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An Interview with Janet Malcolm

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Janet Malcolm writes at the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer in the kind of fierce statement that has earned her a reputation as an unswerving truth-teller. Like many of Malcolm’s other nonfiction works, this book, published in 1990, takes a specific event (a murderer suing a journalist) and unpacks it so extensively that the work illuminates a larger topic—in this case, the complex psychological dynamics at the heart of the art of journalism.

Malcolm, who has been publishing pieces that seamlessly combine essay and reportage in the New Yorker since the late seventies, has written eight books, spanning such topics as the politics and pitfalls of the field of psychoanalysis (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981), the problem of biography seen through the lens of Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman, 1994), and a meditation on the life and work of Chekhov (Reading Chekhov, 2001). Others include In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), as well as two collections of essays, The Purloined Clinic (1992) and Diana and Nikon (1980, expanded in 1997). What grabs and regrabs the reader in her writing is its deft commingling of sleuthing and contemplation. Reading Malcolm, one has the sensation of being in the presence of a mind constantly in action on several levels, mediating between external reality (one most often consisting of facts that are at odds with one another) and her own consciousness. With the exception of The Purloined Clinic, none of her books is much more than two hundred pages, but the rigor of her writing gives them the quality of murals painted by a miniaturist.

Malcolm can be unsparing in her portrayals of the people she comes across, but her extraordinary precision does not preclude compassion. Occasionally, Malcolm’s subjects damn themselves, but more often they reveal the vanities, obsessions, and desires that we all share—if to a heightened degree.

Currently at work on a book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Malcolm corresponded with me by email between March and June of this year.

—Daphne Beal

THE BELIEVER: It’s interesting that we’re doing this interview by email, because one of the phrases that’s long been in my head is your description from The Silent Woman of letters written today on computers as being “marmoreally cool and smooth,” in contrast to letters from previous decades written on manual typewriters. Correspondence plays such a large role in almost all your books, not just the content and tone, but often the texture and feel of the letters’ pages. Email seems to up that smoothness even further. Do you use it a lot yourself, or are “real” letters still a preferred form? How do you think email has affected the way people communicate by the written word?

JANET MALCOLM: When I wrote The Silent Woman, email had not yet arrived—or was not yet in common use. I would not use the phrase “marmoreally cool and smooth” about email. I think of email as messy, both in appearance and in the character of the writing. Email encourages a kind of laxness, a letting down of hair. When I write a “real” letter, I care about how it looks. I will compulsively re-do a letter if the indentations aren’t uniform or if I’ve smudged the signature. With email, I don’t know what the message will look like on the receiver’s screen. I only know it will be surrounded by all kinds of stuff—titles, “headers,” numbers, codes, etc.—that I had nothing to do with. So I take no trouble over the appearance of the message. I take some trouble over the message itself, but not as much as I would in a letter. Doing this interview by email gives me a chance to think of answers to your questions. If we did it in person, I might just look at you in blank helplessness.

BLVR: Reading your work, it’s hard to ever imagine you with such a look! I’m always amazed by the quick turns, the dips and dives through any given moment of interaction, especially when it comes to the psychological underpinnings of things. I read somewhere that your father was a psychiatrist. Did that mean you were very aware of psychology as a philosophy/art/science from an early age? Was that a field you ever seriously considered going into?

JM: No, I never considered becoming a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst, and while growing up I paid little attention to my father’s work. He himself was not all that invested in it—for many years he was head psychiatrist of an outpatient clinic of the Veteran’s Administration. He loved nature, literature, and sports, and he was a gifted comic writer. Unfortunately, he wrote in Czech, and Czech wit does not translate well. This is not to say that he didn’t excel in his work as a psychiatrist (and as a neurologist, his second specialty). He just wasn’t pompous about it—as many psychiatrists were in those days. He had affectionate regard for his patients and no use for social workers. He was wonderfully satiric about them and their clipboards. A piece of writing of mine that is connected to my father is “The One-Way Mirror,” about the family therapist Salvador Minuchin. Would you like me to tell you about that?

