Elizabeth Benedict is fully leading the writer's life—educated at Barnard, under the sway of Elizabeth Hardwick, she has written five novels: Almost (shortlisted for a National Book Award), Slow Dancing, Safe Conduct, The Beginner's Book of Dreams and most recently, The Practice of Deceit. She also authored the classic, widely-used-in-writing programs, The Joy of Writing Sex. Additionally, Benedict has taught fiction and non-fiction writing at, among other places, Princeton, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Swarthmore College. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Salmagundi, Esquire, Tin House, Harper's Bazaar, and The American Prospect. Alan Cheuse, author and NPR's regular book commentator, commended The Practice of Deceit, "It's the first-person story of the marriage between a Scarsdale, New York, therapist and his South-Boston-born divorce lawyer wife, a marriage coming apart at the seams. Benedict tells it from the man's point of view, and the story practically spills into your lap as you turn the pages.... A lot of wicked fun."
Elizabeth Benedict and I (and Rosie) met on a fair, late summer Saturday at a favored venue, The Mt. Auburn Cemetery, for a wide-ranging conversation. It, of course, included her latest novel, literary generational divides, cultural distractions from literature, Philip Roth's Everyman, high school literature, the con artist story, Grub Street, sex (or at least writing about sex), Sigrid Nunez and a generous portion of snappy repartee (which may have been edited out).
Robert Birnbaum: So I have a big question. I think it's a big question. I couldn't figure out how to ask it with any kind of concision. So allow me some stumbling. I was reading Everyman by Roth, and I have a sense of the response, which I took to be negative. And then I thought about it again when I read The Practice of Deceit. Do you have to be of a certain age or a certain experiential level to understand and relate to certain books? Your book is about domestic strife—among other things—and trust in relationships—
Elizabeth Benedict: And whom you are married to—
RB: Right. As is Roth's book about old age. I have a difficulty imagining young readers warming up—even wise beyond their years—getting this stuff.
EB: To answer the very narrowest part of your question: I have gotten a lot of comments from younger people—kids in college, kids in graduate school who have read the book, which always surprises me. So in that very narrow sense I don't think it's just a book that can be appreciated by middle-aged people. But it is a story about middle-aged situations and realizations. There are great divides between the generations, as there have always been. Jonathan Safran Foer's last book, his second book, really, had a great divide between ages. It seemed like people who were thirty, thirty-five and under, were just overwhelmed by the book, and a lot of the reviewers who were very senior, including John Updike, were less overwhelmed. I was just reading Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel. Obviously that's a young person's story. I don't know if it's a young person's book, but I can see young people really flocking to the book and really thinking, "This is my story," or, "This is a voice I know," and older people saying "Hmm, this is interesting, interesting to hear this young man's voice, but this isn't my universe." So there are always divisions like that. I also think now—when I was in school at Barnard and Columbia, we revered older writers. We figured it wasn't bad to be an older writer. Now there isn't the same appreciation for the canon, if you will. And what I hear and experience is, "A lot of young people don't particularly like to read, and they think the older things are irrelevant," in the same way we thought that for awhile in the sixties. But there isn't the same kind of reverence for the gray eminences there used to be. I was at Barnard from ‘72 to '76, and Elizabeth Hardwick—I had a writing tutorial with her when I was a senior. And I babysat with and took classes from Edward Said and Michael Wood and Stephen Marcus, and we revered all these folks, and we revered the worlds that they were in—the syllabus, the syllabi. There is much less patience for that among young people now.
RB: Explained away by competing media.
EB: There's some of that. Somebody recently wrote a book about why everything you think is bad for you is good for you. And this guy said if we looked at books now as if we had never seen them before, after all the other media that we are surrounded by, if we looked at books, we would think that they were a little too slow and it is a little too hard to get into them. Now, I don't agree with that. All I am saying is, that's the world we live in. People have short attention spans. I am the fifty-millionth person to say this, but everything is going so fast, people have short attentions spans—we are way beyond MTV. Remember what it was like when music videos came out. They were really shocking in terms of how quick they were and—
RB: The TV commercials of that time would have 150 editorial cuts in sixty seconds. That would made me nauseous. All that aside, there are subjects that seem more interesting or relevant to a particular generation, and then there is—I am not surprised that young readers would like your book, because of the prose, it's written well. So that can trump subject matter. The bigger question is why does the high school curriculum include classics like War and Peace or Moby Dick any number of books from the canon, which they couldn't possibly grasp?
