John Sedgwick has written three works of non-fiction: Night Visions: Confessions of Gil Lewis, Private Eye; Rich Kids: Young Heirs and Heiresses: How They Love and Hate Their Money; and The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year In The Life Of America’s Oldest Zoo. He has penned two novels: The Dark House and the recently published The Education of Mrs. Bemis. He also writes for The Atlantic, Worth and other magazines and is writer-at-large for GQ. John Sedgwick and his family live in Newton, Massachusetts.
The Education of Mrs. Bemis is the story of a dowager Boston Brahmin and the young, inexperienced psychiatrist in whose care she is entrusted. The story alternates between the Dr. Alice Matthews and Mrs. Madeline Bemis and flashes from past to present as it delves into her secrets and presents both the process and the consequences of her treatment for both patient and doctor. Sedgwick, who is himself the member of a distinguished Massachusetts family, brings his familiarity with upper-crust society to bear on setting the scenes and depicting class issues in this wide-ranging novel.
Robert Birnbaum: When I spoke to Globe columnist Alex Beam he said something about fiction being the senior service. Most of the time you practice journalism. What draws you to writing fiction?
John Sedgwick: I agree with Alex. I always regarded it as the greater challenge. When you are in college it’s fiction that you read in English, as an English major. So that the novelists become your heroes and they set the standard for real writing. Journalism always seemed to me to be partial and limited. The difficulty for me writing book-length non-fiction and finding book length non-fiction topics was that the stories never really conformed to what I thought would be a proper novel. The themes got submerged; the plot went every which way. The characters didn’t really come to life even though they were real. I found that it was frustrating to me to find the good stories and also to get access to the good stories in journalism. Whereas in novels, of course, you create the good stories and you manage the plot and decide on the characters and have everything under your control. Beyond that there is the sheer practical matter—somehow I have gotten in my older years (I’m not that old I quickly emphasize) a reluctance to leave my house. One of the great things about writing novels is you don’t have to leave your house. You write whenever you want, it’s always there waiting for you and you don’t have to make a million phone calls to find out some little thing that you might not actually use.
RB: You said something like, “You can’t get access to certain stories.” You can’t embellish a character. What are you constrained by?
JS: Certainly in writing for magazines, which I do a lot, you are. Just for space reasons. Also every magazine has its own agenda and its own attitude and style. You really have to conform to that. That’s why the name of the magazine is on the cover in big letters and your name is not. Yeah, you are compromised in that way. Even when you are writing a full-length book and there is room to roam with the characters and with the story, I often found myself frustrated that there wasn’t that extra turn to the tale that would have made it really interesting. Instead, it was bit of what you expect. Of course, in journalism you can dig deeper and find that unusual little pocket of information that brings it all to life. Sometimes, it’s simply not there.
RB: I see what you are saying. Yet, I think that the stories that come out of the world of journalism have gotten better. The best example of that for me is a book the David McClintock wrote called Swordfish about a DEA sting that landed Pablo Escobar. It’s an exciting story with full-blooded characters and unusual plot twists. Also, what has been called speculative non-fiction has provided greater freedom to writers. Do you see that at all?
JS: There is also speculative fiction as well as on non-fiction. I did a story on the writing class at MIT. One of the women in the group was engaged in “speculative fiction.”
RB: Didn’t that used to be called “science fiction”?
JS: Yes, it goes back to the New Journalism of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. When Tom Wolfe switched over to fiction he issued his famous pronunciamento about how fiction should be written. There is a lot to say for actually getting out there and smelling it. In The Education of Mrs. Bemis, I did, indeed, get out there. Perhaps, a little closer than I wanted to. There is no reason why novelists—I made a little joke about not leaving my house—can’t leave the house just as non-fiction writers do. The book by McClintock sounds like one of those properties that it is very difficult to get access to and also to win the trust of all sides and to spend the time to fully get that story. It sounds like a tremendous work of non-fiction and also a lot of work. Basically, I find that intimidating. I did spend my time trailing around with a private eye when I was younger and got into some of that thorny stuff. I befriended transsexuals and informants and people who played both sides of the street. I found it to be personally enlightening; also, it made for a crackerjack story. My difficulty in non-fiction is that you have to get out there enough to know where these stories are and to penetrate that world enough to get access. That was difficult for me up here in Boston. You need to live in New York or LA and be there more. So I think there is a geographical constraint there. My subject as time has gone on, has become Boston. Particularly the upper-class Boston that I am familiar with from my youth and that I have dropped out of now that I am a writer. But it’s still all in my head. That’s the subject I am most comfortable with. Any other writing that I do is casting against type. Every writer eventually finds his realm.
