"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My meeting with Erica Jong was over and I was still out of breath. The elevator slowly slid down the belly of Jong’s ritzy Upper East Side highrise while a short guy in a tired uniform worked the Up and Down buttons. I tried making small talk, but he didn’t answer me. I wanted to ask if he’d ever had one of those legendary “zipless fucks.” That was the term Jong coined 30 years ago when her first novel, “Fear of Flying,” was published. Jong was 31 years old. By the time it came out in paperback, every heterosexual woman who was single had read it.
Eighty-three-year-old Henry Miller read “Fear of Flying” as well. He believed a woman had finally written the female equivalent of “Tropic of Cancer.” A number of men younger than Miller also read Jong’s novel, many figuring that it would provide a crackerjack method of getting laid. Apparently chicks wanted a “zipless fuck” — or as Jong explained: “Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well.”
I heard that back in those days, certain louts would loiter on the corner purring at secretaries as they headed to lunch, “Hey, baby wanna go get a zipless fuck!” The late poet Anne Sexton (Jong’s friend) suggested the classic retort should be, “Zip up your fuck, bub, until I ask for it.” Soon the term took on its own life. When I first heard the phrase in the late 1970s, I assumed it meant you should take your time, not just “zip” in and out like a rabbit. Many years later, when I found out I would finally get a moment alone with Jong, I figured it would be a struggle not to shout out, “Zipless fuck! Zipless fuck!” as if I had Tourette syndrome. Thankfully, I held my tongue with Jong. Even when her daughter Molly joined us and shouted, “Let’s give him a present!” I held my tongue.
The first question was hers:
Jong: Is this interview for the Sex department or the fiction department?
Jong: All right. I read Salon. It’s one of my bookmarked sites.
How long had you worked on “Fear of Flying”?
I worked on it throughout my 20s. Like a lot of first novels, it transmogrified in different ways. For a while it had the POV of a madman. I started an autobiographical novel from the point of view of a madman, probably because I didn’t think a woman’s point of view would be literature. That’s the generation that I am. We went to Barnard, and we studied Ezra Pound and Ted Roethke and T.S. Eliot. We didn’t read women writers.
Not to go into this if it is too painful, but the “madman” stuff was based on your first marriage?
When I was 22 I went through what we call an “experience.” I was married to a schizophrenic and I didn’t know it. My husband really tried to walk on the water in Central Park. He was hospitalized. It was before the great antipsychotic drugs that they have now. They gave him thousands of milligrams of Thorazine and he became zombified. Before he was hospitalized he very nearly killed me. When I think about what I went through at 22, and I have a daughter who is 24, I can’t believe I got through it. I do think a lot of my life after that was a reaction. I think one of the reasons I married a psychiatrist [her second husband, Allan Jong] was I thought that would protect me against mental illness.
At least this happened in the Upper West Side of New York where they had a vocabulary for madness. If it had happened in suburbia, no one would know what to do.
There was a vocabulary. Both of my parents were very intellectual and bohemian, and they both were in therapy, or analysis. They were very left-wing. There wasn’t a shame to go to an analyst. It was quite the vocabulary of the area I lived in. But I didn’t know anyone who graduated from Barnard in 1963 who had a first husband who tried to walk on the water in Central Park, and tried to fly out the window with her. That was a pretty traumatic experience for a young woman to have. It’s funny I haven’t even assessed it until quite recently. I think I was always attracted to people with wild imaginations. He had this wild imagination. He was also very brilliant. He was brilliant brilliant. His brilliance was a turn-on for me. He was my first boyfriend. My first lover. My soul mate. So when he flipped out it was devastating.
Where is he now?
I really don’t know. I believe he’s in California. He hasn’t contacted me in 25 years.
Just in terms of literature, it’s women who go mad, who walk naked into the water and drown.
You mean Kate Chopin. “The Awakening.” “Tender is the Night.”
The romance is of women who go crazy …
You’re right in literary tradition, but statistics say schizophrenia is much more likely to happen to a man between his 20s and 30s. [Pause.] I got out of Barnard in ’63 and all the writers I admired were men and they wrote about men. So I was dithering with that novel [she first named it "The Man Who Murdered Poets"] for a long, long time while I was writing poetry, and trying to find the voice for the book. I’m sure I worked on it for 10 years at least. Then my first book of poems, “Fruits and Vegetables,” got published by Holt Rhinehart and Winston. My editor there was Aaron Asher. He was Saul Bellow’s editor, and Philip Roth’s editor, and was the real literary clever man.
