenever I sit at the desk, I imagine the words sitting there sulking against the wall, waiting for me to think something up. He gave me such admiration for choreographers you can’t imagine. It’s just like the way I write a sentence. I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways. He has to do that with living people. Human contact at its absolute worst. When people say certain choreographers are mean to their dancers, I think, Not mean enough! If I were a choreographer the thing I would most need would be a gun. Every time someone gave you one of those looks, you could just shoot them.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it the same situation with a David Lean or a Steven Spielberg?

LEBOWITZ

No, because they are movie directors. To me there are only four kinds of artists: choreographers, writers, composers, and painters. What they do is make whole inventions. A movie director is part of a corporation. All things associated with movie-making are so collaborative. There are so many things that directors depend on. I wouldn’t have initially included a choreographer. I didn’t realize how they did it. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I had always thought that writing was the worst. But choreography is definitely worse. Plus there’s noise, there’s music, they have to tell the dancers to start and stop, and there have to be a certain amount of breaks to let them rest. You can’t keep them dancing forever. You might have a good idea and not be able to try it because they’re tired. It’s horrible, horrible.

I suggested to him that he get a computer. This is the only time I’ve ever suggested someone get a computer. I said, Why don’t you get a computer that has little people on it? You can make them move around and never have to give them a break.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of when you write?

LEBOWITZ

Spelling. I am probably the worst speller in the world, so I am constantly looking things up. Every time I sit at my desk, I look at my dictionary, a Webster’s Second Unabridged with nine million words in it and think, All the words I need are in there; they’re just in the wrong order.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about editing?

LEBOWITZ

I’ve never once been edited. I’ve never let anyone edit me, even when I was a kid. When I started publishing, I was writing for this small magazine, deservedly small, called Changes, which was what was then called an underground magazine. I wouldn’t let that editor edit me; it didn’t matter because they paid me ten dollars and no one read it. Then a few real magazines began calling me and asked, Would you be interested in writing for us?

I’d say, Well, yes, but you can’t edit me.

Click.

Then I started writing for Interview, where I made a deal (no editing), which also didn’t matter since no one read that magazine either. More people would call me, from real maga­zines now, like Esquire and New York magazine . . . and I said no editing.

Click.

My first book was not edited. Henry Robbins was my editor and before that Laurie Colwin. Neither one of them edited me. Joe Fox, who is now my editor at Random House, never edited me. So I’ve never had the experience of being edited and never will.

INTERVIEWER

Why is that? Don’t you find that an editor’s suggestion might be worthwhile to listen to?

LEBOWITZ

No, I don’t.

INTERVIEWER

You are very positive about this, aren’t you? You and Nabokov.

LEBOWITZ

When I gave Joe Fox Social Studies, my second and last book, perhaps the last book in every sense, he said to me, I don’t suppose you want to know what I think about it, do you?

I said, No, I don’t.

I suppose some writers actually like to write with editors. They feel that an editor isn’t an enemy but actually a helper. There is nothing more mine than my writing, nothing I’m more proprietary about. If someone were to say to me that something was wrong, some fact not true, I suppose I would be able to deal with that. But never in a matter of style. In the novel I’m writing now, there is something that Joe doesn’t like, quite a big thing. He said, I’m just telling you what I think. I said, Fine. I don’t agree with you.

INTERVIEWER

Even before he had said it?

LEBOWITZ

No, I let him say it. I may be tough, but I am polite. He disagrees with the way I have the narrator narrating the book. What he would have me do would be an easy thing to change. But it’s just out of the question; it’s not something I would seriously entertain. Joe is really an old-fashioned editor, one of the few left who really likes to edit. He’s an editor, not an acquirer. You might think that we’re an odd combination, since actually he doesn’t have any work to do with me. My relationship with him is personal. We don’t even have the same sensibility. I just like him, as simple as that.

When I went to Random House after Henry Robbins died, I didn’t really care who my editor was, because if you’re not going to be edited, it doesn’t make any difference who your editor is. I just chose Joe because I liked him. Some authors want to know who else is on an editor’s list. I didn’t even care what other writers he had edited.

