Ilka Weissnix, fleeing Hitler’s Europe, lands in America and promptly falls in love with a disaffected black intellectual at least two decades her senior. This odd-duck affair, by turns thrilling and frustrating, is how she learns to become American, and it gives an idea of her creator Lore Segal’s striking gift for askew juxtaposition and reversal. As the black intellectual’s dying American dream meets Ilka’s newborn one, sorrow is trans-mogrified into joy, without disservice to either.
The book I’ve just referred to is Her First American. I picked it up a dozen years ago at the New York Public Library, attracted by the front cover’s blurb: “Lore Segal has come closer than anyone to writing the great American novel.” Well, I thought, I’m reading that. Finishing it, I knew I’d been inducted into a kind of secret cult—the cult of Lore Segal’s fans, which, I’ve since learned, includes Alfred Kazin, Cynthia Ozick, Francine Prose, Michael Cunningham, Philip Lopate, Grace Paley, and many others.
Now, on a mild winter afternoon more than a decade later, I’m talking to Lore Segal in her Riverside Drive apartment—only a few blocks up and over from my own—and the loop that this years-long journey describes is thrilling and odd. We begin on the subject of her first book in 22 years, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which reintroduces Ilka—but Ilka Weiss, no longer Weissnix—and her creator to the world. The new book of linked stories finds Ilka working at a think tank affiliated with a New England college, teaching new immigrants English, among other tasks, but her old avidity is still alive. It yokes the book together, in fact. Ilka is on a quest to fill up her life with friends to stand in for the family she doesn’t have. “Elective cousins,” Lore Segal calls them.
Han Ong It has been more than 20 years between your last book, Her First American, and Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which is coming out in a few months.
Lore Segal I’m slow. It took me 18 years to get where I was going with Her First American — and I stopped in the middle and wrote a book no one has heard of called Lucinella. That took me five years. I’m slow because I go back to the first sentence. Wherever I am in the book, I’m still working on that first sentence, even when I’m writing the last page. A very cumbersome business, but I don’t know how one can change one’s ingrained modus operandi. I have not even tried. One is a little scared of shaking the foundations of the system.
HO During all those years between books, do you sometimes get nervous that you will not be writing another one because it’s been so long?
LS Yes! I regret that I have things I have to say that I’m not going to get to. There are many ways to screw oneself, if I may say so. I remember beginning Her First American and not being able to make up my mind if I had a married or a single protagonist. I couldn’t get her situation right. I must think if you can’t decide the situation of your main character, you’re not ready to get going. I was holding myself up in some subterranean way.
HO Your discovery phase is built into the writing process.
LS There are people who write in response to their own writing. I put down a sentence, and that sentence makes it possible to make the next one. I don’t have a usable plan. I have some notions and ideas but I don’t have a skeleton. I don’t experience my life as a plot and am not good at plotting my novel. A character opens a door, stands in the entrance and sees the room. His seeing the room creates the room. Saul Steinberg draws figures drawing themselves into existence. In the wonderful children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, the little boy Harold draws a street for himself to walk on, the chair to sit on. I find that an extraordinarily accurate view of the writing process.
HO In your introduction to Shakespeare’s Kitchen, you said that you learn how to think by writing, and part of the process you find yourself embroiled in is to have a leading question around which to build a story.
LS I can give you an example. Being an elderly person, I want to write about the loss or partial loss of memory, so I’ve got myself a character who remembers nothing—an amnesiac. She gets her memory back: a miracle! Now she can remember every one of her old rejections, hurts, and humiliations. This is the kind of thing that starts me on a story. Then I can have fun.
HO I imagine that although it took 20-odd years for Shakespeare’s Kitchen to appear, you were encouraged along the way. A lot of the stories appeared in The New Yorker, so you did get a sense of being a writer out in the world during those years. It wasn’t pure incubation or isolation.
LS Seven of the Shakespeare’s Kitchen stories were published by The New Yorker in the ’80s and ’90s, and Knopf said to me, Make these into a novel, but it wouldn’t go—it wouldn’t become a novel, though all the stories happen in the same place to the same cast of characters.
HO They all work at a place called the Concordance Institute, a think tank affiliated with a New England college.
LS Yes. I also had a theme: the need not only for friends but for a set of friends to belong to; how interesting—how comical—the creation of intimacies and the search for people with whom to exchange mind, how sadly and inexplicably some friendships fall apart.
HO Especially since the protagonist is an immigrant. She did not come up in this country with a given set of friends or extended family.
