Fear of Flying author Erica Jong is back with Fear of Dying, a book in which she reexamines familiars and maintains her poetic writing and sharp sense of humor. She spoke at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble before signing books for her fans. Here are a few things we learned:
Writers should be fearless.“If you want to continue what Agatha Christie started, but update it, that’s fine. If you want to redo Sherlock Holmes books, that’s fine. Books that were done 100 years ago. But if you want to talk about your time, your age, and you want to reflect your own time in a way that rivets people, you have to be fearless.”
Whenever she writes a book, she always tell herself it’s never going to be published. “People always say to me, ‘But Erica, you’re an icon.’ And I say, ‘But the business has changed.’ You could be an icon, but be on the street corner with a cup for quarters. So if you really want to reflect the age in which you live, you have to be fearless. And I cannot do that unless I tell myself no one will read it. I told myself that when I wrote my first book of poems, because no one reads poetry in this country. You know, they do in South America. Neruda. They do in Russia. They love poetry. But in the USA…
Oh, yeah. She loves poetry. But she doesn’t think it’s taught correctly. “In our schools, poetry is made to seem difficult, and the poets who get all the big awards are the poets you can’t understand, because critics are not comfortable with feelings. Almost by definition, critics are hiding from feelings. Poetry is very intense and it’s about what goes on in your heart and your soul and your gut, and that makes people very uncomfortable. And often when I have a new book of poetry, I put it on my night table and I’ll read three poems and then I’ll put it down and go to sleep and dream. Then maybe the next night, I’ll read two poems and think about it. It’s very intense, and so people are afraid.
Trying to break into reading poetry? Her recommended poet is Emily Dickinson. “Put Emily Dickinson on your nightstand as if you’ve never read her before. Even if you read her in school. When they force-fed me her in school, I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t had the life experience. And I was scared of her because I knew she came from back in the day, and people had said that she was difficult. But later I reread the same book when I was ready for it. And when you’re ready for a book and it falls into your hand, it’s like the whole heavens open up, and hell opens up, and you see the world differently.”
She would love to write the biography of Elizabeth I of England. “Everybody is fascinated with her. My granddaughter is fascinated with her and my granddaughter is seven. And even though there have been a million biographies of her, I think I would write it differently.”
She wishes she could reread Lolita again for the first time. “The story is disgusting, the writing is amazing.”
Vladimir Nabokov loved Fear of Flying. “A friend of mine was the girlfriend of the Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. And apparently Nabokov loved Fear of Flying. I never knew that. He never told me.”
But she will. She writes letters to young writers to tell them they did a great job.“Sometimes the writer doesn’t send me their address. There was a writer called Eliza Kennedy who sent me a book with no return address, and the letter was on a card. And she says, ‘I spent my entire life reading and re-reading Fear of Flying. And I’ve outlined it and underlined it and tried to figure out how you did it.’ Which is what I used to do with books. And she didn’t put in an email or a telephone number or anything. So I wanted to write her a letter but I didn’t. Recently, I read a book by a guy called Aatish Taseer. And I went into every bookstore in my neighborhood and said, ‘Why don’t you have this book? The guy is a genius.’ I wrote him an email. I tweeted the name of his book. We’ve got to pass it on or we won’t have readers.
Her five rules for writers:
She’s a “Cumberbitch.” “I loved Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. I though it was very intelligently done. Funny. I am a ‘Cumberbitch’ as they call them in the UK, although I hate the term. I think it’s disgusting and sexist. But okay.”
When she walks into a bookstore, she checks out the competition. “I look at the table and find something. I read the first page and I think, ‘You call this writing? Okay.’ Then I look for the poetry section and usually there is none. Then I go to the ladies’ room, if there is one—often there isn’t. And then I browse. And I want to find poetry, philosophy, a novel that is different than any novel I’ve ever read that inspires me. Because I read to be inspired; I read to help unpack the bag of the next book I’m writing. I read to unpack my knapsack. So I need the inspiration. And sometimes if I’ve been writing for eight hours and I’m stuck, I amble into a bookstore hoping to get inspired.”