December 2011

Drew Johnson

features

An Interview with Lore Segal

In September, I took a bus to New York and spoke with Lore Segal in her apartment on the Upper West Side. Books, pictures, a piano, sunlight coming in, and construction noise filtering up from the street. It was a well lived-in space, and we spoke comfortably about many things: the tone of her small (indispensable) body of work, translation and her translations, Her First American's central character, Carter Bayoux, and the largely forgotten twentieth century black intellectual upon whom Carter is based, Horace Cayton, Jr.

Lore Segal was born in Vienna in 1928. In 1938, she arrived in England as one of the thousands of Jewish children brought out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia by the Kindertransport and lived with several foster families in succession. She graduated from the University of London and, after a sojourn in Trujillo's Dominican Republic, came to New York City. She married the editor David Segal with whom she has two children. David Segal died in 1970. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities, currently at the Ninety-Second Street Y. Her four works of fiction are Other People's Houses (1964), Lucinella (1976), Her First American (1985), and Shakespeare's Kitchen (2007). She has also published translations and numerous books for children. She is working on a new book, And If They Have Not Died.

Segal's four very different books are each fully possessed of her singular sensibility and light but unswerving prose. Different from each other and everything else, they make a number of very well-trodden subjects entirely new and unfamiliar. There is no other book from the literature of the Holocaust quite like Other People's Houses. There is no other book about race in America quite like Her First American. The stories collected in Shakespeare's Kitchen cover her whole range and, as for Lucinella, Lucinella is Lucinella.

In several of your works, arguably in all of them, you're depicting a forum or phase of the twentieth century intellectual scene. In Her First American we get post-war New York. In Lucinella, the writer's colony. With Shakespeare's Kitchen, you get the academic think tank. You seem preoccupied with how the primates live when the primates think they are not living, but thinking.

When Rosanna Warren said, “all your characters are so intelligent,” I was depressed. It’s because I’m imaginative in one-way but unimaginative, un-inventive in another. I don’t invent things that I don’t know. Think of Jane Austen. None of her women are Jane Austen. All of my people, men included, are Lore Segal. That’s an exaggeration. In the 19th century they could invent characters outside their own skin. I think we do less of that.

I was struck watching the documentary Into the Arms of Strangers when you say that, living as a foster child, a refugee in all those houses was excellent training for a writer. And I think, if you heard that, not knowing your work, you would say, Oh, she means she was given all this raw material to transform...

I meant something specific. I meant that I hardly know another situation in which you experience the inside of the class system of England. The Jewish furniture manufacturer in Liverpool, the lady who employed my mother in Kent, the railroad stoker, the milkman’s family. The lesser nobility, the upper class of Guilford. I mean, who gets to be a child in so many houses, north to south of England, and gets to experience how you live when you are a member of the household? Not a tourist, not a visitor, but a member of a totally different class. With no choice in the matter whatsoever.

So not raw material, but many perspectives. 

I was an anthropologist. An unwilling anthropologist.

And out of this came this empathy and a tendency toward the benefit of the doubt. You can imagine it going the other way. 

People did think I went the other way. My portraits of the people in Other People’s Houses are not grateful, nor particularly kind. It is empathetic. But also sarcastic.

I suppose Other People's Houses does stand apart from your other work in being less obviously empathetic.

It’s blamed for being heartless. I don't see that; I see the pain. But people ask, why is this child so hard? So without tears? That’s not how I read the book. But it doesn’t use the usual forms to convey my sadness. There was a man, Roy Bongartz. He turned down one of the stories when I was sending them around, before the New Yorker took them up and he said, Don’t nudge me. If you’re going to nudge me to care, I won’t. And I think that’s somewhat responsible for the, to me, very congenial dry tone.

Was that the common thread of the reception of the book?

Yes, very much so. It was reviewed by a man named Charles Angoff. He was a writer who was active when I began writing in the fifties. In fact, we lived in the same building on 157th street. In fact, I went to his apartment to watch the McCarthy hearings because I didn’t have a television. But his review of my book was the only review that was syndicated and he thought that it was very un-Jewish. No feeling.