LS We all need friends. We all lose friends. I do not want to claim that immigrants experience what no one else knows, but perhaps the immigrant—the refugee—experience has an added hook.
HO What I find so marvelously original in Shakespeare’s Kitchen and also in Her First American is this sense of appetite and avidity that Ilka, the protagonist in both books, has. She wants to surround herself with people and to become American. Usually that phrase “become American” is a little corny or cliché. But in your writing it takes an idiosyncratic, original turn. Ilka wants to have a sense of mastery over her environment, but it comes out of pure joy and not, as in most immigrant narratives, panic.
LS That’s a lovely perception, and I recognize it.
HO It’s stuff that I don’t find in myself—this sense of joy. I’m conscious of writing more out of a sense of guardedness, a wariness, and a desire to have my isolation protected, whereas Ilka is so avid. She has such capaciousness in her for experience.
LS That’s also a benefit in old age because the eagerness, that appetite, persists.
HO How old were you during the time you were writing Her First American?
LS It was published in ’85, so I was 50-plus years old and had, as I’ve said, been writing it for 18 years. There wasn’t much of it when I got started except the experience to build on. Everyone understands that this is partially autobiographical. So many of us, today, start with ourselves and write, to some degree, autobiographically.
One of my colleagues at the University of Illinois said, “You wrote a reverse Henry James. James introduces the simple American to the sophisticated European, and you do the opposite: You introduce a naïve European to a sophisticated black American.” I didn’t know that’s what I had meant: That was mind opening.
HO In Her First American, Ilka’s surname is Weissnix, and in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, it’s Weiss.
LS Weissnix means “know-nothing.” She no longer knows nothing. I’m using the method Kafka used with his “K.” I don’t want to pretend I’m creating a new character. The only character I know is my left rib, so let me face up to that. Ilka is Ilka. However, she’s not the same Ilka.
HO Her lover from Her First American, Carter, makes a cameo in Shakespeare’s Kitchen. He calls at a very inopportune moment.
LS We won’t mention that Carter died at the end of Her First American (laughter).
HO It felt emotionally right for Carter to be calling at that moment in the story, which is about Ilka’s husband’s sudden, accidental death.
LS When my husband died, an old boyfriend called just as we were leaving for the funeral and he said, “That’s embarrassing,” meaning, I’m embarrassed to have called you at this moment. But I understood “It’s embarrassing to be dead.” It’s an example of how the autobiographical travels and transforms in fiction.
HO Going back to Ilka’s husband’s death in the story “Fatal Wish.”
LS He’s a character who comes out of a story I wrote about being a file clerk when I first came to New York. I dropped a file full of papers exactly the way Ilke’s husband, Jimmy, does in the book. “Jimmy Gets the Creeps” was one of my earliest stories. See, there’s an example of setting in motion a character—of putting an idea down on paper and the paper gives an idea back to you and then you give the paper back another idea. . . . It’s like playing ball with the paper. Jimmy is a character who has no skills, who could not even do a good job filing, but he has an almost tiresome sensibility about himself in the world.
HO You were born and raised in Vienna. You lived there until you were ten, when Germany annexed Austria. You were among the first wave of the Kindertransport.
LS I believe ours was the first experimental train; we were 500 children. Between December ’38 and the beginning of the war in ’39, some 10,000 children were brought out of Hitler’s Europe by these Kindertransports.
HO And in your case, you were taken to England.
LS All of us were taken to England from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, via Holland. We were meant to stay in England until we could go on to our final destinations, but many children stayed and made their home and had families in England.
HO Where was this final destination that you were en route to?
LS Wherever. The thing was to get out of Hitler’s Europe and they wouldn’t let us go. I’ve always compared the Nazis with the Biblical Egyptians who wouldn’t let the Hebrews go. The Egyptians (in the King James Bible) experience the presence of all those Hebrew slaves as a “swarm.” They are afraid of a possible fifth column in case of war, but they will not let them leave.
Hitler wanted us gone, but wouldn’t let us go. And, of course, the world did not want—refused, on the whole—to have us.
HO Your years in England as a young girl moving from foster home to foster home formed the basis of your first book called Other People’s Houses. And as in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, these started out first as stories that found their way into The New Yorker. Was it an editor at The New Yorker who suggested that you had a book of stories in you?
LS My first of these refugee stories was published in Commentary. The New Yorker had probably turned it down since all of us sent everything we ever wrote to The New Yorker. But I sent them my next story, which dealt with the Kindertransport—
HO Unsolicited, just through the transom.
