With Erica Jong
Erica Jong maintains that “nobody reads poetry,” though it was in that medium that she first gained her notoriety. Her collections (Fruits and Vegetables, released in 1971, followed by Half-Lives in '73) were so well accepted, in fact, that she was able to overcome her fear of writing in novel form, the form she had secretly always preferred. Subsequently she exploded onto the international literary scene with her remarkably successful first novel, Fear of Flying. This satirical, uninhibited work has sold over six million copies in 20 countries since it was published in 1973. Sexually explicit, to an extent that makes men breathe a sigh of relief that women really think that way, and women feel they are not alone in their desires, Jong’s writings have been described as the feminine counterpart to Henry Miller’s Tropics. On reading her latest book, How to Save Your Own Life, Miller heartily endorsed not only its philosophy but also the insight exhibited through a Miller-like character she presented.
Jong’s own life closely parallels that of her fictional heroine Isadora Wing. Raised in New York by Jewish left-wing parents, she was surrounded as a child by books and paintings. While attending Columbia University, where she received an MA in English literature, she began writing poetry and married her first husband (she refers to him as a psychotic). Jong lived in Germany with her second husband, a psychiatrist, and while undergoing psychoanalysis delved into her dreams and fantasies, achieving insights which became the themes of her writing.
Now 36, Jong lives in Connecticut with a new husband, 30-year-old science-fiction writer Jonathan Fast, and is expecting her first child this summer. She spoke to Maclean’s contributing editor Philip Fleishman during a recent visit to Toronto.
Maclean’s: In Fear of Flying, you look at social norms as an outsider, trying to reevaluate woman’s position in our society. Jong: As if a Martian would see it. Humor always does that. Satire is always a doubleness of vision. One of the things I would like to do even more in my work is to take the outrageous satirical perspective. I’ll give you an example. Fve been working on this historical novel. I discovered that the best depictions of any society always come from travellers from abroad. You can find out about life in the 18th century from reading Swift and Johnson and so on, but you don’t find out very much from the political biographies of the time. You find out a great deal from a German travelling
through England or a French parson plunked down in Yorkshire, because they see it plainly. That’s taught me a lot about what a novelist’s perspective should be. You should be a bit of an outsider, and
I’d like there to be justice between the sexes; we haven’t begun to have that
maybe that’s why women are in a unique position right now to write novels of satire and novels of social criticism.
Macleans: Because they’ve always been outsiders?
Jong: They are insiders and outsiders at the same time. They are insiders in the family, but they’re insiders without authority and respect. They know all the secrets, like a valet knows the secrets, but a strong set of social conventions keeps them in a somewhat subordinate position and says that they dare not tell what they know, just as a servant dares not tell about his master. It’s the same thing that’s made black American literature very interesting in the last few years.
Maclean’s: How much of Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life is satire, and how much is a reflection of what you were feeling?
Jong: Well, even the satire was a reflection of what I was feeling, because I tend to see the world at times very humorously. I don’t know if I can really quantify an answer.
Obviously I used part of my own feelings, my own life. I hope the books are true to emotion. They are not always true to actual events. One of the most moving chapters in Fear of Flying, for example, which I thought was the dead centre of the book, was Isadora alone in that hotel room in Paris. From an historian’s point of view, those events never took place in my life; from an emotional point of view they surely did.
Maclean’s: Is it important for you to feel that you are going to leave something, as though a supremely successful work can somehow be a hedge against death?
Jong: I felt that way when I was 16. I felt that poetry was a bulwark against death. I don’t now. You have to find your own bulwark against death as you grow older, and maybe that bulwark is accepting it rather than fighting it. I don’t think any writer could say this is my monument, because literary history is full of writers whose work is utterly forgotten. Maclean’s: You sold more than six million copies of Fear of Flying, which is no mean feat. What if the next one doesn’t sell? Jong: Well, I don’t think a book following Fear of Flying could outsell it, although perhaps over the years it might inch up there. I know that I was terribly insecure as a writer, and it gave me a tremendous shot in the arm to know that I had readers. I’ve also been bedevilled by deliberately hostile critics. So my situation as a writer has never been one of sheer acceptance. But as I grow older I hope I will learn to be more indifferent to success-failure, because those are not very worthy goals to be concerned with.
