Wednesday, July 2, 1997

An Interview with Cynthia Ozick


A cover-story interview with Cynthia Ozick, discussing her book The Puttermesser Paperswith a full transcript of the interview
Published July 2nd, 1997, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine


The Wizard, Ozick
Literary Magician Cynthia Ozick
Completes a Four-Decade Spell


By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, $23


Imagine a novel that took thirty-five years to write. In an age when writers become instant superstars and publish five books before reaching thirty, it’s almost inconceivable. But for Cynthia Ozick, age sixty-nine, half a lifetime on a book is just the right speed.

In the early 1960s, the young Cynthia Ozick (pronounced with the same vowel sounds as “Moses”) wrote a story called “Puttermesser: Her Work, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” The story introduced lawyer and feminist Ruth Puttermesser, a character who would stay with Ozick for the rest of her life. Since publishing the story in The New Yorker, Ozick has revisited Ruth about once a decade, adding another chapter to what would eventually become The Puttermesser Papers.

“This was always conceived as a novel,” Ozick says, speaking from her home in New York, “but the labor of giving birth to the novel was extraordinarily gradual. I began it at age thirty-four. And how do I remember that very accurately? Because of the weird program I had for the novel, I smuggled my age into every chapter. … I conceived these chapters as a high point of each decade of her life, and the idea was to write the slowest novel in the world.”

Ozick included the first two chapters of the Puttermesser saga in her brilliant 1982 collection Levitation, which is where many readers got their first taste of Ruth. The first chapter finds Ruth working as a cog in the New York Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Although a dedicated city worker, she yearns for a more meaningful connection to history—a connection she ultimately invents for herself in her head.

It’s an amazing story, so complete and self-contained that almost any short story writer would be satisfied to leave Ruth where she was. But the second chapter, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” goes to an entirely new level of literature. A decade or so older, Ruth finds herself fired from her job by sinister politicos, so she retaliates by taking over the city. She achieves this by unwittingly fashioning the soil from her houseplants into a golem, a legendary Frankensteinish creature from Jewish folklore, that helps her fulfill her “Plan for the Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York.” The golem helps Ruth run for mayor under the auspices of the “Independents for Socratic and Prophetic Idealism” party. And Ruth wins.

By creating the golem to help bring order to New York, Ruth mimics God sitting back in the celestial easy chair, declaring it all to be good.

“It goes way, way back to Genesis,” Ozick says, “where God creates man out of earth and blows a wind into his nostril. And Adam is made out of earth. In fact his name, Adam, means ‘clay,’ means ‘earth.’ So it really goes way, way back to the primordial infrastructure of the human mind—the idea that you can in a sense compete with the creator of the universe and create life. … This idea of creating human life out of nothing is just endemic in us.”

What’s even more fascinating about the story is that while Ruth creates, she is also created, which carries tremendous writerly implications. Ruth imitates God the creator, certainly, but she also imitates Ozick the writer.

“Puttermesser has made the golem,” Ozick says, “but the golem has made Puttermesser mayor, so who created whom? Writers write books, and it’s the fact that they’ve made books that makes them writers. It is a cycle. Your characters make you. You also learn from your characters. And you don’t know where they come from. You don’t know where they’re going. You don’t know even their voices when you start. And when you’re finished you feel very much added to—some new grains of being have augmented your own being because this stuff has come out of you. And then you’re different afterwards.”

At their zenith, Ruth and her creation, Xanthippe, turn New York into a kind of neo-Garden of Eden. But after a certain point, things begin to crumble. Like Milton in reverse, Ozick charts the rise and fall of humanity—as personified by a rapacious, oversexed golem—and even at its zaniest, the story resounds with deep pathos for our doomed race.

And if that weren’t enough, Ozick brings back the postlapsarian Ruth three more times. The third and middle chapter, “Puttermesser Paired,” finds Ruth in love with painter Rupert Rabeeno, whom she meets at the Met as he paints an imitation of The Death of Socrates. Rabeeno calls his works reenactments rather than imitations, but any way you look at it, he’s an imposter.

