Interviews

Cynthia Ozick, The Art of Fiction No. 95

Interviewed by Tom Teicholz

A few words about the collaborative process that yielded the text that follows: Initially, Ozick was concerned that her spoken words would later betray her in print. “Conversation is air,” she said, and asked whether I might submit questions to be answered in writing. I made an acceptable counterproposal: I would ask questions, Ozick would type out her answers.

I sent no questions beforehand. Instead, we sat down at the dining room table of her New Rochelle home on a June day in 1985. I turned on my tape recorder, she turned on her electric typewriter. I asked a question, she typed out her answer and then read it to me. Ozick is a rapid typist and the exchange flowed quickly. It was a conversation, with the typing giving pause for thought. We drank tea and I munched on cookies. Occasionally we would drift into conversation lost to the typescript but captured on tape. The end product was a manuscript, which when amended by her oral comments doubled in length. At a later date, Ozick reviewed and revised her spoken comments. Her changes, true to our intent, were more of a copyedit than a rewrite. “Whoever thinks the taped voice is ‘true to life’ is in error,” she wrote me later. “It is false to life. But I am satisfied with the interview.”

I had feared that the rigorous intellect evidenced in Cynthia Ozick’s essays and stories would be matched in person by a severe manner. But what is most disarming about Ozick in person is her gentleness, sensitiveness, and directness, which put the visitor at ease. At as great a length as I interviewed Ozick, or more, she later interviewed me, with interest, sympathy, and encouragement.

 

INTERVIEWER

You write all night. Have you always done so?

CYNTHIA OZICK

[Speaking, not yet typing.] Always. I’ve written in daylight, too, but mainly I go through the night.

INTERVIEWER

How does this affect your interaction with the rest of society?

OZICK

It’s terrible. Most social life begins in the evening, when I’m just starting. So when I do go out at night, it means I lose a whole day’s work.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t just start at midnight or whenever you get home?

OZICK

I almost never get home at midnight. I’m always the last to leave a party.

INTERVIEWER

What are your regular working hours?

OZICK

You’re talking as if there’s some sort of predictable schedule. I don’t have working hours. I wake up late. I read the mail, which sometimes is a very complex procedure. Then I eat breakfast with the Times. Then I start priming the pump, which is to read. I answer the letters.

INTERVIEWER

You answer every letter you get?

OZICK

I am compulsive. I take care of everything.

INTERVIEWER

You are also known as a letter writer.

OZICK

No, I don’t feel that. I feel that what I’m doing is conscientiously and responsibly replying. Occasionally, though, an urgent spontaneous letter will fly out—love, polemics, passion.

INTERVIEWER

One of the footnotes in your Forster essay mentions a correspondence you had with Lionel Trilling.

OZICK

Lionel Trilling wrote in response to something I had published about Forster a long time ago. It was an astonishing letter. He said that he realized E. M. Forster was homosexual only years after he had completed his book on Forster’s work. It wasn’t an issue in the society at the time he was writing. The atmosphere didn’t lead anyone to think along those lines, and Trilling himself was unaware. I met Leon Edel at the Academy in May and he’s doing . . . That thing [the tape recorder] is going! I just realized that. I thought I was just talking. Hmmm. [Turns on typewriter, starts typing.] Leon Edel is doing a one-volume reissue of his magnificent biography and he said he’s putting in a lot of new matter about James and the issue of his possible homosexuality because when he was writing that part of the biography it was the fifties and one didn’t talk about such things.

INTERVIEWER

I take it that you’re reading even when you’re working on a piece of fiction.

OZICK

I read in order to write. I read out of obsession with writing.

INTERVIEWER

So, for example, does what you’re reading influence what you write?

OZICK

Not precisely. I read in order to find out what I need to know: To illuminate the riddle.

INTERVIEWER

When you were writing The Cannibal Galaxy, what were you reading then?

OZICK

For that? Nothing at all. Oh, yes, street maps of Paris. Guidebooks about Paris. Anything I could find on the Marais, on the rue des Rosiers, for instance, the Jewish quarter.

INTERVIEWER

What are you reading now, for the novella you’re working on?

OZICK

Swedish stuff! A book with pictures of the Swedish landscape, a book about the Swedish royal family, a Swedish-English dictionary. But the dictionary is dangerous. Looking up how to say a simple (and immaculate) Goddamn, I came up (some Swedish friends later wrote me) with a super four-letter stinger. The novella will be called, I think, “The Messiah of Stockholm.” It takes place in Stockholm. I’d better say no more, or the Muse will wipe it out.

INTERVIEWER

Do you really believe that? Has that happened before?

OZICK

I have lost stories and many starts of novels before. Not always as punishment for “telling,” but more often as a result of something having gone cold and dead because of a hiatus. Telling, you see, is the same as a hiatus. It means you’re not doing it.

INTERVIEWER

When you first graduated from college you undertook a long novel.

OZICK

Immediately after graduate school . . . ah, here I should stop to explain that there was a very short period in the early fifties when would-be writers were ashamed to go on to get a Ph.D. A very short period! But that was when one tried out teaching for a while after college—as a teaching assistant on a stipend—and then fled homeward to begin the novel. Mine, typically, was immensely ambitious. I thought of it as a “philosophical” novel, and was going to pit the liberal-modernists against the neo-Thomists. I wrote about 300,000 words of it.