Maclean’s: Did you make a million dollars on Fear of Flying?
Jong: I don’t know what the total will be. I made less than a lot of writers with bestsellers, because the movie rights went for $50,000, and then there was the $200,000 lawsuit which I lost to Columbia Pictures to get the movie rights back. I didn’t make a million, I don’t think. It came in over a period of five years. I was able to buy a very beautiful house, with a great writing study, with bookshelves all around. I now have a copying machine in my home that makes dry copies. I have an excellent typewriter. I have a secretary’s room and lots of work space. It’s given me a degree of privacy, because it’s a very remote house in a beautiful rural section of Connecticut. Maclean’s: In Fear of Flying, you write: “I
learned about women from men. I learned from Shaw that women can never be artists. I learned from Dostoevsky that they have no religious feeling. I learned from Swift and Pope that they have too much religious feeling. I learned from Faulkner that they are earth mothers. I learned from Freud that they have deficient superegos and are ever incomplete because they lack the one thing in this world worth having, a penis. But what did all this have to do with me?”
Jong: Well, that whole passage is ironic. Because when I say I learned from Freud that women are deficient, I am mocking him. A writer has a certain job, which is to be a kind of weathervane. A writer’s job is to feel the currents of her time and to put them down on paper, almost like a medium getting spirits at a seance. If you’re born with that gift, you learn to develop it. Poets have it to an extreme degree. It is a sort of mystical gift, I guess. And somehow, by articulating these things on paper, you enable people to see where their society is, and change comes out of that in some weird way. I’d like our society to be much more just and much more sensitive, to artists and to women. I’d like there to be justice between the sexes, and there isn’t. We haven’t begun to have that.
Maclean’s: What about war, racism, the neutron bomb—do you ever feel the need to become involved with a wider world? Jong: What could be wider than men and women? I don’t feel it’s a trivial issue. I think it’s at the rock bottom of other issues.
I believe that people have certain callings. You don’t say should I go on a hunger strike to save India? If you’re Gandhi, you do, because that’s your karma and you do it. Well, my karma is to be a writer, and the best contribution I can make is to use that gift as well as I can. I’m not a very good politician. I’m not a good organizer. I’m not a particularly good envelope stuflfer, or marcher on picket lines. If I can raise money for a cause I believe in by giving a poetry reading, I do it. But everybody finds sooner or later that they have their own fate to fulfil, and I’m old enough to know that I can’t do everything.
Maclean’s: Let me ask you the meaning of some fundamental words that I associate with you. Love, for example.
Jong: Well, you love somebody when that person’s life so enriches your own that you feel you’d be impoverished without it, and when that person’s point of view on the world helps your sense of vision so much that you want that person around. That’s what love means to me, really.
Maclean’s: What role does marriage play?
Jong: I don’t think there’s a place for the institution of marriage, but I think there’s a place for long-standing relationships between people. I don’t know what the institution of marriage is, to tell you the truth.
If you look at the laws concerning legal marriage, you find that they are antiquated. They have to do with women as possessions and chattels.
Maclean’s: Yet you’ve been married three times.
Jong: Yeah, but getting legally married is not the same as really joining your life with somebody. A lot of people get legally married many times, for all kinds of ridiculous reasons. I married my first husband because it was not a time in history when two college students could live together without being married. Six years later, we probably would have lived together and outgrown
I went to bed with another woman once; does that qualify as a lesbian relationship?
the relationship a few years later and split. But people didn’t shack up in 1963 at Columbia University; they got married. I don’t know whether that had much meaning as a marriage. The second marriage was a marriage of desperation; I had had a husband who was psychotic and I was terrified by the whole experience, so I married somebody who was very stern and promised to have all the answers and was a good daddy, and was older than me, and who was a shrink. Now I’m with somebody I’m very united with, and our whole relationship is different from anything I’ve ever had before in my life.
Maclean’s: The series of events you’ve just recounted is exactly the same as the events Isadora experiences in Fear of Flying.
