The celebrated literary stylist of Alibis, a collection of essays on the many places he’s known, talks about the cities he loves and why writing is like roulette.
You grew up in several exotic cities. Could you offer up a sight, scent, and taste that you associate with each of them?
Alexandria: The sea. Basil, cucumber, mangoes, the cooing of turtledoves on torrid afternoons, the screech of buses coming to a sudden halt. The sea, again, of course.
Rome: Campo Marzio. The distant sound of a hammer pounding something during the intensely quiet hours of the afternoon, highlighting the silence even more.
Paris: The smell of the old metro stirring thoughts of romance.
New York: West 106th Street. The scent of fried bacon on my way to an office on Park Avenue, like a sudden gust of humanity intruding on a parade of pinstripes.
Cambridge: Lowell House. Cold Sunday mornings when the sky couldn’t be clearer or a French patisserie more welcome.
Describe your daily routine.
I love it when I am able to wake up at 5:30. I make myself a large espresso coffee, add milk, Splenda, and bring it to my desk. I love nothing more than to reread what I wrote the night before. If it’s good, I want to go to the next sentence; if not good, I love that my coffee helps puts me in a good enough mood to face the challenge of recobbling the last paragraph I wrote. At 7:10 I love to go to the gym and work out till about 9. Then I either go to the office or I come back home, sit at my desk, and pick up where I left off at 7:10.
But I am not as disciplined as all this sounds. I like to read the paper online. And I love email. And I love nothing better than to be interrupted.
At 7 p.m. I like scotch whiskey. Then I’ll snack on pistachios. Then dinner, which my wife and I prepare, though she is a far better cook than I. Afterward we sit and watch something on TV. Then I go back to my desk and she reads the newspaper.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I tolerate lots of people I have no patience or respect for. Then, as soon as I can, I rat on them.
You’ve talked about writing as a painstaking process of “getting down to the nucleus” of your subject. How do you know when you’re there?
This is like asking someone with an eating disorder, “When do you know you’re no longer hungry?” How do you explain orgasm to someone who’s never had one?
I like the metaphor of roulette. The metal ball is made to spin around the wheel; eventually, after many turns, it spirals and lurches into the wheel and finally lands in a box with a number. I never like writing automatically; I need to turn against the wheel; I need to spin around and around it, take as much time as I need to prowl around what I’m trying to hone in on, finally closing in on the thing I may not even know I’m looking for, but eventually when I click and land somewhere, I just know that this is it, that I’ve found what I was looking for, I’m home.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The first thing a writer needs to know is what kind of writer he/she is. Is he after plot, character, or—as in my case—is he really (and unabashedly) after himself. I want to know who I am, what I like, what I want. And the closest I can come to an answer is either in an essay or a piece of fiction; the fiction/nonfiction distinction is immaterial, if not downright artificial. Writing must bring me closer to the things I want (or is it crave?). For example, I love the Mediterranean and I love the smooth, tanned skin of women on the Mediterranean. I cannot access these directly through writing, first because it is not in the power of words to provide physical sensations; but more importantly, because naming what I want too directly prevents words from evoking anything, especially since it’s evoking I’m after. If words must evoke, they must take all manner of oblique paths. This could explain why I am an oblique writer. I get to the bottom of things by running circles around them; I name the desire for water and fresh skin as circuitously as I can, so as to summon the desire for them and in summoning the desire, come closer to the thing desired than physical contact can.
In retrospect things gets much hotter. This is the magic of writing. In retrospect (i.e. after writing) it “feels” that I swam in the most placid beach and then made love to the girl I saw on the sand one day. One writes in order to “remember” having had the things one craves. Only then does one have the illusion of having touched them. Writing is intensified mythmaking. When readers claim that something feels real or, better yet, honest, this is not because it felt realistic; that’s reportage, not literature. What moves or teases a reader in that peculiarly vague and intangible way is none other than the intangible thrill that brought the writer to a particular scene in the first place; the unspoken or unrequited desire that made writing about smooth skin and limpid beaches so necessary is precisely what makes things so true, so honest, so “beloved” to a reader—and ultimately to the writer himself. The trick—if one wishes to call it a trick—is never to spell things out too clearly. Details never evoke, details never tease. The imagination needs to be teased, not confronted.
Some authors have felt a conflict between living their life and writing about it. What influence has being a husband and parent had on your writing?