RB: Looking back, what are your feelings about your Rich Kids and Zoo books?
JS: I love those books, particularly the zoo book. The zoo book I thought of as training for fiction. It had a lot of elements that fiction requires. It had a wonderful setting: a Victorian zoo, the first zoo in the country, the Philadelphia Zoo. Also, these really lively devoted, optimistic characters, the veterinarians, the keepers, particularly the keepers of the elephants [whose job I found to be] one of the great challenges of mankind. To try to master the elephants, who will not be mastered and who will crush you if they disagree with you, which they are inclined to do. In fact, the great threat to a keeper, to someone the elephants really didn’t like was the squeeze play. The animals would lure someone between them and then squeeze together. It’s an experience that no keeper will forget and in fact, not often survive. You have to be constantly on your guard. That little stick, the anka, that the keepers have as their only weapon is all bark no bite. It just pricks them a little bit and is only as strong as the character of the person wielding it, and that character is something the elephants are quick to discern.
RB: Was that your first book?
JS: It was my third book. The Philadelphia Zoo book had a lot of the elements of fiction.
RB: Because it was a book later in the sequence of your writing, were you intending to employ fictional narrative techniques?
JS: There was a lot of alternating plot lines and the characters because I could really stay with them they developed over time. It was written by season starting in the summer and going through the following spring. You got to see time unfold at the zoo and see the camel’s hair grow and see the zoo itself grow. They were building a primate center at the time and it was complete by the time I was done. That book was a warm-up for fiction and it made me think I should do the real thing.
RB: If you had your choice and were free to do whatever you wanted, would you write only fiction?
JS: I think I would, although there are hazards to the trade that I wasn’t aware of when I started. While it’s very comfortable and cozy just to worm into your house and stay there writing, it proves to be an unhealthy way to live. It’s also not good for your work. You have to get out there. You have to meet people; you have to be stimulated by other ideas. I became kind of a workaholic during the period I wrote this novel. I could write this on the side, or in spare moments during the day so that I was writing a lot of non-fiction and it meant that I was writing a lot and not getting out. That proved to be perilous for me. I have since strived to get more balance in my life.
RB: What do you mean by getting out? Going for walks? Socializing?
JS: Going out to see people. It turned out that some of the articles I was writing were local, so I wasn’t traveling very much. It got to be quite extreme, and I vowed to cut back, to have a better pace. Hemingway used to write in the morning and then go get blasted in the afternoon.
RB: Why did you write The Education of Mrs. Bemis?
JS: It stems from a tragic incident in my life. When I placed my mother in McLean Hospital for a serious depression that occurred about three years ago. At the time I was unaware of how much it affected me emotionally. All I could think, rather like the zoo experience, that this was an extraordinary setting for a novel. I recently read a book by Patrick McGrath called Asylum, which is a terrific book. McLean isn’t nearly so gothic as his asylum but it’s just as fully atmospheric. I was really struck by the grand old buildings that were boarded up. The place seemed to be thick with emotion of various kinds, some of it obviously over the top and others so suppressed you would hardly even notice. It was a strange thing and I guess this is something that happens to writers, it all becomes material, in short order. Even this distressing event in my life, at the time, I could only view as a great scene. So when I was done with The Dark House I really wanted to write a book that stemmed from that scene and to use that place. Only when I got into did I find it crushing to contemplate my mother’s experience there. I moved very quickly to get past my own experience to develop a character that was really not her and a situation that really wasn’t her’s. Even so she was at the core of it. I found it a very difficult time.
RB: In the last few years her stay there could not have been lengthy?
JS: No, no it wasn’t. Two weeks.
