One of the most harrowing scenes in recent movie history involves writers, a coffee shop, and lost hope.
In A Short History of Decay, a struggling writer walks into his local Brooklyn cafe. He glances around and spots Jennifer Egan, and then Michael Cunningham, and over there, at the corner table, is Gary Shteyngart, , probably working on his next bestseller. In fact, the entire cafe is stuffed to the quills with accomplished writers. It’s the type of self-negating daydream only a writer could understand. Our shell-shocked, floundering writer is spooked; he bolts out the door. The audience understands his ennui: he doesn’t measure up. And he knows he may never.
I cringed my way through this scene and its familiar clichés: Brooklyn, writers, coffee, despair. The scene was filmed at a café I frequent, where I’ve spent many an afternoon self-consciously writing, certain the person next to me was stringing together more sophisticated sentences. The are few things more humbling than watching art imitate your life.
The scene forced a reckoning with how far the reality of being a working writer in New York is from the fantasy I’d held since childhood. I didn’t know any writers growing up, and along with artists, musicians, and actors, they existed in a distant fantasyland accessible only by those with unequivocal talent and intelligence. Like royalty, writers were born, not made. Or so I thought. A writer was simply something you were, or you were not. Though I wrote furiously and consistently for as long as I can remember, I simply was not.
For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I had a ruby slippers moment: The very thing that seemed unattainable had been mine all along. So I left a teaching career and became a writer for real. Once I stepped off the cliff, I was supposed to land on my feet, publish a novel, waltz into Brooklyn’s deep blue nights, and live happily ever after. But I’ve been falling for six years now, and my parachute still hasn’t opened.
At some point in this extended free fall, I began to question my ability. No, I’d always questioned my ability. I questioned my judgment. It seemed if I wasn’t going to be a famous specter in a coffee shop, why had I bothered to even try?
I don’t believe in potent elixirs or panaceas when it comes to lost faith—in writing, or otherwise. My room is haunted by the ghosts of two stillborn books. I find it increasingly hard to winnow my focus down to the still point where stories are conceived. And yet.
I desperately wanted to find the joy in writing again. I wanted to create something in a medium I’m not all that familiar with. . So I made a video. About writers. At the end of the day, all that we have to hold onto, really, is other people’s stories. And that’s how “Writers on Wheels Getting Tea” was born.
I was also inspired to create this because although I’ve had the privilege of conducting meaningful interviews with authors, a contrived interview setup often doesn’t let the interviewer or the interviewee’s personality fully shine through, I wanted more from authors, and from myself. I wanted my interviews to be lively. Spontaneous. A little goofy.
I asked novelist Amy Sohn to be my interviewee because she talks honestly about craft, money, and the realities of the writing life. What’s more, Sohn’s five novels (particularly Prospect Park West and Motherland) offer a satirical take on why writing —like life—is far less perfect than it seems.
The Rumpus: So how did you become a writer?
Amy Sohn: I was living in Carroll Gardens, going on a lot of bad dates, going on auditions and being told I was too fat. So my life was difficult. And so I wrote a story and sent it into New York Press. It was called “The Blowup Boyfriend” and was all about how I wished I had an inflatable boyfriend. I guess you could call it postfeminist, or postmodernist.
Rumpus: It sounds like magical realism, actually.
Sohn: Thank you. That’s very sweet. So anyway, they bought my column, and in those days you had to bring it in on a disc. And when I brought it into my editor, John Strausbaugh, I had another column on there ready to go. So I said there’s something else on there, you might want to look at it.
Rumpus: That was really ballsy of you.
Sohn: Yeah, to use a heteronormative, patriarchal word.
Rumpus: Very ovary-ish of you, is that better?
Sohn: [Laughs] So he said okay, I’ll take a look, and they bought the second piece.
Rumpus: And you had no qualms about sharing your personal life?
Sohn: I didn’t know it was going to be a column, when I gave him the second piece.
Rumpus: It was like a one-off?
Sohn: So then they brought me in for a meeting, and they’re like, we want you to write a regular column. We’ll pay you $100 for each one, and we’ve got to come up with a title. So I spent weeks and weeks thinking about what it would be called. I wanted to call it Maidenhead.
Rumpus: Why does that make me think of Medieval Times?
Sohn: I was just looking at my Roget’s Thesaurus looking for synonyms for vaginas and virginity, but they’re like no, we’re calling it Female Trouble because Russ Smith and John Strausbaugh had been at the Baltimore City Paper, and of course were huge John Waters fans, and you know there’s a John Waters movie called Female Trouble. That’s all a long way of saying I started out as nonfiction first-person writer, and then about six months later I got an agent.
Rumpus: Wait, wait, you just got an agent?
Sohn: Well, my agent had been my brother’s camp counselor and I ran into him on the subway. So anyway, he had the idea that it would be a nonfiction collection. And then we went out and met with a whole bunch of publishers. Not only do nonfiction collections tend not to sell, but it didn’t seem like the most fun thing for me to do because it would be republishing things that had already been published.
Sohn: No. I still had an agent and I was still going on auditions. I did an episode of Law & Order called “Girlfriends.” A hooker at Columbia turns out to be involved, and her father is running a prostitution ring. I had about a minute of screen time. And Jerry Orbach came up to me and said “You must be the Femi-Nazi.” It wasn’t until I got my book deal [at twenty-three] that I quit.
Rumpus: Do you look back and think wow, that happened really quickly for me?