BLVR: Sure, I’m a sucker for anything about families and their influence.

JM: In the late seventies I gave up smoking and, naturally, couldn’t write. I decided to do what the New Yorker called a long fact piece, which would require many months of reporting. I figured that by the time I finished the reporting I would be ready to try writing without smoking. I remembered something my father had told me about a remarkable man who cured anorectic girls in one session—at lunch with their families, at the end of which the girls would eat, the way cripples would walk at the end of faith-healing encounters. He had seen this man perform at a hospital near his clinic, and marveled at his powerful personality. I had never heard my father speak so enthusiastically about anyone in psychiatry, and decided to make that man, Minuchin, the subject of my piece. For many months I took the train to Philadelphia where Minuchin had a clinic, and watched him instruct a class of young psychiatrists in his kind of theatrical family therapy. When it was time to write, I found I could write without smoking. This was the first long fact piece I had ever done, and this kind of writing turned out to be congenial to me.

BLVR: How many years into your writing career were you when that happened? And did that process of choosing Minuchin for your subject matter become in any way a prototype for how you’ve chosen other topics?

JM: When I wrote “The One-Way Mirror,” I had been writing for about ten years. I had done book reviews, essays on photography, and pieces about decorative art. But I had never done reportage. The way I stumbled on Minuchin as a subject is pretty much the way I stumble on all my journalistic subjects. I hear or read about someone, or someone writes to me. My book The Crime of Sheila McGough came out of a letter I received from its heroine, who thought I might be interested in her story of going to prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Journalists get a lot of letters like that, but this one had an unusual atmosphere (and wasn’t on yellow lined paper), so I wrote back. But why am I telling you this? Because you asked. One of the things that journalists come to understand after doing journalism for a while is the power of the question.

BLVR: I want to come back to Sheila McGough, but at the moment I’ll make a kind of left turn if that’s OK. Last fall you had an exhibit of your collages at the Lori Bookstein Gallery here in New York City, a medium (as I understand it) that you’ve been working in more privately for some time. How did you come to work in collage, and what kind of questions does the medium ask or answer that writing does not? Or is it more related to your writing than I’m supposing?

JM: To try to answer your question, let me quote from a piece I wrote about ten years ago about the artist David Salle: Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured. While I was interviewing the artist David Salle, I was coincidentally writing a book that was giving me trouble, and although I cannot pin it down exactly (and would not want to), I know that after each talk with Salle in his studio something clarifying and bracing did filter down to my enterprise. Quoting this excerpt—apart from telling you something about my attitude toward artists—enacts what I do as a collagist. I have taken something from one place (the Salle piece) and put it into another (this interview). It also exemplifies what I do when I write. I do an enormous amount of quoting—of people and texts—in my books and articles. David Salle is a painter who does nothing but “quote” or “appropriate” in his paintings. But that is another subject. I guess what I have been trying to say is that, yes, collage is “more related to [my] writing than [you’re] supposing.”

BLVR: I remember reading about your showing your collages to Salle, but it seems like another thing altogether to show your work in a gallery. How, if at all, has exhibiting your work changed your relationship to it? For one thing, is it as fun?

JM: When I first started exhibiting I was ambivalent about the idea of people buying my collages. When you publish a book, the text remains in your possession, so to speak. When you sell a painting or drawing or collage, you lose it. It goes out of your life. At first, I wasn’t ready to let go of my work. Now I am. I am happy when someone buys a collage. There are a lot of them now. I feel I can keep making them. But even as I say this, I feel a little stab of regret about the collages that are hanging on the walls of strangers, and that it is unlikely I will ever see again. As for whether the work is as enjoyable as it was before I began to exhibit, the answer is no. I work harder. My standard of craftsmanship is higher and so is my idea of what is good enough to show.