Another reception question: because the gaps between your books are substantial, it's almost as if you've had as many careers as you've had books. There's a release, a consensus, the people who remember the book remember it, but there's not the critical continuity that arises in regard to some careers. So, Other People's Houses had one sort of reception. Lucinella strikes me as the kind of book that might have just been hard to deal with...

You know, I haven’t said it to Melville House: but that book was not a secret book, a cult book. A cult book? Nobody knew it existed! It was my son-in-law who said, why don’t you send it? I had connected with Melville House over a student’s book they published, Barry Schechter’s The Blindfold Test. You should read it. It’s so good. And my son-in-law said, why don’t you send them LucinellaLucinella? That died in ‘76? The novel I’m in the process of finishing is a lot more like Lucinella. As a matter of fact, I should mention that Lucinella has been optioned by Vincent Palmo, who co-wrote Me and Orson Welles.

Let's talk about the new book. When I last heard of it, it was called And If They Have Not Died.

You know where that comes from? The ending of fairy tales, “And if they have not died, they are living to this hour.” Which always entertains me because the protagonists have just married each other, inherited half the kingdom, and then story reminds them that they are going to die. Which is exactly the spirit of my book. It’s an eccentric book.

Do you have some sense of when we might expect it?

Well, it’s trying to get itself finished. It’s about old age and I say it’s a funny book about old age but it’s funny the way I’m funny. A piece did appear in Harper’s [May 2011, “The Ice Worm”]. Another piece, "The Arbus Factor," came out in The New Yorker [Dec 24, 2007]. Again, in distinct stories, the stories of people who end up in the emergency room. Jolly. I gave it to my publisher and then I took it away again. I wanted to rewrite it. That’s why things take so long.

What was the reception like for Her First American? Who was that Lore Segal?

I think it was pretty positive.

After reading Her First American, I was still curious enough about the character of Carter Bayoux and his real life model, Horace Cayton, Jr. that I read Cayton's autobiography, Long Old Road.

I found Long Old Road in a basket in front of a bookstore and I had to buy it -- not because I needed it, I have a couple of copies -- but because you couldn’t let it lie down there in the street.

I had to buy it on the Internet.

Is it still available?

It was a used copy.

He was a spectacular raconteur but only a B-writer -- as he knew. He was just a fantastic narrator and joke-teller but writing wasn’t his means of communicating.

But it is a fascinating book and I kept waiting, wondering whether by the end you were going to appear. I'd pretty much given up when – twenty-five pages before the end -- the book became mostly about you and your time with Horace.

He asked me, do you mind if I use you as the person to whom I explain myself and the black experience? And I said, go ahead. As a result, I appear dumber than I was in reality. I became the questioner, but I said by all means, use me any way you want because I intend to use you. And he was willing and I was willing.

So at that time you already thought, I have to write something about this man. 

Oh yes. I think we were together maybe five years. I’m not sure; the facts have fallen off the edge of the world, but I surely knew I was going to write a book. I’m not the only person who’s used him in fiction.

Really?

I think he does appear in other fiction.

Saul Bellow has a blurb on Cayton's book. Did Bellow use him?

Oh, I don’t know. [reads Bellow’s blurb] I didn’t know that. Interesting.

You've done a number of things alongside your four books. It's easy to separate them out but it seems to me that there's this whole geography of everything you've done.

Not really. What I was doing was writing, and the other thing I was doing was keeping a roof over our heads. Which meant teaching. Those are the only things.

There are the children's books, the translations... 

The children's books come along because I had children and the next lot -- twenty years later, thirty years later -- because I had grandchildren. I don't naturally write children's books unless I have children to write for. Many people think I'm a children's book writer.

Of your four books, I particularly wanted to see what you had to say about Lucinella, your shortest. Which, to me, seems so central to what you think you can get away with on the page.

