Interview by Magdalena Ball
Tell me about the genesis of New York. What made you decide to write these essays?
Actually they were written for a German newspaper, Die Zeit. They were commissioned. They wanted me to write about anything.
Is there something about New York which makes it an especially good subject?
Everything. NY is unlike any other city in the world in that the city is the hub of your life. You could live in a lot of places, but they tend not to intrude into your life in the way NY does. It intrudes totally. It is like living with another person. It is as active as another person and volatile and difficult. Every New Yorker loves to tell you what is wrong with the city, to talk about the city. But to anyone else (non-New Yorkers) they become defensive.
Do New Yorkers seem themselves as separated from the rest of the US?
Enormously. New Yorkers totally differentiate between being an American and being a New Yorker. When I start speaking about America people needed to remind me that my experience of Americans is quite limited. Living in New York is not the same as living anywhere else in America and is in many ways like a separate country.
Could you see a similar book written about say, Sydney, Berlin or Paris?
I doubt it, even though I think Sydney is really the most beautiful in the world. I’m choosing my words carefully. I say the, rather than one of the. It is just breathtaking, but it doesn’t affect you in the same way, it doesn’t sit inside the consciousness as much. Of course I wouldn’t be an outsider in Sydney, but no city would drive me a crazy as NY does. Yes NY is just a place where everybody has obstacles. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or massively wealthy. The wealthy here can’t live an isolated existence: you can’t go from valet parking in your building to valet parking at the opera. Even Jackie Onassis had to walk across Central Park – everybody does. There is a shared experience you don’t find elsewhere.
One of my favourite essays is “Busy”. I’m sure this “cult of busy-ness” is not confined to NYC (although it is probably exacerbated there). Do you think there is a cure for this modern ailment?
No. The only cure is acceptance. You can’t. It is part of the city. Everybody’s got an agenda; an ambition and a curiosity, and everybody is tired. Nobody is slow. Nobody strolls, nobody pauses to chat. I hate seeing myself like that. I walk so quickly in the street that I start knocking into tourists. Things like Voluntary Simplicity is not having any effect. Everyone is just as crazed; just as busy. People take on a lot.
Do you think that such busyness keeps people from reflecting?
I don’t know that too many people reflect. Given oceans of time on a large empty patch of land in Australia, I still don’t think that people would necessarily reflect. Most people make great leaps of their time – I’m always surprised how many people know what is happening, have read the latest books, are aware of politics, of issues. I think reflection is not what everybody is predisposed to – otherwise you would find whole societies where people have more time producing major works of reflection. We just don’t have that.
You were born in Germany and grew up in Australia. Living in NY as you now do, do you still consider yourself an Australian writer
I think of myself as Australian. You never change nationality. And I certainly refer to Americans as “they”. Of course I still think of myself as Australian. I spent the bulk of my life in Australia. It is just part of who I am. I don’t think you ever lose a sense of the country or ever become out of touch. I’ve spent the best days of my life growing up there.
Do you feel that you might write about an Australian landscape or sensibility one day? Does Melbourne haunt you in the same way as Poland or New York?
No, I’ve written my Melbourne Book with Things Could be Worse and some part of What God Wants. I feel very comfortable about Australia – it doesn’t haunt me. I don’t know if I would use the word “haunt” with respect to how I feel about Poland – I think you could call it having a compulsion to understand and a need to disseminate and have a voice on a subject. Of course the Poland of my parents, well, “haunt” would not be the wrong word to use, but I’m more driven to try to understand it and I’ve given up thinking that it will ever not be a part of me. With Australia I just feel it is not my job to define it. It is not something I feel a compulsion to do.
Do you feel that non-fiction has more constraints than fiction? Were you worried about the impact on the real people you talked about (your daughters, your hairdresser, your fellow co-op residents, your father?).
Yes fiction has more constraints and you just can’t go off into some wonderful story where you control all the elements, where things work because you want it to work. I’ve written 12 books and I think that by that time you lose your ability to hurt people. I think my kids are really lucky – they know me through my books in a much deeper way than they would otherwise. We all know our mothers in one way but I feel as though I’ve given them more of me than just mothering. I wish I’d had something my mother had written. My children are quite pleased to have such access to who I am.
Your essays (and even your novels) have a personal quality and intimacy to them. Do you sometimes feel that you’ve lost a degree of privacy or that strangers feel they have some ownership of your life?
I get a surprise when I see how well people feel they know me because when I write, I just think about the book, about the writing of it. I don’t think about someone reading it. I just want to touch somebody – touch their heart when I write. Sometimes it is unnerving a little bit that I’ve exposed myself, but other times I see the enormous affection from people who read my books and I’m always unbearably moved when people tell me I’ve made a difference to how they feel. I do it because we sometimes see each other sanitised. I think it is very good to see that we are all living a life, all have these feelings.
Do people some times confuse you with the person in your novels?
This happens all the time to me. I’m always having to correct people on this point. People seem very keen to understand the line between fact and fiction which is irrelevant to me. I’ve never thought to delineate this. I’m quite clear on the distinction myself and fiction is always fiction, even if it takes its details from real life.
Your work tends towards the autobiographical, at least in terms of its subject matter. Do you feel that you might reach a limit on writing about the Holocaust or is there more material yet to be covered?
People ask me this and I always say that there is no limit. If I were writing on an Australian landscape I wouldn’t get asked the question. The Holocaust to me is this kind of landscape. It is who I am and the subject is as deep and limitless as life.
In Too Many Men, Ruth was dismayed to find that Auschwitz had become a kind of museum/theme park rather than the reminder of what was once a death camp. Do you think that, as survivors of the Holocaust become fewer in number, people need reminding that such an atrocity really took place?
Of course they do. Look at the world around you. What people need reminding of is that one human being can do these things to another. That one human being can see himself as being superior to another.
Your Jewishness is an important focal point in your work. How do non-believing Jews maintain a link with their heritage without the marker of religion?
I couldn’t get rid of the link even if I wanted to. Judaism as a religion is really something separate. Judaism is not just a religion but also a culture. There is a link between Jews which has nothing to do with the religion aspects. They are the same sorts of links that unite Italians or Greeks, and allow us to imagine certain stereotypes. Jews tend to be more anxious. I think this is just a part of who we are. The link is a strong one. Even with a non-Jewish father, my children think of themselves as Jewish. Even before we moved to New York, where the whole thing is intensified because there are so many other Jewish people, they read up on their history. I think these things get passed down. Are part of children wanting to understand their roots; their cultural history.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on two books. A fiction and a non-fiction. I’ve just taken a break on the fiction to finish off the non-fiction. All of them have their up and down sides. It is just lovely to be able to immerse yourself in the world of fiction. There is something indescribable about that. The totality of this fictional other world. But it is also nice to be able to work in the immediate relevancy of non-fiction. I’m also working on a book of poetry, but it has gotten waylaid in the face of the other two larger works. Poetry allows you to be very courageous and say a lot in just a few words. I start to crave it if I haven’t written it for a while.