The reason for this is that Janet Malcolm is more naturally the describer than the described. It is nearly impossible to imagine the masterful interviewer chatting unguardedly into a tape recorder, and indeed she prefers not to imagine it. She has agreed to do the interview but only by e-mail: in this way she has politely refused the role of subject and reverted to the more comfortable role of writer. She will be writing her answers—and, to be honest, tinkering gently with the phrasing of some of my questions.
So the true setting of this interview is not the book-lined walls of her living room, where we sit having mint tea, but screens: Malcolm’s twenty-one-and-a-half-inch desktop Mac, with its worn white keyboard; my silver seventeen-inch MacBook, my iPad sometimes. The disadvantage of e-mail is that it seems to breed a kind of formality, but the advantage is the familiarity of being in touch with someone over time. For us, this particular style of communication had the reassuring old-fashioned quality of considered correspondence; it is like Malcolm herself—careful, thorough, a bit elusive.
Malcolm was born in Prague, in 1934, and immigrated to this country when she was five. Her family lived with relatives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for a year while her father, a psychiatrist and neurologist, studied for his medical boards, and then moved to Yorkville, in Manhattan. Malcolm attended the High School of Music and Art, and then went to the University of Michigan, where she began writing for the school paper, The Michigan Daily, and the humor magazine, The Gargoyle, which she later edited. In the years after college she moved to Washington with her husband, Donald Malcolm, and wrote occasional book reviews for The New Republic.
She and her husband moved to New York and, in 1963, had a daughter, Anne. That same year Malcolm’s work first appeared in The New Yorker, where her husband, who died in 1975, was the off-Broadway critic. She began writing in what was then considered the woman’s sphere: annual features on Christmas shopping and children’s books, and a monthly column on design, called “About the House.”
Later, Malcolm married her editor at The New Yorker, Gardner Botsford. She began to do the dense, idiosyncratic writing she is now known for when she quit smoking in 1978: she couldn’t write without cigarettes, so she began reporting a long New Yorker fact piece, on family therapy, called “The One-Way Mirror.” She set off for Philadelphia with a tape recorder—the old-fashioned kind, with tapes, which she uses to this day—and lined Mead composition notebooks with marbleized covers. By the time she finished the long period of reporting, she found she could finally write without smoking, and she had also found her form.
Her ten provocative books, including The Journalist and the Murderer, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, In the Freud Archives, and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, are simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold, highbrow, and controversial. Many people have pointed out that her writing, which is often called journalism, is in fact some other wholly original form of art, some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both. In one of the more colorful episodes of her long career, she was the defendant of a libel trial, brought by one of her subjects, Jeffrey Masson, in 1984; the courts ultimately found in her favor, in 1994, but the charges shadowed her for years, and both during the trial and afterward the journalistic community was not as supportive as one might have thought it would be.
In part this might be because Malcolm had already distanced herself from them. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote in the now-famous opening lines of The Journalist and the Murderer, and in much of her writing Malcolm delves into what she calls the “moral problem” of journalism. One of the most challenging or controversial elements of her work is her persistent and mesmerizing analysis of the relationship between the writer and her subject. (“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness,” she writes in The Silent Woman; and she exposes, over and over, the writer’s prejudices and flaws, including her own.) When The Journalist and the Murderer came out in 1990, it created a stir in the literary world; it antagonized, in other words, precisely those people it was meant to antagonize. But it is now taught to nearly every undergraduate studying journalism, and Malcolm’s fiery comment on the relationship between the journalist and her subject has been assimilated so completely into the larger culture that it has become a truism. Malcolm’s work, then, occupies that strange glittering territory between controversy and the establishment: she is both a grande dame of journalism, and still, somehow, its enfant terrible.
Malcolm is admired for the fierceness of her satire, for the elegance of her writing, for the innovations of her form. She writes, in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” an essay about the New York art world, "Perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss—which are most of the things in the world, the things of ‘good taste’ and fashion and consumerism, the things we see in stores and in one another’s houses. No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal."
No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm. Whether she is writing about biography or a trial or psychoanalysis or Gertrude Stein, her story is the construction of the story, and her influence is so vast that much of the writing world has begun to think in the charged, analytic terms of a Janet Malcolm passage. She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.