“I am really, really interested in impersonation—fakes and imposters,” Ozick says. “I’ve always been interested in the word ‘imposter.’ In fact, I remember my excitement as a child when I first came upon that word in a fairy tale. And I decided that my own father might be an imposter. And I tested him. Because my real father was the only one who knew the combination to the safe. ... The idea of impersonation is absolutely fascinating. And because, after all, it’s what every fiction writer does. You impersonate other people.”

But Rupert’s impersonation leads Ruth down a dangerous path. In lieu of sex, the two read to each other from George Eliot’s novels, and then from various Eliot biographies, and along the way Ruth slowly tries to mold her relationship with Rupert into George Eliot’s relationship with George Lewes. Their love for each other then becomes little more than a paper chase, an imitation of real life.

The tension between paper and life has been a central concern of much of Ozick’s work. Her 1987 novel The Messiah of Stockholm features a predicament similar to Ruth’s and Rupert’s, when a book reviewer falls into an all-consuming obsession with finding Bruno Schulz’s legendary lost novel, The Messiah. Ozick describes this fascination with paper as one of the controlling factors of her life:

“I think I once wrote a little tiny thing that might have been in a collection called Metaphor & Memory in which I said, ‘I do not like life. It interrupts.’ … Paper comes before life for me. And life does interrupt, and it torments me.”

So “Puttermesser Paired” can either be read as a cautionary tale—because Ruth gets burned in a big way—or as a triumph, because Ozick herself has created such a masterful work of imitation. Life becomes secondary, true, but who needs life when the story is so good?

The fourth chapter, “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” has been chosen for next year’s Best American Short Stories under a different title and in a shortened form. Which may be ironic, because it’s the least Ozicky of all the chapters in The Puttermesser Papers. There are no golems, assumed identities, or imagined histories here, just the tale of Ruth’s Russian cousin coming to America. It’s a great story, but it’s telling that the least fantastic chapter in the book would be the one chosen for mass consumption.

The final, chapter, however, is where the action is. In “Puttermesser in Paradise” Ozick finally knocks Ruth off and sends her to Heaven—at just shy of the Biblical age of threescore and ten. Lying in bed, reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Ruth gets attacked, killed, and raped—in that order—by a ski-masked intruder.

“I always knew I would kill her off when she got to my present age,” Ozick says. “But I did not know that it was going to be this vicious, this horrifying.”

Even more horrifying is the Paradise Ruth finds. She’d always imagined it as a place of eternal reading and eating, but what’s waiting for her is endless ambiguity. Paradise for Ruth ends up being all things at all times—and all being as meaningless and self-canceling as the Solomonic vision of the world laid out in Ecclesiastes.

“All her life has consisted of almost hitting climax and then withdrawal or detumescence before truly hitting climax,” Ozick says. “Or let’s put it this way—climax and anti-climax. So though I did not know what her Paradise was going to be, it had to be consistent with the nature of her DNA. Her DNA is to dream, to imagine, to utopianize, and then to be struck on the head by reality.”

Ozick begins the chapter with a poem that purports to be “translated from the Akkadian” but which Ozick admits to having made up herself:


“Knit and unravel,
Commands the Gavel.
Do and undo,
Till nothing’s true.”


And that’s exactly what Ozick does with Ruth. Negating much of what we learned about Ruth in earlier chapters, Ozick writes her away “till nothing’s true.”

“I think this book as a whole is a mediation on mortality, on evanescence, on the ephemeral,” Ozick says. “It’s a little book about—not what Shakespeare means when he says ‘Ripeness is all,’ but just the moment after. … Because ripeness is all, but then the next step after ripeness is decay. Unless you devour at the moment of ripeness. But we don’t always get to devour at the peak of ripeness. … And therefore it may not be true that ripeness is all—it may be true that decay is all. And when you begin to think that decay is all, then you’re thinking about the human condition and mortality, which is the heart and soul of everything in our lives. It makes ambition. It makes tragedy. It makes comedy. Being the creature that is conscious, the only creature that knows our end… what is going to happen to us—no other creature knows it—that is why mortality dominates our lives and also makes us write. Because we’re writing against that doom.”