RB: So it wasn’t that she was at McLean but that your mother was unhappy and troubled?
JS: Right. Not only that but almost to the day that The Dark House came out she went back into the hospital. I hadn’t expected that. I thought having done it once she was over it and that she would never return. That did get to me. It made the book more non-fictional than fictional and it wore on me. It got inside me in ways that I hope no book ever does again. It became an unwelcome obsession: one that constantly made me anxious. I had to stop for several months.
The only thing that helped me get through it was proceeding through the book, to her cure, her own recovery through the discovery that this young psychiatrist makes in the course of the book. What I realized was that I had split off into two people. There was a portion of me that identified with my mother and the portion that was desperate to see Mrs. Bemis better: to cure her so that even though these were two women—they were two sides of me, and they were two gentle sides of me—for a time I had to suspend my masculinity to write about them. So there is a kind of unexpected softness to the book, particularly for people who have read The Dark House which is very gritty and fast paced. This [book] has a more languid and soulful tone. It comes from the underlying circumstance, which I danced with. Depression is such a horror that it’s really hard to write about in a truthful way, and I think people already know what it’s about so that you don’t need to delve into it too much to convey the effects. You never know how much to get into it. I think it that it got into me in some ways more than it got into the book.
RB: I’m surprised to hear you introduce the word ‘cure’ here. Are you talking about your mother or the character, Mrs. Bemis?
JS: I’m thinking of the character. In truth, no one is fully cured. But she was improved through the discoveries and also through the relationship that she develops with this psychiatrist.
RB: Isn’t her improvement due mostly to pharmacology?
JS: It certainly helps. These things work in tandem and also, frankly, the pharmacology is much less interesting than the personal relationship. I do believe that depression means something. It’s not just a consequence of genes clicking in at a certain moment in your life. In my mother’s case, it clearly came from the way she lived her life. Of course, there is a chicken and egg question here—whether she lives her life in a certain way because of this. The truth of it is that each reinforces the other, but if you can attack the experiential side, that’s a great boost and boon to the more organic. You know, every thought in your head has a chemical manifestation. It’s really hard to separate the biology from the experience. I think the two are intertwined.
RB: That may be true in theory. My sense of current psycho-pharmacology is that it is still a lot of voodoo. Yes, there are chemical correlatives to thought. What chemical do we use to affect it and what’s the amount?
JS: Absolutely. It’s not voodoo, exactly. It’s an imprecise science. It’s more art than science. Also, it’s quite variable. A drug that will work for a while will mysteriously stop working and you have to shift to something else and there are these nasty side effects. It’s improv.
RB: Voodoo is art. Santeria is art.
JS: I guess so. I persist in thinking that voodoo is ineffective.
RB: It’s not to the people who believe in it.
JS: When I went into this and for the first time in my life got seriously depressed and I went on vitamin P as I learned to call it, Prozac. It had profound effects for me, quite quickly. So quickly that it proved to be a hazard all its own. Vaulting me into a hypo manic state that is just short of what they call Frankmania. It’s a very creative phase to be in. It was a godsend for me.
RB: I wasn’t being dismissive of serious science, and I know there are people who experience great relief, but a there is a lot of public discourse about various psychological afflictions, most of which seems to be misdirected, inaccurate and rightly called psychobabble.
JS: There’s hysteria, certainly. People naturally resist the idea that a little pill can have such profound effects. If that’s what you mean? Oh, it’s just the opposite—
RB: No, I think little pills are great. I grew up in the ’60s. I have no resistance at all to better living through chemistry. Somehow when depression becomes a focal point of popular discourse then it becomes trivialized. It’s just another problem, weight loss, sagging flesh or co-dependency. Every hack in the world has an answer and a cure. At the very least, there is lots of confusion and it sadly becomes a target of irony and we lose track of how truly serious it is.
JS: That’s true. It’s very hard to track, particularly in the era of alternative medicine. That, I believe, is voodoo. I was interested in the study that showed that St John’s Wort, theoretically the salvation of the alternative medicine crowd, as far as depression went, was completely ineffective and that placebos worked best, and anti-depressants coming in second. I think it depends on the depth of the depression that you are in. There are a lot of the worried well who look to a pill as their salvation and regardless of what’s in it.