They don’t have guys like him at publishing houses anymore, they’re all number crunchers. [When] Asher agreed to publish my second book of poems — which even then was unheard of — he said, “Where is the novel that I’m waiting for?”
I said, “Well, I’m working on a novel, but I’m not sure the voice is right, blah blah blah.”
“Well, let me see it.”
If I had not been so naive I would have realized a man who published two books of poetry was a very patient man. I brought in “The Man Who Murdered Poets.” He was sort of the madman from “Fear of Flying,” but he was married. It was not a realistic book. There was a lot of magic realism material. Aaron read it and said, “This is publishable, this is pretty good, but I’m not going to publish it, and some day you’ll thank me.” He said, “This is not your voice. Why don’t you write the novel in the voice of those poems, which are totally fresh. Totally from a woman’s point of view. Why are you dithering –” (he didn’t say dithering) “– What are you fooling with this for? You could take it down the street and Morrow would publish it. But I won’t. And someday you’ll thank me.”
It was one of those moments — sometimes you get a punch in the gut when somebody says something and you just say, “Wooooooh. Thank God I don’t have to play with this anymore. This thing is not going anywhere.” Sometimes someone can do you a big favor that way. I went home and I started the novel in the voice of Isadora — not at a convention of psychoanalysts, that came later — I started it with Isadora at 16, an adolescent girl growing up in the ’50s.
Just to tell you: There is a convention being held down your hallway.
Someone is having some sort of get together.
In my building? My neighbor on the other side is a jazz promoter who founded the Newport Jazz Festival. If there are a lot of hip looking black guys …
I thought maybe it was a festival of psychiatrists.
No, no, no. Anyway, around 1970 or 1971, I went to a convention of psychoanalysts. I was meant to cover it for a new magazine that folded. A magazine called Audience. I thought, “Oh my God this is the beginning of the book.” Once I got the beginning, then I was off and running. That’s been my experience with every book since. They come in little pieces. For each one I keep a notebook. I try to track how it comes. There is a moment when the shape of the book becomes clear. With “Sappho’s Leap” [her new book], it was the same process. I fell in love with [Sappho's poetry] fragments in school. I then read them again when I was a mid-career writer, and thought, “This is amazing. This is the work of a woman from twenty-six hundred years ago. It’s so modern. I began reading everything I could about ancient Greece, and about Sappho, and reading every translation I could find. I started to study Greek civilization. I found a scholar to coach me in Archaic Greek.
But I always knew that the book would start with Sappho on the cliff. Maybe she’d jump and maybe she wouldn’t. I thought it was a wild slander that she jumped. I was sure that was something that had been made up by later Roman male poets and playwrights to mock her. She was too wise. She wouldn’t have committed suicide by leaping off the cliff. She had an affair with this young man, this great philosopher and bisexual — she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff. He probably would have jumped off the cliff. She was too wise. She wouldn’t have ended her life and career for a mere man. Anyway, she was bisexual so it didn’t make any sense.
But I knew where the beginning of the book was. It’s like Doctorow said, “You can only see as much as your headlight illuminates, but that’s enough when you’re writing a novel.”
Since this is a Sex interview, do you know that naked women were invented in fourth century Greece when a sculptor named Praxiteles created the first sculpture of a naked woman, this renowned courtesan name Phryne?
[Jong corrects my Greek pronunciation]
There had been naked men sculpted before Phryne, but no one had done a naked woman. Every guy in Greece went nuts. They put the sculpture in a special alcove with a door that you could open and stare at her rump.
Men started throwing themselves at her and mounting the statue. The statue was of Aphrodite, and Phryne was put on trial for being sacrilegious. She was losing the trial, and her lawyer just ripped her gown off and said, “How can a woman this beautiful be sacrilegious?”
A nude body is not a lewd body. That is a great story that sounds apocryphal. It’s a great example of nudity vs. lewdity and which is which.
But the ancient Greeks really invented Western sexuality.
I think they did. And that’s one of the things that interested me about Sappho. They would not have understood the term “gay.” They wouldn’t have understood a distinct lifestyle based on where your genitals went. They would have thought that was insane. Basically, someone like Sappho had a dynastic marriage. She was an aristocratic girl. Girls of her class were married at 13 or 14. They had legitimate babies with their spouses. They had pleasure with other women. Other men. They believed pleasure was a good thing. We grew up under a Judeo-Christian cloud believing that pleasure was not a good thing. The ancient Greeks really believed in pleasure. They believed Aphrodite was a goddess who believed in pleasure and those who worshiped her believed in pleasure as well.
