She arrived not a minute late, hair and clothes just as I'd hoped,
though she's more petite and delicate than her author photos might lead
one to believe. And she was hungry, having just come from a morning-long
photo shoot for New York magazine.
Over the next two hours we dined, we drank wine, and we talked. Were
the tape recorder not in plain view, one might not have suspected our
lunch to be anything more than that. We discussed her book and books
in general, we talked about ferrets and Charlton Heston, we dissected
the early-'80s club-and-cocaine scene. What struck me almost as much
as her answers to my questions were her questions to me: no interview
rookie, Tama seemed happy to turn the focus away from herself. On that
note we discussed my parents, my career, my writing, and from time to
time I found myself needing to lob the conversational ball back into
her court. When I did, I was richly rewarded by her warmth, wit and
inspired you to write A Certain Age?
Living in New York, having a lot of single woman friends, seeing the
most perfect women on the planet walking down Madison Avenue. They're
six feet tall with blonde hair that you know cost $350 to dye every
three weeks, Armani dress, everything perfect--and yet they're in a
place that's not really a career. Like an auction house, where you get
paid very little. Maybe working the front desk, or maybe as a receptionist
for an art gallery. So without a career, what are they looking for?
Women's status still comes from who they're married to. And I'm not
saying that's a good thing, I'm just saying that if you're a single
woman in New York and you have a career, no matter how successful you
are, it's still, "Well, she's got this career but she could never get
So the attitude remains that it's one or the other, it seems.
Right. What's changed for women in a hundred years, since the time when
Edith Wharton set her novels? One hundred years ago, if women weren't
married by twenty-two they were spinsters, and now it's thirty-two.
If a woman has been in New York for ten years and she's been around
a bit, there's always somebody newer in town.
I blame women for the way things are. Men aren't going to change because
they don't have to, but women are so competitive with each other and
just vicious about each other. At the same time, during this photo shoot
[which she'd just left] I was reading People magazine, and it
was all about Cindy Crawford: her father is married to somebody who's
her age, and her husband's father is remarried to somebody who's her
age. And think of Monica Lewinsky. I understand how everything happened
to her, but at the same time, if men couldn't trade in their wives for
twenty-year-old women, they wouldn't. It's the twenty-year-old women
who say, "Okay, fine, he's older and he's got money." It's almost unheard
of for an older woman to marry somebody who's twenty.
Do you think women perpetuate a double standard?
Yes. Men are competitive with each other--they could be competitive
in sports or in business--but nevertheless an older man will help a
younger man up the scale. But in all my years in New York, however many
magazines I've written for, and my articles have gotten tons of great
reviews and been talked about, they've never asked me to become a contributing
editor. There are all these men that are immediately asked to become
contributing editors. In the past year or two, to magazines that I was
a regular contributor to, I'd always say, "I'll do anything you want
me to write." And then they would go out and hire some man as a contributing
editor. Or at an English-run magazine, they hired some girl from England
to come over. I would have loved to get a salary--they pay you a hundred
grand and about an extra twenty-five thousand if you show up at meetings.
As a contributing editor you have to write about four articles a year,
and that's what I do full time, but I have to hope somebody calls up
to say, "Would you write something for us?" It's not very regular; it's
not four times a year. It seems to me that it's just a competitive thing,
like "Well, she's already got too much attention: I'm not going to help
her. I'll just pick somebody that will do what I say, that doesn't have
any writing track record, and that way I can keep them in line." I don't
know what it is.
Getting back to A Certain Age, do you think Florence (the
protagonist) is her own worst enemy? How are we supposed to react to
It's hard to feel sympathetic to somebody who is so shallow and who
has so little values, but on the other hand I think, like my close girlfriends
who all said "You wrote about me, didn't you," it's a case where I can
see her flaws in myself too.
We live in this city and we're constantly bombarded at the end of the
twentieth century with signals that if you just had this lipstick you
would be as beautiful as the cover of the magazine, or if you were just
wearing this dress. When I was desperately poor I would have bought
five-dollar shoes. Now maybe I would pay fifty dollars. I know a woman
who bought a six-thousand-dollar alligator handbag. Well, I was horrified
and shocked and thought, "Gosh, there are people struggling to go to
work every day in some sweat shop," and, on the other hand, then you
think, "Well wait a minute, didn't I just spend eighty dollars on something
that ten years ago I would have only spent ten dollars on?" And that
eighty dollars means just as much to somebody else. You can't, after
a while, see the forest for the trees. Because you can get on the subway
and there are people from all over the world, and they're desperately
poor, they want to send money home, they're working for four dollars
an hour in some sweat shop, and you can't see them anymore because you've
got your own struggle with existence. No matter how rich you are. The
richest people feel the sorriest for themselves. They have no understanding
that somebody else thinks, "If I just had their money I'd be so happy."