EB: Right. They are given a lot of younger, hipper books.
RB: When we went to school were we given such books?
EB: No. We were given The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter. That was American literature. Maybe a Mailer novel, but that was too early. But high school was The Great Gatsby, John Dos Passos. Kids now are given Sandra Cisneros and Louise Erdrich and Junot Diaz because they are there and—
RB: As if it was decided that relevance was important—for reading to mean something, it has to relate to your life in some way.
EB: This conversation makes me think of something that I think about all the time, which is all the parallel universes that are ours now. And there have always been parallel universes, but now they are really huge parallel universes, and there are very sharp divisions between them, and people live in their own universe.
RB: Give me an example of a "sharply-divided parallel universe."
EB: I'm thinking about comic novels—not funny novels.
RB: Graphic novels.
EB: Right. There are the middle-aged books—Phillip Roth readers—and then there are multicultural readers. And there may lot be a lot of crossover. There may be some curiosity among those groups. But not a lot of crossover. And within that, or outside of that, there is how books become known in the world now. And people talk about reviews don't sell books anymore. Reviews can sell a book, but it doesn't always work that they sell books. And that's very different. We all used to look at the NYTBR and decide what the book was that we had to read. And now it's really a little bit unclear how we decide what book we are going to read, or how we even find out about books. And that's something that publishers face all the time. That's the world of books. And the world of politics and the world of media, which we are very attuned to—we have the so-called mainstream media, and you watch NBC news or CNN or the NY Times and you get one version of events, and then you go to your favorite right-wing or left-wing blog, which are very omnipresent, and you get a completely different version. And when I go back and forth between these worlds I almost—
RB: The world doesn't seem recognizable.
EB: I say, "Wait a second. Wasn't I just reading about all of these things? And then I open the Washington Post and there's nothing about that in there. And if you watch TV, which I don't do very often—but I see it enough to feel like I am truly in an alien land—and I think, "What, this is my culture? This is the world I live in?"
RB: The greater burden is the shitstream of information that we try to slice into manageable portions to make life livable. The information is not just purely for entertainment. Some should be for survival. So there is some good reason to at least try to make sense of it. And what's increasingly frustrating is that it is harder to make sense.
EB: There is not one voice.
RB: And frequently the multitudes are at odds with each other—assuming that it's a basic human instinct to want stories, factual or otherwise. Somehow we have this need, and as we get more sophisticated our tastes get more specific, and so—where am I going with this?
EB: About the two different worlds—the Phillip Roth and—
RB: I don't know that they are different worlds—as much as developmental steps. I don't see any reason why there would be any obstacle to understand in The Practice of Deceit. At the end of it I questioned whether Eric Lavender had a real response to what Colleen had done? Would a person really do that?
EB: Which part?
RB: Let's not give away any keys to the plot.
EB: Was he too sympathetic to her? That's not how I meant it to read.
RB: Well, the letter that he writes to her at the end is a surprise because she's done awful things.
RB: And she appears to be a really awful person. He's a sympathetic in some way, even though at the very end he states his course of action—
EB: Yes exactly.
RB: I ended up disliking her. I suppose you are supposed to have understanding for the characters, but I came to dislike her very quickly.
EB: Among the things that I was trying to do is to express what happens when you are really in deep with someone. And then you find out things that you can't just walk away from. You are not fourteen years old—
RB: He was being very mature—and since he is a "negotiator"—so it made sense that he stayed with her. But yet where was his anger at her betrayal?
EB: He showed a lot of—what he felt at first was confusion. And let's just say—let me say some of things I was thinking about as I was writing the book, because we are not saying what happened in the book. There is a kind of a history or a genre or a kind story that's the con-artist story. And so if you think about All About Eve, or Washington Square by Henry James, Body Heat, that's a great subject. You are taken in by someone and you become one with them and you do everything they want you to do, and then you find out that they are not at all who they say they are. It's a great literary subject. And a great dramatic subject, okay. So that's the genre I was thinking about.
RB: In all those stories you end up really disliking the con artist. Certainly the reader does, but the participants in the story—
EB: Right, Colleen doesn't end up being anybody's favorite.
RB: Would you have Thanksgiving dinner with her [Eric does after she betrays him]? You could say he was doing it for the children. But really—
EB: Basically what he is saying is we are going to have dinner and the gloves come off. That's really what he is saying.
RB: I thought he was going to perpetuate the idea that she was—as a shrink, he thought that she was redeemable.
