From best sellers to booze, sex and demons in between
(including Martha Stewart)
When Erica Jong first published
her best-selling book, Fear of
Flying, over 30 years ago, it
was clear she was not afraid
to speak her mind. After a string of successful
novels and memoirs, Jong proves that point
again In Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life
(Tarcher, March 2006) which poignantly chronicles
her professional career and its toll on her
personal life. In a recent Q & A Café interview
with WL contributor Carol Joynt, Jong holds
Carol Joynt: Why don't you start by answering
How do we pronounce your name?
Erica Jong: (Zhong). When I was very young I
had a schizophrenic first husband and I thought
that the cure was to immediately marry a
psychiatrist So I married a Chinese-American
doctor named Allen Jong and published under that
name but people see me and think I am Dutch.
CJ: And you're married now to?
EJ: Kenneth David Burrows. Erica Jong had
become a brand. I loathe and despise the fact
that writers are branded, but there it was – you
sell a lot of books and you're a brand.
CJ: You must be a very proud that your daughter
is also a writer. There was a while when she was
a child in crisis and you didn't know what was
going to happen.
EJ: She grew up too fast in Manhattan and went to
private school where all the kids had credit cards.
There were a lot of drugs and Prada. That's, all I'm
going to say about it because it's her story not mine.
CJ: Even though she did take one of your stories?
EJ: She takes a lot of my stories but it's okay
for a daughter to take her mother's stories, but
not okay for a mother to take her daughter's
stories. I would not have written about Molly's
graduation from Hazelton if she had not
written about it first.
CJ: What would you have done differently, looking
back and talking about all the forces that may have
conspired to make her life challenging. Would you
have not sent her to private school? How could you
have raised her differently than you did?
EJ: Well I really couldn't because I was divorced
when she was four. My former husband, her
biological dad, Bio-Dad as we call him, was very
bitter and kept suing me for custody, and dragging
me into court hoping to cost me as much money
as possible. I just wanted peace at any price, but he
was very angry. We've [since] made peace.
CJ: Why did you write this book?
EJ: For 15 years I have had in my computer
for a book of advice for writers with all kinds
of interesting stuff… Don't expect approval for
telling the truth. Use everything. Remember
that writing is dangerous if it's any good. Forget
critics. Remember to be earthbound, and wild.
Write for the charm in yourself and others.
CJ: Those are good points. Have they all served you?
EJ: They were really the rules I made up for
myself when I was totally blocked and couldn't
write. The book was meant to be a series of
meditations for young writers. As I began to put
together all of these pieces I'd been working on
for many years, my editor kept saying to me, “but
58 what these young writers really want to know
is, how did you do it? You had a huge bestseller
when you were very young and usually that stops
people cold and they can't do anything after that.”
I began writing little stories about the toughest
things I went through after Fear of Flying was
published. All my old friends from high school
and college hated me and would go out of the
way to say horrible things about me.
CJ: But that's just early on. That didn't endure.
EJ: [It] endured for enough time to affect me. I
realized you lose a lot of friends when you get
successful, but you gain new friends.
CJ: You write quite elegantly about the price of
fame – you think you're getting into it because you
get good tables at restaurants, but then you find out
that there is a good side and a bad side. They don't
teach you how to be famous…
EJ: No, there is no course, although I could
give one. [laughter] . So I began writing these
anecdotes and I wrote about the old lizardy
publisher who seduced me in his office…
CJ: That was at the Algonquin, right?
CJ: Good place to be seduced by lizardy old
EJ: They always do that. I told the story about
going to the Frankfurt Book Fair where hotel
rooms inhabit a separate moral universe, and
falling into bed with a man, who was not only
my publisher, which was really dumb, but was
married to a woman who is not a good enemy
to have… Martha Stewart… [laughter].
CJ: While you were known for sexual frankness in
literature, you say that it is almost silly now to go
back and read some of the books that were shocking
then. Your books were sort of a vanguard of a new
kind of frankness…
EJ: Because the law changed. Those of us who
are old enough to remember that when we
were in college we couldn't get John Cleland's
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Unless you
went to the rare book room, they were locked
up. You couldn't get Tropic of Cancer unless you
went to Paris. Then the law changed.
CJ: You've said that sex is everywhere in the
media, but ecstasy is absent. Does literature take
part of the blame for that?