Men when they were warriors, when they were teachers although they were married dynastically, they had tender relationships with other men. Bisexuality is entirely unremarkable — as I believe it should be. But that’s another topic. I think our culture is insane and atypical of human culture in regard to homosexuality. I think the way we scapegoat homosexual people in this culture is a species of madness. The fact that they can’t inherit property. The fact that they can’t marry in many states. For years and years men had to adopt their younger lovers in order to leave them any property — it seems to me insane. I’m a great advocate for civil rights for gay people. I also believe that the natural state of people is to love pleasure. And wherever it is found. We’ve just been brainwashed in the other direction.
Back to “Fear of Flying,” did you find yourself an instant celebrity?
It was a slow burn.
Did you find yourself a spokesperson for Eros?
Yes. When it came out in hardcover the publishers thought of it as a literary first novel because I was a poet. The hardcover gradually grew by word of mouth, but it wasn’t published in a huge edition. It was only when it was out in paperback, in 1974, for the first time there was a woman editor who felt the book was the story of her life. Her name was Elaine Koster. There was a woman in a position of power in publishing who said, “I love this book. We’ll promote this book.” Before this, women weren’t in that position so it wouldn’t have been possible. She really got behind it. They published it with a big, big bang. I went from being somebody who couldn’t get booked on the “Tonight Show” because “Johnny wasn’t interested in human relationships” (as this guy told me) to somebody who was besieged. I had to unlist my phone number.
“Fear of Flying” has been a very enduring book — when the paperback came out it sold 3 million copies in three months. A lot of the books sold for the wrong reason. A lot of people just opened the book and saw “zipless fuck” and bought it. I believe some of my readers had never read a novel before, and haven’t since. Not that I don’t have wonderful readers, I do, but some of the people who bought “that book” as they called it … Very often men will say to me, “Whenever I saw that book on a woman’s night table I knew I was gonna get lucky.” And women say, “I remember where I was when I read that book. I was in Greece. I just met this man and his eyes were brown. They were like olive oil. And I had one book in my knapsack — because I was in the middle of ‘that book,’ I had a wonderful weekend. Thank you!” The book has entered people’s lives.
Do you remember when “Our Bodies Ourselves” came out?
I think it was ’73, ’74.
I’ve always held your book and that one as responsible for my “vast” sexual history that started in 1976 when I was in high school.
Seventy six? You were in high school? And you graduated from college in ’80?
Yeah. [Pause.] Except I didn’t go to college. In the days of my youth, female sexuality was where it was at. The modern idea of a guy just sitting there getting a Monica Lewinsky was completely unheard of. Blow jobs were seen as sexist. The whole point of sex was a women’s sexuality.
Your mother had books in the house or you bought them yourself?
Like “Our Bodies Ourselves” or “Fear of Flying.”
No, no, no.
So where did you learn about this?
Let me get specific. The second girl I slept with — we were messing around on the floor of her parent’s house for the third night in a row, and she just stood up. She was really irritated. She explained that I was doing everything wrong. She explained female orgasm to me.
[Laughs] How old were you?
And how old was she?
Eighteen. Anyway, when you first get the “birds and the bees” talk, no one tells you about female orgasm.
And what did she say?
Basic hand maneuver information. So I was educated by a contemporary. Thereafter, the majority of the sex I experienced as a single man was centered around “Isadora Wing’s” pleasure. So many years later, America seems to have switched back to King Penis.
There is a lot of retro sexuality going on. Kids are having a lot more sex, but most of it is servicing the man. The 14-year-olds and the 15-year-olds who are giving oral sex (but don’t consider it sex) have figured out a way to get power from men, but they are not getting orgasms or enjoying it. It’s just a power maneuver.
As a mother, did you have to go through that with your daughter?
