The Rooster Begins to Waken, Sniffing Blood  |   Announcing the Long, Long List for the 2015 Tournament of Books

Ads via The Deck

Birnbaum v.

Susanna Moore

It’s humans’ flaws that make the world go round, and novelist Susanna Moore examines them under intense magnification. She chats with our man in Boston about crime and punishment.

Susanna Moore may not be in that top tier of authors that she refers to below in this conversation but she is sufficiently well regarded to accrue puff pieces in which the lead refers to her having once worked for Warren Beatty. Her childhood in Hawaii was the source of her first book and the three novels that followed. Then there was In the Cut, which was the basis for a fairly good film with Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo and, given its focus on sex, produced a fair (and not particularly welcome) amount of buzz for Moore. One Last Look, set in early 19th-century India, followed. Moore’s most recent book, The Big Girls—in which the protagonist has murdered her own children—deals with a number of the author’s perennial themes and concerns. Susanna Moore is slated to publish a literary memoir in next spring.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum, all rights reserved.
 

* * *


Moore, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedRobert Birnbaum: OK, let’s talk about your book. Three of the characters make sense to me and one of the characters seemed to have reasons for being in the story but I wasn’t convinced. That is the young Hollywood starlet—though the portrayal of Hollywood was certainly riveting and interesting in itself. Did I miss something, a more vital role that she played?

Susanna Moore: [pause] Perhaps you missed something. She serves a number of purposes and maybe they aren’t clear enough and certainly she is not a major character—

RB: You do intimate that there is some possible mysterious relationship between her and Helen, the murderess.

SM: When I was writing the book it became clearer to me that it was confined to these women in prison. In the beginning I had Helen and then I knew I needed another character, of course—whether it was going to be a fellow prisoner or a social worker or a medical case worker or a corrections officer—and I lighted on this idea of a psychiatrist, although it intimidated me a bit at first because it meant I had to know my subject a little better than I did. But I liked the idea that the other character was someone who came from outside the prison, so that it brought in a little bit of air and light. But in the writing of it, I realized even that wasn’t enough and that I needed someone completely outside of the system, and also someone who had a kind of practical, detached, non-sentimental, not liberal, not political view that could give a kind of contrast to all of these other ideas I was playing with.

RB: The corrections officer?

SM: He served the same purpose, actually. He came in much later.

RB: You’re saying that the Angie [the starlet] is serving the purpose of bringing air and light to the story?

SM: That was the intention—to open it up a little bit and to bring in the kind of silliness and sunniness of California to this dark world. And also one of the themes I was interested in when I was writing the book was the whole idea of celebrity. That’s something that interests me very much—the obsession with celebrity that we now suffer. The dissolution of the line between ourselves and others. Even those of us who should know better refer to celebrities by their first names and talk about them. And there is a little scene in the book where there are two people sitting at a bar talking about Nicole, who turns out to be Nicole Kidman. And they’re men. So it’s not just limited to women. And I was interested also in the celebrity of criminals, the celebrity of women who kill their children, and I felt, well, maybe I could write about a celebrity or someone who is about to become a celebrity, or someone who would be provocative of fantasies in her readers and followers of celebrity. And then in an earlier draft, she really was Helen’s sister, and it just seemed too much to ask. It was already a lot to ask that Raphael was her boyfriend and I changed it as the very, very last minute. I thought, it’s just too far-fetched, too dramatic, too implausible, and I didn’t need it. It’s more interesting, especially in regard to the theme of celebrity, if in fact it’s a fantasy of Helen’s. Which, of course, Angie is perfectly willing to accept, in her own willingness to be a celebrity—to completely accept the fantasy even though she doesn’t investigate its truth.

RB: She strikes me as someone who doesn’t investigate anything.

SM: Which was the point of it, since everyone else is investigating everything all the time. Don’t forget, it’s Angie who saves the day. It’s Angie’s practical, cold-hearted, quick solution to things that gets the psychiatrist out of difficulty, out of the serious problem she has with her child.

RB: She stumbles on that solution.

SM: Well, she doesn’t want the kid living with her, that’s one thing. She’s not particularly interested in whether it’s a false accusation or not—I don’t want to give too much away—or whether the corrections officer did what the boy claims he did. It’s immaterial to her. She doesn’t want the boy living with her—it’s her boyfriend’s kid. She doesn’t see what the problem is. And also because she has a tough life herself. And because she is a liar herself.

