By KOFI FORSON, MAY 2016
The lasting impression Tama Janowitz has left on the literary and art scene is due partly to her grace and humility, that natural sense and attraction for whimsy, visible in her style. The success of Slaves of New York can be attributed to the wit and humor with which she captured the 80’s real estate and art scene, a true to life account experienced by many people who lived it. Her depictions of gender, identity and cultural imperialism are basis for what is almost expected in current trends on social media.
Harper Collins is due to publish her memoir Scream in August.
Kofi Forson: When did your stories in Spin and The New Yorker take off? Were you living off the success of that before Slaves or did the book Slaves of New York officially signify your arrival?
Tama Janowitz: It was so amazing to be accepted by The New Yorker. It had never been my dream but it was a “dream come true.” Mr. Shawn, wow! My editor, Gwyneth Cravens! It was the first time my work found a wider audience. I had one book published, American Dad, in 1982 or 83. But it only sold a few thousand copies. Then, for a while – after publication in The New Yorker, after my short story collection Slaves of New York was published – I became very famous. It was interesting to be famous and some aspects of it were a lot of fun. I can’t deny that. But it was also very humiliating.
KF: You’ve admitted to preferring the beat of the art scene to the literary world that artists were more interesting in how they carried on. When you became a fixture at the gallery openings who were some of the known artists you hung around? Or at least who catapulted to fame?
TJ: Let me think. There were many artists in that scene. Hanging around Andy Warhol at that time of his life (the last few years) was great. He was great.
KF: What brought you and Andy Warhol together? How would you describe your friendship?
TJ: Andy really embraced life. He LOVED going out – to the latest restaurants, nightclubs, openings, movies, theater, ballet. People made a fuss over him wherever he went; on the other hand, a lot of people were hostile toward him. And he was considered, in those last years, a "commercial" artist, doing ads, painting portraits for money and an out-of-date pop artist. New York City is brutally harsh on its successes until they have died. He had one museum retrospective in his life and that was early on. He didn’t have a New York gallery. Art critics – Robert Hughes, Hilton Kramer – dismissed his work. To me he captured the images of his time, as Norman Rockwell also did, but Andy’s time was of manufactured objects, what ordinary people would see in a supermarket, endless rows of soup cans or soda bottles; what ordinary people would see in newspapers and tabloids and magazines of pop stars, murders, headline stories, celebrities – and he transmogrified the mundane into statements about the world we were inhabiting. His imagery is both heightened, flattened and joyfully celebrated.
KF: A lot of what you wrote about from the mystification and demystification of the persona, what is known on the streets as “the hustle,” gender identity, feminism, racism, capitalism and cultural imperialism have all been modernized within the milieu of the internet and social media.
Do you embrace this new world of instant gratification and immediacy? How are you connected, if you can pardon my use of the word?
TJ: I’m not connected. I wrote The Male Cross Dresser Support Group about gender and identity back in the late 1980’s yet the reviewers said, “Gender issues are antiquated and nobody cares about the dated topic of transsexualism and drag and cross-dressing.” THEY IS US, about capitalism and imperialism and terrorism was written in 2009 and it was a science-fiction/dystopian novel but it was never published in this country. My agent at that time could not find anyone to publish it. Finally I placed it myself and it ended up being published by HarperCollins U.K.
KF: You come from playwriting and influence from the works of Henry James, Edith Wharton and Vladimir Nabakov. But you have attributed your inspiration from comic strips and television.
Was the set up always to look for humor or are there holes in the American Dream?
TJ: Humor’s tricky. There is only a limited number of people who have YOUR sense of humor. But everybody ‘gets’ sorrow and tragedy, that’s universal. Humor is restricted. Example: I did not, do not and never did find Howard Stern funny. Many did. But not me.
So, a reader is left with a blank field if faced with jokes – or entertaining writers such as John Barthes or David Foster Wallace with cute jokes, if he or she doesn’t think their work amusing.
KF: Do you feel Ivory/Merchant were true to the spirit of the book Slaves of New York?
TJ: Interestingly, although the movie of Slaves of New York was trashed – really violently – by the critics, it has now become a Queer Classic. It’s been showing all over the country in art houses to sold-out theaters. The audience has apparently memorized lines from the movie and shouts them out loud.
KF: What was your experience working on the film?
TJ: I had so much fun! Jim and Ismail were so welcoming and let me sit in during casting auditions and hang around the set. I got to go with them to the Beverly Hills Hotel and watch deranged actors come in to audition. It took me years to get over the wonderful feeling of being a participatory member of a group, and shut back down to the isolation of writing a book, which is a solitary pursuit.
KF: Who would play you in a movie version of Scream?
TJ: I would like to be played by someone achingly beautiful, with large limpid eyes and a certain insouciant intelligence.
The race, age, and gender of the actor would not be important. But, this person would grow so attached to me they would often insist on my writing screenplays for them for vast sums, as well as doing small acting parts in their productions, and flying with him or her in their private plane to various remote sets during future movie shootings, where I could ride local horses.
I’m an easy keeper. WM