Personally, though, she exhibits none of the flamboyance of her prose. Over the course of the interview, Malcolm appears to lack entirely the writer’s natural exhibitionism, the writer’s desire to talk endlessly about herself. If at all possible she will elegantly deflect the conversation away from her journalism to journalism in general; she will often quote, elude, glide over my question, responding instead to something she is comfortable answering. She is, not at all surprisingly, the kind of person who thinks through her revelations, who crafts and shines them so that the self revealed is as graceful and polished as one of her pieces.
Malcolm herself is slight, with glasses and intense brown eyes, something like Harriet the Spy would look like if she had grown to the venerable age of seventy-six and the world had showered her with the success she deserved. Her ambience is controlled, restrained, watchful. You will not, no matter how hard you try, be able to measure the effect of your words on her, and you will never be able to tell, even remotely, how she is reacting to anything you say. Around her it is hard not to feel large, flashy, blowsy, theatrical, reckless. Even though I ostensibly am interviewing her, I am still nervous about what impression I am making on her, still riveted and consumed by the idea of the three penetrating sentences she could make of me should she so desire.
Later, she will write to me, "Before I try to answer your question, I want to talk about that moment in our meeting at my apartment last week, when I left the room to find a book and suggested that while I was away you might want to take notes about the living room for the descriptive opening of this interview. Earlier you had made the distinction between writers for whom the physical world is significant and writers for whom it scarcely exists, who live in the world of ideas. You are clearly one of the latter. You obediently took out a notebook, and gave me a rather stricken look, as if I had asked you to do something faintly embarrassing."
I opened the notebook and took out a pen, but I already know that a large part of what is going on in the room, between the journalist, say, and the murderer, won’t quite make it onto the page. —Katie Roiphe
INTERVIEWERI’ve often noticed how much work your physical descriptions do in your writing, how they make us feel we know and understand the subjects before they begin to speak, and how you impose your very singular interpretation in such an authoritative way that it feels organic, like anyone walking into a room couldn’t help but see it exactly as you do. So how would you describe your apartment if you were the journalist walking into your living room?
JANET MALCOLMMy living room has an oak-wood floor, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large ficus and large fern, a fireplace with a group of photographs and drawings over it, a glass-top coffee table with a bowl of dried pomegranates on it, and sofas and chairs covered in off-white linen. If I were a journalist walking into the room, I would immediately start composing a satiric portrait of the New York writer’s apartment with its standard tasteful objects (cat included) and general air of unrelenting Culture.
INTERVIEWERInteresting, given my own blind spots with visual detail. I would have mentioned the cat, and maybe the decorative French dishes, and the view of the park, but I wouldn’t have gone to satire. I guess if I were doing a close reading of the room I would have gotten “orderly and precise, carefully unpretentious, somehow perfect and comfortable.” I got the impression of a room where no uncivilized scenes occur (revealing, I guess, more about myself than the room).
MALCOLMYou underestimate your powers of description. I admire “carefully unpretentious.” That “carefully” has a nice sting. I’m not sure it’s fully merited. The cat deserves some of the credit for the look of shabby chic—the stuffing that is coming out of the sofas and armchairs is entirely his doing. Did you notice the place where I pinned a patch over one of the most viciously clawed places? But, seriously, your generous and appreciative words only confirm my sense of the difficulty of autobiographical writing. If I had said these things about my living room (“somehow perfect and comfortable”) I would have sounded conceited and complacent. The autobiographer works in a treacherous terrain. The journalist has a much safer job.
INTERVIEWERIt seems to me that for a journalist you use yourself, or the persona of “Janet Malcolm” anyway, more than most journalists. You use and analyze your own reaction to and relationship with many of your subjects, and often insert yourself into the drama. How is this “safer” than a more straightforward or autobiographical portrayal of self?
MALCOLMThis is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, and actually once wrote about—in the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer. Here’s what I said:
The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
It occurs to me now that the presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. Compared to this wise and good person the other characters in the story—even the “good” ones—pale. The radiant persona of Joseph Mitchell, the great master of the journalistic “I,” shines out of his works as perhaps no other journalist’s does. In the old days at The New Yorker, every nonfiction writer tried to write like him, and, of course, none of us came anywhere near to doing so. This whole subject may be a good deal more complicated than I made it seem in the afterword. For one thing, Superman is connected to Clark Kent in a rather fundamental, if curious, way.