LS Always. I once sent them a note saying, “Who’s there at The New Yorker — I know there’s a pencil that keeps writing sorry at the bottom of my rejection slip.” I was at Yaddo when my mother called me and said, “There’s a letter from The New Yorker. Do you want me to open it?” In those days magazines always sent your manuscript back—it was something you’d had to type or get typed. It would come back in a big self-addressed stamped envelope that you had included. But this letter came in a letter-sized envelope! They were taking the story; they had read the one in Commentary, and would I be interested in writing a series, something that had not occurred to me before.
HO And how far along were you?
LS I had only these two stories, the one in Commentary and the one The New Yorker accepted. There’s a reason I write my novels as a series of stories: I don’t have the long breath required to think in terms of a novel.
HO Earlier I referred to the marvelous avidity that Ilka exhibits in terms of wanting to fall in love with America. Between your first book, Other People’s Houses (1964) and Her First American (1985), there seems to be a marked change in terms of temperament. Other People’s Houses was very factual, what Cynthia Ozick referred to as “artless,” and Alfred Kazin in a very laudatory review of your book called it a “document.” The emotions in it are very tamped down.
LS I’ve changed some facts to make truer fiction. As for the emotion, it’s an interesting issue.
HO The tone is almost afraid of feeling. When Other People’s Houses was reissued in ’94, you wrote an introduction in which you said, “It’s the price a survivor has to pay—to detach oneself from feelings one cannot master.” It had taken a toll on you that took several years to exorcise, when you went back to Vienna and afforded yourself the luxury of tears over your father, over your childhood. There’s a closed-in-ness in Other People’s Houses. I would even say mercilessness. Especially when the young girl, Lore, talks about her father, who has had a sequence of strokes and who has been demoted in the world from a banker in Vienna to a failed butler and then a gardener, and not a particularly competent one.
LS I have imagined that the child leaving her parents in Vienna transposed her grief into excitement, a form, surely, of denial.
Shakespeare’s Kitchen continues to deal with this, though not explicitly. I think I relied too much on the reader recognizing this theme from Other People’s Houses. The Ilka of Shakespeare’s Kitchen does not respond adequately to the death of her husband or her lover: she is an inefficient mourner. Her tears don’t come until the book’s last sentence with the loss of a very secondary character, Bethy. Now Ilka is able to weep, and can’t stop weeping.
HO She’s ambushed into feeling.
LS Yes. The tears are not where they’re supposed to be. I think there’s certainly more heat in Her First American.
HO That’s a good way of putting it: heat.
LS Vivian Gornick calls it “a terminal chill.” I don’t know whether you’ve seen her review of the re-issued books in The Nation, but her insights are wonderful.
HO It’s a very apt phrase for Other People’s Houses. The American tendency is to canonize childhood as a period of royal innocence, precocious wisdom, and saintliness, but the young girl Lore is so true to being is a young adolescent, that self-interest and snobbishness, aspiration and grasping.
LS My editor, Joel Ariaratnam, has said to me: You say all the things that other people hide. I believe in a community of rottenness and a community of goodness. There’s nothing I can tell you about myself to which your understanding does not have access. I don’t have that sense of shame. Or rather I have it, but don’t pay much attention to it because I’m more interested in figuring out what is it that’s being felt. I say to my writing students: The one thing you can rely on in any situation is that the feelings you’re going to have are not the ones you think you’re supposed to have. Look and see what’s really going on. I might look back and think, I wish I hadn’t written that, but not often.
HO The stories in Other People’s Houses came about because you found yourself telling people what you referred to as your Hitler stories.
LS Yeah, my Hitler stories. It never occurred to me to go there; it seemed to me that people already knew and must be tired of these stories.
HO This was around what time?
LS After I came to New York in ’51. Because all the people I knew knew all these stories, I thought they were common knowledge, which was a wonderful mistake. At a party once, someone asked me how I had come to the States and I began to tell stories and had, for the first time, the experience that you are giving me now—the experience of telling something and being listened to, and it was lovely. I thought—so bizarre!—this material is interesting! This is something to write. The fact is that I had written about these experiences in Liverpool, in German. That first act of writing came from a sense that my foster parents did not understand what was happening in Vienna. The questions they asked me were not relevant. They were simple-minded, I thought, as a ten year old, and so I began to write. It’s what came to be called “bearing witness.” The writing, of course, was utterly inadequate. I felt it to be inadequate and so I blew it up—kept adding sunsets and exclamation points. It occurs to me that my horror, now, of “blown-up” writing may give what you experience as “tamped-down.” I don’t want emotion to sit on the surface of the paper. I want it to happen in the reader’s head.