RB: [laughs]

SM: In her climb—she doesn’t believe the kid. One of the things I always think about liberals, which makes them particularly ineffective, is that they tend to see both sides of a problem. And because of that, it sometimes renders that person ineffectual and impotent. Conservatives don’t have those doubts. Conservatives don’t really see the point of poor people; conservatives think if you’re poor it’s your own fault. Whereas liberals are able to see, it appears to me, a much more complex and complicated pattern at work.

RB: That’s OK. It’s OK to note the complexity—it’s the bad decisions that follow from that, and it would seem that frequently the complications lead to inaction.[That you] end up not doing anything.

SM: You are rendered inactive—that’s my point. I see it in myself and I, of course, can see it in the Democratic Party and its leadership. Iraq being a good example.

RB: You began this book and you had—

SM:—an insane person, Helen.

RB: A child murderer.

Liberals tend to see both sides of a problem. And because of that, it sometimes renders that person ineffectual and impotent. Conservatives don’t have those doubts.SM: And then an intellectual psychiatrist who is a kind of paradigm of that kind of thinking. And a woman. And a corrections officer who has been a narcotics detective who has seen everything. For him it’s a little easier to be able to see things clearly. Although he’s not a bad person.

RB: You have one character who has done something monstrous, but the other characters, though they don’t cross the obvious line of criminality, are quite flawed also.

SM: Well, I hope so.

RB: You make no effort to clean them up, you present them with their foibles and deficits showing—

SM: Like all of us. All of us who have any complexity at all. I remember after In the Cut someone once said to me, “Why don’t you”—and not in a nice way—”Why don’t you write about happy, good people?”

RB: [laughs]

SM: I said, “Happy, good people are just not that interesting, I’m sorry to say.” And certainly they may be interesting in your life, although I doubt it, but there are other things—they are kind and happy. But they are not interesting in books.

RB: How many happy, good people are there?

SM: I’m sure you know some. But how many happy, good people are the main characters in books? It would be an interesting challenge to write a really, really good book about a happy, good person. I mean there are some, but they are portrayed as victims or fools or naïfs or people who are taken advantage of: Candide, which has also come to mean a word for “fool.”

RB: So you have a main character who is a child murderer. I can’t think of a crime—

SM: —that is worse.

RB: It renders the attempt to understand quite a difficult task. It’s hard to say, “Oh, they had a bad childhood.”

SM: But you might understand if you knew she had psychotic episodes.

RB: Oh, sure, but at first blush, I think you want to dismiss the person as the most awful thing.

SM: Of course, of course you do. So why did I write about such a person?

RB: Right.

SM: I was interested in the idea, the possibility that women who kill their children are not insane. That interested me. It always, always appeared to me that women who do are insane. How, otherwise, could you do it, if you were not insane? But clearly prosecutors and the public and judges and juries can conceive of a woman killing her children who is sane. So that interested and started me doing research and reading for about a year, about these women. And an interesting thing happened, which is that of course I found that I had very strong feelings about some, disliked others—

RB: How many are there? I can only recall two.

SM: There are 49 women on death row in America. Eleven of them have killed their children.

RB: The dramatic, high-profile ones, Susan Smith and Andrea Yates. I suppose there are cases of shaking their baby or—

SM: No these are real killings. But Susan Smith and Andrea Yates got a lot of press. Especially Susan Smith—the fascination with her continues. You know that in the lake where she drowned her children, a huge extemporaneous shrine has been constructed—

RB: I thought you were going to say that Disney was creating a theme park.

SM: No there is a kind of theme park but it’s been set up by the public. Even in the book there is a man who drowns going to visit the site, in memory of the children. It’s been so sentimentalized and commercialized and exaggerated. It’s, in a way, a version of the Princess Diana mourning, except it’s about children.

RB: So you are fascinated with the possibility that there are sane child murderers but your character, Helen is insane.

I remember saying to the person who was interviewing me at the prison, that maybe it was a mistake, because after all it was a detention center, which meant that it would be difficult to teach if I had new students each week. She looked at me as if I were crazy.SM: She has moments of sanity, I think, and she has suffered, obviously, from post-partum psychosis and episodes of psychosis before her marriage, which were not treated. Some of them were probably chemical, the episodes, and some of her illness was probably precipitated by the rape that she suffered from her stepfather in her childhood. But another thing—and I say this, and people are amused or baffled—one of the things that I set out to write about was motherhood, that’s really what interested me; what it is to be a mother, what does it means to be a mother? And almost everyone in the book, all the women, are mothers.