INTERVIEWER

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

LEBOWITZ

When I was very little, say five or six, I became aware of the fact that people wrote books. Before that, I thought that God wrote books. I thought a book was a manifestation of nature, like a tree. When my mother explained it, I kept after her: What are you saying? What do you mean? I couldn’t believe it. It was astonishing. It was like—here’s the man who makes all the trees. Then I wanted to be a writer, because, I suppose, it seemed the closest thing to being God.

I never wanted to be anything else. Well, if there had been a job of being a reader, I would have taken that, because I love to read and I don’t love to write. That would be blissful. Sometimes you meet people who really enjoy their work. Those are the people I am most envious of, no matter what their work is.

INTERVIEWER

You never enjoyed writing?

LEBOWITZ

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

INTERVIEWER

When did you realize this?

LEBOWITZ

Recently. In the past six months I’ve had an easier time writing. I broke this ten-year writer’s block.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you call it a ten-year writer’s block?

LEBOWITZ

Because I didn’t write. I had an idea for this book, but I wrote very little. When I was about twenty and had just started publishing, I thought: I’ll write two books of these funny essays and then I’ll write a novel. I never wanted to write a novel first. I had—because of my aversion to young people, even when I was a young person—an aversion toward writing a young person’s novel. There are few books written by people in their twenties that, even if they are great books, are not in some way young people’s books. It’s that base longing of youth that really irritates me. I like a person who is more embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you are young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness. When I finished Social Studies, I had an idea for the novel, but I thought I needed a form for the book. When I was writing all those little essays, most of the topics I wrote about, everyone had written about. Everyone has written about everything; you’re not going to come up with some new topic to write about. So I always tried to come up with some kind of form for the piece that would be intrinsic to what I was saying. I like restrictions when I write. I don’t understand people who want more freedom. The terrifying thing about writing is freedom, when people say, But you can do anything. I don’t want to be able to do anything, that’s too terrifying.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give an example of a new form?

LEBOWITZ

I once wrote a piece on Los Angeles. I knew I was the eight billionth person to write about Los Angeles. So I tried to think of a different way to do it. I decided to write it as if it were an entry in a children’s encyclopedia. I needed something like that for my novel, though not quite that confining. For one month I went everywhere—to map stores, bookstores, looked through catalogs. Then I went to every kind of weird library—to specialty libraries and businesses that had their own libraries.

INTERVIEWER

What were you looking for?

LEBOWITZ

I didn’t know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so catholic in my wanderings.

INTERVIEWER

But why maps?

LEBOWITZ

Maps.

INTERVIEWER

You thought that the key to unlock your problem was in a map?

LEBOWITZ

There’s this Rand McNally store that has every kind of map and map book. I spent an entire workday there. I went out to lunch and came back. I thought maybe a key to a map might be of use to organize the chapters. Of course that didn’t work out. After a month I couldn’t find anything. But I decided that was all right, that I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us what it is?

LEBOWITZ

No.

INTERVIEWER

Will we be able to figure it out when we read the book?

LEBOWITZ

Yes, although it would not be significant to most people reading the book. It was more important to me. It provides a kind of bass note to the book. Discovering it was imperative to me, because I couldn’t start writing the book without it.

INTERVIEWER

Was this a framework?

LEBOWITZ

It’s a kind of form.

INTERVIEWER

So it could have been a calendar, a map, anything?

LEBOWITZ

When I finally found it, it was perfect, not only what form the book would take, but also what the book would be about. You’ll be able to recognize it. The book takes place over twenty years, and the story isn’t the book’s strong suit. So after five years, I have the key to the form. But then I didn’t know how to start it, didn’t know who would be telling it. Then the only lucky thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life happened. I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with the whole first paragraph in my head. Now, this just shows what a slothful person I am: I tried to go back to sleep. I thought to myself, I’m too tired. I am a terrible insomniac and I haven’t actually slept since 1962. It seemed more important to me at that moment, since I was already sleeping, to stay asleep. For about twenty minutes I tried to go back to sleep. When I realized I couldn’t, I got up and wrote it down.

INTERVIEWER

Will you read us this first paragraph?

LEBOWITZ

No.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do during those five years before you started writing the book?

LEBOWITZ

I sulked. Sulking is a big effort. So is not writing. I only realized that when I did start writing. When I started getting real work done, I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.

INTERVIEWER

Is that because the ideas come steaming along and you feel like you should put them down and you don’t?