Of course, if you had that money you'd also have their problems, whatever
they are. I always think of Alice in Wonderland, where at the
beginning she's thinking, "I wish I were so-and-so, she has such pretty
curly hair." But there's always a different set of problems with whatever
In the world that Florence describes, the vast majority of the characters--with
the exception of maybe Darryl and Tracer--seem to only befriend people
if they feel there's something to gain. Self-involved, narcissistic,
out for their own good...is this the way people are?
It depends. I always try to see things from the other points of view.
After all, people are friends with other people for a reason, if you
look at it closely. You have to have something in common or admire the
other person. People are friends because they're going to get something
out of it. The friend you can call at two in the morning--that's getting
something. And that's what I was trying to do with this character: she
can justify her own actions and behavior, and so can everybody. If you
ran over somebody and then you drove away, you're a hit-and-run driver,
but you can justify it. You can say, "I panicked." That's the way people
are: you can't really expect more.
The fact that Florence turns up in the gossip columns--thinly disguised--what
does this say about celebrity status in New York versus the rest of
In New York anyone can wind up a "celebrity." Look at the girl who goes
out with Jerry Seinfeld. I know a guy who will be in the gossip columns
just because he'll go to a party, ask somebody famous a question, feed
the answer to the gossip columns, and his name ends up in it. I guess
people get paid for it or get trade-offs. Later, if they're trying to
promote something they'll have points from the gossip columnists and
their event is promoted.
Do you remember the first time you showed up in a gossip column?
I've been in this city a long time and back in the early '80s, I think
it was The Daily News that had "Uptown" and "Downtown"--two gossip
columns; it was very New York. I believe Billy Norwich wrote the uptown
one and Dinah Prince the downtown. I wasn't known for anything, but
if you were at a certain opening, it was like a high school kind of
thing in terms of who became fodder for the gossip columns. That's gone,
but then Dinah Prince was writing for New York magazine. She
wrote a piece about me for Slaves of New York, and because the
editor-in-chief had lunch with his son and the son said, "I just read
this really great book," Slaves of New York got on the cover.
Sometimes now I have friends who will use my name if they get paid to
give a party as a PR person, and my name will wind up in the columns.
How do you feel about that?
They're close enough friends that how can I care? I'll say, "You know,
you never even bothered to invite me," or "No, I'm not coming," but
at a certain point you just don't really care anymore.
It seems like there should be two people for a book: one to stay home
and write, and one to go out and be social and do promotion and TV appearances.
Well, there's somebody who's in the gossip columns but it doesn't have
a great deal to do with me. On the other hand, it can be extremely hurtful.
Has the press been hurtful to you in the past?
It has been. Slaves got so much attention, and all I was doing
was trying to be a good girl, but I had had one book published, American
Dad, which didn't sell. So when Slaves came out the phone
would ring and they'd say, "Hey, would you go on this talk show?" and
"So-and-so wants you here." I'd say yes, because I knew otherwise your
books wouldn't sell and I just wanted to keep writing and getting published.
But then I got so much attention that immediately there was this backlash
of "Who does she think she is? Her fifteen minutes of fame are up."
And clearly they were wrong, as you continue to be a public figure,
particularly in New York. How do you think New York has changed since
you wrote Slaves?
It used to be that you could still find a cheap place and could somehow
survive marginally. You could work in a coffee shop and at night have
a performance thing happening in some club. There were still remnants
of this other New York where artists would come in the '60s and '70s
and move illegally into the big lofts in Soho. And then came the '80s.
Then there were people who were a success in the '80s or they're sitting
on three to five million dollars for an apartment and the artists had
to get the hell out.
Every block is now Starbucks, Banana Republic, the Gap. We were living,
till one year ago, in a brownstone on 88th Street that we bought for
twenty-thousand dollars ten years ago. Now the buildings on that block
are going for one-and-a-half million. Twenty years ago--well, first
of all I wouldn't have had twenty-thousand dollars--but second of all
it was a really rough, rough area. It was all drug addicts between Amsterdam
and Columbus on 88th Street--forget it. It's not that New York doesn't
keep changing; it's just that it's changed in such a homogenous, universal
way. Even then, I remember Tribeca, when I came to New York in 1982,
every place there you were roasting herbs and spices, coffee was being
roasted, cheese being made--everything was still working. I lived in
the meat market--now all those things are dwindling, shrinking.
I guess a lot of cities are suffering the same fate.