RB: Even Angie is a faux or temporary mother.

SM: Yes. The women in the book are seen in relationship to children.

RB: So why did people laugh at your claim?

SM: Because if I say I want to write about motherhood, there are many ways to write about motherhood, and I chose to write about a woman who kills her children. They laugh because it would seem to indicate a similar interest on my part.

RB: Killing children?

SM: Yeah. Killing my child.

RB: I am recalling that many of the inmates talk about their children and their maternal situations.

SM: Oh, it’s endless. A child burnt to death in a fire, a woman who opens her Caesarian scar. A woman talks about giving her child up, getting arrested on purpose in order to have her child in prison, because she knew it would be better than the street.

RB: Right. Do I have this right, you taught writing in prison—do you still do that?

SM: I do a version of it. I had written the book because of the research—you would think it would be in the opposite order—I taught in prison and then got the idea. But the research that I did and the writing itself awakened in me this sympathy and this interest. And so, when I finished the second draft, I finagled and wheedled and forced my way into a federal detention center, more or less—it took about a year to get their permission.

RB: Why was it so hard?

SM: They are not really interested. They didn’t really want to. They don’t have a program—some do, like Bedford, and Sing Sing does, but I didn’t want to go too far from where I lived because I was also working on the book.

RB: Were they distrustful because you are writer?

SM: They didn’t even know I was a writer. You undergo numerous tests and questioning and FBI checks before you are allowed in. But it did take about a year. Namely because of their apathy and—they just don’t really want to be bothered. It upsets the schedule and they don’t know what it accomplishes. Then I convinced them that it could be seen as—they are interested in getting women their GED and credit for courses. So I say, “You could give credits for this—I’m a real teacher.” So finally they let me do it. And I taught at the Federal Detention Center in Brooklyn which—

RB: Most of the inmates would be drug cases?

SM: Well, it was interesting because it was men and women. Recently 11 corrections officers were indicted for torturing and abusing prisoners. Many of those prisoners were arrested after 9/11 and were completely innocent but were subjected to endless torture. And also it’s the place—I don’t know if it was news in Boston—where a woman psychologist was caught having sex with one of the prisoners. So that was another scandal. But the detention center is interesting because it’s for men and women who have not yet gone to trial. Or been sentenced or are part of a conspiracy in which 15 people are being tried. But because it’s a detention center they allow themselves, the administration, to abuse many of the civil rights to which prisoners are entitled.

RB: Because the prisoners are in a legal limbo?

SM: Some of these women have not been in the fresh air or seen the sun or the sky in two years. Which is against the law.

RB: Are they allowed lawyers?

SM: They’d seen their lawyers—you can do that. There is no outdoor area, which is against the law. They get around it by saying it isn’t prison, it’s a detention—

RB: Right, this isn’t torture, it’s extreme duress.

They are writing their memoirs for me. Most of them are 17, 18, 19. Some of them have been locked up for bad things and they have never thought of themselves in the abstract before. They have never thought of themselves as being worthy of that kind of interest.SM: Before I began there, I remember saying to the person who was interviewing me at the prison, that maybe it was a mistake, because after all it was a detention center, which meant that it would be difficult to teach if I had new students each week. She looked at me as if I were crazy—she said, “Obviously you don’t know much about the criminal justice system.” I said, “No, I know nothing.” And she said, “Do you know what the average stay is here?” “No.” “It’s 18 months to two years.”

RB: In a detention center—so much for the sixth amendment.

SM: So if you or I were arrested in New York and could not post bail, we would be liable in that detention center for two years.

RB: And the right to a speedy trial?

SM: That is speedy. They are doing it as fast as they can. There is such a backlog, there are so many arrested. Fifteen years ago there were 385,000 people in prison. There are now 2 million. [The number has risen and is now at 2.245 million, according to the Justice Department.—eds.]

RB: We have the highest per-capita incarceration in the world. It’s apparently a big business.

SM: Oh, yes, quite badly run. It’s horrible. And also what else has happened is that it’s become a dumping ground for the mentally ill.

RB: After you finish a book, and this book in particular, does it stay with you?

SM: They stay with you in part because people won’t let them go away. I remember I had a terrible time in my relationships with men after In the Cut.