On the day when the glowing New York Times review of Out of Egypt came out—it was the first review of anything I had ever written—I had no babysitter, so I took my sons out for a walk. It was during their Christmas break. In the subway station, I spotted a man reading the Times, and lo and behold, he was reading the book review of my book. This was my moment of triumph and glory. But it did not last long. A few minutes later, one of my boys stepped on excrement and I needed to find paper to clean his shoe with. So here I was, on top of the world as a writer, and yet as a father busily wiping and scraping off dog poop from my son’s shoe. Would I have wanted it any other way? Absolutely not.
The first thing a writer needs to know is what kind of writer he/she is. Is he after plot, character, or—as in my case—is he really (and unabashedly) after himself.
You write about travel quite often, but you have said that you don’t like sightseeing. Can you describe what an ideal holiday for you would entail?
There hasn’t been a holiday in ages. I am always busy. If I’m traveling to write something, I am anxiously taking mental notes, trying to cast how I’m going to write about Rome, or Paris, or Tuscany. Those I travel with tend to relax; while I am fussing around. My wife loves to read by the pool; I struggle with too much glare on my laptop; I can’t enjoy the sun. Ideally, I love to put on earphones, lie by the pool, and listen to music in total tranquility. One hour is a gift from heaven. That’s the extent of my vacation. My vacations last one hour. Then I get bored, impatient.
You write in a variety of genres (fiction, memoir, travel writing, essays, reviews). Does any one come more easily to you than another?
It depends how intimate I wish or need to be. Fiction is the closest I come to what I feel, though not always. “Shadow Cities,” ostensibly about a park in Manhattan, says more intimate things about me than does [the novel] Call Me by Your Name. “Lavender” is also highly intimate, and could easily pass for a short story. I don’t always choose whether I’ll write fiction or nonfiction; the genres tend to meld and, sometimes, when writing a “memoir” piece, the distinction between essay and short story is impossible to make.
You’ve said Thucydides is your favorite author. He’s probably not at the top of a lot of people’s lists. Does it bother you to read Thucydides (or other authors) in translation?
I have never been able to read Thucydides in Ancient Greek. My Greek was never that good, and Thucydides’s is by far the best. I like him because he has a dark vision of mankind, and is not ashamed to show it. He is the most disabused spectator of human arrogance and human idiocy. The death of Nicias and the fate of the captured Athenians in the salt mines of Sicily, in the closing pages of The History of the Peloponnesian War, are perhaps the most moving pages in world literature. Nothing sentimental; just irreducibly tragic. But what truly draws me to Thucydides is his unswerving and merciless ability to read human motivation and to expose the sinuous machinations of the human psyche. In this he puts Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy to shame. They are, by contrast, superficial and facile.
You also love Proust. Was it love at first sight, or did he have to grow on you?
It was in a bookstore in Paris. I was with my father, and he picked up volume two and told me that perhaps I should read this. These were his exact words, with that tiny “perhaps” wedged in to soften the recommendation, in case I was tempted to resist because it came from a father. I knew he had good taste and so I started reading Proust then and there. But it took me no time to realize that Proust was either difficult or too close to home, or both—so I put away Proust and didn’t come back to him until I was 21. I like coming to Proust after reading so many classics. You can’t read Dostoyevsky after Proust. Actually, you can’t read anyone after Proust; so if you’re going to love an author better read him before reading Proust. Proust displaces the whole cannon; he redefined my love of literature.
How did you publish your first book?
I started as I always advise young writers to do: by writing book reviews. By the third book review, I asked the editor of Commentary whether he’d be interested in my writing something about growing up as a Jewish boy in Egypt. He said yes, but his yes was so mitigated, that I convinced myself he was being polite. Nevertheless, I decided to take him at this word and, eventually, did write a chapter. It proved too long for Commentary, so the editor, one of the most generous editors in the world, proceeded to cut it down to a manageable size. It was still too long. The response to this chapter proved so positive that he asked me to write another chapter. Which I eventually did six months later, and which he did publish. By then, I decided to send the two printed chapters to an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which made me an offer right away. I had also submitted the two chapters to Knopf, which also made me an offer. I preferred the editor at FSG, and have never regretted working with her.
What is your next project?
In April 2013, Norton will be publishing a novel entitled Harvard Square. But I am also planning a book of “moral tales” (I borrow the title from my favorite film director, Éric Rohmer). These stories are all about people put in the difficult position of having to grasp what someone else means to them. Are others important, necessary, meaningful? We are enigmas to others and to ourselves. The title of the book may be Enigma.