Ample Riches of Every Sort: An Interview with Erica Jong

For more than 40 years, Erica Jong has been giving voice to the hearts and hopes of millions of readers. She is a poet, a storyteller, a defrocked academic, and the author of 24 books.

Her catalogue is as dynamic and fascinating as the writer herself, including the landmark 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying and the upcoming Fear of Dying; eight volumes of poetry, including the upcoming Oracle of Light: New Poems; two memoirs; nonfiction including a literary study of Henry Miller and an illustrated study of witches; a children’s book about divorce; and an open letter to President Obama. Jong’s work continues to entertain, challenge, inspire, tickle, and educate—not necessarily in that order. We caught up with the author herself and got her take on her new book, the legacy of Fear of Flying, and the alchemies of writing, poetry, and Venice.

You have a new book, Fear of Dying, coming out in September. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Fear of Dying is a hilarious, heart-wrenching story about what happens when one woman steps reluctantly into the afternoon of life. Vanessa Wonderman is a gorgeous former actress in her 60s who finds herself balanced between her dying parents, her aging husband, and her beloved, pregnant daughter. Although Vanessa considers herself “a happily married woman,” the lack of sex in her life makes her feel as if she’s losing something too valuable to ignore. So she places an ad for sex on a site called Zipless.com, and the life she knew begins to unravel. With the help and counsel of her best friend, Vanessa navigates the phishers and pishers, and starts to question if what she’s looking for might be close at hand after all.

I always wanted to write a book that told the story of women growing older. When I was young editors used to say you couldn’t write a bestseller about a woman over forty. I wanted to prove them wrong. Love is not the only thing that makes women real. Beyond love there are ample riches of every sort. And even love, perhaps, has a different valence as you age. It is a part, not all, of life. What happens when parents die, when children marry and become parents, when mortality looms on the horizon? Fear of Dying was provoked by these questions.

I recently reread Fear of Flying, and I was struck by how truly timeless it is. When I first read it at 18, I viewed it as a bible: with great seriousness. At 28, as I contemplated the future of my own marriage, Isadora’s plight resonated with me on a whole other level. Now, at 38, I caught myself laughing out loud in several spots; the humor really reached out to me this time around. I look forward to seeing what jumps out at me during my next reading. What is it about Isadora and Fear of Flying that transcends time?

I think if you write honestly about feelings you discover feelings are indeed universal. I tried to tell the truth about what goes on in the head of a young woman looking for her life. I must have gotten something right, because so many people identify with it. Lately, I find men identify as well as women.

There has been talk of a Fear of Flying movie over the last 40 years. I recently heard a rumor that a movie is indeed—finally—in the works. Is this true?

It’s true that we’ve been trying to make a movie for more than 40 years. We now have a wonderful Italian director, Gabriele Muccino, and a new script writer, Shauna Cross. Let us pray!

My favorite of your novels is Shylock’s Daughter (a.k.a. Serenissima). In fact, you inspired me to visit Venice after reading it. What makes Venice so magical for you?

Venice is magical because it enables you to live in the past and present simultaneously. Many artists have been drawn there to work. The presence of water makes you dream more intensely. It’s possible to imagine different worlds when you live in Venice.

I keep remembering your limerick, “Epitaph for Myself,” that was included in the preface to Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected: “A demi-young author named Jong/Became famous for reasons quite wrong./A poet at heart, she won fame as a tart—/That mispronounced poet called Jong.” So please forgive this next question. What are your thoughts on the wave of female-centric erotica that has hit the market in the last few years?

I think that erotica has always been a part of literature. Shakespeare and Chaucer were no strangers to it. I’m a little surprised by the fact that a lot of female erotica is about bondage and discipline. Those two have never really been on my agenda. Fifty Shades seems to me a Cinderella story with whips. Is it possible that women need to have the pleasure and the punishment built in? That would be sad. I look forward to a new kind of women’s erotica that focuses on pleasure, not pain.

In Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, you wrote, “Writing is the first antidepressant.” Nowadays, mental health professionals are always encouraging us to write our feelings, thoughts, ideas down on paper. What is it about writing, for you, that lifts the spirits?

I wish I knew. The world is chaotic and uncontrollable and making sense of it in a book definitely lifts one. We go from feeling out of control to feeling in control and that certainly helps!

My copy of Becoming Light has traveled the world with me and is dog-eared and filled with highlights and underlines. I was thrilled when Love Comes First, your latest book of poetry, was released in 2009. Do you still consider yourself a poet first and foremost? Are you working on any new poetry?

All my work comes out of my immersion in poetry. Poetry is our link with the unconscious. Even my novels come out of that place. I always write poetry and in fact have a new series of poems that were inspired by my mother’s passing at 101 years old. Poems come when they come.

Your novels have sometimes walked the line between fiction and autobiography. How do you negotiate that line, especially when it comes to writing about other people? (I often think of the great Anne Lamott quote, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”)

The novel has always pretended to be real life, and it would be hard to find a novelist who didn’t use her own life in some ways. With women writers the accusation of autobiography has been a way of demeaning us as if we had no imagination. The truth is that most books are a mixture of imagination and recollection.

What is your writing process like? Do you keep a strict schedule?

It takes me a long time to find the voice of a novel, but once I get going I try to write every day, because otherwise I lose the thread. I don’t want to keep rereading and rereading—that makes me deaf to the voice of the book. The only way to avoid that is to keep on…most days.

Fear of Dying will be in stores September 8.

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