RB: Because?

SM: They assumed that I was the girl. So there were remarks like, “Where are your handcuffs?”

RB: What does “in the cut” mean?

SM: It’s a cop phrase. The original phrase would have been “in the cunt.” And it’s come to mean a safe place to hide, a place where you can watch others and not be seen, so undercover cops use it in surveillance—”We got him because we were six months in the cut.” It’s a wonderful phrase—someplace safe, warm cozy—like a vagina. Well, like some vaginas.

RB: Did you like the movie that was made?

SM: Uh—

RB: Did you have anything to do with it?

SM: Yes, I wrote the first draft of the screenplay—I did like the movie. I thought it was surprisingly sexy. We made a mistake with the end. She should have died—although Jane Campion, the director, when I mention this to her says—she’s had to say this many times to me, “Yes but we would not have been given the $15 million if she had died at the end.” So what do you want?

RB: And for your book on India did—

SM: People have said, of course you are Lady Eleanor, and we can see you in that person, and at a certain point you just throw up your hands because the public, readers really, really like to think that the author is in the book somewhere.

RB: Doesn’t it more and more say “A novel” on the title pages?

SM: It usually does, and it’s somewhat of an insult to writers because it implies of course that your imagination is not sufficient to make these things up.

RB: On the one hand, I do think all fiction is autobiographical, but not in that way.

SM: Well, of course. Yes, of course everything is autobiographical.

RB: I don’t get why the quibbling with fiction that has some basis in history.

SM: I know, they’re novels. But I had a very hard time after In the Cut because it was titillating and erotic. It was arousing for some people and also it was amusing to assume that I was Frannie. So I would get teased and get provoked.

RB: So what do you think will happen with this book? [laughs]

SM: What’s interesting to me is that a few of the reviews have seen the book as a kind of diatribe against the justice system and the mental health system, and that it will cause people to think about how women prisoners are treated. Yes, I suppose it will, but I never ever thought of it as a kind of—

RB: The book is not didactic.

SM: No, I never thought of it as that. I never thought that I would be thought an authority or someone to talk about—

RB: In any case, the sex scenes are plausible and not contrived.

SM: I pulled back from the sex scenes this time.

RB: Really?

SM: Yes, because I just thought, after In the Cut, I really don’t want to get caught in this idea—

RB: Well, they are plausible and real, they seem to work.

SM: I hope so.

RM: And the psychiatrist’s ambivalence about her relationships is evident. None of the sex scenes stand out except knowing that they connect the various characters—

SM: But you know In the Cut was about sex. I set out to write a book that was about sex, so of course the sex scenes would be about—

RB: What about murder?

SM: Well, sex and murder.

RB: What I liked about In the Cut that the movie also captured was that—it was made most clear in that Robert Daley book, Princes of the City—homicide detectives, there is no one else like them, they can do whatever they want.

SM: They rule the city. Especially the cops that I spent time with. They were part of a homicide squad. North and South, they could go anywhere. To any precinct, to any crime scene.

RB: They’re like super cops.

SM: And they are funny, irreverent and swaggering. But mostly very, very funny. And cool. Quite cool. They were very seductive.

RB: Especially considering what their bailiwick and daily diet is—they’re fascinating.

SM: Yes.

RB: Which is one of the things that you did well and which carried over to the movie. Ruffalo was one those guys—

SM: One of the things that was emotionally satisfying about them was—all of them, I don’t mean just the attractive ones—is that they have seen so much that it gives them at worst a kind of coldness and cynicism, and at best a kind of tolerance, I don’t mean that they are not racist and not misogynists. There is not too much that will shock them. There is not anything. That’s actually a very comfortable thing to feel in somebody. Not even necessarily that you are intent on shocking them or interested in that.

RB: Do you watch shows like Law and Order?

SM: No, I’ve never seen it, no.

RB: No crime shows?

SM: No.

RB: Do you watch television?

SM: No, I don’t have a television. I wish I did sometimes. For example, I enjoyed watching the Detroit [Pistons]-Chicago [Bulls] game.

RB: Because you are from Detroit?

SM: Because I don’t have a TV and I like watching basketball and sports.

RB: I asked you about your attachment to a novel and or the effect it has—what about this new one?