HO The milestones in terms of your birth as a writer would include the very first piece of writing that you give importance to, the letter you wrote as soon as you got to London asking the review board to help your parents get out of Vienna.
LS I believe the letter was written to the cousins who had come to England earlier. Uncle Ernst had business connections in London. The cousins, I think, passed my letter on to Bloomsbury House, which found my parents work as a married couple—that means cook and butler—so that they could come to England.
HO Bloomsbury House was a relocation program?
LS A kind of clearinghouse for refugee matters.
HO And the second episode is the writing in your composition book for your foster family. But what strikes me about that episode is that you were already gauging, at age ten, the effect your writing had on other people. The scene is painted so that it is you looking at your audience.
LS Yes, and looking at sentences as sentences. I’d made up some similes that seemed to me very smart. Seem comically smart now. I remember enjoying my similes, enjoying writing them. I remember—I must have been around 12 in Guildford, when a favorite biology teacher went to the hospital for surgery. We were all encouraged to write her. I carried my sentences—the phrases of my own letter around and repeated them in my head. For days I went around with a sense of excitement at having created these sentences. You understand that because you’re a writer, but “bearing witness” may be an easier concept for people who are not writers. It’s that fascination, delight, and thrill with one’s own capacity to make words hold an idea that, I think, is knowing you are a writer.
HO The third episode that strikes me is also in Other People’s Houses. The constant moves from home to home had caught up with you, and you were starting to vomit a lot. One night as you were sick, your mother read David Copperfield out loud to you.
LS I never lived with my mother again—or not until I was 20 in the Dominican Republic. This reading and the vomiting happened on the night of our arrival in Guildford before the refugee committee had found a job for my mother and a new foster family for me to live with. (We’d had to leave Kent because it was too close to the Channel and my mother might have turned out to be a German spy.) What I recollect saying, at the phenomenal first meeting with Dickens, was, “That’s what I want to do. I’m going to be a writer.” It was the first time the words “to be a writer” came to me. The impassioned response to thought contained in language whether we make it ourselves or meet it in somebody else’s writing.
HO Speaking of other writers, are you aware of yourself as a peer in a community of writers whose body of work parallels your own?
LS Actually, I’m looking backwards—way back. New York is full of reading groups: We read Don Quixote. The Bible. Grimm’s Fairytales. Kafka. Is the zeitgeist telling us to go back to the big old stuff?
HO What are you currently reading?
LS Well, I have just given up on Dante. (laughter)
HO What was the verdict? What was the reason for giving him up?
LS This is the second time I have approached Dante. I may even do it again in the future. I cannot bear for there to be something of that stature and I don’t get it. That bugs me. But the fact is I don’t get it. I can’t get over my disgust at this God who metes out his cruel and unusual punishments. Don Quixote was lovely. I’m doing Chaucer with some friends. We’ve organized a small group with the poet Rachel Hadas to help some of us who are wonderful readers of prose but don’t really know how to read poetry. Then, there’s the 20-year-old Genesis Seminar.
HO I remember memorizing Genesis as a young boy because I was raised a Catholic.
LS I thought Catholics weren’t allowed to read the Bible, because it’s safer for you to be told what it says?
HO Where did you get that notion? I was raised in the Philippines as a Roman Catholic and we were taught the Old and the New Testament. And for some reason—it was not required of me—I sought to memorize it. Do you focus on both Old and New Testaments?
LS We focus on narrative. We did the book of Genesis verse by verse and it took us four years. I loved that.
HO Where do you do this?
LS At the Jewish Seminary on 122nd Street.
HO Speaking of the Upper West Side, how long have you been an Upper West Sider?
LS I came from the Dominican Republic to West 157th Street. From there I moved in with my husband, David Segal, at 72nd Street and West End Avenue. Before my second child was born we came here, to Riverside and 100th. Even the 14 years I was teaching in Chicago, I kept this apartment and commuted for weekends. I couldn’t bear to leave New York.
HO Did you raise your children in Chicago during that time, or did your mother take care of them?
LS Well, after my husband died, and even before that, my mother wanted nothing so much as to take care of us all. I moved the family to Chicago but we lasted only two years. Nobody liked it; everyone wanted to come back. The suburbs didn’t suit us. I’ve been asking people where they would want their ashes spread, so that they will ask me, and I can say on Riverside Drive. My ashes, after I die.
HO This is home?