INTERVIEWER

What possessed you to want to write a novel at all?

OZICK

I never conceived of not writing a novel. I believed—oh, God, I believed, it was an article of faith!—I was born to write a novel.

INTERVIEWER

You believed that since childhood.

OZICK

Yes, since my first moments of sentience.

INTERVIEWER

Is deciding to be a writer a question of “personality” or of “content,” of what the person has to say?

OZICK

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a condition, a given; content comes later. You’re born into the condition of being an amphora; whether it’s wine or water that fills it afterward belongs to afterward. Lately I think of this given condition as a kind of curse, because there is no way out of it. What a relief it would be to have the freedom of other people! Any inborn condition of this sort is, after all, a kind of slavery. There is no choice. Nor can one choose to stop: although now that I’m no longer young, I talk to writers of my own age about this. About the relief of being allowed to stop. But I know I will never stop until the lip of limitation—that is, disability or the grave. But you ask about the beginning. The beginning was almost physiological in its ecstatic pursuits. I’m embarrassed as I say this—“ecstatic pursuits”!—but I am thinking back to the delectable excitement, the waiting-to-be-born excitement, of longing to write. I suppose it is a kind of parallel Eros.

INTERVIEWER

But to return to after graduate school—you took the plunge into a long novel.

OZICK

Yes. I was working on the novel I called, from Blake, Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love. I abbreviated it: Mippel, I called it, deriving that from MPPL. And I developed a little self-mocking joke about that. I referred to it as the Mippel on which I sucked for so long. Somewhere in the middle of it, I read of a paperback company that was doing collections of novellas—a sort of contest. The editor, I seem to recall, was named Oscar De Liso. I thought I would polish off a novella in, say, six weeks, and then return to Mippel. As it turned out, the novella grew longer and longer and took nearly seven years, and became Trust. I had already spent about seven years with Mippel. This is a part of my life that pains me desperately to recall. Such waste, so many eggs in one basket, such life-error, such foolish concentration, such goddamned stupid “purity”! In the middle of Trust, as it happened, I stopped to write a shorter novel, which I did write in six sustained nonstop weeks. It was called The Conversion of John Andersmall. I conceived of it as a relief, a kind of virtuoso joke: a comic novel. It was turned down by, among others, the agent Candida Donadio and by E. L. Doctorow, then an editor at Dial. I believe there is a carbon of it somewhere up in the attic. It was finally lost somewhere in a London publisher’s office.

INTERVIEWER

Were you writing full-time then?

OZICK

Yes. Full-time.

INTERVIEWER

And how were you supporting yourself?

OZICK

I had gotten married and my husband, Bernard Hallote, supported me. I used to say that I was on a “Hallote”; some people are on a Guggenheim, I was on a Hallote.

INTERVIEWER

What sustained you without publication during that period?

OZICK

Belief. Not precisely self-belief, because that faltered profoundly again and again. Belief in Art, in Literature: I was a worshipper of Literature. I had a youthful arrogance about my “powers,” and at the same time a terrible feeling of humiliation, of total shame and defeat. When I think about that time—and I’ve spent each decade as it comes regretting the decade before, it seems—I wish I had done what I see the current generation doing: I wish I had scurried around for reviews to do, for articles to write. I wish I had written short stories. I wish I had not been sunk in an immense dream of immense achievement. For most of this time, I was living at home in my parents’ house, already married. But my outer life was unchanged from childhood. And my inner life was also unchanged. I was fixed, transfixed. It was Literature every breathing moment. I had no “ordinary” life. I despised ordinary life; I had contempt for it. What a meshuggener!

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe the feeling of first publication?

OZICK

I was thirty-seven years old. I had the baby and the galleys together, and I sat at my desk—the same desk I use now, the same desk I inherited from my brother when I was eight years old—correcting the galleys with my right hand, and rocking the baby carriage with my left. I felt stung when the review in Time, which had a big feature on first novels that season, got my age wrong and added a year. I hated being so old; beginning when I thought I’d be so far along. I’ve had age-sorrow all my life. I had it on publication, but for the next ten years or so the child was so distracting that I hardly noticed what publication “felt” like.

INTERVIEWER

How did you go about getting Trust published?

OZICK

Oh! What a story. I mustn’t defame the dead. It was a long, hopeless process. I finished it on the day John Kennedy was assassinated, in November, 1963. Publication wasn’t until three years later. Those were three hellish years. It began when an agent, Theron Raines, wrote me a letter after a poem of mine had appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review; in those days I was writing poems all the time. The biographical note at the back of the magazine said I was writing a novel, and this interested Raines, who got in touch. He has been my representative ever since. At first an option was taken on the novel by the late Hal Scharlatt, who procrastinated over a year, and just let the manuscript sit there. He was busy, he told me, with the big long manuscript of someone called Henry Kissinger. An unknown name. A political writer of some kind. Scharlatt asked for revisions and said he would tell me what they ought to be; but he never called me in to talk about this. Finally, after a year and a half, I appealed to him to see me. He was sitting at his desk in his office at New American Library with a yellow sheet in the typewriter; he was just making his first notes on the famous “revisions.” I saw he was making them up on the spot. And he had kept me dangling and suffering, for a year and a half, over nothing at all! The important editorial ideas he had promised me and for which I’d waited so long turned out not to exist. Vapor. The manuscript was finally taken over by his colleague, David Segal, a remarkable editor who became my friend. His wife, Lore Segal, the novelist, is one of my closest friends now. David Segal sent me a hundred pages with red-pencil marks all over them, and asked for cuts. I had known all along that I would never have accepted any cuts from Scharlatt; and I could not bring myself to accept any from David, whom I respected. I had a dilemma: accept the cuts, and be published; refuse, and languish forever unpublished. I declined David Segal’s cuts. He, amazing man, went ahead and published the novel anyhow.