RB: What does the “worried well” mean?
JS: It’s the bourgeoisie fretting about—and there are a lot of things to fret about. Their jobs their lives, whether they are wearing the right clothes, whether they are hanging with the right people. Just doing it right. There is a lot of pressure to do it right. And a lot of people feel, naturally enough, that they aren’t doing it right. It makes them anxious. That’s the worried well and it often has a psychosomatic component.
RB: Didn’t that used to be called stress?
JS: Yes. Stress, however, doesn’t seem to have quite the same connotation. But that’s really what it is, you are quite right.
RB: Were you aware of Alex Beam writing his book on McLean?
JS: I play squash with him regularly, so I knew about it. I wish I had been able to read it before I wrote my book; it would have provided some useful details. He did a marvelous job collecting the information. I didn’t want to make my book too heavily researched because it wasn’t that kind of book. It was more about the feelings than the facts. But still, in terms of creating that atmosphere that I talked about, it would have been nice to have a little more historicity.
RB: Is there anyone who reads your book who doesn’t think that the hospital that you are writing about McLean?
JS: Probably not. I guess there are legal problems there. Sure.
RB: Tell me about your feeling that your subject is upper-crust Boston?
JS: I say that because when you are writing about Boston, particularly old-line Boston, you become a kind of archaeologist. There are layers and layers to this city that you don’t find in newer cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee. They don’t have that historical overlay. One of the things about archaeology is that the truth is always hidden. It’s underneath the surface and you have to dig. Both these novels involve that theme. There are things in Rollins’ [The Dark House] past that he doesn’t know and he ends up looking for them in all the wrong places. People tend to assume that the answers are out there when in fact they are in here [in brackets you can note that Sedgwick points to his chest (laughs)] and they are buried and they need some objective correlative to really clinch that understanding. Of course, the things that are in here have to do with your own past, your childhood or even beyond that. Your childhood is so much the product of your parents’ childhood—and then back it goes. I find that kind of thing fascinating. It may be due to the way I was raised. I was the child of a 55-year-old father and a 40-year-old mother. My father always felt like my grandfather to me. So he represented this ancestral past more than he represented a present kind of father.
RB: Did you go to private schools?
JS: Yes, country clubs, the whole scene. All of which I have bowed out of. Not only was it a prep school but it was the boarding school where my father’s first wife was the daughter of the rector, the founder of the school: the fabled Endicott Peabody. Family members called Doo Doo.
RB: (laughs) I’m sorry.
JS: Yeah, it’s pretty funny. It just shows the two-sidedness of WASP life where these impressive people have silly nicknames as a way of undercutting them or I don’t know what. It was this kind of thing where everywhere I went there was this history that, in fact, had nothing to do with me but ended up in bearing on me in significant ways.
RB: What do you mean it had nothing to do with you?
JS: It all occurred before I arrived. My father’s brother had died at that school when he was 18 and that had tremendous effects on my father’s life. He himself was at the school as a 13 year old and suddenly became the first born, the oldest child and his mother dies shortly there after. So he had to hold the family together from a very young age. So he styled himself as big man, somebody who could shoulder a lot of burdens which in turn made him much less intimate as a father for me. That, on top of his age, made him a remote figure in my life.
RB: This a different conversation, but I wanted to note in passing that expectations of fatherhood seemed to have shifted a lot in less than a generation.
JS: Oh absolutely. At that time—I wrote about the Somerset Club once—and the joke was that anyone under the age of 5 was referred to as a basket case. That, of course, are upper-class twits speaking. It was the era, where children were seen and not heard. In those days too, particularly in a certain class there was help, these surrogate mothers, who probably were good fathers too. You are right that was part of the whole style of parenting, which has gone by the boards. In some way I regret that. I regret that there isn’t more adult life, that everything is pegged to children. It becomes infantilizing to a certain degree, That parents become slaves to their children’s soccer schedule—as I have become. While I adore my children there is more to life than the little bambini. There aren’t the parties there used to be, the dinner parties, the cocktail and the evenings at the country club. Between homework and athletics, parents’ lives are subordinated to the children.