I thought it was a lark. Her First American took me eighteen years to write. And one of the reasons it took eighteen years was because I took off three or four years in between when I got stuck and I didn't know what I was doing to write Lucinella.

So Lucinella was, Let me just take a breath from this thing I don't understand and let me have fun, let me enjoy myself.

A four-year breath?

Yes. I'm a very slow writer, so even something like Lucinella which is all of one-hundred-fifty pages -- it's a novella -- took me forever. So it was a lark and the lark got a little bit serious.

It's a book like a joke -- a joke you keep getting away with, page after page.

I think I would not have been able to do it if I hadn't thought of it as an interlude. I was braver because it was something I was doing while I was gathering my life, my forces. Also, one had read Garcia Marquez, right? And you suddenly realized all the stuff you could do. Everyone spoke of magical realism with a frown, and I thought, oh, that's great, I love it. You can do whatever you want. You can read Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Which brings to ask you about your translation of Christian Morgenstern's Gallows Songs.

Right. There you go. That was something really nice. I was teaching at the 92nd Street Y and one of the people at the open house pulled out of her bag The Gallows Songs, of which there are, I don't know, six copies that may exist in the world. I have one and she has one.

You came to those poems very early because of your Uncle Paul?

I went to Yaddo and there was the poet, W.D. Snodgrass -- he had just published Heart’s Needle and was about to get his Pulitzer. He asked me if I had ever heard of a German poet called Christian Morgenstern and I said yes! When you're a Viennese child and go to a children’s party, you have to do a little number, a dance or a song. I would do this Morgenstern poem. And I did my poem for Snodgrass. He asked me to help him translate Morgenstern. And off we went. For the next nine years -- first he was in Rochester, and then in Syracuse -- we wrote each other, we visited each other. I have wonderful papers from that correspondence which was really fun.

I would translate the poems from the German into literal English, with monographs on single words -- syllables and their roots, and he would work them into English poems and send them back. It’s one of the loveliest ways a friendship grows when you are doing this thing together for which both of you have a passion. Going over and back and arguing over a line, a word, an idea.

But there is a dedication to your Uncle Paul...

Yes, he was always involved. He was my uncle, and my hero, my intellectual soulmate until he died, what is it? Three or four years ago -- he lived into his nineties. His German was much more adept than mine. Here's something interesting and I’ve tried to write something about it, but it requires better scholarship: When you leave your country at ten, you have an understanding of the language and its vocabulary way beyond anything a ten year old has any use for. The depth to which I know German surprises me.

However, when someone was translating Other People’s Houses, I realized that I kept wanting to bring her back to the Austrian German of fifty years ago. Today’s Austrian German has changed and become more like the German German. There are fewer French words, for instance. It’s a different language. I wonder if his is true of American English? Was the American English of fifty years ago very different? I’m not aware of it.

Neither am I. [laughter]

But for the purposes of translating the Gallows Songs, none of this mattered.

Reading them, they seem very close to your sensibility.

Oh yes, they were tremendously congenial. Someone said they were a mix between Kant and Edward Lear. That's pretty good. I wish I'd said that.

Because of the Melville House edition, Lucinella was the first of your works I came to. So it was sort of a totally inexplicable book to me and I spent a lot of time working back from it, trying to sort things out in terms of it.

Good!

And so Morgenstern seems natural to that -- he makes sense.

Yes. What's congenial is the mix of joke and seriousness, the right mix. I’m curious: Because you came to Lucinella cold, first, is it complicated? Do you wonder where the hell you are?

Once I'm sure I'm in good hands, I relinquish control and am a pretty easygoing reader, along for the ride. Later I worry that I should have been more Critical and Thoughtful. Lucinella seemed like a joke that was always about to fall apart. You know, you said, regarding the stories in Shakespeare's Kitchen, "Don't tell me these don't fit, I know they don't fit." In Lucinella it is a whole, it does fit, but you're operating at the edge of what made sense.

Very good.

There's a little of Snodgrass in the poet Winterneet [a character in Lucinella]?