INTERVIEWERI think that passage is lovely and convincing, but I wonder if that “I” as overreliable narrator is true of your journalism, or journalism in general. It seems to me that you very deliberately present yourself as something other than “the dispassionate observer.” You often give yourself (or the character of Janet Malcolm in your work) flaws and vanities, and interrogate your own motives and reactions as fiercely as you interrogate other people’s. I make no presumptions, of course, as to how close to you is the Janet Malcolm in your work—who envied Anne Stevenson at college, who is disappointed in Ingrid Sischy. But it does seem to me that the “I” in your work is very deliberately more Clark Kent than Superman.
MALCOLMYou’re right that “dispassionate observer” doesn’t properly describe the character I assume in my nonfiction writing—especially in the writing of recent years. When I first started doing long fact pieces, as they were called at The New Yorker, I modeled my “I” on the stock, civilized, and humane figure that was the New Yorker “I,” but as I went along, I began to tinker with her and make changes in her personality. Yes, I gave her flaws and vanities and, perhaps most significantly, strong opinions. I had her take sides. I was influenced by this thing that was in the air called deconstruction. The idea I took from it was precisely the idea that there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias. Edward Said’s Orientalism made a great impression on me. And yes, probably this did add to the character’s authority.
INTERVIEWERIs it possible that your construction of an “I,” and your method in general, is also influenced by psychoanalysis? You have chosen psychoanalysis as the subject of several of your books. How has it informed your voice and general approach?
MALCOLMAlthough psychoanalysis has influenced me personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing. This may be because writers learn from other writers, not from theories. But there are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life. Both pan the surface—yes, surface—for the gold of insight. The metaphor of depth—as in depth psychology—is wrong, as the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer helpfully pointed out. The unconscious is right there on the surface, as in “The Purloined Letter.” Journalism, with its mandate to notice small things, was always congenial to me. I might also have liked being an analyst. But I never would have gotten into medical school, because I couldn’t do math, so it wasn’t an option. I never went to journalism school, either. When I started doing journalism, a degree from a journalism school wasn’t considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky.
INTERVIEWERInteresting. I do wonder, though, if psychoanalysis might be somehow involved in your unearthing of the hidden aggressions involved in the writing process. One of the most striking elements of your work is the preoccupation with the relationship between the writer and her subject. In a recent New Yorker piece, you say of journalism that “malice remains its animating impulse.” This type of motive searching seems to me to be somehow connected to the habits of mind we associate with psychoanalysis.
MALCOLMI think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America. In Henry James’s satiric novel The Reverberator, a wonderful rascally journalist named George M. Flack appears. I am only one of many contributors to this critique. I am also not the only journalist contributor. Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for instance, have written on the subject. Of course, being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.
INTERVIEWERI wonder if you are subtly separating yourself from the herd of journalists who don’t examine or reflect on the matter, as Didion does with that line that suggests that talking to journalists runs counter to one’s best interests. When you admit to your rascality, it certainly creates the impression that you are being honest in a way that readers are not accustomed to in their journalists and critics.
MALCOLMWhen I wrote The Journalist and the Murderer, I guess I was (not all that subtly) separating myself from the herd of journalists, and a lot of them got mad at me for breaking ranks. There was something deeply irritating about this woman who set herself up as being more honest and clear-sighted than anyone else. My analysis of journalistic betrayal was seen as a betrayal of journalism itself as well as a piece of royal chutzpah. Today, my critique seems obvious, even banal. No one argues with it, and, yes, it has degenerated—as critiques do—into a sort of lame excuse.
INTERVIEWERMuch of your work concerns court cases and trials. Can you explain what it is about legal proceedings that interests you, and in what particular ways they lend themselves to your kind of writing?
MALCOLMTrials offer exceptional opportunities for the exercise of journalistic heartlessness. The antagonists in trials lend themselves to the kind of cold scrutiny that few people can withstand. Trial transcripts are cruel documents. The court stenographer dutifully records everything she hears and what appears on the page often reads like something from the theater of the absurd. The court scenes in The Journalist and the Murderer and The Crime of Sheila McGough are based entirely on transcripts. I wrote about the trials after they were over. It is only in my new book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, that I wrote about a trial I actually attended. But I also relied heavily on the transcript. One of the most interesting parts of a trial are the sotto voce sidebars or bench conferences in which the attorneys and judge take off the masks they have put on for the jury and spectators. These conferences are recorded by the court stenographer and appear in the transcript, to which they often contribute a note of high comedy.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever read thrillers? Courtroom dramas? Mysteries?
