October 2004

Janine Armin

features

An Interview with Amy Sohn

Author of Run Catch Kiss, New York sex columnist Amy Sohn’s new sexy feast of a novel My Old Man tracks protagonist Rachel Block through the perils of a quarter-life crisis in which she must redefine her sexuality and awkwardly that of her parents. Block, a Rabbinical school drop-out finds financial and therapeutic solace in bartending, profession of the urban psychologist. The very sexual and sensual problems developed here are those I would assume resonate with many women. This is the point of the book I think, gratification in identification -- the “I totally know what you mean!” sentimentality that leads to female bonding.

There is often a sentence that sums up a book or at least one reviewer’s opinion of that book. “Art always trumps love. It’s so not fair,” -- this is the pseudo intellectual but fashion wise valley girl sensibility that seems to exist today and is ever-present in this book. Exemplar of this typecast, protagonist Rachel Block is both excessively analytical and fashionably acute. As some have said before, Amy Sohn is the voice of a generation but a very specific semi-popular urban-based artsy but professional female generation. Sohn discusses her new book My Old Man, comments on Jung, the process of writing and therapy sessions with Woody Allen’s psychiatrist.

How does the experience of writing your second novel differ from the first?

I was much more nervous about it. With the first one I didn't have much time to think -- I got an offer to write a book about a columnist so suddenly I was a novelist. With My Old Man, I was blocked for 2 years and even named my protagonist Rachel Block. There was more self-consciousness because I had been reviewed before, and I felt I had more on my shoulders, with everything I had heard about the sophomore slump. I was working on the novel for about nine months before anyone saw any portion of it, which was immensely gratifying. It helped make me not worry so much and helped keep me enjoy the writing. I wanted to write in a slightly different voice than Ariel Steiner's and getting her out of my head was hard -- that brash, sexual-pun-filled, braggadocio style. It took me a while but I think I found a voice that is somewhat more reserved without being boring. Rachel is Ariel on the inside and a much more conservative Jewish girl on the outside.

What's your cure for writer's block?

There is no cure. Enemas probably help although I didn't try it. In my case, I had to wait until inspiration struck. It happened suddenly and jubilantly. I had a seat from a taxicab in my old apartment and I remember sitting in it, rocking slightly, and writing joyously, with the kind of thrill you feel knowing it will become something. I knew I wouldn't use what I had verbatim but a lot of it is still in the book today.

Is there a strong connection between Run, Catch Kiss and My Old Man?

Run Catch Kiss is a book in part about the parents' chagrin at the sexual excesses of the child and My Old Man is about the child's chagrin at the parents. There is a saying, "Promiscuous is anyone who's had more sex than you have." In New York it's sort of the opposite -- we are quick to dub ourselves promiscuous, or out there. In this book I wanted to play with that. I wanted to explore the idea of a daughter whose father's sexuality suddenly comes colliding with her own. A few years ago my parents started having a more active social life than I did. They were suddenly going out to dinner all the time, they had this circle of friends, going away for the weekend. I was mortified -- what did this mean about me? Children in general, and twentysomethings in particular, tend to filter everything through the prism of the self. So I liked the idea of Rachel having this illicit affair with an older man and then learning that she might not be the most sexually swinging person in her neighborhood, after all.

There are many references to psychological jargon throughout My Old Man. Do you believe that psychology is an important influence in your novels?

It is interesting that you noticed that -- it's something no one else has commented on. I read some Carl Jung while writing this, and of course like every overachiever I read Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child after a therapist recommended it to me. Jung was important to the book because My Old Man deals so much with the question of masculinity in a woman. That is something I have dealt with in my life, for better or worse -- doing the Rules, not doing the Rules, coming on strong, pretending not to. I always felt like I had a strong animus but it seemed to be a terrible thing when it came to relationships. In the book I wanted to cite Carl Jung but also make fun of him because Jungian psychology sounds really ridiculous when someone adheres to it too much. The Alice Miller reference is more of a throwaway -- but I wanted both Rachel and Liz, her friend, to be smart, savvy college grads who knew the lingo. Everyone I know in New York is therapized and I do not know whether that is a good thing.

How do you feel about Woody Allen and his comedic exploration of therapy in his films?

He was brilliant with that. I was at a party and someone mentioned the name of his analyst. I looked the guy up in the phone book and made an appointment. He was my analyst for one year. He wasn't right for me, too didactic, Austrian. But I kept going because he had been Woody's. On my first visit I accidentally sat in his chair. I did the same on the second visit, at the end of which he told me I was sitting in his chair. He said it spoke to my need to dominate, my male energy. I almost made him a character in my book but cut him at the end because therapy too easily falls into cliche.

In your future projects, do you expect or want the content of your work to be heavily influenced be personal experience?

I hope that I will write beyond my own experience but I definitely feel that some writers live to write and others write to live. I live so that I can write, which means that the living is part of the art making. So I expect the autobiographical component to continue. I love the book Sex and Death to the Age 14 by Spalding Gray. He was a great example of someone who lived to write and yet his writing was an art, was crafted, was not as nonchalant as his stage plays might have some believe.

Does your column play a strong role in the style or content in your approach to novel writing?

I hope it works more the other way around although I can't make things up in my column (can't make them up about other people, that is...). In my journalism I have learned how to do research and I did quite a bit for this book -- talked to rabbis, bartenders, researched rabbinical school, did some Brooklyn history. My Nexis was very useful for this. I also read Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, a book about a Conservative rabbi in Boston, the Book of Job, a bunch of books on Jewish views on death and dying, and some Jung. Research is a lovely way to procrastinate. There is no dialogue from my columns in the book but many of the themes I was exploring in my column found their way into the book - my local Carroll Gardens Italian friends, the aura of new motherhood, dating a daddy.

Do you feel there is a great divide between the method used in journalism versus that of novel-writing? If so, how do you negotiate those two forms in your own writing?

In journalism it's about the people you're interviewing but if you're very clever it's really all about you. In novels it seems to be all about you but if you're very clever it's about everyone. I think both are about finding the universal in the particular in the sense that you have to uncover some sort of emotional truth. If you don't do that, who cares? Journalism is short-term and gratifying in a fast way, and inherently interactive. Novels are solitary and real slow burns. I like the solitude. I hate it when writers say they can't stand being alone for all that time. Then don't write! I love the solitude of writing and miss it terribly now that I'm between novels. What is more gratifying than the leisure of being alone with your work and in your own head all day and then, the delight of getting on the train at night to go out and be in the world when everyone else is coming home and doing a reverse commute.