is a celebrated poet, novelist and essayist with over 27 published books that have been influential all over the world. Her new book of poetry titled
The World Began With Yes was published in April 2019 by Red Hen Press. Her most popular novel,
Fear of Flying, celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2018. Never out of print, it has sold over 35 million copies in 50 languages including Chinese and Arabic. Her awards include the Fernanda Pivano Award for Literature in Italy (named for the critic who introduced Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg and Erica Jong to the Italian public); the Sigmund Freud Award in Italy; the Deauville Literary Award in France; the United Nations Award for Excellence in Literature;
Poetry Magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize (also won by Sylvia Plath and W. S. Merwin). Her poetry has appeared in publications worldwide, including
The New Yorker, L. A. Times, The Paris Review, Haaretz, and many more. She lives in New York and Connecticut with her husband and two poodles. Her daughter, Molly
Jong-Fast is also a writer, essayist and political pundit.
Larissa Shmailo is a poet, novelist, translator, editor and critic. Her new novel is
Sly Bang, and her first novel was Patient Women. Her poetry collections are
Medusa’s Country, #specialcharacters, In Paran, A Cure for Suicide and
Fib Sequence. Her poetry albums are The No-Net World and Exorcism, for which she won the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award. She is the original English-language translator of the first Futurist opera
Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych, performed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and theatres and universities worldwide. She also edited the online anthologies
Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and From Pushkin to Pussy Riot: Russian Political Poetry and
Prose. She has also been a translator for the Eugene A. Nida Institute of Biblical Scholarship on the Russian Bible. She was nominated for the 2019 Best of the Net award in creative non-fiction. Her website can be found
LS: Tell me about your childhood. How old were you when you started writing?
EJ: I don’t remember a time that I didn’t. I was a very good talker. Always. My mother told a story where when she took us down to DC, and one time, I was a little tow-haired girl, I may have been three. I pointed and said, “Is that the original balcony on which George Washington stood?” And my mother said that heads turned around, ‘cos I was little, and I had white blonde hair, and they said, “Who said that?” I mean, here I was, at three years old. I talked in complete sentences with a vast vocabulary and my mother always told that story because she said, “Erica always had a way with words.”
LS: We knew you were a prodigy. Tell me more about the women of your family. What do they do, how do you relate to them?
EJ: My mother, I think, was bipolar, because (I’ve talked to my sister about this) she could be the most wonderful person in the world and then the meanest. She adored us but she was incredibly critical. And my daughter always says to me, “You never criticize me when you read my articles.” (My daughter Molly became a political pundit.) We did a podcast in DC with Danielle Crittenden and Cristina Hoff Sommers called Femsplainers. At the end of it, Molly and I are talking about writing and our lives and they asked my granddaughter Bette to participate and she said, “I love to write but it’s not going to be my profession ‘cos you don’t make enough money.” Eleven-year-old wisdom, right?!
LS: Well, that’s interesting given that her grandmother has sold millions of books! You are prolific. Eight poetry books, including your latest
The World Began with Yes.
EJ: And articles. I used to write funny articles for the New York Observer and I wrote the first article on Viagra which I feel is the wrong name.
LS: Recently, in the Washington Post, you were on a 100 most important books to read list.
EJ: I thought it was Fear of Flying but no, it was Fear of Dying, which pleased me. A list of books you should read at different ages in your life and at 61, Fear of Dying was recommended.
LS: You were always Johnny on the spot with Fear of Fifty, Fear of
Dying, Fear of Flying. You are reflective of every age. About Fear of
Flying—did you know it would be such a huge success and so influential?
EJ: No idea. I have to tell you that one of the most important agents in the business said, “It will never sell.”
LS: Famous last words!
EJ: Famous last words. I was lucky with my first editor, Aaron Asher who also edited Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. He said, “Well, we’ll be lucky if we sell 5,000 copies. But I love it because it has everything about feminism, anti-feminism, the whole picture. Everything we’re living through. The way men feel, the way women feel. I must publish it.” He paid an advance that was modest.
LS: Tell me more about the publishing environment of the time.
EJ: In 1970—for the first time in history—there were women at the top of publishing houses. Elaine Koster was the head of New American Library (later Penguin). She read the book over a weekend and called Aaron, my hard cover publisher, and said, “This book is the story of my life and I’m not going to buy it unless you promise to print 500 galleys for my big mouth list; and the first printing must be at least 35,000 copies.” Aaron said, “But we’ll eat the books, we’ll never sell them.” And Elaine said, “Every woman will want to read it. And every man.” She insisted that he do a bigger printing than he had planned. Without Elaine the book might have died.