MALCOLMYour question brings to mind Edmund Wilson’s essay with the wonderful title “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” and I have just reread it. It’s in the collection Classics and Commercials. Wilson despised detective fiction. He had written a previous put-down of the genre called “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” which “brought me letters of protest in a volume and of a passionate earnestness which had hardly been elicited even by my occasional criticisms of the Soviet Union.” (Wilson was writing in 1945.) The protesting letter writers told him he had not read the right detective novels, so he went and read Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham and Raymond Chandler and others—who bored and repelled him even more than Rex Stout and Agatha Christie had. “The reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles,” he wrote. I first read Wilson in the fifties and took his pronouncements very much to heart, as many other writers-to-be of my generation did. He was (and remains) a writer of tremendous authority. After reading “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” it was years before it occurred to me to determine the answer for myself. I eventually came to like a number of the writers he hated, though his dim view of Dorothy Sayers stuck.
INTERVIEWERI am curious which writers you came to like that he hated. Many critics have commented on the thriller-like pacing or detective-story suspense of your journalism. You manage to infuse a sort of page-turning energy into subjects that might otherwise be dry or academic, like the Freud archives or biography writing. Is there anything you have consciously taken from mysteries or thrillers, in terms of pacing, or is there some other way to account for this quality in your work? Is there any other fiction that influences your journalism? What novels do you like to read?
MALCOLMI am puzzling about how to answer your question. I can’t think of anything I have consciously taken from mysteries and thrillers, but maybe I have been influenced unconsciously. The mystery writers that Wilson hated that I came to like were Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie. What novels do I like to read? I love the great nineteenth-century English, American, and Russian novels and short stories. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Trollope, Dickens, James, Hawthorne, Melville, Tolstoy, and Chekhov are among my favorites. Among twentieth-century novelists and short-story writers, there are Proust, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Updike, Roth, and Alice Munro. I can’t imagine a nonfiction writer who wasn’t influenced by the fiction he or she had read. But the “thriller-like pacing” you find in my writing may come more from my own beat than from thrillers. I walk fast and am impatient. I get bored easily—no less with my own ideas than with those of others. Writing for me is a process of constantly throwing out stuff that doesn’t seem interesting enough. I grew up in a family of big interrupters.
INTERVIEWERYour journalism has the rich descriptions and characterizations that we associate with fiction, especially nineteenth-century fiction, as well as the storytelling qualities of a novel. In your wonderful piece on Vanessa Bell in The New Yorker, you write that you have conveniently forgotten that you are not writing a novel. Have you ever written fiction?
MALCOLMI tried writing fiction in high school and college, the way bookish kids did then and perhaps still do. In college—the University of Michigan—I took a creative-writing course with the novelist Allan Seager, who gave me a C for the term. It was mortifying but probably helpful. I never tried to write fiction again. A kinder teacher might have permitted me to delude myself about my abilities as a short-story writer. Seager’s brutal frankness probably spared me a lot of hopeless effort. I can report, but I cannot invent. What nonfiction writers take from novelists and short-story writers (as well as from other nonfiction writers) are the devices of narration. Made-up and true stories are narrated in the same way. There’s an art to it. But I’m not all that conscious of what I am doing as I do it. I just know that something has to be done to turn my notes into a readable text. This something is what you teach, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWERThis is what I teach, and that’s why I am a little shocked by the story about the fiction class. But I am interested in your use of the phrase “brutal frankness” for this probably misguided teacher. It seems to me that you use that phrase admiringly, and that you admire a kind of frankness that you also perceive as brutal. Am I right? And can you explain your relation to that particular mode of perception?
MALCOLMThat is such an interesting observation. It never occurred to me that “brutal frankness” was such a charged phrase. Of course it is. But it takes someone of your generation to look at it askance. At the time of Allan Seager’s C—the early fifties—a male-chauvinist teacher like Seager (he clearly preferred the boys in the class) was nothing unusual. I came to feminism late. Women who came of age at the time that I did developed aggressive ways to attract the notice of the superior males. The habit of attention getting stays with you. This is just a stab at trying to answer your question, but perhaps it makes sense? Here is something else: during my four years of college I didn’t study with a single woman professor. There weren’t any, as far as I know.
INTERVIEWERTell me more about this attention-getting habit. It’s not a hundred percent clear to me what you mean.