Jong: Well, many of the events parallel my own life. But I don’t think Isadora is me. Isadora is the kind of projected alter ego. Isadora is the snappy, wise-ass, outrageous side, a fantasy projection of a rather bookish, sober woman. Isadora did all the
things I didn’t do because I was sitting behind my desk writing.
Maclean’s: Did you feel you had to write about your former marriages to be rid of them?
Jong: No. In fact, it was all I could do to write the book that way. My first attempt to deal with the experience was to write a book about a madman, in which I was the madman. As I was working on that book and other unpublished novels—all of which, incidentally, had male protagonists, partly because I assumed nobody would want to hear about a woman protagonist— I was also writing poetry. My editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston kept pressing me: “What are you working on? Can you sell us a novel?” Well, I showed it to him and he said, “This book is a total evasion. It’s as if you were hiding behind the mask of a male character.” And I said, “Well, I can’t be direct in my fiction because people might actually read it. Poetry nobody reads. It’s not like revealing yourself before the world.” And he said, “You’d better take this manuscript home, because I’m not going to publish it.” I guess the reason I had so many problems was because there was no women’s movement at that time. The novels that were admired were the novels of Bellow and Roth, and by God they didn’t write about women, so why should I? It was an unconsciously selfhating position that I had taken. The climate has changed drastically since then. You can’t imagine what it was like wanting to write when I was at Barnard in 1959 to ’63. We didn’t study a single woman writer in literature courses. Nobody even read us the poems of Emily Dickinson. Nobody even read Mary McCarthy or Doris Lessing. Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize when I was at Barnard and that was the first I’d ever heard of her.
Maclean’s: You dealt with women’s sexuality in an up-front way, almost as though you were trying to write a female response to Henry Miller.
Jong: I think that “Henry Miller character” in the Tropics bears just about the same relationship to the historical Henry Miller as Isadora Wing bears to Erica Jong. Henry knew damn well when he was writing those books that he was creating an outrageous alterego. Think about this: think about a man so bookish and so literary that when he lives in the same house as Lawrence Durrell, they are corresponding, sending two and three letters a day, and one of them’s living upstairs and one of them’s living downstairs. I think the world is fooled about Henry Miller. I was very liberated by a couple of books I had read shortly before I wrote Fear of Flying. I thought Portnoy’s Complaint was a great achievement. There was a lack of inhibition and a wonderful self-mockery. The way Roth reveals male fantasies—no woman had done that in a book. Even Anaïs Nin
said at one time that she cut out all her sexual affairs from her journals when she published them because she had seen what had happened to Violette Leduc in France. And I thought “By God, I’m not a coward. I'm going to do it.” I wrote the book as if for my desk drawer. But I was exhilarated by the process. I was going to say all the outrageous things that women are afraid to say. When the book was about seveneighths finished, I threw it down on my editor’s desk and raced out of that office like a bat out of hell and I went away on vacation that afternoon. He called me a week later and said, “This is dynamite. This is the best thing I’ve read in years.” I couldn’t believe it. He immediately wanted to give me a contract for it.
Maclean’s: Was the lesbian relationship you described in How to Save Your Own Life based on fact?
Jong: I don’t see how anybody can read that chapter without seeing it as total satire. Have I ever had a lesbian experience? I’ve been to bed with another woman, once. I don’t know whether that qualifies as a lesbian relationship. It wasn’t very much of one. Actually the more radical feminists were appalled by that chapter. They found it anti-lesbian and anti-feminist, because I had dared to make fun of the sacred cow of a woman going to bed with a woman, which is after all, you know, the summum bonum of female experience. I find that silly because everything’s fair game for satire.
Maclean’s: Were you concerned that
Fear of Flying might be labelled pornography?
Jong: I never really thought in those terms. As I was writing it, I thought only of me and my desk drawer and the fact that I didn’t want to walk around for the rest of my life saying “I could write a novel too.” When it was published, I was thunderstruck by the response, but then I’ve never failed to be less than thunderstruck by the way my books have been received, even the poetry. I think if you were to derive your gratification in writing from reading that mess of clippings that come across your desk after the thing comes out, you’d hang yourself. First of all, no two clippings ever agree. One says you’re absolutely the greatest writer in the world and the other one says that you’re illiterate. I don’t read them anymore.