Did my daughter go through that? You can ask her. She’s coming here at 4 o’clock. I was thinking more of girls who are teenagers now. Molly is 24. I hear from young women Molly’s age and younger, that the double standard is alive and well. I spoke at Barnard a couple of weeks ago at a course where they were teaching “Fear of Flying” and “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” in a course called “Sexuality and Storytelling.” I asked the students what did they see in “Fear of Flying” that they identified with, and they said, “Double standard is alive and well.” A girl who is open about her sexuality is considered a “slut.” I said, “But you can watch “Sex and the City” on TV. And every magazine in the newsstand says, “A hundred ways to drive him wild in bed.” Aren’t things more open?” They said, “No. That’s just pop culture.” In reality, pop culture may seem to be more open, but in reality a girl who is open about her sexuality is seen as a slut. That’s what the Barnard girls told me a few weeks ago.
So there was a golden age of sex in the late ’70s and early ’80s —
Yes. And it is over. It is over. I guess that Bush is the capper of the decline of the golden age. He’s going to take back Roe v. Wade. Daycare. Reproductive choice. The right wing has redefined reproductive choice. They’ve captured the language. They say that they’re “pro-life” and many young people think that they are pro-life too. They [the right wing] won the linguistic debate. And when you win the linguistic debate, you’ve won the debate. Period. There are a lot of young women whose mothers marched against abortion being illegal who now say abortion is murder.
When “Fear of Flying” came out I know you got some flak from feminists —
I got flak from everybody. The male chauvinists called me a “Mammoth pudenda.” Paul Theroux reviewing the book in the New Statesman said “Isadora Wing is nothing but a mammoth pudenda roomy as the Carlsbad Caverns.” You never forget a review like that. Merv Griffin said, “You just want to piss standing up.” Oh, he didn’t say “piss.” “You just want to use the lavatory standing up.” The feminists said that Isadora was not a feminist because “she wore lipstick and liked men and wore high heels and she liked frilly underwear.” So I got it from both sides. I was absolutely attacked by male chauvinists and feminists both.
So what was your average day like back in the 1970s? You were a pop icon.
Yeah. But you don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I am a pop icon.” I can’t say I had an average day. At that time I was married to a psychoanalyst, Allan Jong. I was teaching part-time. I was thinking, “Gee, I should finish my Ph.D.” so I would have something to fall back on. I was sure whatever was happening would not last. And I would go back to writing slim books of verse. I was corresponding with Henry Miller. That was amazing. I was living on the Upper West Side in the neighborhood I had grown up in. People would call out of the blue. Men would get out of jail and camp out in front of my door. But I didn’t know what was happening. It’s so weird to become a public figure that at first you don’t believe it, you know what I mean? You think someone should have a rule book, you know, “take your name out of the phone book. Don’t tell people where you live.” There should be a rule book, but there isn’t. So there you are, you’re a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, you’ve published a couple of books, you’re married to a shrink, you’re debating about finishing your Ph.D. and suddenly people are camping out at your front door. It’s very discombobulating.
You have a bleacher seat in the evolution of celebrity from then to what it is now.
In a way. I never believed it was real, you see. And what I wanted to do with my life was so far from that. I wanted to be Colette. I wanted to be eventually 80 years old and have a shelf of books with my name on them. I had this European ideal of a writer producing book after book. [Pause.] I still do in a way. The whole fame thing was really weird to me. Gradually you get used to it. You take your name out of the phone book. You become a little more guarded (I’m not a very guarded person anyway). You try to preserve yourself a little bit from the crazies out there. There are crazies out there. Stalkers. That’s for sure. Then there were women who would write to me and say, “My husband beats me. I’m so miserable. I read ‘Fear of Flying,’ can I come live with you — me and my four kids.” And then there were men who would send naked pictures of themselves, and say, “I’m exceptionally well-endowed and I can see from your writing you are a ‘size queen’ so let’s go at it baby.” This was terrifying.
Oh, I was planning to leave you my photograph, too.
Of course. I’ve read that journalists would feel at liberty to come on to you.
Yeah, but subtly. There was a guy who wrote obits for the New York Times in those days — who is now dead so I can talk about him — who would take you out to lunch and tell you he was preparing your obit, and that you would get a better obit if you came across.
And now you’re alive and that sucker is dead.
It was weird. The funny thing is if I had known that I was having “a pivotal experience of my generation,” I would have made better make notes of what was going on.
[Singing] “You don’t read many female writers, do you/No you’re wrong/Who’ve you read lately?/Erica Jong.”
What did you think when you heard that Dylan song? Did anyone prepare you?
I started getting e-mail. “What do you think, that you’re in Bob Dylan’s song?” I said, “I’m honored. I’m thrilled.” He’s a great artist. I’m happy to be mentioned.
Did you ever meet him?
