Part One of a Two Part Interview with Tama Janowitz
By KOFI FOSU FORSON, FEB. 2016
Tama Janowitz shot to fame with the publication of Slaves of New York, a collection of short stories about the 80’s New York art scene. This catapulted her into a reign as an IT girl which endured appearances on magazine covers and talk shows. Her guest spots on Late Night with David Letterman were legendary. Since her last novel They is Us in 2009, Tama Janowitz has disappeared from the literary scene except for impromptu appearances at parties or openings. Her memoir Scream will be released by Harper Collins later this year in August. I recently discovered her on Facebook where I requested a friendship.
The following was formatted via e-mail.
Kofi Forson: I have to say, Tama, you are late to the social media party. What prompted you to join Facebook?
Janowitz: Perhaps I am late to the social media party. I have been on Facebook for five or six years I guess. I had about ten or twenty Facebook friends. One day about six months ago, five thousand people asked to be my friend. I was frightened. Suddenly, it was a deluge of people. I don’t know how these things work. It was peculiar. I am not kidding. I was there, just mumbling along to myself, thinking “I am on Facebook.”! J-Lo asked to be my friend! I said, “Ok.” She sent me pictures of herself in a bathing suit.
I had to drop her. I was sad, but I could not think of her as my friend. SHE wanted to be friends with ME! If we are friends do NOT send me a picture of yourself in a bathing suit, addressed to “All of my fans”.
Forson: I guess the last we heard of you was that you had moved to Ithaca, New York. Do you care to say where you’re living now?
Janowitz: I’m not far from Ithaca, in upstate New York. I’m in Schuyler County, not Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located. I came up to look after my mother. My mom was a brilliant poet and Professor at Cornell University in creative writing and English. After her death I no longer had interest in being in the city. I ran out of munitions.
Forson: You always had love for animals. How are your horses?
Janowitz: I did ride a tiny bit as a child but living up here I got very addicted. I have a quarter horse mare. I believe a quarter horse (an American breed) is called a quarter horse because it can run a quarter of a mile before it gets tired.
There is also a half horse. I trail ride in the Finger Lakes National Forest. It’s a huge forest with endless miles of trails. I ride for pleasure. When I ride, I play music from a little speaker and an iPod tied on Fox (my horse) and we get very groovy depending on what music is playing. She likes ‘70’s Reggae and also (this is a bit sad) old polka music. Sometimes we gallop. It’s been a very pure form of happiness for me.
Forson: And you’ve always loved dogs.
Janowitz: I only have one dog now but I’ve always had dogs. It’s a commitment though. Having a dog makes it hard to go anywhere, to just throw stuff in a bag and travel. You can’t leave your dog behind. You have to find people to take care of your dog. A dog needs food. A dog needs water. You need to have someone to throw a ball for that dog. What if, while you are away, that dog needs to go to the bathroom?
What if that dog suddenly wants to breed? You have to make sure all of these concerns are taken care of, if you go away, when you have a dog.
My little dog is getting up in years now, probably my last. It is a neuter dog. It is a neuter poodle. Its gender SHOULD be nebulous. But that is not the case. When this neutered dog gets excited and overwhelmed (particularly by the smell of horses) it wants to ‘breed’ or ‘make love’. It becomes attracted to ‘my leg’. But, my leg does not want to breed or make love. Then I have to tell my poodle to get off my leg – for my leg cannot and will not speak for itself.
Forson: Your memoir "Scream" comes out later in August of this year.
Janowitz: Writing the memoirs has been extraordinarily painful. It’s not just that I don’t like writing but there’s no fun in reliving a grim existence. What’s up with all these people working on themselves in a Zen way to ‘live in the moment’ or ‘the here-and-now’? These are ugly times.
On the other hand, the Past is, like, super depressing! And the Future, uh-oh. Forget about it. What if – in this so called ‘Future’ -- you break your leg or get a tumor? What if, in the future, you run out of money? So, what you want to do is find a way to live that doesn’t encompass any of these situations. And if you’re busy writing a memoir, that makes it even harder.
Forson: Your last novel was "They is Us" in 2009.
Janowitz: I had a lot of fun writing THEY IS US. Laugh! I remember I had The United States protect itself from Mexico by setting up a wall of used clothing. It was a permanently flaming wall of used clothing. Now I am halfway through a new book and have just completed my memoirs.
Forson: You are one of the more prophetic in your early concerns both literarily and in your outspokenness about what New York was becoming. What is your take on New York now? I mean when Patti Smith tells young artists not to come to New York something crucial and damning is happening.
Janowitz: Patti Smith?
Forson: Let me start with They is Us, your dystopian view of the future. Much of what you fictionalized is rooted in global warming, the food industry, ecology, animal husbandry and economics of home life. How do you keep safe and protected from this vision of the world?