LEBOWITZ

Not writing is more of a psychological problem than a writing problem. All the time I’m not writing I feel like a criminal. Actually, I suppose that’s probably an outmoded phrase, because I don’t think criminals feel like criminals anymore. I feel like criminals used to feel when they felt guilty about being criminals, when they regretted their crimes. It’s horrible to feel felonious every second of the day. Especially when it goes on for years. It’s much more relaxing actually to work. Although I might not strike you as languid, I’m much more relaxed than when I wasn’t writing. I’m much cheerier, I’m definitely much happier.

Still, I don’t get nearly the amount of work done that I read other people do. This is what most interests me in those interviews you do. If I could meet Shakespeare, I would ask, What time do you get up? Do you write at night? That is the reason I think these interviews are so great; but they’re only interesting to writers. If you’re not a writer why would you care? I’m not interested in the thoughts or ideas of these people, I only want to know how many pages a day they wrote. I don’t know many writers. I don’t have many friends who are writers. But as soon as I meet any, as soon as I can figure out that it’s not too intimate a question to ask them, which is about six seconds after I meet them, I say, How many words do you write a day?

INTERVIEWER

Why do you want to know that?

LEBOWITZ

So I can compare myself to them.

INTERVIEWER

Hemingway used to write down the number every day and post it on a piece of cardboard on top of his bureau.

LEBOWITZ

I count my words too. I was once at Sotheby’s looking at some furniture. Just looking. This guy whom I knew came over and asked if I’d like to look at a Twain manuscript that was going to be for sale. I constantly have to disabuse people of the notion that I can afford things like Twain manuscripts. I said I’d love to look at it, but I can’t afford it. He said, Oh, no, no, no that’s OK.

They think you’re lying. It’s amazing. You usually think of people bragging about being richer than they are. But people always assume that I’m lying when I say I can’t afford something. I have to explain this to the Good Humor man, let alone the Sotheby’s man with a Twain manuscript. He showed it to me. A short story. He was telling me about the manuscript and where they found it and everything.

He said, I’m pretty knowledgeable about Twain but there’s one thing we don’t understand. We’ve called in a Twain scholar.

I said, What is that?

He said, See these little numbers? There are these little numbers every so often. We just don’t know what those are.

I said, I do. I happen not to be a Twain scholar but I happen to be a scholar of little numbers written all over the place. He was counting the words.

The Sotheby’s man said, What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous!

I said, I bet you anything. Count. I don’t want to touch it, smudge up this manuscript. You know, like the sign says, you break it, it’s yours.

He counted the words and saw I was right. He said, Twain must’ve been paid by the word.

I said, It may have nothing to do with being paid by the word. Twain might have told himself he had to write this many words each day and he would wonder, Am I there yet? Like a little kid in the back of a car—are we there yet?

INTERVIEWER

A lot of writers have to work in a special place.

LEBOWITZ

I always think when I read interviews with writers that I’ll find the key to happiness. Only write at this hour. Only wear a green sweater. I’m looking for what people look for when they are buying a lottery ticket. The secret of success. The secret of success to how to get a certain amount of work done. I’m very interested in that. If you ask me whom I’d like to have dinner with, the answer is anyone who got a lot of work done.

When I finished the first three or four paragraphs of my novel, I thought to myself, Ah! This should be easy. The whole thing should be done in three or four weeks.

But here’s how I got myself to write my first chapter: I was asked to do a reading at this place downtown, Three Lives Bookstore. They had been asking me for about nine or ten years, how the book was coming along and if I would give a reading. When I had those three paragraphs, I called them and said I would be able to do a reading. We made a date to read the first chapter, not written . . . yet.

Having that deadline, because it wasn’t like any other deadline that you could easily break, helped a lot. A magazine will go ahead to press without you. A book, they’ll wait around for you. Either way you have it pretty good, since you don’t really have to meet your deadline. But people sitting in a bookstore . . . with no one up there reading, all those people sitting around, sulking like dancers.

This is how I decided on the length of the first chapter of this carefully structured book I was planning. I have a big bulletin board in my writing room that has every chapter carefully laid out on it. Now I had to write something and I said, How long do I have to read? They told me. I read something, timing it with a clock, not my novel of course, just read to figure out how many pages I would need to write to fill that amount of time. Something like four thousand words. That is exactly how many words my first chapter is.