INTERVIEWER

You then turned to shorter fiction.

OZICK

I was afraid of ever again falling into hugeness. It had been a time of extended darkness, and I was afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Now, so much time after that, more than twenty years, almost thirty years later, are you still consciously avoiding length? Avoiding, or in fear of, the large novel?

OZICK

[Starts typing—stops suddenly.] Is it usually part of your interview technique that your subjects end up delivering long confessions? I have a truth-telling syndrome and I wish to God I didn’t . . .

INTERVIEWER

Why?

OZICK

We’re strangers and it leaves me utterly unprotected; I don’t know what I need protection from, but I can’t believe that when you interviewed Isaac Bashevis Singer he told you all about his life-hurts—he didn’t. Jerzy Kosinski, whom you also interviewed, is certainly a protected person. Have you ever run into the completely unprotected—or as the psychoanalysts say—undefended?

INTERVIEWER

It’s true that Kosinski is very adept at press interaction. But I was conscious of that and . . .

OZICK

You can never second-guess him. You can never penetrate beyond his penetration of you. It’s impossible. He’s—he’s a genius. Your question was about avoiding the longer forms.

INTERVIEWER

The large novel.

OZICK

[Resumes typing.] The Modernist Dream. I recently did a review of William Gaddis and talked about his ambition—his coming on the scene when it was already too late to be ambitious in that huge way with a vast modernist novel. But I was ambitious that way too. I no longer believe in Literature, capital L, with the same fervor I used to. I’ve learned to respect living, perhaps. I think I have gotten over my fear of largeness as well, because I have gotten over my awe—my idolatrous awe. Literature is not all there is in the world, I now recognize. It is, I admit, still my all, but it isn’t the all. And that is a difference I can finally see.

INTERVIEWER

But what about your literary ambitions in terms of subject matter and length?

OZICK

I see it as a simple matter of choosing a subject, or having the subject choose itself, and letting the subject dictate the length. It’s not my “ambition” that dictates the size of the enterprise. I am not interested in ego, if that’s what this question is about. “The Pagan Rabbi,” for instance, a short story written so long ago, touches on a large theme: the aesthetic versus the moral commitment. Profound subject matter can be encompassed in small space—for proof, look at any sonnet by Shakespeare! Multum in parvo. I am not avoiding length these days—not consciously. But perhaps there’s some truth in the speculation that I may be living my life backwards! Doing the short forms now, having begun with a Great Work, a long ambitious “modernist” novel of the old swollen kind.

INTERVIEWER

Can one write and avoid ambition?

OZICK

One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.

INTERVIEWER

But is writing idolatry?

OZICK

Until quite recently I held a rather conventional view about all this. I thought of the imagination as what its name suggests, as image-making, and I thought of the writer’s undertaking as a sovereignty set up in competition with the sovereignty of—well, the Creator of the Universe. I thought of imagination as that which sets up idols, as a rival of monotheism. I’ve since reconsidered this view. I now see that the idol-making capacity of imagination is its lower form, and that one cannot be a monotheist without putting the imagination under the greatest pressure of all. To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded. Once you come to regard imagination as ineluctably linked with monotheism, you can no longer think of imagination as competing with monotheism. Only a very strong imagination can rise to the idea of a noncorporeal God. The lower imagination, the weaker, falls into the proliferation of images. My hope is someday to be able to figure out a connection between the work of monotheism-imagining and the work of story-imagining. Until now I have thought of these as enemies.

INTERVIEWER

What do you attribute your change of mind to?

OZICK

Somebody gave me this idea. I had a conversation with a good thinker.

INTERVIEWER

Who’s that?

OZICK

[Stops typing.] I don’t want to give him the attribution here, because I did once before in print and he was embarrassed by it. So the alternative is to plagiarize. Either embarrass or plagiarize. He’s put me in that position.

INTERVIEWER

But in any case, you’re still in the storytelling business.

OZICK

I’m in the storytelling business, but I no longer feel I’m making idols. The insight that the largest, deepest, widest imaginative faculty of all is what you need to be a monotheist teaches me that you simply cannot be a Jew if you repudiate the imagination. This is a major shift for me.

INTERVIEWER

And now you feel better about it. But neither of the two positions . . .

OZICK

. . . will stop me from doing it. Exactly. I can’t stop. Right, that’s true. I’d better write that down. [Starts typing again.] In any case, whether I were ultimately to regard storytelling as idol-making or not, whether I might some day discover the living tissue that connects the capacity for imagery with the capacity to drive beyond imagery—whatever my theoretical condition, I would go on writing fiction.