Yes--we got off the plane in London, and leaving Heathrow there's a
Burger King--that wasn't there even two years ago. I was staying in
Soho, which used to be London's Red Light district, and now it's all
these kids who look like they're on spring break.
It's interesting, because over there there are so many English authors
in the bookstores who have never been published here. It seems like
American writing translates over there, but English writing doesn't
translate over here, necessarily.
Have you had interesting experiences being published abroad and doing
I've had a lot. Even last week in London was so nutty; you wouldn't
believe how nutty it was. For some reason the book came out a week earlier
there than it did here. Monday morning I did a TV show, and in honor
of Independence Day they had eight dancing and singing Elvis Presley
imitators and the whole set was filled with silver balloons with the
flag on them. There were twenty line dancers--cause that's apparently
really popular right now--and the whole audience had to stand up and
wave American flags while learning to line dance, and there were cheerleaders--and
in the middle of all this I'm supposed to talk about my book?! It just
went on from there. The whole day was crazy.
Later in the week the fire alarm in my hotel went off at five in the
morning with an announcement, "Please evacuate the building!" It turned
out eventually to be a false alarm but since there'd been all these
bomb threats that week I quickly put on my pajamas, found my pocketbook,
went downstairs and realized I was the only person evacuating the building.
The first thing I had to do after I tried to go back to sleep was a
radio show with Charlton Heston. He was on first, going on and on about
how there'd been no more crimes with guns since the 1950s--nutty stuff.
And I thought, "Great, I have to go now and fight Charlton Heston."
I was just in a dead panic. Then when I got on, fortunately the subject
had changed and it dawned on me, "You don't have to fight Charlton Heston.
You're here to talk about your book." And he was perfectly nice. He's
written six books himself and he was charming and funny. I wouldn't
have changed his mind by fighting with him. I was so relieved
The whole week was just one crazy thing after the next; things that
were so wacky you couldn't understand how you had ended up here from
being at home. Before I got there the publicist had me write articles
and questionnaires for different magazines and newspapers. In one, I
was just sort of goofing, but I always wanted a ferret--I really love
ferrets--so every question I somehow managed to work ferret into the
answer. So one of the newspapers said, "If you really want a ferret,
we'll take you to buy one!" It turned out that you can't ship any animals
until mid-September, but nevertheless, I got to go see the ferrets and
pick them up. They were located in Slough, which turned out to be a
bit like if you told people, "I'm going to Newark"...you'd get the same
reaction. I was so excited that whole week, and finally the editor,
publicist and I all went to Slough. It was tiny houses and the man with
the ferrets was like Eliza Doolittle's father. He never stopped talking
and he had all these ferrets in the backyard and I got to play with
And you still want a ferret?
Oh yes; I really want one. I love them;they're just so nutty. People
really have a stigma against them. The thing about a ferret that's really
great for somebody in the city--you're not supposed to have them, but
there's not really any ferret police coming around--they use a cat box
like a cat, but they're affectionate like a dog. They'll play with you
and chase balls and wrestle with you. A strange ferret you wouldn't
hold up to your face, but you wouldn't do that with a strange dog either.
It's hard in the city--I recommend ferrets. You get two, they'll play
with each other so they won't be lonely, they'll use a cat box so they
don't have to be walked, they eat dog food and they're affectionate.
Ferrets make me think of Bright Lights, Big City. On that
note, how do you feel about the "literary brat pack" reference that
you, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jay McInerney used to get?
You know, I never knew those guys really until Slaves came out
and Slaves was reaching a big audience and their books [Ellis's
Less than Zero and McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City]
were reaching a big audience , and so we were all lumped together, and
I'd see them at parties. For a while we all had the same agent.
As in those three books, various vices run rampant in A Certain
Age. Do you have to have been there to write a character, like Florence,
who has an overwhelming need for vices?
I never took drugs. I did try cocaine one time and I felt so unhappy.
When I was taking it I was just nervous, and the next day I wanted to
kill myself. But I can understand the nature of addiction. It would
be so easy to be addicted.
During the years of my youth and heyday in the early to mid-'80s everyone
would disappear into the bathroom and when they'd come out they'd all
be best friends and I always felt really left out--I was too stupid
to know what was going on, that they were all taking coke in the bathroom.
I just thought, "How come I'm not a member of the wedding?" (She laughs.)
Where did you hang out in those days?
Then it was Danceteria, Area, whatever clubs had been opening. I always
felt really left out. I never knew how come you left the bathroom with
your arms around each other...
I guess it can be a bonding experience, but it probably doesn't lead
to relationships that run very deep.
Well I've had relationships that I thought ran deep that ultimately
were over the next day. I'm not talking about men, but girlfriends.
You've gone through everything together, you thought you were best friends
and then they suddenly decide you did something, "I'll never speak to
you again," and they'll just drop you, and that's New York.
So is the society that Florence lives in the New York that you know?
It's not my world, but I have eaten in fancy restaurants. And the cattiness
and competitiveness...I've seen so much of that.
Are your characters modeled after people you know?
No they're not, but the nice thing was that every girlfriend I have
was on the phone saying, "How could you write about me?!" On the one
hand you have to defend yourself, but on the other hand I always think
that is a really, really good sign.
With Slaves of New York, I went to a book fair--I believe it
was in Washington D.C.--to do a signing. People were lined up and one
person said, "Hey--I've read this and you wrote about my friend, didn't
you? She lives in the East Village and she has red hair..." Of course
I didn't know the friend, but that's always, always a good sign, because
you're hitting on something more universal than just your character.
That's not to say that the people I know are that trivial or lacking
in morality. Nevertheless, when women are in public or talking to a
magazine the attitude projected is, "I'm not worried about my weight."
But when girlfriends are out together, forget it. You know, you're going
to say, "I feel so fat--I'm so fat," and they'll say, "Oh no, you're
not fat. You look fantastic!"
There was a New York magazine article about young women writers
who'd published books, and they said, "We're all buddies, we go out
at night, we just want to get laid. We don't want to have boyfriends
or relationships. We're like men!" Which is such a fallacy, for women
to say, "We're not like the other women; we're like one of the guys."
Forget it: you're not like men. By saying, "I'm not one of the women,
I'm like one of the guys," you're saying you're superior to other women.
And beyond that, don't tell me you just want to go out and get laid--you're
lying. Because you don't need to have your perfect blonde hair, your
Armani dresses, to eat at the fanciest restaurants and to be seen in
the right places if that's all you want. These women think they'll be
perceived as so desperate if they want to find a man. That's what you
want: to be paired off in a relationship is how it should be.
How did you meet your husband?
Well, after Andy (Warhol) died my husband came over from England to
help set up and assist with the auction of Andy's estate.
What does he do?
Now he's the curator of the Warhol Foundation, but he had been at Christie's
in London. About one year after he came ove,r my girlfriend Paige introduced
us on sort of a "blind date." The three of us used to go on group blind
dates, Paige, Andy and myself, so I consider this Andy's final gift
to me: the ultimate blind date.
That's a lovely story. Getting back to the writing process: how do
you know when a story you've written is done?
Ultimately you could keep writing the same story or the same book your
whole life, but as you grew older, of course, you'd have other things
to add than you knew when you were young.
A novel is a bit easier to write. A short story can be very hard, because
it's a very small space and you want to have something happen. A novel
has a beginning, a middle and an end. I like to write novels much more.
To what degree do you plan your novels out in advance? For instance,
in A Certain Age, did you create Florence and take it from there?
Actually, I used as my starting point Edith Wharton's The House of
Mirth. The character Lily Bart is caught smoking a cigarette by
the rich heir that she's supposed to marry; that was when good women
weren't supposed to smoke cigarettes. And now I think about the lives
of women a hundred years later, and I wonder what's changed.
Sometimes I think that The House of Mirth, which ends with Lily
Bart's suicide, ends too soon. It was a bit...easy.
Do you think that is an easy way out for a writer?
Oh yeah, sure: "And then he woke up and it was just a dream." But that
was common then. Now something will end not with a finality. At least
with The House of Mirth, at the end you never quite know whether
it was an accident or whether she was murdered.
What are your favorites among the classics, or among classic writers--Edith
Wharton, I assume?
Yes: I prefer Edith Wharton to Henry James, but I do admire Henry James.
It's really hard when you are told to read a lot of books in high school
and in university. It's not fun to read those things; they're not fun
Especially when you're forced to read them in a certain amount of
And also when someone's dictating what you're supposed to feel and think
about them. I enjoy reading recreationally right now, but for me it's
a lot of biography and nonfiction. What are you reading?
Actually, I just finished Lolita--what did you think of it?
It differs from most of Nabokov's writing in that Nabokov is boring
as hell, but his writing--every sentence--is like somebody made jewelry;
it's a work of art. As for Lolita, the first time I read it with
interest. The second time I couldn't believe it--it was so cloyingly
cute: "My parents were dead. Lightning. The golf course." It was so
painful: the whole thing of somebody really being a child molester,
and that kind of viciousness of getting rid of the mother. I do think
he was a brilliant, superb stylist, and with all of his books, you could
open to any page, pull out a sentence, and it's beautiful. But you add
another twenty sentences and it's just so boring.
What are some of your favorite books--any must-reads?
I would have to think about it. Because I could pick up Nabokov any
time to watch how he puts a sentence together. Like King, Queen,
Knave: the opening two paragraphs are one of the most brilliant
openings to a book ever written. It starts off and he's on a train,
leaving one station and pulling into another; however, it's told from
the perspective of the station leaving the train, and Nabokov manages
to write this incredibly vivid scene in a way that is absolutely like
somebody on drugs. I do think the book was a clever exercise: the sentences,
everything was so great. It was translated to English of course, and
for a writer to be able to do that in a language that is not his first
language is amazing.
I get different things from different writers. Conrad writes all the
big, manly, rollicking prose: it's very clumsy and wooden, but nevertheless
he writes great stories. So each writer gives us something different.
What do you want your readers to get out of your writing?
Just to be distracted for a little while--that's how I like to read
books. Normally I'll only read nonfiction and biographies.
Anything really, if the subject interests me or if the book is recommended
as well-written. Because then you feel that you're getting a glimpse
into how somebody else lived their existence, and you can learn something
from it. There aren't that many books of fiction where you really feel
like your friend took you out and said, "Sit down--I want to tell you
what happened." You don't feel like you're in somebody else's world,
which a really great biography can do for you. With fiction it often
seems so precious, pretentious, at the expense of a real person. That's
why I almost always prefer biographies, or even bad nonfiction.
Do you prefer to write fiction?
I do, with the exception of travel articles. I like going on trips so
much that it's worth the price of having to write it up.
I started writing short stories after my first book American Dad
was published and it wasn't in any bookstores and it hadn't been reviewed.
I kept writing books and finally I thought, "It takes me about
a year to write a book and get it rejected--I'll write a short story."
So that's when The New Yorker started publishing me.
How do you think your writing has changed since Slaves of New
In some ways you don't have that raw energy, that crudeness that I've
always admired. A lot of my favorite books have been by men, about a
male hero who's actually an anti-hero. Like The Ginger Man or
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley. Women's writing is always judged
differently: the heroine still has to be a "nice girl."
Which is what's so interesting to me about Florence, who doesn't
try to be a nice girl, and who's not afraid to be honest. Where do you
come up with the names for your characters? Florence seems an unlikely
choice. In fact, one of the characters says, "You don't seem like a
I have all the What to Name Your Baby books, and I love them
so much because it's amazing how each name depends not just on your
personal association with it, but also on other meaning and feelings.
You think, "That character could never be an Archie," or "he could never
a be Gary." Some of it's what you bring to it. My mother had a friend
named Jane who was stunning, so to me Jane has always represented a
beautiful woman. But if you knew Jane as a different person, you would
bring something else to the name. Nevertheless, I could read those books
for hours, about what names say about people. It's just fascinating--if
you're a black American, what you name your kid, or in England if you're
aristocratic or working-class or middle-class. Florence was my grandmother's
generation but now people are starting to name their kids that again.
Names change with the times--in my grandmother's generation Rose was
also popular. Names have so much historical and cultural weight to them--I'm
always just amazed.
Do you have a vision of who A Certain Age's audience would
I have a hard time picturing men reading for pleasure, but men have
told me that they couldn't put it down. I think it's an escape. I personally
don't really want more from a book than that, but of course, everyone
has their own idea of what "escape" is. For me, Stephen King is not
escaping, but somebody else could feel the opposite.
If you think back to books you read as a kid when you had no critical
acumen, no critical hook, you could just enter into that book as if
it was a door opening to another planet. I remember the Narnia
series by C.S. Lewis. Everything I read as a kid has stayed with me
in such an amazing way, and has had such a big effect on everything
I've done since. As an adult you can't possibly hope that people are
able to read what you've done that way. Because I'm a writer--almost
like if you work in a pizza place you can't eat pizza--I can't really
read very much for pleasure. The other stuff, what I'm trying to say
about our times, or what I'm hoping people will take away from it, that's
more on an unconscious level. What I'm hoping is that the story seems
like it really happened, and that when you're reading it you can forget
where you are, whether it's on the subway or lying in bed thinking about
what you have to do the next day. And that's why I've never been very
interested in post-modern fiction, or in fiction that seems to me very
pretentious. Nabokov used interesting language, and I am interested
in language but not at the expense of a story and characters.
That's how I am too, and that's one of the reasons I loved A Certain
Age--the characters are entertaining and the story moves quickly--I
think I read it in about three days.
See, that to me is the best compliment.