About this time I did a benefit reading with some other writers including Scott Spencer, whom I know slightly. Right before I went on, I asked him, By the way, how long does it take you to write four thousand words. He said, I could write that in a day. That was the worst thing that anyone had ever said to me. If I was on amphetamines I couldn’t write that much in a day. I was crushed. I felt horrible. I could barely read what I had and then I had to listen to the other writers read. When you sit up on a stage you have to pretend to look interested. It was horrible. As I was walking out he said, Why did you ask me that? I told him about my impending reading and how I had needed to fill a certain amount of time. I said, But you, you can write thirty-five hundred words a day. He said, Yes, but then I throw out three thousand two hundred and fifty. That cheered me up quite a bit.

INTERVIEWER

What does your writing room look like?

LEBOWITZ

It’s a library, the biggest room in my apartment, really quite a nice room. Not quite my dream writing room, because my dream writing room would be the Imperial Library in Vienna. It has built-in bookcases on one wall and bookcases all around. I don’t think that I could write in a room that had no books in it, because writing in a room that has a lot of books in it gives me heart to know that people wrote all those books. Plus, it’s companionship—it’s the best kind, not just in writing, but in life. Finally, I need a lot of books to think. I own about four encyclopedias. Being uneducated in the formal sense, I’m not always sure my facts are right, or rather I’m not sure that the fact would show the idea to be right. So I have to look at an encyclopedia and read about some subject. I never know which books I’m going to need. I spent the summer in Princeton—not at Princeton, in Princeton—because it was very noisy at my place. I couldn’t think of what books to take out, so I took about sixty boxes of books with me. When I was packing a friend said, Which ones will you need?

I said, How do I know? I do know that at five o’clock in the morning I’ll need to know something and I’ll be stuck in Princeton—which I imagined to be something like Siberia—where there are no books.

She said, What are you talking about? There are plenty of books in Princeton. But I had a terrible time getting books there. I always want weird books. I own one of the most seriously bizarre libraries, because I not only like weird books but find them to be useful. I always write at night, so I can’t call anyone. Then, of course, when I have a question I can’t write the next word until I know. If I’m at home, where I have my books, I’m reassured. I happen to own, for instance, a book called The History of Dinner. I might look this thing up in The History of Dinner. So in my writing room I have a lot of books and I have my drum set.

INTERVIEWER

Drum set?

LEBOWITZ

You know, a drum kit.

INTERVIEWER

You play the drums from time to time?

LEBOWITZ

I wish I wrote as much as I played the drums. Fortunately, my building is built in such a way that you can play the drums at four o’clock in the morning. Unfortunately, I don’t find this helps me write, nor for that matter has it helped me become a good drummer because I am not. But it does release a little anger that might . . .

INTERVIEWER

A whole set?

LEBOWITZ

A big drum set, yes. A Christmas present from a very eminent rock musician. My secret desire in life is to be a drummer. I play alone, along to tapes. I’ve played with people, but I am not by any stretch of the imagination even a mediocre player. When he gave me the drums he said, If you really learn how to play the drums, I’ll make a video with you. Then he said, I’m going to send you a drum teacher. The drum teacher he sent was Steve Jordan, a great drummer. Of course, I am just as irresponsible a drummer as I am a writer, so that meant that Steve Jordan and I never got together.

So I have my drums, I have my books, desk, table, and I have all these boards. For the novel, I got this big metal bulletin board that you can put magnets on. I divided it up by each chapter in the book. I had to take the board to Princeton. It weighs nine tons. It can fit in no vehicle that anyone you know owns. So I have this one bulletin board that has all the chapters on it, then I have three other working bulletin boards. Because of all those years thinking about this book and not writing it, I wrote down little things on matchbooks and dry cleaner’s tickets. Each time I start a chapter or a section of a chapter, I go through every single one of these, and then I make a bulletin board of the structure and of the ideas that are in the chapter.

Even though I find those things helpful and this giant board helpful, in a way I know they’re fakes. In other words, they’re like wearing a green sweater or sharpening pencils, a way to make yourself think that you are doing work. Or like research, when you don’t really need to do the research. It’s a way of not writing. But it looks like writing. If someone were to come in, if the writing police should break down your door, you could say, Hey, look, I’m doing another bulletin board.

