Tama Janowitz: Its ridiculous to argue with idiots

As her memoir is published, the New York writer looks back on 35 years of literary life and feuds in the Big Apple

Tama Janowitzs Slaves of New York was one of the iconic books of 1980s New York and shot her to fame. She has now published seven novels, including The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group and Peyton Amberg, a reimagining of Madame Bovary. Having left the city behind, she now lives in the upstate countryside.

Youve been publishing books for 35 years, but nearly always fiction. Why a memoir now?
My mom retired from Cornell, where she was professor of English, in 2010 and about one year later she began to fall, so I went back to her house in upstate New York, thinking I could get things organised and shed be OK, but her physical condition deteriorated so rapidly I had to move up there. I thought, I should just start taking some notes, because I dont really have the psychological calmness to start writing a novel And then she got worse and I got more depressed and I had to put her in a home. So I was visiting her every day and still I was trying to take some notes. No matter how bleak things were, life in the nursing home was on many, many days incredibly hilarious.

That mixture of painful experience and comedy is very typical of your writing, isnt it?
I think if you dont get my sense of humour, which is pretty much New York bleak, black humour, and in many ways also English humour, then you just dont get my writing.

There are also many portraits of your mother as a younger woman, for example when shes coping with divorce and does unexpected things like taking you and your brother off to Israel to live
My mother, in real life, was much braver and more brilliant than I portray her in the book, but you can only do what you can with the moment. It was incredibly important for me to put down even fragments of how the lives of women have changed, because in my mothers generation, she got fired when she was pregnant and she was a dietician. Womens options were just so much more limited compared to now and I worry that young women dont even notice or realise, even though its still unequal, how much things have changed, that they have so many more opportunities and hope for so much more.

You describe how you submitted your early work to magazines under the name Tom A Janowitz
I didnt get anybody to read those pieces and then I think my mom and I said, look, its written from the first person point of a man, lets just see what the reality is. And you know, Tom was getting letters from editors at Esquire things had not changed really since the Bronts writing under the name of the Bells, or George Eliot. It was an interesting experiment.

When your short-story collection, Slaves of New York, came out in 1986, you gained a lot of recognition, as part of what was called the literary brat pack, alongside writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. How did that feel?
I didnt know these guys. Of course, gradually we were put together on readings, or there were dinners, but I really didnt know them at all. I didnt care or mind, because it meant every time one name was mentioned, the other names were mentioned; the books were hitting an audience of young people that were running out to buy a book to read it for fun, not because it was assigned at university. These were literary books they were purchasing because it spoke to their generation, I suppose as Kerouac spoke to his generation, you know.

Watch the trailer for the film based on Tama Janowitzs Slaves of New York (1989).

But you were quite different from one another, in literary terms
Basically, the writing has nothing in common with each other and we didnt hang out or be friends. I remember being so, so upset because Jay McInerney was interviewed and he said how terrible it was that an author does an ad; Tama Janowitz did ads, an author who does ads is a whore I dont think it in any way makes sense for one writer to call another writer a whore for doing ads. For one thing, Hemingway did ads, Norman Mailer did an ad for Trump Airlines, Lillian Hellman, John Steinbeck all the authors did ads.

Joan Didion did an ad! I just couldnt understand why I was singled out for this and that one author would call another author a whore, especially when that author kept marrying rich women. I needed money and I also wanted to not sit at the desk every day. I was doing it partly as, lets see what this adventure is like.

Did you ever have it out with Jay McInerney or your other critics?
No, its ridiculous to argue with idiots. And besides that, you cant teach anybody anything, people are very busy trying to teach other people a lesson. But its like Andy [Warhol] said to me, and he said it much, much cleverer, if I get a bad review, its not what they say, its how many inches they jab at you.

You paint a gripping portrait of Andy in the book, especially of his constant activity as a kind of mask for his loneliness

He also enjoyed it with a sort of childlike zest and glee that I stopped having. He just loved going out, he loved the latest restaurants and seeing people, it was all so interesting to him, even if we went to see the latest modern dance company and Id look over at him and hed be asleep. He was taking a little nap! And then afterwards wed go backstage, and hed tell the choreographer, oh that was just so great, and Id be like, but Andy, you slept through it. But he just enjoyed it all. And I stopped enjoying it I needed a lot more time alone.

You almost fell out of love with New York and its social life, didnt you?
I stopped using the city for what I had at first loved about it, which was the sense of discovery; you could walk to these bleak, weird neighbourhoods, the meat market, or SoHo, and thered be some abandoned first-floor shop or working place with a crowd of people standing in front of it and youd be like, whats going on? Well, its an art opening and then youd go in, you didnt need an invitation, it was just kids. And it would be Saturday evening, five oclock, and the streets filthy and dirty, and youd walk in and get a glass of wine and say, who made these things? Well, the kids a janitor at this gallery, he paints on the subways all the time and it was Keith Haring who was having his first show.

Whats life like for you now you live in the countryside?
I just finished a draft of a novel, so Ive got to start revising that. After we finish speaking, Im going to go ride my horse. Im a bad rider, Im a novice, I just started since I moved here I ride by myself, and I just put my little music player on her and go and bump around. The horse really likes belly-dancing music because its got that beat to it. And rather unfortunately, she also really likes polka music. I threw in one or two songs to see what shed think of it and she loved it, just prancing along. But I cant listen to that all the time!

Scream is published 8 September by HarperCollins (18.99). <a href=”https://bookshop.theguardian.com/scream-391850.html” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Click here to order a copy for 15.57

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/28/tama-janowitz-memoir-new-york-interview

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