My Country is New York: A Conversation with Phillip Lopate
Photo credit: Liz Arnold, Homebodies
Phillip Lopate may be the greatest living expert on New York writing and the personal essay. He wrote the book on both, or rather, anthologized both, with Writing New York and The Art of the Personal Essay—which, needless to say, also makes him an excellent teacher of writing. If you happen to find yourself in a workshop he’s running, and a question arises on, say, establishing a double-perspective, Lopate will hold up his index finger and whisper, “Aha, one moment.” He’ll reach for his tote bag and pull out a fat, falling-apart folder. He will flip through the mess of loose-leaf for mere seconds before clearing his throat and reading aloud his essay on “Reflection and Retrospection.” If that weren’t enough, Lopate is also an annoyingly fine writer, the author of critically acclaimed collections of personal essays, novels, novellas, nonfiction works, and books of poetry, including two forthcoming books, both out February 12, 2013, from The Free Press/Simon & Schuster--one on the craft of literary nonfiction, To Show and to Tell, and an essay collection, Portrait Inside My Head. The notorious curmudgeon—he wrote an essay titled “Against Joie de Vivre,” after all—kindly invited a former student into his Brooklyn home on a bright afternoon to discuss writing and New York for The Aviary.
Melissa Giannini for The Aviary: Do you ever get tired of writing about New York—or talking about writing about New York?
I feel so identified with New York. I can’t figure out where I end and New York starts.
Is that of your own choosing, or has it just become what people expect from you?
It’s definitely partly of my own choosing. I think of myself as a writer, as a New Yorker, a Jew, and as an American, probably American fourth [laughs]. But my country is New York, and I have no apologetic feelings for loving cities. That is, I don’t have any of that anti-urban bias. And even when people say, as they often do now, ‘Oh, it’s not the same New York’—they seem to feel that some fatal poison has entered the bloodstream—I just don’t see it, because I was born here, I grew up here, and I’ve always seen it change. I’ve always seen it destroy and rebuild.
Have you ever lived outside of New York?
Oh, yes. I was born here, but there were several times in my life when I attempted a getaway. When I graduated from college I lived in Spain and Morocco for a year; that was a kind of attempt to see the world and write the great American novel. I was married for the first time at that point—I married young, at 20—and when I got divorced, or ran away from that marriage, I ran away to California for a year, only to discover that, really I was a New Yorker, not a Californian. And then I got my first university job at the University of Houston. I taught there for about eight years. It was a fine experience, but by that time I realized I really needed to live and die in New York. That I had, in effect, become addicted, like a heroin addict, to New York. And that I needed my heroin.
It was like the one time I tried to get off coffee only to discover that I really was addicted to coffee, and so the best thing to do was simply to drink a cup or two every day. So I came back to New York and I’ve been here ever since. My wife sometimes asks if I would ever consider moving elsewhere. I tell her, “I’m very flexible. I’ll live anywhere in the five boroughs of New York City.”
How long have you been in Brooklyn?
I’ve been in this house about 18 years. My wife and I were living in Greenwich Village in a fifth-floor walk-up when she got pregnant. We looked all over Manhattan, and that’s when I realized I had forgotten to save 5 million dollars [laughs]. So we decided to move to Brooklyn, and at that point, Brooklyn was still reasonable and affordable. So we bought this house. And about four months after we moved in, my daughter was born.
What have you been working on lately?
I don’t know. I don’t want to work so hard.
Seriously. Take a break.
I’ve become the director of the MFA nonfiction program at Columbia. So I’m teaching there. I’ve written all these books, over a dozen books and edited a dozen more. So now I’m mostly writing things that people ask me to write.
I just finished the first half of Two Marriages, your pair of novellas. I liked how it was told from the perspective of a man journaling, how in the beginning, he has this intention to document his happiness--
Of course, always an ominous sign [laughs].
But then it unravels, and I was thinking it was similar to the process of personal essay writing, how you start out with this superficial idea of what you want to write about and who you are—or what the world thinks you are—and then you dig and inevitably unearth all this uncertainty and fear.
I think that’s very true. By the time I wrote “The Stoic’s Marriage,” I knew that I had to use my essay strengths in fiction. So I purposely set out to use a format that would allow for mini essays. And allow for all of that skepticism, doubt, and doubling back on what one thought one knew. Yeah, exactly.