BLVR: It does seem that while your writing and collage share certain qualities, the truth that collage is after is much more open-ended than writing’s. I’m thinking in particular of your eloquent (that is, jaw-dropping) opening of The Journalist and the Murderer, about the inevitable betrayal by the journalist of the subject in the name of a higher truth. The theme of betrayal is echoed in much of your writing—the biographer of the subject, the protégé of the mentor, the photographer of the subject (Diane Arbus especially comes to mind), Gertrude Stein of the Jews around her, etc. I wonder if you would comment on this recurring motif?

JM: I did not set out to write about betrayal, but by writing about journalism, biography, and photography I kept bumping into it. In each of these genres the practitioner has an enormous amount of power over the subject. Apart from the practitioner’s use or misuse of this power, the genres themselves have a built-in tendency to be unkind. It isn’t only Diane Arbus who betrays the subjects of her photographs. Most people who have their picture taken hate the result. And most people who are the subjects of newspaper or magazine stories feel at least a little wronged if not outright betrayed. As for the illustrious dead…

BLVR: Being so thoroughly engaged in one of those inherently unkind professions,how do you reconcile the “not-niceness” (to borrow your description of the Ariel poems) of the finished piece with the process of asking your subject for his or her trust? Does that person occupy a different place in your thinking by the time you’ve finished writing than he or she did when you were in the thick of interviewing?

JM: In answer to your first question: You do not reconcile it. That is the moral problem of journalism. But journalists don’t ask for the subject’s trust—they don’t have to. Subjects just give it. They are eager to tell their story and don’t seem to realize that they are not invisible as they tell it. Incidentally, the final product of the inherently unkind professions isn’t always not-nice. There are photographs in which the subject looks beautiful, and there are biographies and journalistic portraits from which the subject emerges as a great soul. I recently had the pleasure and privilege of writing about Anton Chekhov, about whom it is simply impossible to find anything seriously bad to say. Some of his biographers have tried—and failed. I’m not sure I understand your second question. Could you put it more simply? (I’m reading Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which may explain my difficulty in understanding a sentence that isn’t simple and hasn’t been repeated a hundred times.)

BLVR: I think what I’m really asking for is advice. In my own experience I find it incredibly difficult when writing about someone to transition from that human connection that happens in the most fruitful of interviews to the more critical stance I need to take afterward. Because Chekhov seems to be part of a very small minority of people, dead or alive, of whom one can say nothing bad, and because people’s contradictions are among their most interesting qualities, the writer has to be able to step back from that intimate place of interviewing (or research)—where practically anyone’s reality can seem like the truth for at least a moment—to a more objective point of view. This often feels like an almost painful betrayal to me. What I wanted to find out (in my thickly veiled previous question) was how do you make the switch from supplicant or equal interviewer to authority writer? Is this clearer? If not, we can just abandon this line of thinking. I also realize that The Journalist and the Murderer addresses this question in book-length form.

JM: I’m glad I asked.What you write is very eloquent. Yes, I wrote about this dilemma in The Journalist and the Murderer,but I did not exhaust the subject by any means. You bring something new into the discussion with your comment about the journalist’s momentary identification with the subject. Since you are a novelist, you probably have more capacity for this kind of imaginative leap. I am incapable of writing fiction, so I am probably less empathic. But this doesn’t seem to make any difference to the subject. He or she assumes your empathy— and then feels betrayed when what you write isn’t like something he or she dictated to you. I put it another way in The Journalist and the Murderer (if you’ll forgive me for quoting from myself again): “The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.” But getting back to your anxiety about the discontinuity between the coziness of the interview and the coldness of the act of writing—yes, it is a problem and no, it can’t be resolved. When you make the switch from “supplicant or equal interviewer to authority writer” you are, like every other journalist, committing some sort of moral misdemeanor.