INTERVIEWER

How come?

OZICK

Because I will do it. Whether it is God’s work or Satan’s work, I will do it.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

OZICK

Willfulness.

INTERVIEWER

In your critical articles on the Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf biographies, you say “the writer is missing.”

OZICK

That’s true. It’s quite true.

INTERVIEWER

What is “the writer” that is missing?

OZICK

Quentin Bell’s biography told the story of his aunt, who happened to be the famous writer Virginia Woolf. But it was a family story really, about a woman with psychotic episodes, her husband’s coping with this, her sister’s distress. It had, as I said, the smell of a household. It was not about the sentences in Virginia Woolf’s books. The Wharton biography, though more a “literary” biography, dealt with status, not with the writer’s private heart. What do I mean by “private heart”? It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does—breakfast, schedule, social outings—but what the writer is. The secret contemplative self. An inner recess wherein insights occur. This writer’s self is perhaps coextensive with one of the writer’s sentences. It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence in a work of fiction, say, than in five or ten full-scale biographies. Or interviews!

INTERVIEWER

So which sentence of yours shall we take? Shall I pick one out? [Begins rummaging through books.]

OZICK

[Stops typing.] Oh my God!

INTERVIEWER

I’m calling you on this one.

OZICK

Yes, you are. Good God. Okay. Let’s see where this takes us.

INTERVIEWER

We can start with the opening sentence of The Cannibal Galaxy: “The Principal of the Edmond Fleg Primary School was originally (in a manner of speaking) a Frenchman, Paris-born—but whenever he quoted his long-dead father and mother, he quoted them in Yiddish.”

OZICK

There is a piece of autobiography in that sentence. It may need a parenthetical explanation. I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: “Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence.” Ever since then, I’ve made a point of starting out with a parenthesis in the first sentence. Years later, Trilling was cordial and very kind to me, and I felt redeemed, though it took two decades to earn his approval. But you can see how the sentence you’ve chosen for this crafty experiment may not be to the purpose—there’s too much secret mischief in it.

INTERVIEWER

What else does it reveal?

OZICK

Nothing.

INTERVIEWER

Shall we turn to Puttermesser? “Puttermesser, an unmarried lawyer and civil servant of forty-six, felt attacked on all sides.”

OZICK

Cadence. Cadence is the fingerprint, isn’t it? Suppose you were going to write that sentence with that precise content. How would it come out? It’s short enough for you to give it a try just like that, on the spot.

INTERVIEWER

I might just write “Puttermesser felt attacked on all sides.”

OZICK

Yes. That’s interesting. It’s minimalizing, paring away. You are a Hemingwayesque writer, then?

INTERVIEWER

A Hemingwayesque rewriter. But to get back to my question: Is the heart of Ozick, the writer, cadence?

OZICK

It’s one element, not the only one. Idea counts too.

INTERVIEWER

But you must have a notion of what a writer is. You have criticized the biographies of Wharton and Woolf as “missing the writer,” and you have written about the writer as being genderless and living in the world of “as if” rather than being restrained by her own biographical—

OZICK

Parochial temporary commitments.

INTERVIEWER

So then how would you define this writer? And how would you define the “Ozick” writer that stems from your written work and stands independent of your biographical data and which otherwise might be missing from this interview?

OZICK

But I worry about any Platonic notion of “a writer.” I now must (perhaps in defiance of my own old record) believe that a writer is simply another citizen with a profession. I don’t want to cling to any pretensions of the writer as that inspired mystical Byronic shaman or special select ideal holy person. I don’t want to live in the world with such mystical figures; I don’t like self-appointed gurus, and even less the kind that’s divinely appointed. A writer is someone born with a gift. An athlete can run. A painter can paint. A writer has a facility with words. A good writer can also think. Isn’t that enough to define a writer by? The rest is idiosyncrasy—what I meant earlier when I spoke of the cadence of any single sentence. And what is idiosyncrasy except minute individual difference? In the human species, individual differences are minute. Think how we all come equipped with all the parts that make up a face, and how every face is different from every other face, even as, simultaneously, every face is equal to every other face.

INTERVIEWER

How does your Jewishness fit in here? Don’t we have to speak about that?

OZICK

To be Jewish is to be a member of a civilization—a civilization with a long, long history, a history that is, in one way of viewing it, a procession of ideas. Jewish history is intellectual history. And all this can become the content of a writer’s mind; but it isn’t equal to a writer’s mind. To be a writer is one thing; to be a Jew is another thing. To combine them is a third thing.

INTERVIEWER

In those writers’ classes where one is always told, Write about what you know.

OZICK

Ah! When I’ve taught those classes, I always say, Forget about “write about what you know.” Write about what you don’t know. The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive. We are, after all, a species. When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination.

INTERVIEWER

Where is the vanishing point? What do you mean by these limits of subjectivity? The limits of our gray cells?

OZICK

Our gray cells aren’t our limitations. It’s our will to enter the world; by the world I mean history, including the history of thought, which is the history of human experience. This isn’t an intellectual viewpoint. In fact, it asks for the widening of the senses and of all experience.

INTERVIEWER

But how far do you intend to go?

OZICK

As far as I can. As far as is necessary.