Do you then see personal writing as self-sabotage or subconscious self-destruction or deconstruction? Maybe I’m projecting--
I do have to assert that I am not the character in the novella.
Of course, but when you are writing about yourself, and you inevitably find out something about yourself that you didn’t necessarily want to find--
I think personal essay is a good form for people who are suspicious of themselves, who aren’t completely taken by their rationalizations. I think that it’s probably impossible to write a completely un-defensive autobiographical piece. But if you start out knowing that there are going to be these little booby-traps, you’re better off. I don’t pretend to be able to see myself objectively, but I get a kind of whiff of mistrust from myself sometimes. It’s like when you have an argument with your mate, let’s say, and you get very self-righteous, but there’s a little voice inside that says, “Well, maybe he’s right—maybe, he’s a little right.” So this becomes an opportunity to dialogue with oneself. And I think, in some ways, a personal essay is a kind of internalized dialogue.
I read an interview in which you’ve described that process as “thinking against oneself.”
Yes, that was something I quoted from E.M. Cioran, and I do really feel that’s a powerful part of the form. That you don’t just assert; you think, ‘yes, but,’ or ‘okay, okay, we know that. What is there to be said against it?’ When I’m working with students, I try to get them to cultivate thinking against themselves, because it becomes richer when you bring in those contradictions and those tensions.
In “Brooklyn, the Unknowable,” you mention the borough’s pride and near-provincialism, its boosterism. I find it so odd how a place with 2.5 million-plus residents and so many world-class cultural institutions could see itself in such a way. Especially now, as it’s become almost a brand. But even in that branding, it’s positioned as an alternative to Manhattan, a breath of fresh air.
You know, I’m a little baffled about it. I’m glad that there are all these amenities, these restaurants, these hip venues, boutiques, and so on. I’m adverse to sentimentality, but I also don’t quite believe all the hype. When I go to Europe, I hear Parisians or Romans talking about how great Brooklyn is. I just say, ‘Okay, well, but Paris and Rome are pretty great also. Let’s not get carried away here.’ [Laughs]
Why do so many writers live in Brooklyn?
Initially, I think they moved here because they couldn’t afford Manhattan. And also, a lot of the writers we’re talking about have children. So, low-scale, brownstone Brooklyn is certainly an easier environment in which to raise kids. I think some of it had to do with a sense of community, although I will tell you that the writers of Brooklyn don’t get together as often as people imagine. It’s not like we’re all partying or seeing each other all the time. I don’t think there’s a Brooklyn style, for instance. I don’t think there’s a Brooklyn school of literature. What’s good is that there’s a lot of diversity. That’s one of the best things about New York, and it’s true of the literary world as well.
Do you feel compelled to write about where you are at that particular moment?
When I was in Houston, I was mostly writing about New York. New York had become subject matter, this paradox of alienation and community. You’re alone in a crowd. And yet there is a certain gregariousness that will pull you out of yourself. One reason I’ve never gone, except once in my life, to an artist community in the beautiful countryside is that I like to write in my house, and then I go out onto the street and I see anonymous strangers and that cheers me up.
I take it you don’t feel as inspired after seeing, for instance, a nice tree.
I don’t. I like the paradox anomaly, the grit. I just got back from a month in Vermont, and it was so beautiful, and I had a nice time. But I wandered around the streets here and saw people of color, mothers berating their children, and people having arguments, and I said, “Oh good, I’m so glad I’m back.”
In the intro to Writing New York, you mention a few common themes of New York writing: the skeptical humor, the disenchanted realism. Those are characteristics I’ve noticed as well, but I’m not sure they would’ve been so apparent had I grown up here.
[In New York,] you don’t always have to put a good face on things. It’s not like “Minnesota nice.” You can find the little spark of amusing pain in a situation. It is an adaptation to a place. When I went to Houston, I’d be at a party and I’d start telling jokes, and sometimes someone would say, ‘Oh, you know, you remind me of Woody Allen.” And I’d think, Oh, thanks a lot. That’s because that’s the only New York Jew you know.
But the reality was that Woody Allen and I were both taking from the same barrel. And as has been often said, Jewish humor is often based on a certain pessimism, an adaptation to bad news. I always felt in New York, and continue to feel, that I’m real, whether I’m happy or unhappy. When I moved to California for a year, it was so pretty, the sun was shining, and I started to feel like a helium balloon, like I was lifting off. When I was unhappy in California, I felt very bad because I thought, you know, this must be me. It’s so pretty here. Whereas in New York, you say, “this damn subway, arg.” You can blame the environment.