EB: No, no, no, he did initially. He did think that, and then once he is married to her, he wants that to be true because he is married to her with two children. So I was really interested in that position that you get into where you can't just throw up your hands and say, "This stinks. I'm outta here." And that's the dilemma. That's the increasingly middle-aged dilemma that you get into, which is you make all these choices in your life and they are not revocable. You can't just reverse them anymore, once you get to a certain point.
RB: I wondered if a youthful reader could get—I don't want to make this out to be a complicated story, but there are certain of life's nuances that you just don't get when you are twenty, that you may not have access to when you are thirty, and by the time you are forty maybe they start to show themselves. When you are thirty and a relationship ends, there is a sting and you move on.
EB: But you don't think that when you are going through it. Thirty-year-olds feel their pain as much as I feel my pain—we look back and say, "Oh you're young, you'll get over it."
RB: But in reality you do get through, even though you remember that you get through or over it, it does seem to get harder.
EB: But as far as younger readers—and of course I am making a pitch for them, but only because you are pressing me to—we all have parents, and you know what your parents have been through. You have seen your parents get divorced and your friends' parents—so you don't exactly live in isolation, and you do see what's happened to other people. So it's not such a complicated—I agree with you. It's not a young person's story. It's not Indecision. That's the job of the writer: to create a world that you want to be in. And when I teach, and teach these very short workshops where I feel I have to give people something to take away with them in a very short time. And one of the things we do at the beginning, which I always like, is I stand at the blackboard and I say "Why do we read?" And we just go through all the reasons why people read. And there are thirty-five. Once you start to name them. And it's always interesting to me to go through that list, but basically once that list is on the blackboard, what I want to impress on people is their job as writers to make people comply. It's their job to make a world that gives the reader all of the things, all of the reasons for reading. And that's what I try to do. That's why they pay me. And I try to create a story—
RB: They pay you to tell them how to get an agent or who the best portrait photographer is or who to get blurbs from. [both laugh]
EB: No, no, no. That's why the publisher pays me. But I really feel it's my job to tell a story that makes you want to keep reading the story. We live on Grub Street. One thing that's always interesting is—I just picked up a collection of essays by Will Self [Junk Mail]—he talks of the real tradition in England of writers writing everything, they don't just write novels. There is a tradition, increasingly here, of writing novels and teaching. You just know how to do one thing.
RB: The excuse that I get from fiction writers is, "I just can't do it. I'm not good at it." [meaning writing nonfiction]
EB: I do a lot of nonfiction writing. And I do a lot of public relations writing, and I write anything. I'll write anything for anybody. I just finished writing the text for a cookbook for a chef for the Kennedys. That's coming out next spring.
EB: I spent a month doing it, and I was well remunerated.
RB: I can never pronounce that word.
EB: [laughs] "Remunerated." But I basically spent a lot of time talking to the chef and getting the stories—he worked at the compound. It's going to be a beautiful four-color book—order your copy now!—I spent the time reading a lot of books about the Kennedys, and I went to Hyannis and the museum.
RB: Did you read Seymour Hersh's book, Camelot?
EB: No. To be truthful I was looking for books that gave me details about little intimate details, about their family life and what it was like at the compound. I read a book called Jackie, Ethel, Joan and I also found on the Internet the auction catalog from Sotheby's of the sale of all of Jackie Kennedy's belongings. And I called Sotheby's and I said I am writing a book and can I buy a copy. Before the auction it was $50 and the woman said, "Oh sure, I have some lying around." So she sent it to me, and I have this huge catalog of all of Jackie's belongings. And then I found a book about Kennedy weddings—the chef catered a lot of the weddings and did the wedding cakes, [laughs] but that's what you do as a writer. To be a journalist you have to be a quick study and you have to do the research and you have to know the stuff. And also the editor I was working with was amazed that I had done all this research, and I could say this is what the kids would say about clam chowder… "Is there clam chowder in heaven?" Well, I got that on page 159 of the book. And if I read the book for nothing but the clam chowder line, that's what you do. When I write a novel, I do lots of research. But the writing itself was a little like writing ad copy—it had to project a certain image and tell a story but in a very glossy way. And it was very hard. It was weirdly hard.
EB: It's not journalism.
RB: You're basically writing ad copy or long captions for photos. When someone says that they can't write this kind of stuff, I think back years ago when I discovered a piece on tomatoes in the New Yorker. I previously could have cared less about that subject, but the writer compelled me to read the whole long piece. It was the writing. And by the way, I am not biased between fiction and nonfiction. I don't care—give me a story and good prose and so what. Why is fiction called the "senior service" in England?