INTERVIEWER

In the kingdom of As-If, there are some writers who never leave the house, and some writers who are explorers of the universe.

OZICK

And some who do both at the same time. Emily Dickinson.

INTERVIEWER

Philip Roth stays close to home, Doris Lessing goes out. In terms of content, some are homebodies, some are astronauts, some are chameleons. Which are you?

OZICK

None of the above. An archaeologist, maybe. I stay home, but I’m not a homebody. I go out, but only to dig down. I don’t try to take on the coloration of the environment; I’m not an assimilationist. I say archaeologist, because I like to think about civilizations. They are illuminated in comparison. Stories are splinters of larger ideas about culture. I’m aware that there are writers who deny idea completely, who begin from what-happens, from pure experience. But for me ideas are emotions.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever rejected a story, or character, or idea, because you’ve felt you couldn’t “do” it, or didn’t know it?

OZICK

Yes, once. I began a novel meant to trap Freud. I read the Jones biography, read Civilization and Its Discontents and some other things, and then quit. I saw it would take a lifetime of study.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a notion of having created a writer “Cynthia Ozick” whose nose might be Levitation, eyes Cannibal Galaxy, and mouth Bloodshed?

OZICK

I once was asked to draw a self-portrait. [Starts drawing.] It came out something like this: What is the true import of this metaphorical question?

INTERVIEWER

Again, I’m trying to get you to define the writer “Ozick.”

OZICK

I honest to God don’t know. Can one say what one is? How does one define one’s own sense of being alive? I think it is this hum, or buzz, blah blah blah blah blah blah, that keeps on talking inside one’s head. A stream of babble. The inner voice that never, never, never shuts up. Never. What is it saying? One can’t listen; if one listened, it would be, I think, the moment just before death.

INTERVIEWER

Again this points out how difficult it is for any biographer to seize the inner self of a writer.

OZICK

You’ve really backed me to the wall—you’re saying I was unfair, unreasonable, in criticizing those biographers.

INTERVIEWER

It’s not where I started out at—I imagined that if you found something lacking you might yourself have a sense of what belongs there.

OZICK

I’ve never tried to write a biography and I have no idea if it’s doable. But . . . [starts typing] I have kept a diary since 1953. Maybe the self-definition of a writer is there, cumulatively, and not on purpose. Maybe the only biography is the writer’s diary. And yet that too is partial; mine is a bloodletting, and moans more than feels elation.

INTERVIEWER

On a lighter note . . . I wanted to ask you about the pictures that appear on the back covers of the paperback editions of your works. The pictures on the back . . . three different pictures have been used on the paperbacks. One for Trust and The Pagan Rabbi and Levitation, another for Bloodshed, a third for Art & Ardor and The Cannibal Galaxy.

OZICK

They get older!

INTERVIEWER

It’s not that they get older. It’s that—when you buy and read a book, you spend a lot of time looking at that picture of the writer. It’s what you have of them.

OZICK

I look at photographs of writers very closely, too.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any say in all this: that your pictures are the entire back cover, and did you have any say over which pictures they chose? In the picture on the back of Art & Ardor you look like you’re scowling.

OZICK

Using photographs was the publisher’s idea. But I like the photographer and I like where I was standing and I like the bleak day. Bleak days are introspective, evocative. They smell of childhood reading.

INTERVIEWER

What is it you like about the place? Why do you feel it represents you?

OZICK

Well, it’s up the shore a way from Pelham Bay Park where I grew up. I felt at home, inside my own landscape, on my own ground. My sense of that photo is a kind of pensiveness. Anxiety at worst but not a scowl. I hope not a scowl! Especially since after a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces. I do the same—draw conclusions about writers from their photos. But when I see you doing that with my photograph I think: It’s only a snapshot, it’s not a soul. If it were soul, you would read tremble rather than scowl. Or so I imagine.

INTERVIEWER

You have dedicated many of your books to your editors. What part have they played in your life?

OZICK

Norman Podhoretz was the first cause of my getting invited to Jerusalem for the first time. That is a large thing to owe someone. He published my short story “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” and that led to a conference in Israel, for which I composed an essay called “Toward a New Yiddish.” Gordon Lish was fiction editor at Esquire and wrote me out of the blue asking for a story. I took “An Education” out of a drawer and sent it to him along with the letter of rejection I thought he would write back to me. To my amazement, he published that story—which was the first thing I wrote after Trust, “in the manner of” Frank O’Connor, and even borrowing one of O’Connor’s names for his heroines: Una. My editor at Knopf for many years has been Robert Gottlieb. The day he telephoned me—just after the tragic early death of David Segal—to tell me he would keep me on at Knopf, and publish The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, which had been accepted by David Segal, was also the day his little daughter was born; he telephoned from the hospital. About once every half-decade I go to see him for two or more hours. I live on what happens in those two hours all the rest of the time. Editors are parental figures, even when they are much younger than oneself; or else they are a kind of muse. Frances Kiernan at The New Yorker is another one of my distant muses.

INTERVIEWER

In “Envy” you portray a character who many see as I. B. Singer. In “Usurpation” some see Shmuel Agnon and Bernard Malamud. Kosinski is seen in “A Mercenary.” Why do you do that?