MALCOLMIt’s not a hundred percent clear to me, either. In that piece about Vanessa Bell you mentioned earlier, I quote a young Virginia Woolf on the subject of her gay friends. What she called “the society of buggers” has “many advantages—if you are a woman,” she wrote in a memoir called Old Bloomsbury. “It is simple, it is honest, it makes one feel . . . in some respects at one’s ease.” But “it has this drawback—with buggers one cannot, as nurses say, show off. Something is always suppressed, held down. Yet this showing off, which is not copulating, necessarily, nor altogether being in love, is one of the great delights, one of the chief necessities of life.” Showing off to straight men remained a delight and necessity to women of my generation. Those of us who wrote, wrote for men and showed off to them. Our writing had a certain note. I’m not sure I can describe it, but I can hear it. You have led us into deep waters. This is a complex and murky subject. Perhaps we can cut through the haze together.
INTERVIEWERI wonder if part of that note you are talking about is a kind of dazzling sharpness. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Rebecca West wielded a pen as brilliantly as he and “much more savagely,” and H. G. Wells said that she “wrote like God.” Along those same lines, Elizabeth Hardwick writes about how Mary McCarthy is not constrained by feminine “niceness.” Is that fierceness in both West and McCarthy, and even, say, Susan Sontag, part of what you mean by that “showing off” and that “certain note”? Is there something about being a woman writer in a very male field that leads to a kind of brilliant aggression on the page?
MALCOLMThe aggression is coupled with flirtation. That way you get the guys to say you write like God. Maybe we should move on to a new subject.
INTERVIEWERHow about editing? Have you had editors you liked working with? Can you tell me about how you edit your own work, and the welcome or unwelcome editing from the outside world?
MALCOLMI’m so glad you’ve asked this question, because it allows me to correct an omission. When I answered your question about the pace of my writing I should have gone on to mention someone with an even shorter attention span than my own, namely, my husband, the late Gardner Botsford, who was my editor at The New Yorker. By way of answering your question about editing, let me quote some things I said about Gardner at his memorial service in 2005:
He hated it when people went on and on. Much of his work as an editor was devoted to the elimination of superfluous words—often of superfluous paragraphs—sometimes even of superfluous pages . . .
He did many other things as well—his taste, his ear for language, his passion for clarity—were apparent in each of his editorial interventions. I remember the first time I was edited by him. I read the page proof that was the result of the many pencil marks he had made on my manuscript, and I felt the kind of pleasure one feels when coming upon a wonderful painting or on hearing a gorgeous aria. In the most dazzlingly deft way, without in any way changing its meaning, Gardner had transformed bumpy writing into polished prose. Over the years, I became more blasé about his editing, as one does about indoor plumbing, but I treasure the memory of my first encounter with its almost uncanny delicacy and potency. A. J. Liebling put it most bluntly and best when he said to Gardner—whose editing he had at first stubbornly resisted and finally gratefully accepted—“you make me sound like a real writer.”
Manuscripts have been preserved with Gardner’s markings on them, and on first sight it looks as if someone had taken an axe to a helpless piece of writing. But on closer scrutiny, you see the tact with which each intervention was made. Gardner always said that an editor’s first obligation was to the reader, but he had a remarkable feeling for every writer’s form of expression, so that his changes on behalf of the reader always read as if the writer rather than some crass interloper were making them. If Gardner were here, I don’t think he would disagree with what I have said, but chances are he would be looking at his watch.
INTERVIEWERI think that is the most romantic or lovely account of editing I have ever encountered. Is it difficult to write without him? I know with some of my great editors, I sometimes think of what they would say in my head as I am writing. Do you have that relationship with his editing?
MALCOLMYes, I do. When Gardner was alive I wrote more sloppily than I do today; I knew he would be there to clean up after me. Now I try to pick up after myself as I go along. But I am hardly without help. I have a brilliant editor at The New Yorker, Ann Goldstein, who has the ear for language and delicate pencil that Gardner had.
I depend on her for what I depended on Gardner for: she puts the same shine on sentences that he did. Where Gardner is irreplaceable—where Ann and I can only try to equal him—is in his fearless cutting and rearranging. One writer at The New Yorker, who was too in love with every word he wrote to get the point of Gardner’s editing, called him “The Ripper.” I would get Gardner’s point most of the time, though here and there—rightly or wrongly—I disagreed with him, but not often.
INTERVIEWERCould you could say a bit about the mechanics of your writing process? Do you work regular hours or in bursts of inspiration? Do you edit yourself? Do you approach writing in a workmanlike way? Are you are a cabinetmaker making a cabinet, or is there more drama or torment?