No. I would be happy to meet him and say, “Hi.”
Your prejudice is for Jungian therapy, isn’t it?
I’ve been analyzed by so many kinds of people that I don’t know. I think Jungian is interesting, especially if you’re a poet. But I think the analysts who have changed my life have been very eclectic.
Do you still serve time?
I still go. But it’s not analysis.
What is it?
She’s a Freudian. But I don’t do psychoanalysis. I go to her in intermediate waves, and work on things like writer’s block and other things. I’m not “in” analysis. I was in analysis when I was in my 20s.
I think everyone should be in analysis when they’re in their 20s.
My analyst changed my life. When I lived in Germany, I lucked into the only English-speaking analyst in Heidelberg, Germany. He was Alexander Mitscherlich. He was fiercely anti-Nazi. He was the first person that took me seriously as a writer. He helped me break through a lot of barriers in my work. He changed my life.
What year was that?
In terms of your oh-ver.
I can’t speak French … your body of work …
To be frank, I’ve always pegged you as “The Sex Woman” even though you’ve written about many things. I have the same idea toward Henry Miller. I never identified with him. I was the wrong age for that. He’s been pegged as “The Sex Guy.” Do you feel obligated to write about sex?
No. But if there is any sex in my books, that’s all anyone sees. I used to joke, “I’ll stop writing about sex when people stop being interested in it.” People are interested in sex, just face it. But even in “Fear of Flying” there are so many other things in that book besides sex that no one focused on. Heidelberg, Germany, and discovering your sense of being Jewish — pretty interesting. People just open the book and see zipless fuck and go, “Oh my God!” That’s not about me and my writing, that’s about the culture we live in. As far as Henry is concerned, he wrote about a lot of things that weren’t sex. I always tell students to start with “The Colossus of Maroussi,” which is this incredibly spiritual book about a trip to Greece in 1940 between the two wars and then having a trip back in time to ancient Greece. There is no sex in “The Colossus of Maroussi,” and in some ways it’s Henry’s most beautiful book. But people only see “Tropic of Cancer.” That’s because our society is sex-obsessed, not because his work is preponderantly about that. It’s not. One of my favorite books of his is “The Books in my Life,” which is amazing. There is no sex in it at all.
You spent a lot of time with Miller near the end of his life, didn’t you?
I did. He wrote me a fan letter. He said, “You have written the female “Tropic of Cancer.” I of course ran out and bought everything of his that I hadn’t read to make [me] worthy of answering his letter. We corresponded for six months and then I went to visit him in his home in Pacific Palisades, California. This was in ’74 and ’75. He was quite old and infirm. He was in a wheelchair. He spent a lot of the day in bed. He’d be wheeled out at 5:30 at night and guests would gather around the table. He would just come alive, and talk about Paris in the ’30s. He knew everybody. He was enormously alive. The table would sometimes be filled with people in their 20s and 30s, and he would seem the youngest person there. He had this great vitality. We would ask him questions about his work. About Paris. Brooklyn where he was growing up. He would talk and talk and exhaust himself. And then be wheeled back into his room and collapse.
He used to say, “In my mind I have the most delicious erotic fantasies.” A different group of young people lived in the house and they would cook for him. I had many visits with him, and at some point in that process when he was telling me about his literary background, I said, “Henry, can I tape record these recollections, because I might someday want to write about you.” He said, “Oh, sure tape recording is fine, dontcha know. Just tell ‘em I’m not a pornographer. I’m always looking for the secret of life, dontcha know.” I began to tape record some of these interviews. Sometimes it was just a visit and I wouldn’t tape record. I spent a lot of time with him this way. A young writer asking an old writer about life. I had left Allan Jong and had fallen in love with [science fiction writer] Jonathan Fast. I moved to California and was living in a rented house in Malibu with Jonathan.
And Bob Dylan was just across the way.
I never met him! I was getting a divorce from Allan Jong. It was ’74, ’75, ’76. Henry died in ’78 or was it ’79. No, he died in the ’80s. The last two years of his life, I knew some of the kids who were looking after him, and they would talk to me. The last year was tough. He was not well. He had to be carried from place to place.
Did you ever meet Anais Nin?
Once at the 92nd Street Y.
Did you talk with her?
She said in her speech, “I read that a woman who wrote honestly about sex would never be taken seriously as a writer.” She said that in passing about why she had expurgated her journals when she first published them. I remember raising my hand and saying, “But Ms. Nin! We must change things.” [Laughs.]