No, I was thinking of—by the way I’m old enough to forget every name I want to mention, right? Kazin, I meant Alfred Kazin. I knew him at Yaddo and I was thinking of the space he took up in our heads as part of the older generation.

Let me tell you one other thing about the Gallows Songs. Snodgrass and I said to ourselves that there was only one person to illustrate them, and that was Paul Klee and he was, unfortunately, dead. One of my friends said, what about Saul Steinberg. So Snodgrass and I went to visit Steinberg -- a couple of times -- Steinberg kept saying, I’m not going to do this, but come see me again. We figured okay, there will be no illustrations, when some good person at the publishing house said, did you know that Klee did illustrations for the Gallows Songs? So there they are! It was a nice meeting of minds.

About your Uncle Paul and the beautiful portrait of him in Other People’s Houses.

Come with me, I want to show you something. No, no you won’t need that. Turn it off.

unclepaul

(Uncle Paul in the Mountains)

How fictionalized is the portrait of your Uncle Paul in Other People's Houses?

Not that much.

Reading Other People's Houses, I came to think of him as the adult version, the projection of what you might have gone through had the war caught you farther along in life.

More than he was able, I just put one foot in front of the other -- Paul fell over his own feet. It might have been because everything came at the moment when he was growing up. He was supposed to be a doctor. He chose the wrong profession. He had no skill, no talent for the scientific part. He should have been a linguist, but he thought he needed to do good in the world. He had the most virtuous tendency toward choosing the wrong thing for himself. He was a lovely soul who didn't do well in the world.

Is that similar to how you would characterize Horace Cayton, Jr.?

Oh, Horace Cayton was a disaster area. Paul was not a disaster area -- he kept doing what needed to be done and he kept thinking that he would think of something and pull himself out of the situation. Horace just gave up, but, in a sense, was highly successful -- he moved around with the great world. But he couldn't handle it.

In the sense that things never quite came together for Cayton?

Never quite came together? Just totally didn't come together. In his younger years, he went to Europe and slept with everybody and they were, you know, the women you'd want to sleep with.

He was a wunderkind. He was a handsome young black intellectual and to be someone like that moving around in that era could have been a lot of fun. If you could handle it. Very soon it was too much.

I'm fascinated by your tone. The things you get away with are strange and so unusual in my reading experience. Not just in Lucinella but in all your books, you move very quickly from the very dark to the very light. And the ability to be very dark in a very light way. I don't understand it, so I'm going to ask a lot of awkward questions. 

It wouldn't have seemed to be that rare.

In a larger sense maybe not, but in the way you do it. That's what I don't understand. In Shakespeare's Kitchen, you have this group of academics studying often very terrible events but they inevitably become comical. The obvious example is the story "The Reverse Bug," in which an academic stage is technologically possessed with the sound of the dying at Auschwitz. This terrible idea: a sound they can't get rid of -- and yet what it creates is, in the main, awkwardness. 

I carried that idea around with me for maybe fifty years before I found a way to write it. It was not your sudden intuition. I mean, I knew I wanted to write it but couldn’t figure anywhere to put it, any place for it.

But, to the larger point, I do experience the world ‘s delicious charm and pure horror. Well, impure horror, then.

In other places where you've discussed this, in the interviews excerpted in Into the Arms of Strangers, you say that for years you replaced the statement (and it is a statement), "Isn't this intolerable?" with "Isn't this interesting?"

Yes. I feel as though this has two elements. It is a way of handling the intolerable, where "handling something” means turning it into fiction. “This is interesting” means this is something I can make a story out of. And there’s almost nothing that happens that isn’t grist for the mill. I think you have put your finger on something central. It’s both an escape mechanism: I will not succumb. I will not let this get me down because I’m going to make something out of it.

The farther you can take something that begins at one end of the spectrum?

I look for contradictions of the light that is dark and the dark that is light. I look for it. It's not the only way to see things. But I'm at home in that contradiction.

In the fictional version of you Horace Cayton puts in his autobiography...