From your writing on teaching, especially the essay “Chekhov for Children,” [the inspiration behind an excellent 2010 documentary of the same name] it seems as though you find both equally satisfying.
I probably think that I’m as much a teacher as I am a writer. Teaching is a kind of conversation. Sometimes when I’m teaching I feel like I’m writing out loud.
A student will ask a question, and I’m put in a situation of pretending to know the answer. I have to say something, so I start babbling, and sometimes I’ll discover things that I think. It’s very similar to writing an essay in that you’re not sure where you’re going with something, but you start to answer.
The other thing is that I try to be honest when I’m teaching, which is a scary proposition, because sometimes the class will be critiquing a piece of student writing, and I think ‘Should I say this? Is this dangerous? A lot of times I’ll blurt it out and think, Okay, if this the wrong thing to say, politically incorrect or whatever, then I hope they’ll forgive me in time by realizing that I say a lot of things, but this is where my impulse is taking me. So I try not to be so cautious as a teacher. I take chances. As a writer, I’m often motivated by the desire to do mischief, to go against the grain.
You’ve written that teaching makes you feel like a productive member of society.
The part of me that is socially minded and wants to make a better world—small, but nevertheless, existing [laughs]—wants to contribute to making community. I felt that especially strongly when I was working with children. That I was doing something good. I don’t think that being a writer absolves you of the world’s messes, that you can say, “I’m a hermit. I’m going to go off to my room.” I can’t just go off to my room. I would get cabin fever. I need the push and pull of society, of the world. When I’m teaching I encounter human problems. Let’s say a colleague is a pain in the ass. One part of me thinks, Oh, I would just like to shoot that colleague. Another part of me says, “No, this is interesting. This is the stuff that novels are made out of.” You’re watching other people’s limitations and rigidities, and you’re watching your own limitations and rigidities. The psychology of a classroom fascinates me, like, when is it going to stop being a disparate group of individuals and when are they going to start banding together? Sometimes they band together against the teacher. All of that is part of the human drama. And it feeds me.
Also it becomes a way for me to see what’s happening in the culture. Because students will be writing a certain way, and I’ll say, “What is this? What’s going on here? Why are they all writing like this?” And it will turn out to be David Sedaris, or Richard Ford, or something that they’re all reading. So I don’t want to be totally out of touch.
Do you have any pet peeves as a reader?
The work that I respond to the most has at least a kind of comic spark, even if it’s just a sense of irony. And the work that I don’t respond to as much is glum and self-serious. In spite of the fact that I have a reputation for being a curmudgeon, the truth is that I’m rather optimistic.
That sounds similar to your view on the so-called death of New York.
Yes, the premature burial. New York has been declared dead. Literature, books, the essay, they’ve all been counted out. And they’re not. I think we’re going through a lively period for the essay and nonfiction, and a lively period in the life of New York City. There’s a lot more kick in the old gal, yet.
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Phillip Lopate is the author of three personal essay collections, Bachelorhood (Little, Brown, 1981), Against Joie de Vivre (Poseidon-Simon & Schuster, 1989), and Portrait of My Body (Doubleday-Anchor, 1996); two novels, Confessions of Summer (Doubleday, 1979) and The Rug Merchant (Viking, 1987); two novellas (Two Marriages, Other Press, 2008); three poetry collections, The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (Sun Press, 1972), The Daily Round (Sun Press, 1976), and At the End of the Day (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010); a memoir, Being With Children (Doubleday, 1975); a collection of movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically (Doubleday-Anchor, 1998); a book-length essay, Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Crown, 2004); a critical study, Notes On Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009); and a biographical monograph, Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker (Harry N. Abrams, 2004). Basic Books published the Phillip Lopate reader, Getting Personal: Selected Writings, in 2003, and he has edited five anthologies, The Art of the Personal Essay (Doubleday-Anchor, 1994); Writing New York (Library of America, 1998), Journey of a Living Experiment (Virgil Press, 1979), The Anchor Essay Annual (1997–99), and American Movie Critics (Library of America, 2006). A book on the craft of literary nonfiction, To Show and to Tell, and an essay collection, Portrait Inside My Head, are forthcoming February 12, 2013, from The Free Press/Simon & Schuster. Lopate is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University and a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Melissa Giannini is a senior editor for Nylon magazine and a recent graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.