INTERVIEWER

Did you come to any conclusions, when you were working on your essays, about the art of being funny?

LEBOWITZ

I learned tricks, but being funny is like being tall. That is surely a thing that can’t be taught or learned. Either you’re funny or you’re not funny. You either see things in a funny way or you don’t. It’s a reflex action with me or anyone I’ve ever known who’s funny—whether funny conversationalists, stand-up comics, or funny writers. It’s a reflex, the way things strike you. Being funny in writing, especially in the essay form, which is so distilled, I learned certain tricks. I don’t think they would be of real value to anyone else.

Several years ago, someone asked me to talk to a class at Yale—a humor-writing class. To me this was the joke. Really, why not have a class on how to have blue eyes? If I was a parent and I found out that my child, on whom I was spending eight billion dollars a year sending to Yale, was taking a humor-writing class, I would be furious. I can’t imagine a more fraudulent activity than teaching a humor-writing class. Certainly those people should be in jail. I would like to arrest them personally.

People always try to find out what the trick is to writing. When I say trick, I don’t necessarily mean that in a disparaging way. Those things are something you feel when you’re reading. I can always see those tricks in writing. I have X-ray vision for them, though you shouldn’t be able to see them. In my work, I go out of my way to cover them up.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of the younger fiction writers?

LEBOWITZ

All of a sudden there were lots of writers younger than me. Of course, this might happen to anyone. When you reach a certain age, suddenly there are lots of people younger than you, which is really startling. If you’re used to being young, you don’t notice when you’re not young anymore, and then all of a sudden you’re compelled to notice. When I published my first book I was twenty-seven. I met other writers, but thought they were all old. Then one day there were a lot of writers, and they were ten years younger than me. These kids were different. When I was a kid, the people of my generation didn’t want to be writers, they wanted to be rock stars. Rock and roll was not just entertainment, it was the center of people’s lives. When I was young, it was exciting and interesting. These days very young kids are maybe interested in rock music as the center of their lives, or musicians are, but the average above-average person isn’t. For someone who loves books and reading as much as I do, this is a funny thing to complain about but, in a way, I think the reason many of them became writers was out of a kind of conservativism, a fear, a kind of cynical dullness. I don’t mean that there aren’t interesting people in it, but that generation of people who were in their twenties in the eighties, who are now about thirty . . . it’s a quiet generation. There’s a kind of carefulness that you don’t associate with youth. It’s worse than the fifties; it’s the fifties without the naïveté. It’s very disheartening to encounter a fearful twenty-one year old. They haven’t earned the right to be that afraid. It’s not like we’re living in war-torn Bosnia or something. They have a kind of middle-aged quality without the wisdom or experience. There’s nothing youthful about most of those writers. There’s an approach to it that strikes me as having to do with a job. To me, they’re investment bankers with word processors. You wonder how their writing will change as they grow older.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think the best education for a writer might be?

LEBOWITZ

Actual education and reading. Reading is the best education. What I lack in my own life is any orderliness to my education. If you educate yourself, especially if your education is entirely through reading fiction, there are gaps the size of the Grand Canyon. But I don’t like to read nonfiction. To me, fact is something I can look up. I probably have the weirdest self-education in history. I simply don’t know when things happened. I would have benefited from going to school and figuring out what order things happened in—who was invading whom when a certain picture was painted.

It would also have been helpful to have gone to a Catholic grammar school. The only people who know grammar are those people who went to Catholic grammar school. Those nuns beat it into them. Actually, everybody should go to Catholic grammar school, whether they’re Catholic or not. Nobody, however, should go to Catholic high school. In the Catholic grammar school they should learn grammar, the way that they used to teach—diagramming sentences and stuff like that. We had that in public school, but you didn’t have to pay attention because no one was going to hit you. The hitting, I think, is part of it. How else could you force people to learn such dull stuff, especially at an age when they couldn’t possibly imagine a use for it?

INTERVIEWER

Should they go around the world, learn different cultures, get into wars?

LEBOWITZ

That’s a very boyish idea. To tell you the truth, people’s experience doesn’t matter very much. Experience with a capital E is most useful to the mediocre writer. Vivid material is unnecessary for someone who is really talented.