OZICK

Infatuation perhaps. But I don’t do it anymore, and never will again. Even when one invents, invents absolutely, one is blamed for stealing real people. You remind me of something I haven’t thought of for a long, long time. One of my first short stories, written for a creative writing class in college, was about plagiarism. Apparently the idea of “usurpation” has intrigued me for most of my life. When I was a small child I remember upsetting my father; I had recently learned, from a fairy tale, the word impostor and I made him prove he wasn’t an impostor by demanding that he open the pharmacy safe, which had a combination lock. Since only my real father, the pharmacist, knew the combination, his opening it would prove he was my father. I felt both theatrical and anxious at the same time; both real and unreal. I envied orphans; they were romantic. One of my favorite childhood books was called Nobody’s Boy, and there was a companion volume called Nobody’s Girl. These were, I believe, translated from the French; who reads them now? I don’t know the origin of these fascinations: fairy tales, perhaps, and their extreme sadnesses. Princesses and princes trapped in the bodies of beasts, human souls looking for release.

INTERVIEWER

What about the chutzpah involved?

OZICK

Chutzpah? I never thought of that. I think of the imagination as a place of utter freedom. There one can do whatever one wants.

INTERVIEWER

Aren’t you tossing stones at literary houses of glass, bringing these writers to the mat . . .?

OZICK

No. Such a thought never occurred to me. On the contrary, it was their great fame I was playing with—an act of homage, in fact.

INTERVIEWER

Did “Envy” create an uproar?

OZICK

There was a vast brouhaha over this story. A meeting was called by the Yiddish writers, I learned later. The question was whether or not to condemn me publicly. Privately, they all furiously condemned me. Simon Weber, editor of the Forward, wrote an article—he’s since apologized—in which he compared me to the “commissars of Warsaw and Moscow,” anti-Semites of the first order. I was astonished and unbelievably hurt. I wrote a letter exclaiming that I felt my mother and father had broken my skull. What I had intended was a great lamentation for the murder of Yiddish, the mother tongue of a thousand years, by the Nazis. Instead, here were all these writers angry at me.

INTERVIEWER

More recently, my far-flung sources informed me, you gave a reading at the Yale Medical School.

OZICK

Oh God. What sources?

INTERVIEWER

I never reveal sources. But I understand you read “The Sewing Harems” there and they didn’t get it.

OZICK

No, but out of that, out of their not “getting it,” out of this resistance to parable and metaphor, came an essay called “Metaphor and Memory,” which I delivered at Harvard recently as the Phi Beta Kappa oration. The incident with the Yale doctors—it was hard on me—inspired whole discoveries about the nature and meaning of metaphor. I owe all this to the Yale doctors’ impatience with me. They wanted plain language. Is that what you heard?

INTERVIEWER

I heard you read; they didn’t get it. And then you told them that they didn’t get it.

OZICK

Yes. I made a mistake. It was I who was obtuse. I was taken by surprise. I was embarrassed at Yale—but also considerably educated. It is possible to profit from being misunderstood.

INTERVIEWER

What about being misunderstood in general? What about audience?

OZICK

I don’t want to be the Platonic cow in the forest—if you remember the opening of E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey. Or the tree that may or may not fall, depending on if there are any human ears around to hear its thud. Like any writer, I want to be read. I know I can’t be “popular,” and I regard this as a major failing. There are writers who are artists of language—everyone knows who they are!—who can also be read by large numbers of readers, who are accessible. In our own time, Nabokov and Updike, intricate embroiderers.

INTERVIEWER

Major failing?

OZICK

Yes. There is the first consummation, and then there is the second consummation. One can’t live without the first; luckily one can live without the second. The first is getting into print. The second is getting read. I have been writing for years and years, without ever being read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you really believe that?

OZICK

It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of knowing.

INTERVIEWER

Of knowing that very few people who read you are getting it?

OZICK

[Stops typing.] Very few people read me.

INTERVIEWER

Very few people read you? You’re in paperback.

OZICK

That’s a small miracle. I have no idea whether any of those paperbacks are finding readers. I’m sure not. I’m sure Trust isn’t. Those paperbacks represent an act of philanthropy on the part of one person, Bill Whitehead, who originated Obelisk. A publisher willing to lose money.

INTERVIEWER

Really? I don’t think that Obelisk or anyone is in the business of publishing to lose money. There are people being read less than you, as well.

OZICK

Given the literary situation in our country, there are always people being read less. Not only young newcomers. I know an established writer with three unpublished novels going the rounds. Finding people who are read less is no trick. Finding out that one is read at all is a trick. For a long time I didn’t feel I could honorably call myself a writer because I didn’t have any of the accoutrements. Readers, mainly.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start feeling you could say you were a writer?

OZICK

Pretty recently.

INTERVIEWER

Things like the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award must help.

OZICK

That certainly was a validation. But I always need validation. A major, marvelous, unbelievable event. I was in Italy when the letter arrived and my husband opened it because he had a sense it was important. I came home from the airport and he put the letter in front of me on the kitchen table and said, Open it. And I did and I simply wept and wept and said I cannot possibly accept this. Why me? There are so many others with the same track record who could use this just as much as I. And I had such a wallow of guilt. I think it took more than a year before I felt that I could receive it with pure—I should say purified—joy without the guilt of having won a lottery and feeling undeserving and unmerited. That’s why I don’t see that photo as a scowl, I see it as expressing all these things about someone who feels unsure, unvalidated, un-, un-, un-, any word that begins with un-.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a certain amount of bitterness about that?