MALCOLMI’m definitely more a cabinetmaker than a tormented artist. Not that writing comes easy. I don’t know about cabinetmakers, but I often get stuck. Then I get sleepy and have to lie down. Or I make myself leave the house—walking sometimes produces a solution. The problem is usually one of logic or point of view. I keep regular morning hours. The first hour is the most productive one. The two or three others are less so—they can even be completely fruitless. I sometimes work in the afternoon as well, but the morning is the obligatory work time. As for the “mechanics” of composition, all I can say about them is that the machinery works slowly and erratically and I am always a little nervous about it, though by now I’m pretty used to it. I guess I trust it more.
As for self-editing: when I turn in a piece, I expect that there will be suggestions for changes, and I am not bad at using these suggestions to improve the text. But I need the hint that something isn’t right.
INTERVIEWERAre there any of your books that you found harder to write than the others?
MALCOLMI found the world of The Crime of Sheila McGough harder to enter than those of any other of my other books. It was the world of business fraud. It was a great struggle for me to grasp the intricacies of the fraud I was writing about. I resented studying such a stupid subject. I felt I could have learned German or flamenco dancing in the time I spent trying to get a handle on the crooked business deals of a con man named Bob Bailes. Sheila McGough was his lawyer and his victim, in the sense that she was accused and convicted of being his coconspirator. In fact she was just a strangely overzealous advocate. She was an innocent Catholic girl who lived with her aged parents and didn’t have a dishonest bone in her body. But a skillful prosecutor was able to persuade the jury of her guilt. The book was the least successful of my books. I have many boxfuls of it in my basement. I happen to like it a lot—perhaps the way you like the runt of the litter. But it may be that readers didn’t want to be in this world, either. I may not have succeeded in getting the tedium out of it. Then again, I may have.
INTERVIEWERWhich of your books, in contrast, came the most naturally?
MALCOLMI don’t recall having any special trouble with my latest book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. But—to quote the title of Nora Ephron’s new book—I remember nothing.
INTERVIEWERIn Iphigenia in Forest Hills, it seems that the logic of the plot is leading to the idea that Mazoltuv Borukhova received an unfair trial, and might be innocent, and yet at the end you don’t seem to think she is innocent. Did you think she was innocent at any point, or did you want her to be innocent? She’s altogether a fascinating character, at the center of the book. Can you talk a little bit about how you felt about her as you were writing?
MALCOLMSomewhere in the book I write that “Borukhova’s otherness was her defining characteristic.” As I went along I felt I understood her less and less. She seemed more and more alien, as did her sisters and mother. I had hoped to interview her but was never able to. She was like a wild animal who couldn’t be lured into the have-a-heart trap. Both her defense lawyer and her appeals lawyer held out the possibility of an interview, but it never happened. So there is a kind of hole in the center of the book. She becomes who you imagine she is. The prosecutor led the jurors to imagine her as a thoroughly bad person. The defense lawyer did not succeed in substituting a different characterization. Her appearance on the stand only permitted the prosecutor to flesh out his portrait of her as an evil liar. His was a heartlessly lethal trap.
INTERVIEWERI certainly see what you mean that she is a cipher who becomes whoever you imagine her to be (not unlike Sylvia Plath in The Silent Woman). But it seems from your language here that you have some sympathy for her. I guess my question is, what would you have done if you were on the jury? And did you feel some sympathy for her otherness, for her being, as you say—and it definitely came across in the book—an animal in a trap?
MALCOLMI felt great sympathy for her as a mother. But I was puzzled by her willingness to accept the judge’s terrible ruling that her child go live with the father she feared. In her situation, I would have defied the order. I would have taken my child and gone to live in another state or country under an assumed name. I think I would have. None of us knows for sure what we are capable of, how we will behave when tested.
What would I have done if I had been on the jury? I think I would have voted for acquittal. The ninety telephone calls connected Borukhova to Mallayev—who does seem to have done it—but did not conclusively prove that she had hired him to kill her husband. It looked as if she had, but is that enough? The prosecutor evidently thought it wasn’t—that to get his conviction he needed to blacken her character. Verdicts are not reached in a state of detachment. My interviews with two of the jurors showed how much their verdict was determined by their dislike of her and their wish to find her guilty.
INTERVIEWERIn the book you attribute at least some of Borukhova’s mysterious “otherness” to her being part of an immigrant community and being new to the system, so to speak. Obviously you are from a very different world, but I wonder whether coming to this country as a child gave you any sense of otherness, or if you think that experience, of having to take in new systems, in any way affected your identity as a writer.