Sohn: Yeah, it did, but I don’t think I really realized it at the time. I was very, very lucky. My whole life changed in about a five-month period. In general, I feel like my career is filled with bad timing, but the one thing that went right was to be in my early twenties in the mid-’90s, when publishing was coming off the heat and the excitement of books like Less Than Zero and Slaves of New York. There was a lot of interest in the first novel, and sort of sexual, New York, coming of age books. At that time, if you were a young, attractive woman who was writing really candidly about sex and sexuality and had a bildungsroman, to use the Yiddish word—
Rumpus: Yes, the traditional Yiddish—
Sohn: —a bildungsroman set in New York, there wasn’t a glut. Remember, this was pre-Internet, I was coming from the alternative press, it kind of had its own nice little platform. It had a lot of media insiders because it was this weird anomaly. It was a libertarian paper with sex columnists.
Rumpus: So you were kind of like the Rand Paul of sex columnists?
Sohn: They had a lot of—Jonathan Ames was writing for them; Dave Eggers wrote for them.
Rumpus: So when you got your book deal, did you put pressure on yourself to prove something?
Sohn: I was scared when I got my advance—I was scared because I had to deliver, and I had to come up with a story. And so what I came up with, there was a big scandal at The New Republic, where Steven Glass was fired for fabricating these articles, and so I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if a sex columnist got fired for fabricating her orgasms and how good she was in bed, or how good the guy was in bed, or how many times they did it or if anybody came? So it was sort of a satire where she becomes taken down. I’m still very proud of it. It had a lot of—I think someone used the phrase “energetic self-mockery”—and it was very pure in a certain way because I’d never done it before.
Rumpus: You’d never written fiction before?
Sohn: I guess you could call some of the columns fiction, but they really weren’t. I guess what you’re asking—no, I’d never written fiction. But it was all based on real stories from my life. I would exaggerate things. And so I made a lot of stuff up in the book, and people got very confused.
Rumpus: Your books tend to deal with these seemingly idyllic situations, like Hollywood stardom and picture perfect Brooklyn lives, but they sort of pull back the curtain on them. There are these lives that seem perfect, but they’re actually very dysfunctional and very flawed.
Rumpus: I mean, that’s something you’ve written about a lot. Is that intentional? What draws you to that?
Sohn: Well I think a lot of writers to some extent are interested in pulling the curtain back and looking at the real base motivations underlying the facade of bourgeois life, or whatever. I really appreciate that comment. I’m now trying to think how does Run Catch Kiss fit into that.
Rumpus: I haven’t read that one, but you do it in a really pointed way. I’m not trying to insult you, but, ah, a lot of writers, myself included, are afraid to do that because you piss a lot of people off. And you do all these other mainstream things too, scripts and pilots and ghostwrite books.
Sohn: One of my favorite writers, Geoff Dyer, he says he likes to be working on three projects at once. And when I read that I was like oh, screw you, Artforum and Bookforum pay you a lot of money.
Rumpus: But that’s interesting, since I read something where he was like, I have to have a project I’m working on, so I can work on a second one, so that if I feel bad I’m not working on project A, then project B will always feel like a dessert.
Sohn: And he’s written entire books about not writing, and what you do in the space between. It’s kind of like when you go to see a musician, and the stuff between songs is more interesting. Right now, I’m doing something for money, and I’m doing something not for money, and I always make sure I’m doing the thing for money first because you need to maintain that feeling that it’s the dessert.
Rumpus: Right, you have to have something to make it feel special. Like the writing always has to be the mistress.
Sohn: Yes, the art, the art always needs to be the mistress, because you need to maintain that feeling that it’s a dessert.
Rumpus: So you keep it hot.
Sohn: Yeah, keep her waiting. But don’t keep her waiting too long, because then you won’t do it. I’ve also fallen into the pattern where I’m so busy trying to make money that I’m not tending to the art, and I’m not even making that much money. See, we ended up talking too much about money.
Rumpus: But I think it’s interesting to people. I didn’t know any writers growing up, and it’s like so what do you do as a writer, you write a book and you live off that? Um, no.
Sohn: That’s how naïve I was when I was twenty-three.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people think that because they don’t see all this other stuff that goes into being a writer. I mean, they don’t see all these ghostwritten books because you don’t want people to see them.
Sohn: Well, my name’s on some of them—but did you also know I wrote the Desperate Housewives book?
Rumpus: Wait, what? No. So who’s your favorite housewife?
Amy: Who’s my favorite desperate housewife? Oh, it’d have to be Felicity.
Sohn: I thought that I’d never be able to write another word. You know, this thing, that you have a baby and get stupid.
Rumpus: That’s what I’m worried about.
Sohn: No, it didn’t happen. What wound up happening, it really blew my mind because—without going into too much detail—I had a dark and somewhat isolating experience of early motherhood. And creatively, what it did, is it really opened me to a new kind of deeper writing, I think. In other words, I suffered for the first time in a really big way, and I became depressed for the first time. That’s when I started writing about the mothers, even though a lot of people think those books [Motherland and Prospect Park West] are social satire—and they are social satire—there’s a lot of loneliness and darkness in them too. I wrote about the darkness of marriage, the darkness of being triangulated about your own child. So I had kind of a crack-up, and it helps if you’re an artist, because nobody’s going to question you.
Rumpus: Right, it’s a nice justification. It’s like oh, well, she’s a writer, I’m surprised it took this long.
Sohn: I have a friend, Bruce J. Friedman, he’s one of my favorite writers, and he said I had a mortgage to pay so I couldn’t have a full breakdown.
Rumpus: There is something appealing about having a legitimate excuse not to keep striving. But I guess no matter how anxious or depressed I get, I never feel justified in saying, “This is really bad.” Because it’s like you’re friend, it’s like everybody expects you to keep going, and it’s also like those are the moments when something really good might come.
Rumpus: Might is the operative word. But sometimes when you’re so depressed and you think you can’t write another word, that’s exactly when you have nothing to lose.