OZICK

No, not at all. That picture must strike you as a bitter scowl. No, I’m not bitter.

INTERVIEWER

I used the word bitter because I thought The Cannibal Galaxy had an edge of bitterness to it.

OZICK

I am still hurt by P. S. 71. The effect of childhood hurt continues to the grave. I had teachers who hurt me, who made me believe I was stupid and inferior.

INTERVIEWER

Yes. You’ve written about that. Is your validation your revenge?

OZICK

I’ve discussed “revenge” with other writers, and discovered I’m not alone in facing the Medusa-like truth that one reason writers write—the pressure toward language aside, and language is always the first reason, and most of the time the only reason—one reason writers write is out of revenge. Life hurts; certain ideas and experiences hurt; one wants to clarify, to set out illuminations, to replay the old bad scenes and get the Treppenworte said—the words one didn’t have the strength or the ripeness to say when those words were necessary for one’s dignity or survival.

INTERVIEWER

Have you achieved it?

OZICK

Revenge? On P.S. 71? Who knows? Where now are the snows of yesteryear? Where is Mrs. Florence O’Brien? Where is Mr. Dougherty? Alas, I think not. In the end, there is no revenge to be had. “Too late” is the same as not-at-all. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? So that in the end one is left with a story instead of with spite. Any story is worth any amount of vindictiveness.

INTERVIEWER

“Too late.” Is there really such a thing as too late?

OZICK

I am ashamed to confess this. It’s ungrateful and wrong. But I am one—how full of shame I feel as I confess this—who expected to achieve—can I dare to get this out of my throat?—something like—impossible to say the words—literary fame by the age of twenty-five. By the age of twenty-seven I saw that holy and anointed youth was over, and even then it was already too late. The decades passed. I’m afraid I think—deeply think—that if it didn’t come at the right time, at the burnished crest of youth, then it doesn’t matter. And I am not even sure what you or I mean by it. I will not now know how to say what it is. So I have put all that away. It is now completely, completely beside the point. One does what one needs to do; that’s all there is. It’s wrong, bad, stupid, senseless to think about anything else. I think only of what it is I want to write about, and then about the problems in the doing of it. I don’t think of anything else at all.

INTERVIEWER

The Holocaust figures in many of your stories. Is the Holocaust a subject you feel you must confront in your writing?

OZICK

I write about it. I can’t not. But I don’t think I ought to. I have powerful feelings about this. In our generation, it seems to me, we ought to absorb the documents, the endless, endless data, the endless, endless what-happened. Inevitably it will spiral into forms of history that are myth, legend: other kinds of truth. For instance, I believed in my childhood—I got it straight from my grandmother—that since the Inquisition there has been a cherem around Spain: a ban, a Jewish ban that prohibits Jews from entering Spain ever again. Of course this is pure myth; and yet it tells a great truth about the inheritance of the Inquisition in the hearts of Jews. Probably this sort of thing, in new forms, will happen concerning the destruction of European Jews and their civilization. It is inevitable, and it’s not going to be a historical mistake. But for now? Now we, each one of us, Jew and Gentile, born during or after that time, we, all of us, forever after are witnesses to it. We know it happened: We are the generations that come after. I want the documents to be enough; I don’t want to tamper or invent or imagine. And yet I have done it. I can’t not do it. It comes, it invades.

INTERVIEWER

I read that you have formed a writer’s group. Can you tell me about it?

OZICK

Nothing so official as a “group.” Writers who are friends—three novelists, one critic—who meet not very often to talk informally. We meet in a Manhattan restaurant, or sometimes in New Rochelle; one of us lives in the midwest. Lore Segal and Norma Rosen and Helen Weinberg; Helen is the only Ph.D.—the critic.

INTERVIEWER

Are these meetings related in any way to “validation” of oneself as a writer?

OZICK

No! A thousand times no. We talk about our lives. We are very amusing. We are amusing even about our sadnesses. We are amusing about being “smart,” and we enjoy one another’s minds. We learn from each other in subtle and indirect ways. Nothing is validated except the sense of being fully and beautifully human.

INTERVIEWER

Would this meeting be in existence if you weren’t all writers of a certain level of success?

OZICK

We talk about the children. It’s no coincidence, though, that we like to be together because we are writers. I believe unashamedly that writers are the most (maybe the only) interesting people.

INTERVIEWER

You began your literary career by writing poetry. What happened to the poetry in your life?

OZICK

Well, I still do it in a sort of indirect and undercover way: Through the infinite bliss of translation. But there the initial work is done! Still, the pleasure of fashioning a new poem in English . . . but I stopped writing my own poetry at around age thirty-six. This fits exactly the dictum—whose? was it T. S. Eliot’s?—that all writers write poetry in their youth, but that it’s only the real poets who continue writing poetry after the middle thirties. But also, you know, I got discouraged. I sent my manuscript—a book—of poetry to the Yale Younger Poets series year after year, and finally I turned forty, and wasn’t eligible any more. So I stopped. But nowadays when I read Amy Clampitt, I think: Ah, she is myself continued! I hope this admission is not entirely outrageous. It’s something I imagine.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted, for the record, to ask you how you’ve felt about our use of the typewriter.