EJ: I don't think literature ever gets the blame.
Exploring yourself through reading and learning
about how other people live is never a negative.
It's part of our growth process.
CJ: Was it our liberation that caused that?
EJ: Our liberation in the 1970's was about
women being entitled to sexual fantasies…
We were not thinking about little girls giving
[oral sex] all over middle school, pleased with
themselves because it's something they can
do that boys get off on. These girls are not
experiencing any sexual satisfaction. So is
that the triumph of feminism? No, it's about
control. Girls have learned that this is the way
you can control boys. This seems to be a strange
perversion of the 1970's revolution.
CJ: What are the secrets to writing sex in
EJ: Being honest. Very often, like the anecdote I
tell about the old publisher who takes me up to
this little office to show me the first edition of
Leaves of Grass and somehow I find myself on
my knees. Be honest because human beings are
very self deluding creatures. We lie to ourselves
most of the time. We lie to ourselves a lot in
the bedroom. We want something out of sex
other than ecstasy at times and the only way to
write about sex is to write about it as a human
interaction where often you are lying to yourself
or the other person is lying to himself.
CJ: Apart from your own writing, have you been
reading other authors?
EJ: Phillip Roth does it so well it blows my mind.
One of his most unpleasant books, Sabboth Theatre
has a repellent hero. He stays over at a friend's house
and he goes through the wife's lingerie to turn
himself on. This guy is the houseguest from Hell –
people hated the book because the main character is
so repellent when he comes to the Mexican cleaning
woman and she says, “No, Sir, five Children's,” and
he had her bend over the bed, which she's making.
Ok. This is writing about the craziness of human
sexuality and people will read it and probably think
Phillip [Roth] did that– [but] I doubt it. Although
I'm sure he's done a lot of other things. Good sexual
writing is about the human aspect and people who
are self destructive, as we all can be sexually. It's easy
to write about bad sex because you can be funny but
good sex – tantric sex, the joining of two souls, as I
write about in my new book Seducing the Demon
–is really hard to write about because you sound
Christian or a terribly boring guru.
CJ: When you know you have a sex scene coming
up is that particularly traumatic for you?
EJ: Well you usually get turned on writing it.
CJ: You write, “Without sex there is no poetry,”
and “Without adultery there is no novel.”
EJ: The French say without adultery there is
no novel. I did make up that the “news screws.”
There is an aspect of creativity and sexuality that
are alive. The muse for a woman is a demon lover.
But I'm speaking metaphorically, not literally.
CJ: What are your demons, since that is what you
are seducing in your book?
EJ: My main demon is creativity. I need to
write and sometimes writing is very dangerous.
If you write honestly you can alienate your
entire family, your spouse, your best friend, all
the people you depend on.
CJ: You've never been able to be anything but who
you are. That comes across. You've tried acting. You
wrote about bi-sexuality. That wasn't who you are.
You've tried being a drunk and that wasn't who
you are. You keep coming back to who you want to
be, don't you?
EJ: That's really true. And the older I get, the
more I know who I really want to be.
CJ: You have said open marriages are a crock.
EJ: Well, you know in the 1970's we all tried
open marriages. Many of us did. Jonathan and I
tried open marriage…[before that] I was married
to Alan Johns and he didn't think we had an
open marriage. He thought he was in a normal
cheating marriage. [laughter] and that he was
cheating without telling me, in the old-fashioned
way,…adultery. He didn't tell me until years later
when he was really mad at me.
CJ: When did you realize you had a drinking
problem? I gather that at some point it was Robert
Redford who may have caused your sobriety?
EJ: I was seated at a dinner party at the Brokaw's
next to Robert Redford. They tried to fix me
up with him and I was so terrified to be sitting
next to a movie star that I drank four glasses of
wine in rapid succession and passed out. Such are
the delights of fame. I realized that when I was
anxious, I tend to overdo.
CJ: Do you still drink?
EJ: I occasionally drink wine.
CJ: You say that working out is an antidepressant,
but you also say writing is an antidepressant.
EJ: If I don't write, after a while I start to feel like
a lunatic. I get anxious. I was given a certain talent
and if I don't use it I start to feel a little nuts.
The Q&A Café at Nathans in Georgetown is
open to everyone. For more information please
visit www.nathansgeorgetown.com Located at
the corner of Wisconsin and M Street.