MALCOLMI came here at the age of five and knew no English. Many of the memories I have of the time are about my confusions and misperceptions in a kindergarten in Brooklyn to which my parents had casually and probably unwisely sent me. For example, there was a class trip from which I was excluded because I hadn’t grasped in time that I was supposed to bring money from home in order to go on it. Another memory is of the kindergarten teacher saying, “Good-bye, children,” at the end of the day, and my envy of the girl whose name I assumed to be Children. It was my secret hope that someday the teacher would say, “Good-bye, Janet.” I have never connected these pathetic struggles with a language I didn’t know to later struggles with the language I tried and try not to disgrace myself in as a professional writer, but there may be a connection after all. Your question gives me much to think about.
INTERVIEWERTo return, for a moment, to what you were saying about Borukhova as a mother: did you find having a child a conflict with your writing? It may be telling that I am keeping a list, but I’ve noticed that all of the women writers I most admire have had no children, or at the most, only one. I wonder if you ever felt a pull between ambition and the child, if the ruthlessness of the writer was ever in conflict with the instincts of the mother?
MALCOLMI have indeed felt the pull between the ruthlessness of the writer and the instincts of the mother. But this may be too deep a subject for an e-mail exchange on the art of nonfiction. Probably the place to discuss our struggles with the art of mothering is a dark bar.
INTERVIEWERYou’re probably right. I notice in your answers to my questions a kind of collage element. You will often paste in long quotations, and that is also true of your nonfiction and criticism. Can you explain your attraction to this technique?
MALCOLMWell, the most obvious attraction of quotation is that it gives you a little vacation from writing—the other person is doing the work. All you have to do is type. But there is a reason beyond sloth for my liking of quotation at length. It permits you to show the thing itself rather than the pale, and never quite right, simulacrum that paraphrase is. For this reason I prefer books of letters to biographies. I am tempted to quote myself on this subject—I wrote about it in the Vanessa Bell piece we talked about earlier—but you have made me feel self-conscious, maybe even a little guilty, about this practice, so I will resist the impulse.
INTERVIEWERCan you tell me about your interviewing style? How do you elicit stories from your subjects, and what have you observed over the years about interviewing in general, and about how people respond to journalists’ questions?
MALCOLMI wrote about this in The Journalist and the Murderer. A Newsday reporter named Bob Keeler had given me a book containing the transcripts of his interviews with Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald, prefaced by lists of the questions he planned to ask.
When I got home, I leafed through the book and put it aside. I had not asked for it, and I felt there was something almost illicit about having it in my possession. To read Keeler’s interviews would be like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation, and to use anything from them would be like stealing. Above all—and cutting much deeper than any concern about eavesdropping and stealing—was the affront to my pride. An interview, after all, is only as good as the journalist who conducts it, and I felt—to put it bluntly—that Keeler, with his prepared questions and his newspaper reporter’s directness, would not get from his subjects the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique.
When I finally read Keeler’s transcripts, however, I was in for a surprise and an illumination. MacDonald and McGinniss had said exactly the same things to the unsubtle Keeler that they had said to me. It hadn’t made the slightest difference that Keeler had read from a list of prepared questions and I had acted as if I were passing the time of day. From Keeler’s blue book I learned the same truth about subjects that the analyst learns about patients: they will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it, and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of the listener; just as (“good enough”) analysts are interchangeable, so are journalists.
As you must be thinking, I am reverting to my habit of self-quotation—and perhaps enacting the “truth” of the passage? I put in the question mark, because I’m suddenly not all that sure about any of this. After my book came out, several readers wrote and asked, “What is the Japanese technique?” Perhaps I underestimated its power. Some part of your persona is surely hovering over this interview and affecting if not shaping my answers.
INTERVIEWERLet me ask you a question you might think is unrelated. I love the passage in BUtterfield 8 where John O’Hara writes that Gloria’s outgoing, butterflyish adult personality is a compensation for being a shy child. Were you a shy child?
MALCOLMYes, I was. But you’ve met me. Do I really strike you as outgoing and butterflyish?
INTERVIEWERWell, no. But the formalized social aggression of the reporter does seem in its own way a manifestation of “outgoing.” I also wonder: do you carry your journalist’s scrutiny and habits into normal social life, say, at a party or a lunch, or are they confined to the interview situation?