What makes this book remarkable—aside from Ozick’s outrageous imagination and astonishing prose—is that it actually incorporates the doom as it rages against the dying of the light. For Ruth there is a time to be born and a time to die, and Ozick funnels it all together into the same time and place. And even if nothing’s true, as Ozick writes, at least we have this amazing book as a testament to our struggle against  the meaningless doom.

—David Wiley



An Interview with Cynthia Ozick
by David Wiley
for The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
Conducted June 19, 1997
Published July 2nd, 1997



How did The Puttermesser Papers come to be a novel?

CO: This was always conceived as a novel, but the labor of giving birth to this novel was extraordinarily gradual. I began it at age thirty-four. And how do I remember that very accurately? Because I smuggled my age—because of the weird program I had for this novel I smuggled my age into each chapter. So Puttermesser is thirty-four, and in the next one she’s forty-two or forty-six, I forget. And the next one I got a little cagey and called her fifty-plus. And the next one I got a little Biblical. As you see, I conceived these chapters as a high point of each decade of her life, and the idea was to write the slowest novel in the world. And I always knew I would kill her off when she got to my present age.

You were planning on this age?

Yes. I was going to kill her off before she hit threescore and ten, the Biblical age—just before that.

Could you talk about the chapters’ publishing history?

The first chapter was in The New Yorker. The second chapter was in Salmagundi. The third chapter was in The New Yorker. The fourth chapter was in The New Yorker, shortened and under another title. And under that title, it was chosen for the Best American Short Stories. And, I’m missing a chapter, I think. Anyway, the last one, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” was in the May Atlantic. “The Muscovite Cousin” was in The New Yorker—I’m going backwards now—under the title “Save My Child!”

“Save My Child” was in The Best American Short Stories?

It isn’t out yet. It’s next year—it’s basically an excerpt from the chapter called “The Muscovite Cousin.” That is going into I guess the 1998 Best American Short Stories, which includes the stories published in 1997.

Wasn’t some of that story taken from an essay in Fame & Folly?

I wrote a piece on Isaac Babel—I think it was called “Isaac Babel and the Identity Question.” And in there I wrote about the visit of a Russian cousin, a Muscovite cousin to me. And yes, I have to confess there is a relationship. But I also have to insist that fiction is fiction, and once this actual visit entered the world of imagination it was no longer fact. It’s very important to me that a separation be made from essays and fiction and that the essays never be used as a measuring stick against the fiction. I think this is really a kind of lethal thing to do to a writer of fiction.

How much of this did you have planned from the beginning?

The details I didn’t know, but I knew it was going to be a very slowly rising idea and that I was going to wait till I had the right formulation that would apply to Puttermesser, as opposed to some other fictions. And when some idea came to me—some fictive idea that I recognized immediately as “this belongs to Puttermesser,” and I waited for those moments. And I don’t think I really planned it to be one a decade, but it did more or less come out like that.

In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” you focus on the relationship between the creator and the created.

It is a very intriguing idea, as I clearly don’t have to tell you. It’s the kind of thing that makes—we have to think about Mary Shelley, naturally. And it goes way, way back to Genesis, where God creates man out of earth and blows a wind into his nostril. And Adam is made out of earth. In fact his name, Adam, means “clay,” means “earth.” So it really goes way, way back into the primordial infrastructure of the human mind—the idea that you can in a sense compete with the creator of the universe and create life. The idea of cloning, and particularly as applied to human cloning—it takes people’s breath away. I mean so much that Clinton said that we’re not allowed to do it in this country. He placed a moratorium on human cloning. This idea of creating human life out of nothing is just endemic in us. A lot of nature religions, like Native American—you’re in Minnesota, so you’re really close to this—Native American religions have the God himself or herself, the God or the Goddess, made out of earth. I guess it’s also related to the fact that things grow out of the ground, which, when you think about it like a visitor from another galaxy, is quite amazing. That you stick a seed in the ground and a tree comes up. And I think it’s all related to the sense of human wonder at the procreation that’s endemic in the planet.