LS This is where I finally, finally got to be at home. Home was hard to come by.
HO Yes, it’s been an arduous journey for you, out of which you’ve made a lovely body of work: the search for home. Let’s talk about one of the outstanding stories in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which is “Reverse Bug.” You have indicated that that story grew out of a question.
LS I’d been carrying the idea of a reverse bug around for a long time and didn’t know what to do with it. It leans heavily on that movie called The Conversation.
HO The Francis Ford Coppola movie, with Gene Hackman? Where he eavesdrops on people and records them?
LS It had some marvelous music. In my story the taking down of the theater to look for the hidden bugging device comes straight out of that movie. I hoped it would be understood as a “quote” from the movie.
HO I didn’t get that.
LS Well, it doesn’t matter. I owe Coppola.
HO Is there such technology where you can have a reverse bug?
LS Not that I know of.
HO Let me read your question from the preface: “What if we were forced to hear the sound of torture we knew to be happening twenty-four hours a day out of our earshot?”
LS Being forced to know what we don’t want to know.
HO The story involves an older Japanese gentleman, a sound engineer who sets up the sound system for a conference gathered by the Institute people about genocide and justice. He was also hired, decades earlier, to soundproof the extermination camps in Dachau.
LS That was my invention.
HO And he also had access to tapes that he or somebody made of Hiroshima victims. These are the rough, basic facts with which the story begins. He goes about setting a reverse bug in the auditorium in which the people there hear the howls funneled in from his Hiroshima and Auschwitz tapes. And so a lot of the story involves the idea of being literally, physically haunted. It’s the one story in the book with this extra level. Whereas the other stories are lovingly wrought scenes of interdepartmental relations, friendships, and domestic dramas, this pops out. How do people feel this story fits in with the rest of the collection?
LS It doesn’t fit, except that those ovens existed in the world from which Ilka had escaped and in which my grandmother’s brothers and sisters died. My grandmother, one brother, and one sister came to the New World. One brother died during the First World War. All the others—11 of them and their spouses—could have been the sounds on those tapes. So there’s a different intensity in that story. There is, incidentally, one other “magical realist” element in Shakespeare’s Kitchen — the little dog who barks at crimes, major and minor. But that’s why the stories have not turned into a novel. That’s what I tried to explain in the foreword. I meant: Don’t tell me it doesn’t fit; I’m telling you it doesn’t fit. Be aware, everybody, that I’m aware that these are several stories that have not merged into one story. There is one sense in which the reverse bug impinges and that’s on the love story: It interests me that the love affair evolves to the sound of the howls from H-bombs and ovens.
HO The extramarital affair that Ilka Weiss conducts with Leslie Shakespeare.
LS I remember once seeing a B movie where one of the bad guys sits eating a large, rich meal while somebody in the next room is screaming. We make love and eat and all the time someone is screaming. What, says the story, would happen if we were made to hear it? And no, I did not integrate that notion throughout the book.
HO Let’s go back to Her First American. You were approached by a producer to turn Her First American into a script.
LS I did turn it into a script. I turned it into a really bad script. (laughter) Pippa Scott bought this movie and caused me to write a script very much against my expressed wishes. I like movies, but I don’t know how they work. Because I know what it feels like to write a story, I know that I don’t know how to write a script. However, nobody else would do it, so I went at it. Everyone knows those taped lectures on the craft of script writing—
HO Robert McKee.
LS Yes! I listened and learned something perfectly interesting. It’s what every nineteenth-century novel knows and modern novels won’t do—to the detriment in our pleasure of reading them. The “it” is that in a good plot there’s no event that isn’t the result of an event that went before and leads to the event to come.
HO Which is very pleasurable, especially since it’s now so out of vogue.
LS I love reading nineteenth-century novels. I like watching the movies from the ’40s and ’50s that have nothing to do with my experience of life, and we can’t write like that.
HO And she didn’t get somebody else then, after you had given up?
LS She tried. Oh, indeed, she tried very hard. In fact they’re still trying. But I have sold my option. I think the phrase is, “In perpetuity throughout the universe.” My agent warned me not to sign this contract, and I said, “Oh, nobody’s ever going to want this.” So this is nobody’s fault except mine. I would love to see this movie made, and I would hate to see this movie made.
HO It would provide such a wonderful role for an African American actor. The character’s estrangement from society is treated as a given—it’s not homiletic or sanctimonious—which makes the tragedy of his drinking and the tragedy of turning his destructive energies inward even more effective and devastating. It’s a marvelous love story. You’ve really caught him.