EB: I didn't know that. It has been in this country, and still is, but there are so many memoirs. The world is full of memoirs—when Kathryn Harrison's memoir came out about her affair with her father—
RB: The Kiss?
EB: I really did think that was the end of the memoir. Because nobody could have a more shocking story. And that everything else would be bland compared to that. I thought it was the peak, and now it just keeps going. I guess the stories are fascinating, and I do read some of them, but it really has become its own genre. But I am not sure you can make a career as a writer out of writing memoirs. I know a few people do.
RB: Augusten Burroughs seems to.
EB: A few people do, and it's possible to write a really wonderful memoir, but I don't think you can write three or four.
RB: But it can transmogrify into some kind of personal essay in which you take your more current experiences and weave that into extended riffs on whatever—your gardening or your relationship with animals or your stock portfolio, a la David Denby of the New Yorker.
EB: The thing that makes a memoir is a childhood event that gives you a heightened state of awareness—
RB: Harrison wrote another book after that about her relationship with her daughter, The Mother Knot.
EB: I thought that was a novel, but I liked the memoir a lot, and I taught it when I've taught writing and it's a fascinating story from a number of angles—and the writing is amazing and it gets the students' attention. [laughs]
RB: By the way, is it Elizabeth, Liz, Liza, Lizzy?
EB: On the book it's Elizabeth, on the check [laughs]—
RB: What about on the tombstone? Do you have a tombstone?
EB: No, I don't think so. We are talking in a cemetery so that's top of mind.
RB: How many woman writers do you know that write with male protagonists?
EB: [long pause] Uh—
RB: Not many, less than men writers create women?
EB: Yeah, yeah.
RB: What's to be made of that?
EB: Well, you mention because this book has a male protagonist.
RB: As a write your supposed to be able to do that.
EB: This is very distant, but I was thinking of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebooks, the very powerful sections from the male writer's point of view, who is based on Clancy Sigal. But I remember that very vividly, and I think it was from his point of view. Obviously there must be more—oh, Mary Gordon in her latest book, Pearl. There are three narrators and one of them is a man.
RB: The fact that it shouldn't be a big thing, why don't more women writers do it? There must be a difficulty, yes?
EB: Yeah, John Casey, his first novel, called an American Romance. [It] is from a woman's point of view. I don't think its—it's third person, but she's the main character. It's her, and the world is through her eyes. And he got a lot of accolades for that, sort of "Amazing. He did this." And I remember one of Reynolds Price's books, Kate Vaiden.
RB: He's written a few from a woman's point of view.
EB: It happens. I guess it's just hard, and you naturally gravitate—your sexual identity is so essential to who you are—it's like a white person writing from a black person's point of view. It's so essential that in a way you feel like, "I wouldn't dare do this. I wouldn't presume to feel that I could do this."
RB: So you have to be conscious of the gesture whether or not—you can't do it unconsciously?
EB: Oh no, exactly. John Updike just published a book, Terrorist, which I haven't read, but a few months ago in the New Yorker Martin Amis wrote the story of Mohamed Atta. That's the ultimate novelist-writer transformation—here you become the terrorist. So that's as big a leap as writing about another race or gender. To try to really see the world through the terrorist's eyes. The embodiment of evil. It as amazing almost more that Amis did it. And that he could bear to be in Mohamed Atta's head.
RB: Yeah, that's a real issue. I wonder how writers can write stories in which bad things happen to children. When you were talking about Updike and Amis, I was thinking about how much I really loved Percival Everett's Erasure, where he parodied the hip-hop thing with a black character who was a well-credentialed academic who wrote literary fiction and he fabricates one of those up-from-the-ghetto memoirs.
EB: There was a writer about twenty-five years ago who was supposedly Hispanic and got all this attention as this amusing Hispanic novel, and then it turned out to be a hoax. And the there is a guy who pretended to be a Holocaust survivor [Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, by Binjamin Wilkomirski]. It really gets to the heart of what it means to be a writer and what the marketplace is about. It's the ultimate—it's the essence of what writers do to imagine another life. And so you do that and do it well, but then the marketplace is only interested in this if this really happened to you. We are not interested if it's just a good story. And how it's presented in the world is refracted through the person who wrote it. So there is no pure way of experiencing that. Because it gets distorted.
RB: Some people occasionally float the idea that books should be presented without artwork on the covers, with no identification. That's absurd on a number of levels, but I get the impulse. Do you feel like there are more wonderful good books than you could ever possibly read?
