Martin Scorcese’s HBO documentary Public Speaking is about the writer Fran Lebowitz and, judging by the trailer and reviews, it consists mostly of Scorcese filming Lebowitz while she talks, which might be her true métier. If you’ve seen Lebowitz interviewed, it’s no wonder Scorcese chose to make his movie this way.
For those who don’t subscribe to HBO, there is an alternative way to see Lebowitz in full interview mode, over the years, documentary-style and collocated: the Fran Lebowitz index page in the archives section of the Charlie Rose show website. There she is in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2010 (talking about Public Speaking and her legendary writer’s block—or “writer’s blockade,” as she calls it—among other topics).
The 1997 segment is a common round table covering “the year in books.” It took place in June of that year, and Sybil Steinberg of Publisher’s Weekly and Calvin Trillin were the other guests. During the discussion, Lebowitz described her reading habits and, ignoring the topic at hand, reached to the past to extol Appointment in Sammara, Howard’s End, and Mavis Gallant whose Selected Stories were at least being published at the time. Lebowitz called Gallant the greatest short-story writer—writing in English. This caveat was needed because Lebowitz has always been monolingual, she said, although she was, as an infant, very briefly no-lingual.
Lebowitz also mentions a writer I would not have known in 1997 and was still unaware of until recently: mystery writer David Carkeet. He’s very funny, said Lebowitz, and she highly recommended Carkeet’s debut comic novel Double Negative. It was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1980, and it is being kept in print today, appropriately perhaps, by Overlook Press. (Carkeet’s newest novel, From Away, was published last year, also by Overlook.) Double Negative is the first of three books featuring the character Jeremy Cook, who, like Carkeet, is a linguist.
These Lebowitz interviews on the Charlie Rose site—a poor man’s documentary, or document, as it were—are not groundbreaking necessarily, and they might well be outtakes in any documentary film, but they are interesting snapshots of U.S. culture and politics at different moments over the last decade and a half. Some of what was being discussed then on television seems painfully ridiculous in hindsight (the Clinton-Lewinsky affair). On display, however, on the Rose website and in Public Speaking, is a person—Lebowitz—one rarely sees interviewed at length on television these days: witty, sarcastic, acerbic, literary, a real grown-up with something to say.