I haven't read that in a long time. I must look at it again. It's a little bit irritating because he has me sound such a dope. And with my agreement!

In that few-page version of you there are things that are a kernel of what you take at much greater length in Her First American. The summer the novel spends in Connecticut is already there in very broad strokes in Cayton's book. He has you say, in a conversation about race and self-loathing, "I can understand that. You see, suffering seems to me much more real than cheerfulness or happiness or joy. And in many ways you are more real to me than any person I have ever met..."

Is that what I say to him? It's true. That's true.

"...more alive, even on such short acquaintance. It's been hard for me to make any real contact with life, and I suspect your suffering is really just a reflection of my own urge to suffer, that is, to live. But still I hate to see you suffer."

I would never have actually said… It’s funny that you’re going to do the same thing to me, and it can't be helped. When somebody quotes me back to myself, I don't think, I didn’t say that, I think, that’s not how it would have sounded if I said it. That’s typical of any kind of reportage. It's what I'm sure I must have done to Horace. He certainly did it to me. The word "suffering"... I can't hear myself saying it.

This will be a kind of a transcript, too, but reordered.

Oh, reorder it! You must. You have the same freedom Horace had. We must give each other that.

One of the ways in which this tone comes through most strongly, and here you really do seem to be doing something without any company, is how you handle men on the page and, in particular, the physical side of the mammal in the room with you. 

There are lines and moments that are very singular to me. My favorite is probably from Her First American: "Ilka listened tenderly to the man peeing behind the door."

There was a line like that -- years later -- in All in the Family, where you hear the toilet chain being pulled upstairs. The producer, Norman Lear, was asked about it, and he said, “Because it's dear." I didn’t copy him and he didn’t copy me but we mean the same thing: The lesser human events seem very touching.

In my latest book -- it's almost finished -- a daughter says to her mother, “Isn’t it interesting that we hide from each other the thing we have in common, like peeing and what we pee with.” We are ashamed of the things that we share and hide them from each other. I’ve always been curious about that.

There's a completion in what it brings to -- for lack of a better word -- the erotic in these encounters. There's the fullness to the way in which the female characters are seeing them. 

This is sort of sub-erotic. It's merely you as a fellow creature with plumbing.

Sub-erotic is a great distinction, actually. Because the erotic doesn't really include that.

I'm less good with the latter.

But it is part of what makes a character like Leslie Shakespeare. Well, this isn't quite the same thing but there's this lovely comic phrase in the dark after an encounter between Ilka and Leslie, where Ilka "palpated the blackness for her shirt." Again, it's this very simple, human, comic thing caught so well.

More to the point, and again from Her First American, during an encounter on a subway, the line, "Ilka retained the feel of the exact temperature and the extraordinarily fine gauge of the skin of the alien phallus. Ilka wished it well." That phrase, the feel exact gauge and temperature of the subway pervert's foreskin.

I’d enjoyed writing that. I meant the friendliness of something that is usually…well, it’s illegal! But in certain moods, it’s a fellow human being doing this thing. I would have thought that in today’s writing there is a lot of that. No?

It's like you're coming up with an alternate route to empathy.

That's very nice. That's nicely put.

One that's underused. I don't think you could have Carter Bayoux in your novel, his disaster couldn't be so complete without all the physical components: the room in Chelsea Hotel and his bulky person in it, alternately helpless and active. 

Incidentally, I drove past the Chelsea Hotel in a cab down on 23rd St. and saw that the place right next to it is called The Carterette. That’s where I got that name from. Next to the Hotel Chelsea -- or was two years ago. And I thought, why is his name Carter? Is that where I got that from?

The good humor in all of these little things we've been talking about comes through even in an episode like the one in Other People's Houses where, once the narrative has moved to the Dominican Republic, the older mistress of a military officer tries to procure your character as the new mistress.

Oh, yes. That's the one piece the New Yorker wouldn't publish. The old Shawn days.