INTERVIEWER

But aren’t you talking about a specific type of writing, namely at the highest level? Would you discourage a writer who is reasonably competent?

LEBOWITZ          

Writing is so hard. Why would you be a writer if you weren’t really good at it? If you could be anything else, why would you be a writer?

Lots of times I feel this way and not just about writers. You look at someone trying so hard at something at which they have no ability. The one thing about people that I truly don’t understand is the compulsion to do something that you are really bad at, other than doing it as a hobby.

For instance, I can’t carry a tune. What if I decided to be an opera singer? I could take singing lessons from the greatest opera singer in the world. I could hear every opera. I could learn seventeen languages. I still would be a bad singer. That is something you’re born with. I couldn’t make myself into a good opera singer. I couldn’t even make myself into a bad opera singer.

INTERVIEWER

How about the characters in the book? Have you discovered that they have taken on their own identities?

LEBOWITZ

A pleasure in writing a novel is that you can make your characters do anything. I have not had the experience which I’ve been dying to have my entire life, where the characters take over and become themselves. This is something I’ve always read about: You don’t know what your characters are going to do next. They just start talking to each other. That’s a cute notion, like saying, I walked into my office and there was a book that was written by itself while I was sleeping. If I live to be a thousand it will never happen to me. People are always saying that happens, but it’s a lie. My characters have no personality of their own. They have no life of their own. They don’t talk to each other on their own. They have to be pushed every inch of the way—by me. I have more of a chance winning the lottery than of having my characters begin to talk to each other on their own.

INTERVIEWER

Why do novelists have such trouble with sex?

LEBOWITZ

Well, in my book they’re not having any sex, so that’s how much trouble I have with it. There’s sex in the sense that characters have lovers and there are a lot of references to sex. There are no actual sex scenes. Writers have problems writing sex scenes, because writing one really well is pornography.

I wrote pornography when I was young to make money, to make very little money. I don’t know why they have so much trouble trying to define what pornography is. It’s very easy. Pornography is writing the intent of which is to get someone turned on. So if you write a sex scene and you write it well, that is pornography. Now I don’t object to pornography being in a novel, but I don’t want my readers’ attention distracted. I can’t think of one example of an explicit sex scene that I found the least bit interesting. Writing pornography is deadly, nothing duller. I mean a toll-taker has a more exciting life than a pornographer.

INTERVIEWER

So you weren’t turned on by what you were writing?

LEBOWITZ

No. These books were written under contract and the contract would tell you what had to be in the book. I’m sure this kind of book doesn’t even exist anymore because today the sort of person who would have read that book would go and get a video.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember your titles?

LEBOWITZ

The only book I wrote all by myself was House of Leather.

 This publishing company had, if you can believe it, little publishing subsidiaries, depending on interests, but the biggest line was for heterosexual men. In books for this line, there could be no homosexual male sex—that was in the contract—but there had to be lesbian sex and there had to be a certain amount of it. In the contract it would say how often and how many words until there had to be sex again.

So it was very arduous writing. The first one I did by myself. After that I kind of subcontracted them out. Five people would come over and one person would type. We would get smashed, very stoned, and we would just make stuff up, and if it had enough sex in it, you would get your money.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a sense of your audience? Did you ever meet any of your readers?

LEBOWITZ

Not that I know of. I did about four of these books, so obviously the publisher thought I knew who I was writing for, but anyone could go in there. I was always looking for jobs, and someone had told me about it.

I want to write a book.

OK.

They handed me a contract. There was a pile of them on the publisher’s desk. They just handed it to you. If you put the right things in the book, they’d give you the check.

INTERVIEWER

There was no advance against royalties?

LEBOWITZ

No, there was no advance. You’d give them the book, they’d give you the money, and that was it. It was like driving a cab, only harder.

INTERVIEWER

Was this one of your first literary assignments?

LEBOWITZ

It was my first. But it really wasn’t at all like writing. So the way I solved the sex problem in my novel is that there isn’t any—no explicit sex.