Did she know who you were?
I think at that time I had just published one slim volume of verse.
What was the first sexy thing you wrote? Did it just come out naturally? Or did you think, “I’m pushing the envelope”?
What do you think is sexy thing in “Fear of Flying”?
Anything dealing with Isadora’s sexuality.
I remember when I was writing about Isadora sitting on the train and having fantasies, thinking, “There is no way this is going to be published. No one would publish these thoughts coming from a woman.” Five years earlier they wouldn’t have. It just happens the feminist movement made everyone curious about women’s sexuality. When I was in college Theodore Roethke was quoted as “Women poets always stomping a tiny foot against God.” Or “Don’t write with your ovaries on your sleeve.”
[The doorbell rings. Jong answers it. She introduces her daughter.] This is Molly Jong-Fast, young novelist [author of "Normal Girl"], bride to be.
[We spend five minutes gossiping about publishing.] Did you ever hear the rumor about [well-known figure]? It’s salacious.
Molly: I think I heard this rumor.
He would go to Bryant Park and some woman would give him a blow job.
Erica: In Bryant Park?
Molly: I heard stories like that. Usually a female assistant or female editor would do it. I heard he had a tendency for large-breasted Russian women, and if you notice there are many large-breasted Russian editors who work with him.
So I’m supposed to ask you, is the sexuality of your generation just about sexually servicing men?
Molly: I don’t know. Maybe.
Erica: Remember the “Oprah” show that we did? Where they said, “All teenage girls do is service men sexually and don’t have any pleasure themselves.”
Molly: Remember we had to take a train home?
Erica: Molly has a fear of flying.
Molly: A real crippling fear of flying. The last time I flew I tried being hypnotized …
Erica: When we were leaving Chicago —
Molly: This is why my mother is the greatest person alive. So we’re sitting at [unintelligible] eating ice cream and she says, “You have to get on the plane.” I said, “I can’t get on the plane.” And she says, “You have to.”
Erica: I said, “You have to overcome your fears.”
Molly: I said, “We can take the train. It will only take –” And then I lied. I said “eight hours.” It really took 23 hours. It turned out that the super first class room which is the handicapped room –”
Erica: I didn’t know any of this!
Molly: –is really big and it was available. We get on the train and there are all these Amish. I had never seen so many Amish in all my life.
A train full of Amish?
Molly: The only people who ride the train are people who are really poor — because the train is relatively cheap — and the Amish. [Pause.] And me.
Erica: I had to call my husband and cop to the fact that my daughter had tricked me into taking the train. He laughed …
Molly, when did you develop this “fear of flying”?
Molly: Remember. It was to Atlanta. That was when I knew, “We’re all gonna die.”
Erica: It was during this hurricane.
Molly: “We’re all gonna die.”
As an amateur psychologist —
[Erica & Molly laugh]
Your mother’s big novel is “Fear of Flying” and the title has somehow manifested into a literal fear of flying for her daughter.
Erica: I don’t think that has anything to do with it.
Molly: It’s really scary to get into those planes and they go all the way up …
I have a question to both of you as poets and women of the world. When I was 19 I was friends with [Poetess X]. She came to New York to give a reading. First, she took me out to dinner first with another couple. Then she showed up at the reading and I remember a line was “Oh how I hate my destiny.” Then we drove back to her hotel — her and I were in the back seat. We hadn’t touched each other or anything. So far, we were just friends. But the woman said goodbye to her friends in the front seat and just got out of the car. I just sat there and then said, “Goodbye” from the window. For more than 20 years I’ve wondered if I was suppose to get out of the car with her. Or was she so bummed out about “hating” her destiny that she forgot I existed?
Erica: Were you attracted to her?
Molly: Should you have gotten out of the car though, that’s the big question.
Erica: How drunk were you?
Not at all.
Molly: [to her mother] How many times have you been asked a question like this?
Erica: Never before. Congratulations.
Molly: He’s asked an original question. I think he gets a present.
Erica: What would you like?
[Sweating, evades question.] Don’t you two get asked a lot of love-advice questions?
Erica: I do, but it’s always a disaster.
Molly: The last advice she gave was to two people who will remain unnamed who were engaged in a menage à trois, and Mom said it was a great idea and they should keep going, but they ended up getting a divorce. Thank you very much and goodnight.
Erica: They asked me if it was OK that they had drawn another woman into their relationship and were they going to live all together in harmony.