MALCOLMI think I’m pretty much the same all the time. I don’t talk a lot and I look as if I’m interested in what people are saying. Of course, this isn’t always the case. I like to use a tape recorder when I interview—mainly to capture the interviewee’s characteristic habits of speech, but also because it allows me to let my mind wander and later recover the interesting things he or she may have said. At lunches and parties there is no second chance for the daydreamer.
INTERVIEWERYou write in The Silent Woman that the subject and the interviewer “are always being distracted and seduced by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting.” Do you feel that distraction and seduction as an interviewer, or have you moved beyond that?
MALCOLMOne day last year during Passover I spent a lot of time at the Whole Foods store trying to decide which of their packaged kosher cookies to bring to the house of the Bukharan Jewish family I was interviewing that night. I wanted to bring something nice and none of the cookies looked great, but there was nothing else suitable. When I got home, I examined the packages of cookies and thought of going back and exchanging the chocolate bark, which looked particularly unappetizing, for more macaroons. Then I thought that maybe it would be better—more “professional”—not to bring anything. I consulted a friend, who said decisively, “You can’t visit a Jewish family and not bring anything.” So I brought the cookies to the interview. Throughout the evening I was distracted by the question of whether the mother of the house would open the packages and pass around the cookies.
I think that one never completely moves beyond the pull of the personal in any human encounter. But I think that when journalists remember that the interview is a special sort of encounter, and withhold some of their natural friendliness, they don’t lose anything by it. The subject doesn’t notice. He wants to tell his story. And when the journalist retells the story in a way the subject cannot anticipate, he doesn’t feel like such a rat.
INTERVIEWERCan you analyze a little the response in the world of writers and journalists to the libel trial that was brought against you and The New Yorker by Jeffrey Masson? It seems to me surprising that the larger community didn’t rally to support you in a more emphatic way. You wrote later that you found the notebook that contained the handwritten version of some of the quotations he claimed you fabricated, in your country house, while your granddaughter was playing near a bookcase. I still occasionally hear people saying they don’t believe you found the notebook, or who believe there was no libel but have some vague sense there was some tricky journalistic wrongdoing. Why do you think people, especially journalists, reacted the way they did?
MALCOLMWhen I wrote The Journalist and the Murderer, I did so in the, as it proved, foolish belief that Jeffrey Masson’s lawsuit against me and The New Yorker—which had been dismissed by a California court—was permanently over. I should have known, having written his portrait, that Masson wouldn’t give up so easily. He appealed, and soon after the two-part New Yorker article came out as a book he succeeded in overturning the decision and getting his day in court. The journalistic community, which (as I noted earlier) was irritated with me for my remarks about journalism, was naturally delighted by this turn of events. Who could blame it? Who hasn’t felt pleasure in the fall of the self-styled mighty? That it was a New Yorker writer who was being dragged through the mud only added to the wicked joy. At that time, the magazine was still wrapped in a fluffy cocoon of moral superiority that really got up the noses of people who worked at other publications. I didn’t help myself by behaving the way writers at The New Yorker thought they ought to behave when approached by the press: like little replicas of the publicity-phobic William Shawn. So instead of defending myself against the false accusations Masson made in interview after interview, I maintained my ridiculous silence. Eventually I was able to convince a jury that I was telling the truth and had not made anything up. But by refusing to tell my side of the story to the press, by acting as if I didn’t have to tell my side of the story, since who could doubt its truth, I lost in the court of public opinion.
Another mistake I made was to take the lesson of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce to heart and pay as little attention as possible to Masson’s lawsuit; I thought, Let the lawyers handle it and I will live my life and do my work and not end up like those miserable court-obsessed wretches in Bleak House. But this was the wrong lesson. Years later I realized that the lawyers had mishandled the case. They had got it dismissed—through a legal mechanism called summary judgment—on grounds that I would never have consented to if I had been paying attention. The judge granted my lawyer’s plea that the three quotations at issue (for which I had lost my handwritten notes) were so similar to quotations that were on tape that even if they had been made up, Masson still didn’t have a case. This is completely wrong! (As the Supreme Court rightly saw.) Similar is not same. In the press, the “even if” got translated into a “that is so”—into an admission of guilt. I am not surprised to hear that there are people who still think I did something wrong.
One final thought about the lawsuit. It was not pleasant to be sued and it was painful to be pilloried by my fellow journalists, but it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed. It wasn’t life threatening, and it was deeply interesting. It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?