What’s fascinating is that Ruth Puttermesser is also created as she creates. And that seems to have a lot of writerly aspects to it.

Yes. I see what you mean. Yes, that Puttermesser has made the golem, but the golem has made Puttermesser mayor, so who has created whom? Right—I think that’s quite true. Writers write books, and it’s the fact that they’ve made books that makes them writers. It is a cycle. Your characters make you. You also learn from your characters. And you don’t know where they come from. And you don’t know where they’re going. You don’t even know their voices when you start. And when you’re finished you feel very much added to—some new grains of being have augmented your own being because this stuff has come out of you. And then you’re different afterwards.

From reading The Cannibal Galaxy and other things, it seems like you’re fascinated with the tension between Hellenism and Hebraism.

Yes.

Could you talk about how this tension plays out in Ruth?

I’m not sure it is in Ruth Puttermesser. I’m not aware that she necessarily thinks that way. Do you see that?

Well, you give the golem she creates the name Xanthippe.

Well, actually you’re right about that. Yes, of course. Because it’s quite true that in Jewish folklore the golem is, as I expressed in that story, a sort of savior. And not an erotic creature at all. And it’s true that Xanthippe does turn into a Greek goddess of Eros or lust. You’re right, I simply overlooked that—a big thing to overlook. But, yes, she does turn Greek, because she does turn into Eros rather voraciously. And in that sense she’s Dionysian. And you know the split in the human mentality between Apollo, the mind, the rational, and the Dionysian, the, what shall I call it, the orgasmic—it’s really in all societies, in all religions. Puttermesser’s really on the side of Apollo and the rational. I mean it’s very clear. When she goes through the history of golem-making she’s quite interested that the chief rationalist of all, the Vilna Gaon, who was an excoriator of mystical movements that were rising up in European Jewish society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that this super-rationalist was said by folklore—merely a legend—but that a legend should rise up that the greatest rationalist of all should have created a mystical creature, this in a way comforts her. But she’s definitely Apollo. She’s on the side of rationalism, which means to be on the side of Hebraism, and not sympathetic to mysticism, and yet her creation turns Hellenistic, just as you said.

The third story, “Puttermesser Paired,” features an imposter, Rupert Rabeeno. It seems you’re really interested in fakes.

I am really, really interested in impersonation—fakes and imposters. You’re absolutely right. I mean you really have kind of hit a deep germ. I’ve always been interested in the word imposter. In fact, I remember my excitement as a child when I first came upon that word in a fairy tale. And I decided that my father—this is very glamorous, I thought—my father, my own father might be an imposter. And I tested him. Because my real father was the only one who knew the combination of the safe. So I tested my father, made him open the safe, and then I knew he wasn’t an imposter. And I knew I was, you know, acting out at the time. But you’re right, the idea of impersonation is absolutely fascinating. And because, after all, it’s what every fiction writer does. You impersonate other people. It’s also what actors do, but actors don’t make up from scratch what they impersonate, and writers do. I love the idea of impersonation. But I also have another theory about it, which has to do with the character of writers. I think if writers impersonate in life, then that is going in some way to contaminate them as writers. And I think impersonation belongs in fiction and that you shouldn’t do it in life.

Is there a little bit of Wyatt Gwyon [from William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions] in Rupert Rabeeno?

What an interesting idea! I never thought of that. No, no. Maybe subliminally, because that’s one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, Gaddis is remarkable. He’s one of our most extraordinary contemporary writers. And The Recognitions is a great, great book, and I read it when it was new. I kept it with me and read in it and in it and in it. But not consciously here, and it’s quite interesting that you bring that up, because I have been tremendously interested in that book. But a long, long time ago, you know, when it first came out, and I haven’t read it since.

Rupert Rabeeno also seems to me like a kind of Gaddisy name.

Well, Rabeeno is really a kind of garden-variety Jewish name, you know. It’s a version of Rabinowitz without the witz.

Speaking of writers of massive novels…

Infinite Jest—is that what you were going to say?

David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann both cite you as an influence, especially Wallace. He says he has a painting of you in his house. This is kind of interesting, because you seem to revel in your obscurity.