LS: And nobody had told it before you. You were the first to tell the story.
EJ: Women’s sexual desire has been repressed throughout history and literature.
LS: What at the time were reactions you got, pro and con?
EJ: I got a lot of flack.
LS: Let’s hear about it.
EJ: Male critics were so dismissive of the book. The New York Times assigned it to a guy who (previously) had come onto me, invited me to a poetry reading in upstate New York that never was, tried to get me into bed and failed. I never knew he was still living until he reviewed the book in the
NYT. How the fuck does this happen? And he pronounced it: “Another whiny feminist novel by another whiny feminist” or something like that.
I thought the book was finished. Then John Updike discovered it and wrote an amazing review in
The New Yorker. But Willian Shawn was then the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker and he was famously prudish. John Updike later told me that they negotiated and negotiated about the quotes and the book which was published in November didn’t get reviewed until December—just before Christmas. There were never enough books which is a nice problem to have, but in this case, people had already bought their Christmas presents. People would find the book and get excited but nobody could find it.
Friends of mine were going out of their mind and screaming at me on the phone. One friend, Barbara Seaman, who had written about the birth control pill—would call me on a daily basis and say, “Call your publisher, there are no books in the stores! This is an important book!” We were feminists together and supported each other which is not common as you probably know. But there were no books reprinted until March or April.
LS: No books in the stores!
EJ: This is not uncommon for a book by an unknown author to have this experience. Nobody knows who you are and I was a young poet. Americans are allergic to poetry. In the fall of ’74, the paperback came out at $1.95 and within three months they had sold three million copies. It was the book everybody had heard about but nobody could get.
LS: Literary wildfire!
EJ: I think it’s important to note that in those days, paperbacks were $1.95 in drug stores. People would take a risk on unknown authors. I wish that were possible for young authors now. Today, publishers assume that if a book is literary and well written, nobody will read it. My experience was different. People read the first chapter and couldn’t wait to see the rest.
LS: And then it went international.
EJ: Suddenly everyone wanted Fear of Flying; Italians, Germans, French, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatians… Of course, the Germans wanted me to take out the Holocaust stuff—and I refused. The French told me that French women didn’t need psychoanalysis because French women were so happy with French men. Everyone had a beef about the book. I stood my ground. Of course, it became a best seller in Germany, even with the Holocaust stuff, and a best seller in France, even with the psychoanalysts.
LS: How many languages was it translated into finally?
EJ: Fifty something… And now it’s in Arabic and Mandarin.
[Dogs enter the dining room.]
EJ: This is Simone. Simone de Beauvoir. And her sister, Colette.
LS: Anyway—as an international feminist icon—I want to know more about sexism in the literary world and today, now. Is it getting better?
EJ: Only slightly. In the 70’s it was still a boy’s club with a few women in top positions. And most of the people who got the most serious reviews had penises. And women weren’t good at supporting each other. Every woman writer felt like an exception and they were jealous of their position. During the 2nd wave of the feminist movement, you were not supposed to like men. You were supposed to prove that you were a lesbian or you wouldn’t be taken seriously. Nobody believed that women could love men and live with them. I used to say women have to learn to support each other. Feminism is mentoring and mentoring is feminism. If you don’t support other women you have no right to call yourself a feminist. Andrea Dworkin became a friend of mine—the most vulnerable person I ever met in my life. I tried to convince her that not all men were rapists. But her own experiences had hurt her so badly that she couldn’t believe it.
LS: They used to say Andrea Dworkin’s brown shirts. She was called a fascist by fellow feminists for her attacks on pornography, and the first amendment.
EJ: They used to say everything. But Andrea was not a fascist. She had been raped and like a lot of women who are raped, she ate excessively to protect herself. I had great empathy for her.
LS: But sexism in the literary world. Talk about that… Is it getting better for women writers out there?
EJ: You might think it’s getting better because of the #metoo movement.
LS: I’d like your take on that.