OZICK

Replying to your questions by typewriter has been an experiment for both of us. It was your idea, and I thought it was wonderful and just right. It has not interfered one iota with spontaneity, because I have been typing extremely fast. It has been a form of speech. The difference is that the sentences are somewhat more coherent than speech allows. At least I can put the punctuation in! At least I can be responsible for the sound, in the way I can’t be responsible for the looseness and even wildness of talk. Not that this way of talking has been without its wildness! In fact, there may be something excessively open here: a sinister kind of telling too much. One thing I’ve learned: Speech is far more guarded than talking through one’s fingers.

INTERVIEWER

You said earlier that you envy my being thirty and having published articles. What I envy in your personal history is your Hallote fellowship.

OZICK

I was waiting for your comment on my being a woman. Is this it? A wife can support a husband quite as capably as the reverse.

INTERVIEWER

That may well be your reaction to my comment, but what I had in mind is more an envy of the financial freedom to write, of having someone willing to support you.

OZICK

Then let me be a kind of sibyl for you, or Cassandra, and with a not-so-bony finger warn you away from what you most desire. You know the old fairy-tale theme: Don’t wish for something, or you may get it. And then what? Youth is for running around in the great world, not for sitting in a hollow cell, turning into an unnatural writing-beast. There one sits, reading and writing, month after month, year after year. There one sits, envying other young writers who have achieved a grain more than oneself. Without the rush and brush and crush of the world, one becomes hollowed out. The cavity fills with envy. A wasting disease that takes years and years to recover from. Youth-envy, on the other hand, one can never recover from. Or at least I haven’t so far. I suffered from it at seventeen. I suffered from it at five, when on a certain midsummer midafternoon I looked at an infant asleep in its pram and felt a terrible and unforgettable pang.

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t there anything to be said about what seems to be a luxury—the ability to write full-time?

OZICK

Time to write isn’t a luxury, that goes without saying. It’s what a writer needs to write. But to have it coextensive with one’s whole youth isn’t absolutely a good thing. It’s unnatural to do anything too much. “Nothing in excess,” especially when everything else in the case must be in excess: the reading-hunger, language-hunger, all the high literary fevers and seizures. That kind of “excess” is what defines a writer. An image of the writer came to me the other day: A beast howling inside a coal-furnace, heaping the coals on itself to increase the fire. The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing. If I could do it again, I would step out of the furnace now and then. I’d run around and find reviews to write, articles; I’d scurry and scrounge. I’d try to build a little platform from which to send out a voice. I’d do, in short, what I see so many writers of your generation doing: Chasing a bit of work here, a bit there, publishing, getting acquainted. What you do, in fact. Churning around in the New York magazine world. What I did, a child crazed by literature, was to go like an eremite into a cavern and spin; I imagined that I would emerge with a masterpiece. Instead I emerged as an unnatural writing-beast, sooty with coal dust, my fingers burned and my heart burning up. Have you read Lost Illusions?

INTERVIEWER

Oh my God, yes!

OZICK

Eve Ottenberg, a young writer in New York who lives the kind of life I’ve described—an admirable life, I think—put me on to it.

INTERVIEWER

When you talk about the pain of having read Henry James at too early an age—well, that is nothing compared to reading Lost Illusions at the right age.

OZICK

It’s understandable. I read Lost Illusions only recently. It was so painful it lasted me a whole year, and I never got to the very end. I intend to finish it. But I take it not so much for a warning as for a model and a marvel. Not a model for myself—it’s too late for that. What’s necessary above all is to publish while young. All those roilings happening at once, the speed, the trajectory! All that activity, all that being-in-the-world, all those plots and devisings, all that early variation, a spoon in every pot! Interchange, intercourse, inter-inter-. You know. If only someone had given me Lost Illusions in my cradle! Would I have been saved? There I was, at twenty-five, reading eighteen hours a day, novels, philosophy, criticism, poetry, Jewish history, Gibbon . . . I read and read and it made me into some kind of monster. I’m still that monster.

INTERVIEWER

But you got some work done then . . .

OZICK

Nothing came of it. Great tracts of words without consummation. All the years I gave to Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, and nothing left of it but the title, and the title all Blake. Remorse and vacuum.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t think your writing is richer for that, and for what you learned from your reading?

OZICK

So what? I still have plenty of gaps in my reading. I’m not Faust, and never was.

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t your writing—aren’t the ideas in your writing—richer?

OZICK

How can I tell? Living in one’s own time is an obligation, isn’t it? The isolation and profound apartness of my twenties and early thirties probably crazed me for life. And yet even as I declare my remorse, I’m not certain I believe what I say. Even as I tell you how I would do it otherwise if I had it to do over, I’m feeling the flanks of these words all up and down to see if I detect the lump of a lie in them. I was too fixed, too single-minded, too much drawn by some strange huge illumination, too saturated in some arcane passion of ideal purity . . . Am I normal now? I don’t feel so. But I am absolutely on the side of normality. I believe in citizenship.