A writer that I think writes extremely well about sex, in a profound way, is John O’Hara, but there’s no explicit sex. He’s one of my favorite writers. To me, O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald. I think O’Hara is an underrated writer because every single person who knew him hated him. Everyone tells you stories about what a jerk he was, what an idiot, what a social climber, how awful he was—O’Hara. Did you know O’Hara? Uck—O’Hara. He was also an extremely popular writer and that probably hurt him, but mostly it was the fact that everyone hated him. As soon as all the people who knew him die off, people will come to share my opinion. Of course, this is a running battle with Joe Fox who knew him, loathed him, doesn’t like his writing nearly as much as I do. Joe thinks that this is the weirdest thing about me.

INTERVIEWER

Appointment in Samara is one of the best American novels.

LEBOWITZ

I agree. He did the thing that students are told a writer should most aspire to—he made a whole world. A totally coherent world. I love him. I love his short stories. I love his weird books. I even love all the wrong books. I found a book of his called Lovey Childs in a second-hand bookstore in L.A. I had never even heard of this book. I called up Joe and asked if he’d ever heard of this book.

There’s no such book.

Joe, I’m holding the book in my hand.

Joe’s worked for Random House his whole life and he didn’t even know that they had published it. This book never should have become a novel. I’m sure it was a short story that some editor wrongly told him to make into a novel.

INTERVIEWER

In general, why is it so difficult to write?

LEBOWITZ

Because it’s intrinsically difficult work. The only job that is worse is coal mining. All writers have a normal healthy amount of fear, but I have an excessive amount of fear.

INTERVIEWER

What is the fear about?

LEBOWITZ

For some people it’s the fear of not being good enough, for others it’s the fear of being good enough. It’s tempting the gods to write. Think of the terrible attacks Philip Roth was subjected to early in his career, and even now. This is why people do horrible things to themselves when they are writing, punishing themselves so maybe someone else won’t. I know someone who eats thousands of candy bars when he is working. His writing room smells like Hershey, Pennsylvania. I myself smoke so much while I’m writing that it’s hard for me to make out what few words I’ve actually gotten down on paper.

All contemplation of oneself is unpleasant—even the contemplation of your own ideas is fairly nerve‑racking—and that’s what writing is. Also, in this era, writing has so little effect compared to when the novel was at the center of the culture. That kind of impact is totally impossible and you know it, so you have to believe in books as a kind of religion. The other kinds of things you used to get by being a writer are no longer available. It’s sad for us, but worse for the culture, because, no matter how many new forms of technology, the only way to introduce a new idea is through a book. Now, of course the chance of a given writer having a new idea is slim, but should they have one, that idea has to filter into the culture in a different way, through some horrible other medium, and if the idea is not destroyed, it does become distorted and vastly diminished. People truly unworthy of that idea will be the ones to set it before the society.

INTERVIEWER

Could this diversion of attention be beneficial?

LEBOWITZ

How? People who are meant to become real writers are marginal enough already. Why else would they want to be writers? The only way someone can see something is by being outside it. A person who fits into the culture, who is truly acceptable to a society, would never become a writer in the profound sense of that word. Even Edith Wharton, who looked to be at the top of our society, was not truly acceptable because of her sensibility. That was marginalizing enough. She wasn’t black or Latina or poor, and although those things can work in that direction, that isn’t, contrary to popular opinion, the most important sort of distinction. What if someone wants to write about something else entirely? Luckily for us, homosexuality wasn’t Oscar Wilde’s direct subject. He didn’t need a subject. Unlucky people have a subject thrust upon them. I can’t think of a worse thing to be than a black writer, because to be a black writer means to be forced constantly to write about being black. Nothing could be more confining. I’ve always been grateful to be a second- rather than a first-generation American Jew, so I didn’t have to be obsessed with my Jewish identity. Blacks in this country may never have that luxury.

INTERVIEWER

This all sounds so difficult. Why do you do it? What does it give back?

LEBOWITZ

The rewards of any warrior. The word that best describes my feeling of having written is triumphant—triumphant on the level of Alexander the Great. Having overcome your worst fear, the thing you are most vulnerable to, that is the definition of heroic.

Also, it’s such a worthwhile human activity. The most.

Finally, no soldier ever came to me and said, You have to be a writer, but it was decided long ago that it was a given. So when I’m writing it’s the only time I feel all right. It’s the only time I feel justified. Whenever I am doing anything else, which is most of the time, even if it is not something like robbing a bank, I feel felonious. Writing is what I’m supposed to be doing.  

Author photograph by Dorothy Alexander.