Janowitz: In THEY IS US the rich people lived in a protected fenced-in area that is the size of Idaho. It IS Idaho, but California fell into the ocean so now the rich people have beaches and skiing and many other amenities. Genetically modified fur bearing animals just keel over and die in the middle of their prime, leaving behind through natural death lovely pelts to be made into fur coats. The poor suffer greatly, but they don’t really know it, due to their poverty. An example would be, do you miss terribly not having a private jet? I would miss hot and cold running water, available on demand – but not if I lived in 1850 in the middle of the country. You can’t miss what you’ve never experienced.
Forson: Centrally you deal with the American family and you have for some time. How far have we come from the nuclear family, American humor and television sitcoms to where we are now with reality shows?
Janowitz: The best thing I think is the acceptance – more and more – of homosexuality. I can only image the tortured existences people used to lead when it was so taboo and illegal if you were homosexual. You would think, though, that American television and humorous sitcoms would be a unifying force for American people. Although we all watch the same shows, the people up here where I live are very different than people in other places.
It’s a different society, a different culture, for the local people. One example would be, SALAD. Here, a SALAD is usually made from cooked pasta, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, and salt.
Forson: You’ve escaped social media until recently. I must imagine you are privy to the noise outside or does being a celebrated writer allow you to forgo the manic-panic, hyper sensitivity of today’s world?
Janowitz: It can be noisy here. Hunting season is a big deal. The people like to hunt deer and go on snow-mobiles and drive big trucks while listening to Country Western Music. Unlike the 1960’s, however, marijuana is socially acceptable. And there is, apparently, a big crystal meth problem. I don’t smoke marijuana. It makes me anxious. Nor have I tried crystal meth. It sounds horrible. Otherwise, things are fairly quiet.
Forson: How do you prioritize the activity of sitting down and writing?
Janowitz: I am really an expert in procrastinating. I could have a job in procrastination. Yet if you are a writer you can’t be waiting for inspiration. You have to get up and do it every day whether you think you have anything to say or not. It is an exercise, like exercising. It is a job.
If you get it together and write, say, a thousand words a day, at the end of a year you would have three hundred and sixty five thousand words. A few of them might be good, or a starting point, for a revision. And that is where the work comes in, during the revision process.
Forson: How did you feel about the emergence of female writers other than yourself during the 80’s?
Janowitz: I think any time a writer and his or her books gets attention it’s great. Not that a large percentage of Human Beings have ever been readers, but now there are more distractions and other pastimes apart from reading than ever before. Reading is so amazing. With a good book you are suddenly not in your own head but in the world of the book, yet you can put down the book and go about your own existence and then go on picking up the book again, re-enter that world as if you’ve never left it. It’s a phenomena I’ll never understand.
I wonder too if that part of the human brain that can turn twig-like shapes (called letters) into whole words that represent language and meaning will simply become extinct, a reverse Lamarckian evolution.
Forson: What was your reaction to Goldfinch?
Janowitz: I haven’t read it but I know it was very well received. And I know it was a book.
Right now I just don’t keep up with current fiction; there’s too much stuff written in the past that I haven’t yet read. Also, I like books with pictures and in particular, non-fiction.
Forson: Do you follow the current literary scene?
Janowitz: Nor do I keep up with the current literary scene – I’m too busy riding, writing and painting and reading, mostly non-fiction from earlier times or in particular true terrible adventures. I can’t afford, psychologically, to try to stay abreast of current writing.
Forson: Have you, Bret (Easton Ellis) and Jay (McInerny) been in touch over the years?
Janowitz: I knew Bret and Jay a little bit. We knew each other primarily because we were constantly mentioned together. Years ago I might see them at dinners or clubs. They had cute little derrieres and wore frisky outfits. In Jay’s case, as he would often explain, he was wearing a bespoke suit from a London tailor who had a shop on Bond Street. Probably he mentioned the name as well, but memory fails me.
In my opinion we were linked together because there were the three books by three authors that young people were buying and reading for fun, not because it was assigned to them in some college class; we were being read by a younger group who didn’t customarily read for pleasure. And these young people laughed and enjoyed themselves!
Forson: Do you care to reminisce about your nights at Nell’s?
Janowitz: Nell’s was a nightclub/restaurant and Nell was the proprietor. She sang and danced! This club was on 14th street, closer to 8th Avenue I think. Andy had a surprise party there, it was for Paige Powell. It was spoiled, though, because as we were walking in a friend of Paige’s said, “Happy Birthday Paige!” so she knew something was going on.
One thing I would like to say about nightclubs: I no longer wear high heels but when you do, they are very painful and it is hard to walk. And the bathrooms at Nell’s were downstairs. Now, I could no more think of navigating a steep flight of steps to go to the toilet in high heels than I could think of going to a nightclub for fun. WM