RB: Americans do segregate celebrations. In other cultures, people include children in their socializing. Here parties are either for children or adults. They seem not to be family oriented. There’s a rigid—
RB: There is no risk for you writing about Mrs. Bemis but creating a character who is a young, inexperienced psychiatrist and then a cop who has his own set of problems. Those are not areas that you know about.
JS: True. Because of my time with Gil Lewis I feel somewhat comfortable with crime detection and the whole style of that. Actually, the cop was a minor character in the previous book and comes down to the Cape and plays a role in this novel. He was somewhat familiar to me. I did have trouble catching the character of Alice, the young psychiatrist, because she herself is at the mid point between childhood and adulthood. She’s feeling her way along. This is her first job, she has taken on this large responsibility and she has troubles of her own. She’s had a bad boyfriend and a difficult family life. She is very close to her grandmother who has become senile with Alzheimer’s. That was difficult to put together but I felt that it was necessary for her to be at that in between stage in order for to throw herself into the challenge of Mrs. Bemis’ care.
RB: And to violate the code of ethics.
JS: And to violate the code of ethics, which would keep you from investigating and going outside the realm of therapy. It was important for me that she be right there on the edge. And it was difficult to position her just right.
RB: She was very vulnerable and her bad boyfriend makes you wonder about how she sets up her own life, about her judgment.
JS: All of that, quite honestly, is a little iffy. I just felt—I so resist the cut and dried that it’s an imperative that in novels everybody be likeable or at least the lead character. Likeable to me is much more open than likeable to others. It’s understandable, someone you sympathize with. And sympathize through pain much more than pleasure. A lot of people have found themselves in awkward situations with a loved one or lover who turns out not to be the person they expected. And trouble ensues. This was a way for me to reinforce that Alice was young and that she could make mistakes. On the other hand it does make it questionable whether she would be able to manage a complicated case like Mrs. Bemis’. And sure enough she does it in an unorthodox way that proves to be effective but it is a high risk.
RB: How long did it take to write this book?
JS: A couple of years. And as I say, difficult years. I had a lot of personal things to work through.
RB: Are you happy with The Education of Mrs. Bemis?
JS: Pretty happy with it. It has for me associations with the personal difficulty that went with it. It’s a very ambitious book, and I think I achieved a lot of what I set out to get. So yeah, I’m pretty happy with it. I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent happy with it, but I almost never am with anything that I write. I always view each book as the antidote to the previous one. You make so many errors when you are writing. Errors that may not be visible to others or more likely people take things as errors, which aren’t. At least, in my mind. I don’t think writers are ever entirely satisfied with what they’ve done.
RB: If writing is a multiplicity of choices then those choices seem open to hindsight.
JS: Right. I was really thrilled with first novel, but I think that was naivete. I was really excited to have done it, and that carried me along in ways that no longer pertain. If anything, the standards that I have set for myself are higher and therefore more difficult to achieve. Given what I set out to do and how much involved with it was personally I am very pleased with it.
RB: Tell me about the people that blurbed your book. Do you know Pat Conroy?
JS: Pat is a friend of my editor’s. He was very kind to read it and obviously enthusiastic about the book and I’m grateful. Naomi Eva and I were dubbed great new writers by Barnes and Noble in their “Discover Great New Writers” program and we spent some time down in Florida and she lives in Brookline. She is a wonderful person and a terrific writer and The Family Orchard is sensational. Margot Livesey, who I know from the Boston Public Library, very kindly agreed to blurb it. Spy Magazine used to call this log rolling. The business of blurbs is a horror of publishing. Anybody who actually comes through with one is a champ in my book.
RB: I noticed the press materials quoted Boston magazine on your book, which should been subject to the disclosure that you write for them.
JS: That was referring to my last book.
RB: I have to say that the best thing I read in Boston magazine last year was the piece that you did on that visuals studies professor.
JS: I have started writing about academic Boston and that man, John Stilgoe, was a real fascination, and he was very much like a private eye to me. Someone who is attentive to things that escape normal people’s attention. He saw two people struggling to unload some machinery and he could tell right away why they were having trouble. The reason was that one guy was left-handed and the other guy was right-handed and if they switched positions they would have this thing open in a twinkling. And he said that to them, and sure enough that worked.