EB: [laughs] Yes, yes.
RB: What is that feeling like? Dread, depression, resignation?
EB: The answer is yes, and part of the problem is that it is hard to know which they are. So—somebody I know said if you could only go into a big store and have a section be called "good books" and the other section be called "crap." And then you'd know where to find the good books. [laughs] But it is very hard to sift through and to figure out what to read and what to pick. And then if you are a writer you always have lots of friends who are publishing books—I could spend all my time reading books by friends. And it would be wonderful. It would be great. I'd read a lot of great books. It's a scary feeling, because what I feel is whenever I find a wonderful book that I find in some serendipitous way, I always think, "What else am I missing?" And I am so grateful to have found this person. That happened with Sigrid Nunez recently when I was asked to review her new book for the New York Times, because I had gone to Barnard—that's why they asked me, I might not have encountered her, and as a result—
RB: That happens to me quite a bit—discovering previously unknown books. I was sent her backlist, and I picked up For Rouenna, and it confirmed that she has this wonderful ability to draw you into a story immediately—I started reading it at a traffic light and I had to pull over so I could at least finish the chapter.
EB: [laughs] She's really amazing, and her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God, is unbelievable, and the other book of hers I love is called Mitts—a tiny book, a mock biography of this marmoset that belonged to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. And it's based totally on fact. She absorbed all the letters, all the diaries, and all the history and wrote this breathtaking little book—little in size, perfect pitch. I kept reading it and thinking, "How does she do this?" I have no idea how she came up with this sentence. How do she find this moment? And the material came from real life, but what she did with it was just phenomenal. Since I wrote this review we have done a number of things together—we did a talk, something at the Barnard reunion. But she has won a bunch of really impressive literary prizes.
RB: A Lannan.
EB: The Lannan and a Whiting and an American Academy of Arts Award. So she has really been recognized by the establishment, but hasn't until now [been] much more widely known but for her new book, which I think is an amazing. I think all her books are wonderful, but this one is much larger and ambitious. I think of how many writers are out there like Sigrid Nunez that I don't know about, that I haven't yet encountered? It really wonderful to find them—it's like finding little tide pools.
RB: Okay, let's talk about sex.
EB: [laughs] Here we are in a cemetery. That's a good place to talk about it.
RB: You wrote a book on writing about sex.
EB: I wrote the book about writing about sex.
EB: No, I did.
RB: Translated in Germany.
EB: And published in England and New Zealand and Australia. I did write the book about writing about sex. In fiction.
RB: So it makes sense that some future issue Daedalus will have something on sex by you?
EB: I am writing something for them. I think I am going to write something called The End of Sex.
RB: No one has done that as of yet?
EB: I did write this book called The Joy of Writing Sex.
RB: Are you considered an expert? The sex scenes in The Practice of Deceit were vivid and authentic—
EB: [laughs] Particularly as they are from a man's point of view.
RB: That's commendable.
EB: I don't want to say I'm an expert, but I am known as someone who knows about writing about sex in literary fiction.
RB: I never thought of it as a—
EB: —specialty. I made it a specialty. Really, I didn't think about it very much until I was asked to write this book, [and] because of the book I have given all these workshops about writing about sex. And then because of the book—this is not in my bio—when I finished the book I was in a plane that almost crashed—it didn't crash but it made an emergency landing, and I ended up in a taxi going two hundred miles with a Japanese editor who wrote for a lot of magazines—she was a scout for Japanese publishers. I said, "Oh I just wrote this book The Joy of Writing Sex and I'll send it to you." And she called me about eight months later and we had had this profound experience of almost dying together [laughs], and so we stayed in touch and she called saying she was editor of Japanese Playboy and "We need someone to write a column, and this other woman just resigned and could you write this column?" I was teaching at Princeton at the time. And I asked, "Why are you calling me? I don't understand." And she said we need this and we need that. And then she told me how much they paid, and it was a phenomenal amount of money. And it was a year contract to do every month. And I said maybe I could think about it. Let me think about it. And then we had this very funny lunch at the Royalton Hotel with all the cool Conde Nast people where they take away your food after you have had two bites. And she said this is what they want, they want a little play every month with the characters being these three or four New York women being in their twenties, and they have to be talking about sex."
RB: Sex in the city before Sex in the City.
EB: Yeah, and so I said, "Okay." and it was perfect for me because I like writing dialogue…
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing