an interview with Tama Janowitz      
photo of Tama Janowitz

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photo of Tama Janowitz

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photo of Tama Janowitz

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photo of Tama Janowitz

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photo of Tama Janowitz

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Tama Janowitz

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 charm.

What 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 it together."

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 her?

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 you have.

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 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 the world?

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 publicity abroad?

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"'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 them all.

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 at all.

Especially when you're forced to read them in a certain amount of time--

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.

What 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 York?

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 Florence."

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 be?

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.

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