LS I did do a good job, didn’t I?
HO Not only did you catch him whole, but the openness of spirit with which you caught this world and with which you painted Ilka is fantastic. I’m assuming, Lore, that Ilka is some version of you? I was so heartened by the fact that this girl in Other People’s Houses, who was so cold and shut off from the world, had flowered by the time of Her First American.
LS Indeed. I think it was this man who did it—the mix of thinking one was going to save an unhappy life, and of being loved and loving. . . . That was the break. I’m talking now as myself.
HO Could we touch on the historical model for your character Carter, or is that off the—
LS Is that kosher? Are you allowed to do that?
HO It’s completely up to you.
LS He did like the idea of my writing the book. His name was Horace Cayton. There’s a fascinating book called The Cayton Legacy by Richard Hobbs that tells the story of this black family. Horace’s maternal grandfather, Hiram Revels, was president of Alcorn University. Horace’s father was born a slave and came to Seattle and ran a newspaper, the Seattle Republican—until the times and a bad law-suit brought him down. They were a powerful, upright generation and, for a time, splendidly successful. It was Horace’s generation—brilliant and charismatic, that could not fulfill their expectations of themselves. The dreams that dried like that raisin in the sun. The culture didn’t allow them—or they didn’t have the stamina for success. I’m in touch still with Horace’s niece who runs a gallery of African-American art in Chicago. Horace was a wit, a scholar-playboy, a star in America and in Europe. He knew everybody but he couldn’t survive, he couldn’t make it. . . . I find a reluctance in myself to publicize the real Horace.
HO I think once enough time has passed, and if the portraiture in the book is—
LS Very friendly.
HO Friendly, yes. It is not a caricature, it is not an indictment.
LS Horace Cayton wrote a book called Long Old Road. He was a superb anecdotalist and talker; he was not a good writer. A sociologist. There is nobody in the black world of that generation who does not know him.
HO This was in the ’30s, when he came up and was writing his books.
LS He was born in 1903, the year before my mother. My mother really liked him. My grandmother liked him.
HO Yeah, I’m gathering from those little episodes in the books where he comes and he offers flowers to Ilka’s mother—
LS Ilka’s grandmother.
HO Ilka’s mother, I believe, in Her First American, Ilka’s grandmother in Other People’s Houses. See, it helps to have read the material!
LS (laughter) Yes, you’re right.
HO A friend of mine, who is a big fan of your children’s books, particularly Tell Me a Mitzi, remarked to me on the names in Shakespeare’s Kitchen—the Ayes, the Zees, the Cohns, and the Stones. Are you aware of there being a crossover from your children’s book writing in terms of that sort of pairing?
LS No, I’m not, but there was a purpose. I was saying to the reader, don’t worry about keeping them apart. They are the chorus. In fact, I was going to say so in the story, but Bob Gottlieb, who was in those days my editor at The New Yorker, wouldn’t let me. It was too meta-fictional for him.
HO Can you talk a little more about what you’re currently working on?
LS Well, let me tell you one aspect of what I’m working on. Someone—a long time ago—asked me to work on a book of interviews with survivors and survivors’ children, and I was fascinated, not by the stories so much as the non-communication between interviewer and interviewees. It has something to do with what we tell each other when we’re not professional writers. Writers are in the business of explaining themselves. Most people are not. What interested me was how the interviewers didn’t know where to go, and how to access the interviewees’ truths. I am playing with that in the book I am writing now.
HO Are you aware of your standing in the American community of letters or is it an irrelevant consideration for you when you write?
LS Let me answer in terms of my other book, Lucinella, which you haven’t read. In Lucinella there’s a character called Lucinella, who appears in her twenties when, as she puts it, she doesn’t have her hands on the rope. She doesn’t know how to behave at parties; she doesn’t know how to write her poetry; she doesn’t know how to get herself published. Then in the middle there’s the mature Lucinella who does have her hands on the ropes, who knows how to handle herself at parties, who gets published. At the end there’s a third Lucinella—the three of them meet at parties—and the old one is out of the loop again, no longer has contacts, who goes to a party and everybody seems to be the age of her graduate students. . . .
HO That’s how you feel.
LS Oh well—that’s one way of looking at it. Another thing to make a story out of.
—Playwright and novelist Han Ong was born in Manila in 1968 and is now based in New York. The author of Fixer Chao (2001) and The Disinherited (2004; both Picador USA), Ong is one of the youngest-ever recipients of a MacArthur genius grant, which he won in 1997.