That's not surprising. Yet it is this sinister (and lurid) thing that is treated with great understanding, as in, well, this makes sense for her to do this to me.

[Laughs] I do have that attitude toward my enemies.

And you keep coming back to it as a means of parsing the world. There are moments in Her First American when Ilka's moments of recognition of her own lack of empathy are treated humorously and triumphantly, "'I am racist!' she said marveling" or, and even better, when she realizes she can't stand being given orders by...

By a black woman. That's right. That was a real discovery.

And it's just put out there in a way I find difficult to imagine in almost any novel about race that I've ever read.

You know, I really do think that what most interests me is -- is that there is nothing I don’t share with my fellow human beings. Including that. Whatever it is that I do, or that you do. This is not my discovery; “There but for the grace of God....” But we do really share what makes us move in this direction and that direction. What makes us talk. What makes us reluctant. That’s why writing works. There is nothing I can say truthfully that you won’t recognize.

You never treat your characters as though they could withhold anything.

I’m not so interested in the this is how we should behave. That’s a perfectly good way to write but it doesn’t interest me very much. Nor am I interested in why we behave. The motive is less interesting. But just what is it we’re doing? Let me read something that I just read this morning that made a lot of sense. Hold on.

[leaves and returns with a copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro]

This is a story called "Material." She has just discovered that the husband whom she shed long ago and whom she despises because he's the sort of typical "literary" man -- and then she comes across a story of his in which he describes something that they both knew, a woman.

"What matters is that this story is a good story, as far as I can tell, and I think I can tell. How honest this is and how lovely. I had to say as I read. I had to admit it."

And it was specifically by picking out this gesture of a woman they both knew...

I was moved by Hugo's story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks. Or if I am, they have to be good tricks. Lovely tricks, honest tricks. There is Dotty, lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvellous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love. A fine and lucky benevolence. Dotty was a lucky person, people who understand and value this act might say (not everybody, of course, does understand and value this act); she was lucky to live in that basement for a few months and eventually to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know. She has passed into Art. It doesn't happen to everybody.

That's what one wants to do. To turn somebody into art by recognizing something and finding the worlds with which to fix it. In the jelly, that's wonderful.

I'd never thought of it as jelly.

No, that jelly is moderately shocking. But to suspend in it a human gesture caught exactly right is an act of love. I really, really love that. That’s a wonderful notion. That getting things right in writing is an act of affection for life.

Carter Bayoux is an unsparing portrait of Horace Cayton, Jr. but you would never think of it as less than affectionate. Which, again, is so often tied to the physical, as in those scenes during the summer in Connecticut, in which Ilka goes back to talk with Carter while he's lying naked in the long grass.

My late husband accused me of not being honest to the child in Other People’s Houses. He said it’s a dishonest portrait because I made her into a brat (which I’m sure she was) but I wasn’t generous enough to make her likeable. He was exaggerating, but he made a point.

Isn't part of what makes her experience so unexpected is that she goes on living normally -- or, at least, living, living as a child even though she's enclosed by those years, there's not a lot of imposed piety. Which goes hand-in-hand with the way your work often refuses the boundaries that seem to be handed out with a particular topic. You could make the case that if you were to finish the manuscript of Other People's Houses now, someone would say, "Well, you don't need the Dominican episode. That's too far out of people's experience."

I've been told that, yes. Why take the book there?

And yet, otherwise? From Austria to America was 1938 to 1951.

Several immigrations.

I don't know what you would lose without it, but you would lose something.

The book was published in England in a separate edition by Bodley Head. They published only the English adventure for what was then called “new adults" -- what we now call the juvenile market. It worked quite well.

And in terms of the boundaries in your experience of America, of immigration in Her First American. Or even the portrait of you in Cayton's Long Old Road?

What is correct, and which you find in both books -- his and mine -- is that I was the eager, eager student of the American black experience. I asked questions and was never happier than when listening to answers in the form of stories, and stories in the form of these bitter jokes. I asked questions and got answers that were richer than I could have had bargained for. Even if his chapter was not so well written, it is totally true about the student-teacher relationship. And I knew that I would write about me, and he knew that I would write about him.