Well, reveling in never going out of the house, for sure. If that’s what you mean by obscurity, having rather reclusive impulses, I do. I mean I do go out and sort of live a normal life, because—you remember Flaubert’s dictum, “Live like a bourgeois so that you can write like a God.” And that’s sort of related to what I said before about not impersonating in life—so that you don’t have to be a character or bohemian or weirdo in life because then it dribbles out and you waste it. But if you hoard it for the writing, and that’s exactly what Flaubert means in that remark. About influential—I have no inkling of this.

There’s a third-person essay in Fame & Folly about how you haven’t written enough and how you’re not important in any way—or I assume it’s about you.

“The Break.” Yes, that’s quite true. That is deep, deep autobiography, yes.

I think the two most interesting new writers working now are Vollmann and Wallace, and they love you. I just think maybe someone should tell you.

Well, thank you. It’s a little bit inconceivable and interesting. I’ve written—I don’t think it’s in Fame & Folly, it’s in an earlier collection—something about Cyril Connolly, and the beginning of that has a little autobiographical patch about the early years and a certain imprinting that happens to a writer who can’t get published in early years. And listening to you, I can see that you’re not only out in the stewpot, even in Minnesota, but you seem to be creating your own stewpot. And that is the most valuable thing a young writer can do. So you can have me as a horrible example of what not to do. And I’ve written about that—it’s called “Cyril Connolly and the Groans of Success.”

Did you want to say something about Infinite Jest?

No, I just had an instinct that you were going to mention David Foster Wallace.

Did you read it?

Actually, I have it on order. And there’s a big, big article about him—where did I read this—oh, in the New Republic. There’s a wonderful, long article about David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest is really wonderful.

Now I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that I only have it on order and haven’t read it. But you know when you’re trying to write fiction, there are periods where you don’t want to read fiction, particularly by powerful voices. Because, for me anyway, I can get to be a kind of ventriloquist.

Yes, it’s so hard to keep from channeling Kafka and Proust—and you. And Bruno Schulz. Thank you for Bruno Schulz, by the way.

Channeling—what a funny way to put it. It’s true. I think it’s the truest way to put it. Yes.

When I read The Messiah of Stockholm I thought either that Bruno Schulz was the greatest writer of the century, or else you were for inventing him. Because I’d never heard of him.

But that’s quite typical, and we really owe our knowledge of Bruno Schulz to Philip Roth, who in the Writers of the Other Europe series brought him to American, and really Western, attention. And so he is really the hero of these Eastern European writers. Particularly Bruno Schulz.

Did you read David Grossman’s book on Bruno Schulz  [See Under: Love]? It happened at almost the same time as your book.

Yes. It’s so interesting. An israeli critic from a Hebrew University called me, and he said “Do you know that there’s another book?” It hadn’t yet been translated, and it was still in Hebrew, and he said “There’s another book written at exactly the same time about Bruno Schulz.” So that was interesting.

From reading The Messiah of Stockholm and some of your other works, it seems like you’re really interested in cabalistic paper chases. Are you more interested in paper than in life?

I’m afraid so. I think I once wrote a little, tiny thing that might have been in a collection called Metaphor & Memory in which I said, “I do not like life. It interrupts.”

In another interview you told the story about how you were checking the page proofs for Trust in one hand and rocking your baby with the other. And you said you were a little shocked by the feeling that the page proofs felt more important than the life in the crib.

You know, that baby is now thirty-one, and she’s a professor of Near Eastern archeology, and she has a baby of her own. And I do see the difference, because she writes papers, she goes to conferences, and she’s, you know, your standard academic with a very heavy program at Penn State. She and her husband both are in this together, and they also took a four-month-old baby to a horrendous dig last summer. I tell you all this because you can hear from this that there’s enormous intellectual commitment, but I see in her a normality that I never had, which is that, with all this configuration of commitment, that baby is all. And paper is secondary. But you’re quite right. Paper comes before life for me. And life does interrupt, and it torments me. Very often. Most of the time it interrupts.