Maclean’s: What about censorship with pornography?
Jong: I don’t believe in any form of censorship. I think it’s very dangerous and very stupid. There are all kinds of things that all of us find obnoxious. Most people find the molestation of little girls obnoxious. But if you open the door to censorship of that, you open the door to every other kind of censorship, to government bureaucrats telling you what you can see or read. Until we censor The Gong Show, we have no right to censor
Pretty Baby. Until we censor the sugar commercials on television that convince little children to eat things that rot their teeth, we have no right to censor any book or whatever.
Maclean’s: Do you believe in an afterlife?
Jong: Yes, I don’t know whether it’s anything that we could describe in our this-life vocabulary. I’ve become very interested in mysticism and in people who seek enlightenment, who try to see the flow of consciousness and the flow of history and be one with it. I think that’s a very worthy
For years I was in the classic female bind: be a writer or have children; never both
goal. I am nowhere near it, I’ll tell you that.
Maclean’s: Does your Jewish background have any bearing on this spiritual search?
Jong: Not really. I came from an atheistic family. Of all the members of my family, I am probably the one most convinced of a supreme being, although not particularly a Jewish one. I am interested in the survival of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. And I’m proud to be born Jewish. I find the Jewish religion sort of antiquated and sexist and not very satisfying to me, but I am interested in God and I am interested in the Divine Spirit within human beings and in trying to find that centre within ourselves. If I could find a rabbi who really seemed to have seen God, I’d become a practising Jew, but I’ve never met one. Maclean’s: Are children a part of your life?
Jong: I’m going to have a child this summer. Isn’t that exciting? Of course, the last
thing I want is some cute mention in some gossip columns about Ma Jong—the inevitable pun.
Maclean’s: Do you fear having to reconcile your work with another role, say the role of mother?
Jong: There were years in my life where I thought it was either/or: either be a writer or have children and that I couldn’t do both. That is the classic female double bind; be an old maid and have your work. Be Emily Dickinson and sacrifice. Well, I’m 36 years old and I have a really good man who’s very loving and who participates completely in all household chores. I make a lot of money. I can afford to have a nurse. I think for the most part, women are brainwashed into having children much too young. They are encouraged to have children when they are children themselves, when they don’t have a sense of identity. I’m very glad I never had a child earlier. Maclean’s: In Fear of Flying, you write: "In a sense you do write to seduce the world, but then when it happens you begin to feel like a whore. ” Any reflection of real experience?
Jong: Well, a young artist thinks that she or he can make everyone fall in love with her, right? And you discover you’re wrong, that for every lover you gain, you gain many envious people and many people who misunderstand you. This is not a worthy goal, seducing the world. You really aim for truth, not for production. The most you can hope for is to make people think and cry and laugh and to stir things up a little bit, and hope that the pieces fall into a slightly different pattern than before. To hope for love would be to be eternally disappointed.
Maclean’s: In How to Save Your Own Life, you say "denounce useless guilt. Don’t make a cult of suffering. Live in the now, (or at least the soon). Always do the things you fear the most. Courage is an acquired taste like caviar. Trust all joy. If the evil eye fixes you in its gaze, look elsewhere. Get ready to be 87.”
Jong: That’s the centre of that book. That’s it. That’s the author’s message, with neon around it. Isadora is alone in her hotel room and she’s just met this wonderful, inspiring old man writer, loosely modelled on Henry Miller, and she’s had a revelation. So she flops herself down on the bed and she writes a list of rules that she hopes to follow hereafter, and the rules are written somewhat tongue-in-check because she says, “I am the Amanuensis to the Zeitgeist” (scribe to the spirit of the times). Nobody can say that without laughing. And in a sense this is what she wants to do in the future. She wants to seize every moment as if it were her last, and so do I. How far we fall short of this I can’t say. I try to live that way, but I don’t live that way every day of the week. I worry and I fret, you know.^