EJ: I fear that it could promote a backlash against women. Not that I have any doubt that many women have been abused. They have. But if we go around saying all men are rapists, we’re really not telling the truth. There are men who want to romance you with music and poetry. There are men like my husband who say, “What fun would it be to force yourself on a woman? You want her to want you. You don’t want to be a brute.”
LS: How will all this evolve?
EJ: We don’t really know yet. We don’t want to be seen as bitches who hate men because we don’t hate men. We just want men to be respectful of us before they become our lovers. We want love and sex and passion altogether. When I read about Epstein and Trump and Weinstein, I’m horrified. Is the problem that they can’t get an erection without control over women? Is that why they like 12-year olds? Are they so fearful that they have to take their daughters or granddaughters to bed?
LS: What about the zipless fuck?
EJ: It’s a fantasy.
LS: What are your thoughts on it now?
EJ: I’ve been married four times. I always liked tender, monogamous relationships. Of course, I fantasized about the other, as one does. But when Isadora is presented with an opportunity for a zipless fuck on the train leaving Paris she is not aroused. What you fantasize about may not be what you want in life. I find it strange that people don’t understand that. Don’t we all have fantasies? Don’t we all dream of things we would never do? Isn’t that the nature of the human being? I dream of flying but I’m not going to jump off a building! It astonishes me that people see my books so literally.
LS: That point of view comes through—the zipless fuck and not knowing the man… it’s a fantasy. But in
The World Began with Yes there is a true joining, a sense of wholeness, a wisdom that comes with age.
EJ: I hope so. Yet, we live in a society where there is so much ageism. Sexism and ageism seem to go together.
LS: Men are “distinguished” and women are “hags”.
EJ: At my age I’m rarely invited to go on television anymore. Even though I look pretty good. The high definition camera is the enemy of women. It’s rare to see a woman who is over 40 on TV. And Trump’s women… They all look alike.
LS: You’re pretty vocal on Twitter about Trump.
EJ: I’ve never met him but I have friends who went to his parties and said they were filled with coke—everyone was snorting including him. E. Jean Carroll, who is very funny and clever was raped by him. Her book is a modest proposal for women. She has concluded that she no longer needs men. I still like men. I like how different they are from us. I love women with all my heart but it’s nice to have a taste of otherness. A world of women would ultimately be the same old, same old. Men add spice. They see the world differently and if they love you, it can be great fun.
LS: Let’s talk about poetry being the redheaded stepchild of publishing. Why is that? And also—how do we get paid—are we priests or something?
EJ: I guess we’re priests! Stephen King, who I was friends with years ago—he and his wife, Tabby—loves poetry. I once asked him why people in America were so afraid of it. He said that it was ruined by teachers. They made students think poetry could not be understood. That is certainly not true of Robert Frost or Mary Oliver or me. Poetry is not meant to be a puzzle. Poetry is meant to be the expression of powerful feelings. It can be satirical or passionate. Stephen hates Trump as much as I do.
LS: I’ve seen his commentary—it’s strong. We’ve both lived in a revolutionary time for women.
EJ: The sexism, the ageism, the hidden gayness of many closeted men. I’ve experienced all of it. Many gay men appreciate women’s writing. And many straight men do as well. John Updike and Henry Miller loved my writing. Henry Miller believed I had written the female
Tropic of Cancer.
LS: Women have problems with Miller.
EJ: True but he wasn’t what they think he was. He was a romantic, not a rapist. He was madly in love with Anais Nin who saved his life. “I would have starved in Paris without Anais Nin,” he said.
LS: What are you reading now? What are you writing now?
[Erica led me into her bedroom and showed be a huge stack of books near her side of the bed.]
EJ: I read everything. I also read to unpack the book I’m writing. Since I’m writing my autobiography, I’m obsessed with the autobiographies of women.
[Then we walked back into the dining room and sat down for tea.]
LS: (Referring to a painting on the wall.) Who is the beautiful geisha?
EJ: My mother very much wanted to paint a Geisha and couldn’t get one to pose so I said well we had been to a couple of Geisha parties that were made for us by Japanese colleagues of my father’s… so I was studying their hairdos and studying the way they did their makeup. They rice powdered their face white and put a dot of lipstick in the middle of their lower lip and did this very dramatic eye makeup. So, I said, “Well, I’ll be your Geisha!” and I got dressed and my mother painted me. I was sixteen. It’s really one of the most beautiful pieces of my mother’s. I love it.
copyright © Erica Jong & Larissa Shmailo