I’m deeply shocked by the novel’s last chapter, “Puttermesser in Paradise.” You knew she was going to die, but did you know it was going to be like this?

I always knew it was going to be a mugging, and of course that was in place in the very first chapter, with the kind of standard New York fear of muggers. I always knew it was going to be a mugging. I did not know that it was going to be this vicious, this horrifying. And that, really, is where the whole question of impersonation comes in, because in order to write a passage like that you really have to become that guy in the sneakers. You have to change your sex, for one thing. And you have to become deeply cruel and callous about life. And this is where Flaubert’s “bourgeois” comes in and my “anti-impersonation in life” comes in, because I would never murder or rape in life. But to do it in writing, I have to be candid, there is a kind of relish in making that happen and shocking oneself with how far one can go.

Are you glad she’s dead?

Yes.

Why?

Because it’s right. She culminated. She had her consummation, and she was always heading for Paradise. And all her life has consisted of almost hitting climax and then withdrawal or detumescence before truly hitting climax. Or let’s put it this way—climax and anti-climax. So though I did not know what her Paradise was going to be, it had to be consistent with the nature of her DNA. Her DNA is to dream, to imagine, to utopianize, and then to be struck on the head by reality. Because I think this book as a whole is a mediation on mortality, on evanescence, on the ephemeral. In that sense, it’s a little book about—not what Shakespeare means when he says “Ripeness is all,” but just the moment after Shakespeare gets to say that. Because ripeness is all, but then the next step after ripeness is decay. Unless you devour at the moment of ripeness. But we don’t always get to devour at the peak of ripeness, and we’re always just a little too late, so we come into the decay that follows ripeness. And therefore it may not be true that ripeness is all—it may be true that decay is all. And when you begin to think that decay is all, then you’re thinking about the human condition and mortality, which is the heart and soul of everything in our lives. It makes ambition. It makes tragedy. It makes comedy. Being the creature that is conscious, the only creature that knows our end, our goal, our aim, what is going to happen to us—no other creature knows it—that is why mortality dominates our lives and also makes us write. Because we’re writing against that doom.

That story seems to be deeply influenced by Ecclesiastes.

Well, I think everything I’ve said in the last few seconds is Ecclesiastes. I believe the human condition is tragic, because it is governed by mortality. There’s a famous piece of dialogue between two schools of thought, two first-century figures. One is the school of Hillel, and one is the school of Shammai. Shammai is a literalist, and he wants people to toe the line. And Hillel is tolerant, more easygoing, and much more understanding of human failings, and they’ve never agreed about anything in jurisprudence. You can divide them this way—mercy and justice—Hillel more on the side of mercy and Shammai more on the side of justice. They’ve never agreed on any matter that has come up before them. However—they did agree once on a subject. Shammai said, thinking over the whole trajectory of human life, “It is better not to have been born at all.” And it’s a very Buddhist point of view, actually, you know—getting off the wheel of life. Hillel thought real hard about this, and he saw the wisdom in it, and he did agree. But he added, “Yes, it is better not to have been born at all, but since we have been born, let us perform the commandments.” Namely, acts of conscience, mercy, and compassion. And unless we’re very attracted by Eastern religions, I think in the West our conscience is dominated by “but since we have been born, let us do acts of compassion.”

That story seems more nihilistic than most of what you’ve written.

Well, you know the little proverb, the little Song of Paradise at the beginning that says “translated from the Akkadian”? I made that up. That doesn’t really exist.

In the first chapter, Ruth imagines/invents her uncle. And later we find that she’s invented even more about herself that we’d taken as truth. Is she her own author?

That’s interesting. I think that’s a fascinating conceit, but I think that conceit belongs to a critical interpretation, not to the author.

I mean, it’s like you’re playing games with her existence, like there’s nothing definite that we can believe about her.

Yes—do and undo.

So what’s next?