SM: This stays with me in that I have continued to do my work. I work now at a place near the Port Authority. Just once a week as a volunteer. Sometimes twice a week—teaching men and women up to the age of 21 who have just been released from Riker’s or prison upstate. At first I thought—I’m still so naïve—I thought, “It’s so nice that they come to get their GED,” Of course it’s mandated in their probation or parole, I found out later. But they come there, spend the day there. They have other classes there as well. We have a writing class, which is so extraordinary because they are writing—

RB: That’s part of a GED program?

SM: No, it’s just an hour that I get them. It’s supposed to be two hours but they run out of steam. It’s a new idea for them. They have never—they are writing their memoirs for me. Most of them are 17, 18, 19. Some of them have been locked up for bad things and they have never thought of themselves in the abstract before. They have never thought of themselves as being worthy of that kind of interest. My interest at first sounded very amusing and maybe even patronizing. But once they began, they were encaptured. I meant they were enraptured. It’s an interesting slip for people who have just gotten out of prison. They were enraptured and encaptured by this process of having to put down on paper—and some of them can barely write—and they were quite liberated by my saying to them, which I say almost every time, “I don’t care about spelling, I don’t care about grammar, we can fix that, that’s what I am here to do, to be your editor.”

RB: That’s like a scene out of [Elmore Leonard’s] Get Shorty.

SM: Yes, there’s a new Elmore Leonard, which I am dying to get. I love him.

RB: He talks about somebody who fixes up your words:

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people that do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there were hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page and you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end and you’re done.”

SM: That’s what I do. That made them relaxed because they are told all the time they have to get it all right. And they just start with, “I was born on May 20th…”

RB: How much of your life is occupied with writing? When you meet someone and they don’t know you, what do you say you do?

SM: I never really say what I do to people unless they ask—I never do. It’s always that awful question at a dinner party, someone will say, next to you, “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer.” And then they say that awful question—

RB: “Have I read anything…?”

SM: “Have I read anything?” and you want to say, “Well if you had, I’d hope you’d remember.”

RB: [laughs]

SM: I used to be very polite. Now I say, “Probably not” And that puts them on the defensive and they say, “Well what do you mean? I read John Grisham and…”

RB: OK, so how do you think of yourself? Three books set in Hawaii—

SM: And then In the Cut and then the memoir about Hawaii and then the Indian book and then this one. I think of myself as someone who writes to make her living, who is grateful for that because God knows what else I would have done. I see that I am not at that top level, and that’s fine. I also teach, which helps me to live. I am enormously pleased and satisfied and gratified and—to the point where sometimes I wonder if I should have more ambition, but I am a little skeptical of ambition.

RB: You didn’t finish that sentence, “You are pleased and gratified by”?

SM: To be just where I am and who I am. I think it’s a particularly female trait. I have men friends who are artists and sculptors and writers and they’re quite obsessed, even at a later age, with a kind of oedipal fantasy about toppling their predecessor. My friends who are artists say things like, “Well, you know, Picasso is the guy to get.” Or, “Serra is the guy to beat.” “I’m gonna knock Philip Roth …” Women don’t think that way.

RB: I don’t think that way.

SM: Well, not all men. A lot of men have a kind of hierarchical notion of upsetting the patriarchal order and they are going to show—this is trivializing it, I am boiling it down to the simplest. I really don’t think women think in those terms. Women think in terms of toppling—not toppling but having a kind of parity with men. Women think, “Well I wish I would get the recognition that the big boys get.” I just don’t know women who say, “I’m going to be better than Virginia Woolf.” Women are more—are rather grateful for—

RB: For their lot in life if they have achieved anything?

SM: Well, we’ve come so far. And that a lot of women are just doing their work. There is not as much fantasy involved with ranking. There is a whole tradition, not just in Western/Eastern mythology and philosophy, pulled the sword from the rock—endless. The Holy Grail. Male fantasies.

RB: Writing is a great pleasure for you?

SM: It’s not a great pleasure in the beginning of each book. It’s torture, and another thing that happens to me is—

RB: The writing, the decisions?

SN: All of it. All of it, and something that I have noticed is that I forget how to do it. So there is this tremendous anxiety and even panic. But I have come to see that that’s a good thing. And that if you get to the point if you think you know how to do it, you are a bit in trouble. I do have this absolute panic that I don’t know how—and I have to calm myself down and speak to myself as if I am speaking to one of my students.

RB: Sigrid Nunez says one of the things that gets easier is that you jump out of things more quickly, that you have a better sense when something isn’t going to work more quickly, you don’t hold on to things.