But what about all the delays, what happened along the way?

Well, first thing. It took me the longest time to figure out, not the figure of Carter Bayoux, but I couldn’t figure out how to get down a representation of the figure who would stand in for the girl. At first I had a widow with children, then a young divorcee. I mean I couldn’t get her until I let go and put myself in there -- a younger and more naïve version. I wanted the fun of representing Ilka's Americanization as she becomes fluent -- becomes at home -- in the language. Whereas I, of course, had arrived in this country with a degree in English literature from the University of London.

I think I’ve said it before, but one of my colleagues at the University of Illinois said I’d written a reverse Henry James: the naïve European who gets educated by a sophisticated American.

James should have tried it once, just once.

But to come to that took me years. Obviously, I was trying not to put myself in there. I was trying to replace myself with something else. I didn't manage.

The book doesn't suffer for it.

It just took eighteen years to write.

The book builds so much and then there's the long Connecticut summer interlude, and then -- aside from Carter's death -- there isn't what you might call a structural ending to the book.

It’s not a good ending. My editor, Robert Gottlieb, said, “After Carter Bayoux leaves New York and goes to the West Coast, you’re rushing to the end!” And he made me go back and elaborate, so maybe it’s okay now but when I was writing it, I just wanted to be finished. Once Carter was gone, I wasn’t interested.

So was the really interesting eulogy scene in there?

Oh yes, that was the essential ending. That wasn't something I had to go back to write. That was essentially reportage.

It's a key scene and draws out why I think this one of the most interesting books about race in this country: so much of it is off-topic and won't be part of the official history. 

The young blacks who had been Carter’s students have no sympathy for Ilka. Or, rather, they have about two minutes sympathy. But there is no part for her beyond that.

In the book it reads as though Carter is going back to the West Coast to rejoin that narrative.

He went because he had -- well, I always thought he went to let me off the hook. To let me out. I doubt if he had enough energy to do more than that. It was a kindness to me. We were not going anywhere. He went there as he had come here, in some idea of starting over. If I move myself physically here, maybe I can be the person I really am rather than this mess I’ve made of myself.

You know, interestingly, he never used drugs because he knew what would happen if he did. He had the control not go that route.

When he died, he was researching a biography of Richard Wright and had gone to Paris to speak to Wright’s wife. You know, when he went to California, he got himself a young blonde and she was in despair that she couldn’t cure him. Amazing. One of the amazing things about this man who was really a destroyed person was that he was able to be sexually attractive.

When you read the book, he has so much charisma -- it makes sense.

There was a woman who wrote for permission to turn the novel into a play with just three characters, but she could not get an actor with Carter's charisma, wit, or intelligence, to make it believable on stage that this girl would care anything about him. At which point she wrote to tell me she thought there must be something wrong with the story.

He swings so wildly from his peculiar etiquette to disarray. He misses an appointment and is horrified. That insistence on protocol.

I love that word. One of the most irritating things that’s ever happened to me in life is when the German translator would not translate the word “protocol” which is one of the few words which means exactly the same thing the two languages. Protocol means Protokoll to the last degree. But no, no. It couldn’t be protocol. She translated it as Sittlichkeit, which means “decorum.”

Having Other People’s Houses published in the New Yorker over two years -- that’s my most vivid publishing experience. That was la-la land. The New Yorker is not only going to publish your story; they have read my story on the same theme in Commentary. If I have more of the same, they would like to do a series. That doesn’t happen! Those two years. That was fun.

I guess the reading world knows I exist, but that's it. I haven’t written my "breakthrough" novel and it’s a little late now.

If I had been going to enter the public imagination, Her First American would have been the book. It’s a tremendous pleasure to be understood. It’s not only a personal pleasure but it assures you that the world works. If I write something and you read it, and you see what I meant, then we can communicate. Which is not always so clear.

Drew Johnson's fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009