Well, I’ve committed myself to a couple of essays. And the ceiling fell in, and it took six months of reconstruction, and before that I had begun a short story which I hope to finish very soon. It’s called “Actors,” and it’s based on my seven years in the theater. Somebody asked me, “What were you doing in fiction between The Messiah of Stockholm and The Puttermesser Papers?” And I had total amnesia, and it was very frightening to me, and then I remembered, “Oh, my God! Yes—seven years of two productions of a play.” And that taught me something about the nature of the theater and how evanescent it is and that it’s all ephemera, because it’s all on the side of experience. It’s on the side of life. It isn’t paper. So I really am committed to paper, and I did spend seven years of my rapidly diminishing span on life, which was the theater. But I wish it had been paper. Then I would have had another novel.

It was a play version of “The Shawl”?

There was a lot of confusion about that, because the producers insisted on giving it that name. It was not an adaptation, it was a sequel, and it was a political play. And in the out-of-town production it had a different name. It was Blue Light. And in the New York production it was called The Shawl. As I say, at the insistence of the director and the producers, and the director was Sidney Lumet, who came back to the theater after thirty-five years of being in movies and out of the theater. And that was kind of wonderful to work with such a distinguished and revered movie name. And Dianne Wiest played Rosa. And Mercedes Ruehl played Stella in the out-of-town version. And it was a marvel to be in that world for so long. But the play was, as I say, a political play. It was about Holocaust denial on one level, and on a more metaphorical level it was about the seductiveness of the devil—that the devil always comes with sweet talk. Also an ancient idea.

How different was it from “The Shawl”?

It used some of the same characters. It uses Rosa. Stella became the main character. But it was a sequel. It was not at all an adaptation. I wrote twenty-five versions of this play. And that took seven years—almost a decade of my life given away to something that isn’t here anymore, unlike a book.

There’s no printed version?

No. I haven’t been able to decide which of the twenty-five versions, and so I’ve kept it out of print. It’s so much a director’s medium, and the writer so much becomes an amanuensis of the director, at least of this particular director, that I don’t know if I ever do want it in print. I’m not decided.

For some reason, I’m having visions of Henry James being booed off the stage.

Well, in a sense it happened. Because the reviews in New York were very bad. They mostly concentrated on the director, not on the writer. But the play was sold out, both out of town and in New York and could have gone on and on for months, except that Dianne Wiest had another obligation. And the producers didn’t want to go on without her, because she was a very great draw, and so was Sidney Lumet. So I don’t know if it was the play, you know, or the glamour of these two Hollywood figures. Probably more the glamour of the Hollywood names. But there was enormous audience enthusiasm—standing ovations every night. It had its excitements. But the answer to the question “are you a paper person?”—the answer that I learned over seven years is yes.

Did the applause affect you?

It’s very exhilarating. It’s exciting. It’s extraordinary. I understood what Henry James was after. I had a little bit of it. Yes, it’s very heady. It’s champagne. There’s no question.

Can you tell me a little bit about your literary past, like what happened between OSU and Trust?

It’s all written about in the Cyril Connelly essay. Briefly, I can tell you that I read and read and read and read and read. And I was also writing another novel. I was writing a novel, which was going to be a vast philosophical novel. I wrote about 300,000 words of it. It was called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and LoveM.P.P.L. And my husband started calling it “Nipple” for short. And then I was making a joke that this is the nipple on which I sucked for seven years. It was like the Biblical wooing of Rachel and Leah, because seven years on Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love—that’s a line from Blake, as you probably recognize. And then I abandoned that, and then another seven years on Trust.

Do you still have a reward for someone who can finish Trust?

Yes. Actually, I met someone just yesterday, but in order to have this gold medal struck I really need evidence. And this person told me she had written a review and promised to give me evidence. So we’ll see. We’ll see whether this is just an avaricious person wanting gold. But I haven’t yet had to give anybody this gold medal. So I haven’t had one struck yet.

I love long, complicated novels, so maybe I’ll give it a try.

This one will daunt you, I think. Although in my secret self I know that I’ve never written that well since. I’m convinced of it.

I had always understood that you were unhappy with that novel.

I like it better than anything I’ve ever written. And I have to keep quiet about that, because it’s a deeply minority opinion.

Do you want me to print that? Because I won’t if you want to keep this to yourself.

No, no. You can say it. Of course you can.

—David Wiley



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