Molly: They were like the dumbest people I had ever known.
Erica: I said, “There is no such thing as normal. If you dig it, do it. Have fun.”
I had a girlfriend who suggested we get together with another girl. We went to this club in Boston to meet her, but she never showed. Later, I realized the tryst had been called off because I was too enthusiastic about the prospect.
Erica: There is no right way to behave in a situation like that. If you’re not enthusiastic, it’s not good. If you’re too enthusiastic, it’s not good.
What’s your experience?
Erica: I’m not going to talk about it in front of my daughter. She’s of the generation that doesn’t approve of that.
[Molly leaves the room.]
So did you have that experience?
So far in the past that I barely remember. The sad truth is — the sad, sad truth is — I have experimented with a lot of things, but I am a really monogamous and moral person. Most of my relationships have been serially monogamous which is not unusual. I’m very loyal. I really like intimacy with another person. I want to be really intimate with my husband and have a conversation that goes on all the time. I loathe to do things that would fracture that intimacy. Especially now in my fourth marriage when I’m with someone who is a soul mate and who I treasure, I don’t want it to create great gaps between us which might inevitably happen if we were both experimenting with different people. Also, I did that when I was younger so I don’t have a great need to. I certainly remember it. I remember the driving passion. [Pause.] I’m really a homebody is the terrible truth.
I’ve read that the big secret in many American marriages is that the couples stop having sex.
People lie about their sex life or their lack of sex life. I honestly think in marriage sex ebbs and flows. I think if it’s not active at all for years and years it can feel like separation to people. Yet there are many kinds of sex. I know a lot of people who are married and never have sex. But something always happens to break that up. Another thing, is a lot of people just don’t like sex. A lot of people don’t like intimacy. A lot of people are not capable of intimacy. They don’t want to cop to that. Or acknowledge it. I can’t talk about them, I really don’t know. I can only talk about myself because I know what I need.
Do you have a moral disgust of Bill Bennett, the moralist who looses millions to slot machines?
I hate moral zealots. I think they’re the most dangerous people. It doesn’t matter if they’re Bill Bennett or Osama Bin Laden or George Bush. It’s the same kind of person. It’s a person who says, “This is the way I see morality and religion and you’re going to see it the way I see it or you’re the devil.” I think those people are extremely dangerous and I’ve always hated Bill Bennett. I thought he was a fraud before I found out he was a gambler. That made me chortle.
Did he ever attack you by name?
I don’t know. Many other moralists have attacked me through the years. There is so much hypocrisy out there. The great hypocritical thing is Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky. We saw this in our lifetimes. All these creepy Republicans who were getting blow jobs all over the place from their assistants pillory Bill Clinton for doing the same things that they were doing. They couldn’t make Whitewater stick, so they went after his blow job.
The first Bush had a mistress.
That was well known. JFK had mistresses and interns. FDR had mistresses. Eleanor Roosevelt had lovers. This is not news. Not a hot flash. It is just a convenient way of destroying the credibility of the Democrats and bringing the Republicans into power.
So what are you writing next?
I’m writing a contemporary novel set in New York, it’s about being a woman of a certain age and having dying parents, I don’t know much more than that. I’ve been working on it for a while. I know what I’m going to do after that. I want to write a historical novel set in L.A. in the 1930s. I was just out there staying at the Chateau Marmont and I was visited by ghosts who gave me the plot of the novel.
Ghosts for real?
They turned the lights on and off in my suite in the middle of the night. I don’t know whether it was John Belushi or Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, but someone was there.
I find that my reading changes from decade to decade. I’ve always figured I’ll wait for my 50s to start reading Henry James.
I spent the last five years reading all the Greek poets [in preparation for "Sappho's Leap"]. Reading Homer over and over again. I’m just crazy about Greek lyric poetry.
I just interviewed an English poet, Christopher Logue, who is rewriting the Iliad.
There’s a “trend story” here. Did you see Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” based on Ovid? There’s Stephen Pressman who’s writing novels based on classical themes. There’s this young woman who wrote a book about Ovid in exile. I think it’s called “The Love Artists.” I believe in times of world crisis people go back to the classics. Because they want to know what is enduring and what is enduring about politics. And the classics are calling us back right now. It’s not just my novel. I see it all around me. We really feel like we’re at the end of our days.
Can you see downtown from here?
Yes. I could see the smoke rising from 9/11.
Are we looking south?
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)