SM: That gets better, and also something happens maybe a third of the way into a book where it does begin to become pleasure. It is what I call the “grist period,” which is everything that is going on in your life and in your head in particular is incorporated into the work. It doesn’t mean that it stays there. But you are just really all the time writing in your head.

RB: Like a raw nerve?

SM: Yes, it’s wonderful, and that period is quite nice.

RB: It lasts until the end?

SM: It lasts until the end. And then you go through cycles where you hate it. All through the writing of the book, you go through, you hate it, you’re bored, you think it’s awful and then you like it a little bit. That’s quite normal, I think. But you do get into what my students, who a lot of them are athletes, basketball players—

RB: Into a zone?

SM: The zone. I am so thrilled they recognize it and it happens to them. To call them is amateurs is already a bit elevated. These are kids who have never written an essay in their lives, really. One boy who is serious drug dealer, still, I know he’s going to get locked up again, 70 percent of the kids let out of prison go back. I interrupted him the other day and he said “No, no, no I’m in the zone, man.” He is has written quite a bit, 50 pages. So he got it. He was under the spell.

RB: How much has your writing changed since you began? What has changed for you?

I gave a lecture a few months ago at Rutgers and there were some questions after about who I was reading and I realized that I disappointed the students.SM: In the very beginning when I wrote the first book, My Old Sweetheart, I had no notion it would be published. In a way what I was doing, because I had come from a somewhat crazy family and I had just had a child, a little girl, I began My Old Sweetheart as a kind of explanation to her—and it’s dedicated to her. So that someday she would, there would be a record of my childhood, her grandmother’s life—my mother died young—and even though it’s fictionalized, what had happened to us. And then it was published, to my surprise. And then I didn’t really write anything for 10 years, and quite happily. It’s not as though I had writer’s block. And I was living in Europe and I was having a lovely time raising my daughter, and then I was in a desperate situation about money suddenly and thought, what can I do? I can try to write another book, and then I did. And from then on it became something I took seriously. But I’ve always had this very glancing relationship to the idea of myself as a writer. I didn’t even really have a desk until about five years ago.

RB: You’d write in coffee shops?

SM: I’d write in bed or write at night—often at night. I write in longhand. I didn’t have a computer; I was perversely nonchalant about it. Maybe even a little secretive and quiet about it. Maybe irresponsible.

RB: Irresponsible?

SM: Maybe I should have been writing more and taking myself more seriously and a little more ambitious.

RB: How would you know?

SM: I think I am extremely proud and a little bit shy, although I don’t appear to be—I think I appear proud but not shy. I was always a little bit embarrassed to push myself forward.

RB: Do you write all the time?

SM: Oh no. I couldn’t. I also don’t have, unlike some of my friends, a lot of ideas. I have maybe 10 ideas in my life. I have friends with three or four novels half-finished and notes in their files, and I’m in complete awe of them.

RB: Why?

SM: Because I don’t.

RB: Would you like to?

SM: I’d be more productive. I’d be less poor.

RB: Do you do journalism?

SM: I do do magazine articles but I don’t do book reviews—you are so ill-paid and second, I think it’s too easy to knock a book and I know, as a writer, what has gone into a book even if I loathe a book, and it’s too facile. It’s too unkind. Unless you are writing for the New York Review of Books, and those are essays. Everything else is a bit paltry. The New York Times Book Review—I don’t think is really taken seriously by writers.

RB: Publishers take it seriously.

SM: Yes, and readers, I suppose. But it’s very unsophisticated. And you know the Los Angeles Times Sunday book section is being closed.

RB: Or folded into Saturday, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s is being abridged and the Chicago Tribune and on and on. I liked Pat Holt’s suggestion that the newspaper book sections weren’t doing a very good job, so maybe it was OK that they were disappearing.

SM: But it’s all that we have, how would you know about books?

RB: The Internet—

SM: It’s like Wikipedia, which I can’t stand. It’s so—it’s a bit provincial, it’s unanswerable because it’s often anonymous.

RB: There is most definitely a coterie of literary journalists on the web that are intelligent and informed.

SM: How many people avail themselves of those—do you think quite a few?

RB: I don’t know.

SM: Not yet—maybe eventually there will be a lot because that will be all there is.

RB: Right. And the mainstream corporate media eventually gets around to recognizing these folks that they have been denigrating for years.

SM: Yes, they will and they have.

RB: You don’t write all the time, you are doing some teaching. You have a daughter in New York.

SM: And I am teaching in the fall at Princeton. Chang-rae Lee is there—

RB: Edmund White?

SM: Yes, and a young writer named Chaudhary, an Indian gentleman. Amy Hempel is teaching there. Paul Muldoon is there.

RB: So that’s nice. Are you looking forward to that?

SM: Yes, two workshops.

RB: Are you going to take yourself seriously as a write now that you are at Princeton?

SM: Well, no, I’ve taught before—like at Yale and NYU. I take myself seriously. I’m not sure other people do.

RB: As a teacher or as a writer?

SM: Both.

RB: Do you read much?

SM: Oh, endlessly. Eight or nine hours a day.

RB: What do you like to read?

SM: I read old things, mostly, and I am rereading now, everything. But I gave a lecture a few months ago at Rutgers and there were some questions after about who I was reading and I realized that I disappointed the students. I realized that I had failed in my answers—I gave my truthful answer—Henry James and I am rereading Moby Dick. It’s not very interesting to them. They’ve either read those books or they won’t read those books and it precluded having a conversation. and they were excited by the lecture.

RB: They were expecting Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace?

SM: Or just something they don’t know. I could see that they were let down. So afterwards I thought to myself, “Suzanne, you really have to be a little hipper and a little more up to date. And find out who are…”—Don DeLillo is already old. He’s already dated. I mean Dave Eggers is even a little—

RB: [laughs]

SM: No really, Jay McInerney, Bret Ellis and all those, they are already middle-aged men. So I have begun to ask around and I asked the man last night [at the bookshop] to give me some books. He gave me a book by someone named Matthew Sharpe, Jamestown.

RB: Sharpe is no spring chicken. He teaches at Wesleyan and is in his 40s.

SM: No, but he’s new. And then someone named Mark Haddon, an English writer, whose book—it was like eating a box of See’s chocolates. I liked it while I was reading it and then really felt awful afterwards.

RB: His first or his second book?

SM: The first [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time]. It’s so manipulative. And I hate postmodernism.

RB: I didn’t like that book. But Matthew Sharpe’s book comes well recommended.

SM: He’s very interesting. Debbie Eisenberg I love, she’s a short-story writer.

RB: She teaches at Virginia and has two or three collections.

SM: Yes, she’s wonderful. But I have to get a little hipper. There is this young African-American named Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation. It’s a brilliant book.

RB: I agree. I have spoken with him.

SM: And it was the first of the child soldier books, which seem to be having a vogue.

RB: Do you know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? She wrote Half of a Yellow Sun.

SM: I will get her book. I am a little out of touch—my interests lie elsewhere. And I don’t want to be that person and lose touch with young, good writers.

RB: I was thinking that in the future I want to talk with writers about someone else’s book—perhaps something classic.

SM: That would be fun. That would be a wonderful idea.

RB: Two friends who are very commercially oriented told me that no writer would want to talk to me about someone else’s book. [laughs]

SM: That’s not true. That’s completely not true. Most of the writers I know have obsessions with specific 19th-century writers, whether it’s Tolstoy or Chekhov or Dickens, and think about them and read their books constantly.

RB: At this point I feel like I can only read so much contemporary fiction—

SM: I can’t read Philip Roth anymore.

RB: I loved Everyman. Even though—

SM: I haven’t read it. The self-absorption, I find it exhausting.

RB: It’s an odd book to love—

SM: I can’t read Updike. I love, love, love Saul Bellow—he was late discovery of mine. But he’s an old guy.

RB: He was an old guy.

SM: Richard Ford. He’s a wonderful writer.

RB: I loved Lay of the Land.

SM: And, of course, the new Cormac McCarthy book is astonishing, The Road.

RB: I haven’t been in the mood.

SM: You do have to be in the mood. I had to go to bed for a month—

RB: Seriously?

SM:—after reading it. It’s so—

RB:—harrowing, right? I just read Jim Crace‘s The Pesthouse, which touches on some of the same dark vision of the future.

SM: Is it good?

RB: Great.

SM: I like his first book very much. I can’t read Martin Amis.

RB: I have to.

SM: Why?

RB: I like him, and though he is difficult to read—

I have a huge ego and I am confident and brash, but I don’t think I am the most interesting thing around. I am more interested in other things. I mean, I think—maybe I appear to be that other way. I hope not.SM: He is likable because he is so ornery.

RB: So I have to read him because I enjoy talking with him.

SM: And he is funny.

RB: So there’s a payoff.

SM: Did you read the last book?

RB: Yes.

SM: Did you like it?

RB: I liked House of Meetings but I didn’t much like the book before, Yellow Dog.

SM: I know who the new group is—Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, John Wray, Nathan Englander—the new book is so silly.

RB: You think it’s silly?

SM: Did you like it?

RB: I did like it.

SM: A little squishy.

RB: I am interested in Argentina’s “dirty war” so I was glad that some tackled the subject. And I liked the idea of setting the beginning in a Jewish cemetery that has segregated certain undesirables.

SM: I guess I don’t like the magic realism so much.

RB: Did you read his short stories?

SM: I am not fan but this is an example—I could change my mind. I should change my mind. Maybe. Jonathan Franzen.

RB: I liked The Corrections—but because of his public persona there are other people I’d rather read.

SM: There’s a young Indian writer, Akhil Sharmam ,who wrote a wonderful book called The Obedient Father. He’s young and new. A brilliant book and it takes place in India. Zadie Smith? Vikram Seth?

RB: His books are humungous.

SM: They are big.

RB: It’s a constant and big pile of what’s to be read.

SM: It’s enormous, and they say fiction isn’t doing well commercially.

RB: There is an odd model of health and vitality applied to literary fiction.

SM: There are so many books I don’t know how they choose.

RB: Exactly. When I hear people claim there is too much crap being published, I think, “Maybe, but I manage to find a lot of good books.”

SM: Yes, me too. There is a lot of crap and there is nice amount of really good stuff. Joan Didion, do you like her?

RB: Love her. I’m not sure why, because I find her to be so elliptical, haunting.

SM: Very elliptical. I love her. She is one of my closest friends. She is my daughter’s godmother.

RB: I haven’t read A Year of Magical Thinking.

SM: Oh, you must read it. It’s not harrowing like The Road.

RB: I don’t know why I could read Roth’s Everyman.

SM: I read about it. And it put me off a bit.

RB: I haven’t read a lot of Roth and didn’t because I wasn’t interested in reading the guy who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint.

SM: The Sabbath’s Theater is very, very interesting. Because it’s so shocking.

RB: Really.

SM: Oh, yeah, things like masturbating on his wife’s tombstone. He goes pretty far.

RB: I loved the movie version of The Human Stain. Nicole Kidman was great in that. I read a passage in American Pastoral that was so brilliant that I put the book down because I didn’t think he could do better.

SM: He probably would. He’s very, very smart. There’s no question.

RB: What’s wrong with being self-absorbed? Aren’t you self-absorbed?

SM: I don’t think in that way. I have a huge ego and I am confident and brash, but I don’t think I am the most interesting thing around. I am more interested in other things. I mean, I think—maybe I appear to be that other way. I hope not. I read a review of his book that said it was like being trapped at a bad cocktail party by someone who spends an hour telling you about their operation. I thought, “Oh, I can’t bear it.”

RB: That’s funny and mean, but it may overshadow the truth. That’s the thing about book reviews people get to write these witty things.

SM: It was Michiko Kakutani, who is so fierce and so smart. And powerful.

RB: I wonder—

SM: If she gives you a bad review, that’s it. That’s it. She reviewed A.M. Homes’s book recently and pretty much said, “This is trash, don’t buy it.” Not the last book, the one before, about California [This Book Will Save Your Life].

RB: I like The Mistress’s Daughter.

SM: She’s an interesting writer.

RB: So what’s next for you?

RB: I was given a fellowship last year by the American Academy of Berlin, and I spent five months doing research there for this book I want to write about the end of the Second World War in Berlin—just a few days before the Russians arrive. A great book you should read, if you haven’t, A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous. Oh my God, it is so brilliant, and I read that, and it got me started thinking. And I want to write about Germans.

RB: Because? They are so misunderstood? [laughs]

SM: I was very reluctant to go to Berlin because I would have problem with Germans and Germany for the obvious reasons. And even though I live with a Jew who is a sculptor and an American, he was completely unconcerned—he had been there before and chided me for my prejudices. And I would say to him, “Hardly prejudices.” But as concerned as I was and antipathetic, they are worse. They are more obsessed, more consumed, more upset by it. And that calmed me down a little bit.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum