How come so much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, takes place in Brooklyn? And in Manhattan too, for that matter. Your newest book, Not Now, Voyager, has a lot of both places.
Maybe I should be called a regional writer. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though I moved away at seventeen, it left its claws deep inside me. So much of what I’ve seen and done since is measured against my early memories, the house, the street, the school, the neighborhood. Not that they’re all great memories. The truth is that when I was living there, all I could think of was escape. I thought Brooklyn was boring. It was boring. And yet now, I seem to find it fascinating, in retrospect. It was a kind of closed community, with its own ways and habits, and those kinds of places are always intriguing to look at. (Today Brooklyn is completely different, of course, no longer boring. When I go back there, sometimes to look at the ocean or walk on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, it feels exotic.) As far as Manhattan, I’ve lived in the same neighorhood for many years now, and it feels like its own little enclave. I’m not so aware of place when it comes to architecture, stores, and so on. It’s more the feel of a place that grips me, the look of the sky at certain hours, where the sun sets, the sounds and smells, the general aura. I’ve written about other places I lived in—Rome, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis. But I always return to New York. It’s the place that feels right for me.
How come you’ve traveled so much, especially when you say in Now Now, Voyager that you don’t like it?
Some of it was for pleasure—visiting European countries for the first time as a young person. My husband and I lived in Rome long ago when he had a year-long Fulbright grant, and that was great. It wasn’t traveling—it was living. I had a grocery store, a bakery, all the things you need for a life and don’t get as a tourist. A lot of my traveling has been for work. I never had a permanent teaching job because I wanted my time for writing, so for years I lived like a nomad, taking one-semester jobs here and there, all over the country. But I was always a bit of the outsider, and I liked it that way. I didn’t want to be part of a large institution and have to obey its rules.
How did you manage to write so many books and teach and raise a family?
I really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess because I didn’t do much else. I don’t really like vacations that much. I like working. Those early books—I loved writing them. When I could sit at my desk and dream—that was what I liked best.
You have two grown daughters, I’ve heard. How did having and raising children affect your work?
Oh, what a question. I could write a book about it, and maybe someday I will. It’s very hard, as everyone knows. Almost impossible. Many contemporary women writers have families, but if you think about it historically, the writers we remember today, the very best ones, say Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen—they didn’t raise children. Still, I don’t think I would have been a better writer without children. I probably would have been worse: loving and raising children taught me about life, and gave me so much to write about. When my kids were young, I would swear to myself that I’d put my work first; I thought a serious writer had to do that. But whenever the kids needed me or even wanted me, I dropped everything to be with them. Sometimes I wanted their company as a relief from writing. And I was very lucky: I had daughters who loved reading and writing, so I could spend hours reading to them and with them, which was part of the world of books that I loved. They entered into that world with me. The hard part, of course, is dividing your attention and your emotional energies, because both activities are so intense and demanding.
Do you ever think of what you might have done if you hadn’t become a writer?
All the time. I think I would have been good at running an organization or program of some kind—not a corporation, maybe a non-profit. I like to make order out of chaos and to tell people what to do. But I never got the chance to boss anyone around, except when my kids were very young, and that didn’t last long. I always wanted to play old popular tunes in a piano bar and have people drop bills into a wine glass on top of the piano. I wanted to sing and dance in musical comedy. But I think those things are pretty much beyond me now.
Do you think you’ll keep writing forever?
Probably. I used to write because I loved it, and it was an escape from daily life. Now I think I write more out of habit. It’s simply what I do once I’m up and dressed. I like translating—I’ve translated several books from Italian. Maybe I should have been a translator, I mean full-time. Translating has all the pleasures of writing, finding the right words, the right phrases and rhythms, except you don’t have to make the stuff up. That’s the hardest part.
Are you glad you started publishing when you did, in the 1980s?
I certainly am. I feel like I got in under the wire, before publishing started selling out to the conglomerates and the whole industry began disintegrating. I was at the tail end of a long and wonderful tradition of honorable book publishing that’s pretty much history now—or exists only in pockets here and there–which is very unfortunate. And I was lucky in having a terrific editor, Ted Solotaroff, who was loyal through my first six books and became a close friend. It’s much harder for younger writers now.
Do you have any advice for younger writers?
Nothing about how to get published. Business was never my strong suit. My main advice is, Read. Read great books carefully and learn from them. Don’t read only your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from the dead—remember they were once alive and struggling too.