an interview with elizabeth wurtzel   interview  

photo of elizabeth wurtzel

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You seem to be a lightning rod--people love you or hate you. What is it about you that elicits such strong reactions?

I have no idea, and I mean that. Most of the people saying these things haven't even read anything I've written! I just seem to bother some people. I never see the things I'm saying as so extreme, I think they're really obvious. I look at some other stuff and think it's limp, or think the person is not saying what they mean or they're not going all the way. The people who tend to hate me, I don't find it's a response to the book. It's usually a personality thing, and it's really weird since I usually don't know them. That kind of on-a-public-level venom is its own invention; it's got its own momentum.

And how do you deal with that?

I really hate it, if you want to know the truth. I feel like it gets in the way of the work itself. I think in some ways the marketing--putting me on the cover topless--is meant to capitalize on that notoriety, and I think that's good, but I'm afraid of it getting in the way of the book itself. You may not like the work that I'm doing, but I think it has its own value aside from all of this nonsense. Maybe it's unfair to put your personal life out there and to be flamboyant and then to ask people to take the writing part of it on its own merits. Maybe it's ridiculous, I don't know. But the behavior is part of the thesis, and the thesis of the book is sort of that women are not allowed to be complex beings. I mean, we don't think that Wilt Chamberlain can't play basketball because he slept with over a thousand women, and we don't think President Clinton can't be president because he seems to have slept with a thousand women in the past year. Somehow it's like my writing is more assailable for these imagined activities. My life's actually been quite dull; it's not all that glamorous.

To what do you attribute this venomous attacks on you?

I don't know. Some people just seem like they are up to no good. Like, in high school, I was a good student and got straight As. It was very strict and you couldn't do well there unless you studied very hard, but every time there was any trouble, I was the first person they would be talking to. It never made any sense, because I always felt like I'm such a good girl, where is this coming from?

What inspired this meditation on difficult women?

My own disgruntledness, my own lot in life, that I was so misunderstood by so many. And I was just incredibly interested in the stories of these women. I learned about Delilah in elementary school and there was so little in the Bible about her, she gets about four sentences. Madonna, Courtney Love, going back further, Rita Hayworth. It was just very interesting to me that certain types of women inspire people's imagination, and all of them were very difficult women. In order to get the world to pay attention, it seemed like you had to get the world to be pretty angry.

Is there a philosophy or message behind this book?

It is the story of really tragic lives. I don't think the book has a message so much as it explores different kinds of behavior that women have. It's different essays about how women have gotten into trouble under different circumstances. All of these women were fighting to find a little bit of freedom to be who they are, and I don't think the results have been especially good for them. And I hope that the answer is not that we have to learn how to behave. I hope that we continue to fight. It's very easy to just throw up your hands and give in. It's very tiring to say, "This is unacceptable and I'm not going to put up with it." But I think it's valiant to keep up the fight.

Why the title Bitch? Is that not simplifying the impact and scope of the women you are trying to praise?

Yeah, it does. The book is not really about people you would normally called bitchy women, although I think a lot of these women, to the people who were close to them, probably seemed awfully bitchy. I think that a lot of these women were not so much nasty or mean, as they were energy suckers. Their pain, their hysteria, and their desires kind of consumed a whole room, a whole group of people. You just couldn't ignore them.

So, are you interested in the public personas or the actual personalities in real life according to the people who knew them? Or both?

A lot of them, their public persona had them as rather gentle souls, whereas in real life they were crazed maniacs. And vice versa. People who think that Sylvia Plath was a poor, sensitive poet are not getting that she had great amounts of ambition and anger that moved her along, or she wouldn't have been able to fight against that depression to produce such an incredible body of work by the age of thirty. Ted Hughes just published Birthday Letters and I think it's his kind of apologia; it's his way of trying to make himself seem less awful. He wrote some incredible poems about his relationship with her many years ago, there was no need for him to have done this, per se. If you want to get some really honest stuff about what was going on with them and feel sympathy for his plight, you can from his earlier body of work. He's such a good poet that he can do poetry as argument. But what I was trying to say is that she was a difficult and demanding person, and those difficulties were probably the result of her being told all along, "No, you can't have this. You can't have this thing that you want." So, nobody thinks, "Sylvia Plath, what a bitch."

What are you feelings about the current state of feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yeah, I do. It seems like there's different people expressing different opinions; it doesn't seem like such a unified front at this point.

Is that part of a healthy debate?

I think there is a healthy debate going on. But I think, unfortunately, it doesn't come from such a passionate place anymore. There's so much politicking involved in it, and posturing. I'll see Naomi Wolf on television periodically, I have nothing against her and what she says, but I'll feel that she's a politician, like she's got an agenda to get across and that she doesn't always say what's really true or exactly what she feels. She kind of has this need to make herself appealing, and I think, personally, she makes herself unappealing that way. It's rather dry and bland. On the other hand, I feel like Camille Paglia, who has a lot of interesting things to say in print, sounds just wacked out of her mind to me when I watch her. Feminism is a good venue for getting yourself across as much as for getting your point across.

Who are some of the people you admire, and why?

I admire Bruce Springsteen because he's a heroic person who has lots of integrity and has this incredible body of work that is so vital. And I admire Katherine Graham who got this newspaper thrown at her when she had basically been a housewife all her life, and I think that's amazing. I really admire Princess Diana, actually. Never mind that she seemed to be interested in doing good things, there's value for beauty and grace in and of itself. She had that charm and that nice way about her, and I think that's enough. She didn't need to do more, she happened to have done more, but she was simply lovely.

What would you like to work on next?

I'd really like to write a book about Timothy McVeigh, but it would only work if he cooperated.

Why do you write?

I don't really have any other talents; it sounds funny, but I had to do something. I was just jumping out of my skin. I can't sing. It was the only adequate mode of expression I happened to find.

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    Photo of Elizabeth Wurtzel courtesy of Michael Williams from Detour.