RB: You mentioned the magazine writer’s role as being subservient to the vision of the publication. It doesn’t strike me that many local and regional magazines are doing much more than acting as glossy press releases. What you wrote in that Stilgoe piece seems to me to be ambient to the magazine’s “vision.”
JS: It took a while to get into the magazine. They didn’t know what to make of it and for a while they wanted to cut it down to 600 words. I was really proud of it. Stilgoe is quite a guy and I thought I really captured him in a short space.
RB: Any thoughts on why there is a lack of smart publishing locally?
JS: The Atlantic is here.
RB: Not exactly local.
JS: Let’s face it, national magazines get more talent than local magazines. It has to do with the rates they can pay. But also the realm of topics that you can write about. If you are confined to a small area the pickings are going to be slimmer than if you are able to take in the whole nation. Tina Brown at the New Yorker would assign 4 articles for everyone she ran and pay a lot of money for them. No local magazine can afford that luxury.
RB: Your sense is that we have a reasonable selection of local periodicals.
JS: For a city of this size, sure.
RB: Well, there is its size and then the pretension to being an intellectual capitol.
JS: There’s that. But there are a lot of magazines that no one ever sees. I was doing a piece on Christopher Ricks and he is involved with the ALSC (The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics) which is now based at Boston University. They put out a magazine called Literary Imaginings. It’s pretty dense, impressive stuff but nobody knows that it’s there.
RB: I’m not talking about Lingua Franca or American Scholar but consumer publications that are readily available to people at newsstands and news boxes.
JS: There is the Boston Review and is quite presentable and has wonderful film reviews. Yeah, there isn’t that much. It’s true, with Boston’s intellectual pretensions, you would expect a little bit more on that front. But what are its intellectual pretensions really? The days of this being the hub of the universe are over.
RB: In your acknowledgments you name a number of writers. Are you in a writing group?
JS: I was in a writing group and they were terrific and very supportive. I found that the writing group is pretty much indispensable. Kind of a focus group really. You get a sense of how you are doing. It was nice to have them.
RB: So what’s in store for you? Another novel?
JS: After all my derision of non-fiction I will be writing a book about my ancestral family. It will take in some of the issues I have been talking about and have been dwelling on in these novels and the ways the past bears on the present.
RB: About you or your family?
JS: Both. I hope it’s more about the family than me. I’m not that interesting. I’m just going to a section of it for GQ where I am writer-at-large. An extraordinary cousin of mine named Putzy Hanstangel, does that name mean anything to you? His full name is Ernst Franz Sedwick Hanstangel; he was Hitler’s buddy and piano player in the ‘30s. He was a Harvard man, class of 1909 with TS Eliot and John Reed, Robert Benchley. Putzy ended up being Hitler’s press secretary in the later ‘30s, before war broke out. Then Hitler had enough of him and had him thrown out of an airplane—with a parachute—though it wouldn’t have matter because it was behind enemy lines, so he would have been shot as he descended.
RB: Better than the Argentines, who just threw people out of airplanes during the so-called Dirty War.
JS: One enduring remark Putzy made about Hitler refers to his musical talents, “Man, that guy could whistle.”
RB: How far ahead do look, one project at a time?
JS: Yeah, that’s plenty for me. I continue to write about philanthropy for Worth magazine and do occasional things for Boston just for fun and things for GQ. I some ways the GQ writing fits most naturally with me. It’s a fairly sophisticated and good magazine even though GQ, to most people, just means fashion.
RB: As your book is freshly published are you attentive to its progress in the marketplace?
JS: I try not to concern myself with that. It’s very distracting. This conversation we are having is fine and lovely, but things that I really don’t like is trying to make arrangements for parties and I am doing this reception after my Borders reading in New York—just dealing with the RSVPs and who should come. Oy, I hate that. It’s driving me insane
RB: When do you get back to real life?
JS: Soon I hope. This is real, but an unusual kind of real.
RB: Good. Thanks.