BLVR: So maybe the adjustment I need to make is simply downgrading my transgression from felony to misdemeanor. I was thinking, too, about your reputation as a writer for being quite exacting towards, or even tough on, your subjects. The same rigor that thrills some of your readers seems to make others extremely uncomfortable. I wonder if you’ve ever felt that the reception to your work has been colored by the fact that you’re a woman. Are women still meant to be “nicer” as writers, less difficult? I ask because I think of my own interviewing style, at least in person, as incorporating some stereotypical feminine behavior: slightly low-status and deferential, punctuated by ready laughter, and driven by an accommodating attitude. Later, when I’m writing I feel I’ve acted as something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I remember your description of your “more Japanese technique” in The Journalist and the Murderer, in contrast to the more flat-footed Newsday reporter’s. I have a sense of course, but wondered specifically what you meant by that?

JM: I really don’t know whether the people who don’t like my writing don’t like it because of their perception of me as a tough, not-nice woman. It seems kind of ridiculous—I think of myself as a completely ordinary harmless person—but what people think of your writing persona is out of your hands. The narrator of my nonfiction pieces is not the same person I am—she is a lot more articulate and thinks of much cleverer things to say than I usually do. I can imagine her coming across as a little insufferable sometimes. But she, too, is out of my hands—I may have invented her, but she is the person who insists on speaking for me. As for the wolf in sheep’s clothing question, perhaps the way to minimize one’s feeling that one has not been as straightforward with the subject as one should have been, is to be a little more straightforward. To swallow the too-nice thing one is about to say. To remember that the subject is going to say what he or she wants to say no matter what you say or don’t say. You can’t keep your mouth shut all the time, of course, but you do well to keep it shut a lot of the time. If silence falls, let the subject break it—even though that’s a very hard thing to do. By the way, I don’t think the “feminine behavior” you describe is limited to women journalists. Men journalists can be just as ingratiating, deferential, accommodating, and laughter-prone. When you ask what I mean by the Japanese technique, you are not employing it.

BLVR: Your answer really made me chuckle. I can’t say exactly why except I think it has to do with the endless conundrum of writing—the fact that it seems so much in one’s control (especially in contrast to, say, theater or visual art), and yet still there is that mystery of who is this character who insists on speaking for me? The undeniable fact that in the end the work and its effect are out of one’s hands. Maybe then this is a good time to turn to the simultaneously charming and irascible Stein—speaking of being difficult. (I remember during my Midwestern childhood in the seventies confusing Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem, because, well, they were both considered impossible by local standards, but that’s another story…) How did you come to write about her and Tolklas? Is that New Yorker piece being turned into a book, and have you finished it?

JM: You made me chuckle too with your wonderful mixing up of Gertrude and Gloria. Yes, I am continuing to write about Stein. No, I have not finished. It is an exceptionally beautiful day today, and I am reminded of what Stein wrote (or said she wrote) on an exam paper in a course at Radcliffe given by William James: “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” James (according to Stein) sent her a postcard saying: “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself,” and gave her the highest grade in the class. There is reason to think that this didn’t happen the way Stein said it did. But anyway, may I be excused from the examination today?

BLVR: Dear Miss Malcolm, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. [And a week later…] Your response to the GS question left me unsure of whether you’d rather not talk about her at all right now, but my Malcolm-fan friends have been pressing me to ask why her, why now? I wondered if Stein’s larger-than-life personality and work drew you initially to write about her, or if it was the question of her being Jewish and staying in France that began your investigation? In contrast to Chekhov, she seems to be a more problematic literary figure and her writing arguably less universally loved than his. It made me wonder if the topic of your last book pushed you in a different direction for the next. Or, conversely, I was thinking about the continuity—if there is more pleasure in writing about the “illustrious dead” than living subjects at the moment?

JM: I told you earlier how I stumble on subjects for pieces. I stumbled on the Gertrude Stein-in-wartime piece when the New Yorker asked me to contribute to an issue on food. I decided to write about the Alice B. Toklas cookbook. While rereading Toklas’s chapter on what she cooked during the German occupation of France, I became curious about Stein and Toklas’s wartime history. The longer piece followed my short piece about trying to cook a weird dish involving artichoke hearts and asparagus and calf brains. (The asparagus spears were somehow supposed to stand erect in a mush of calf brains and bechamel sauce.) I’m planning to write more about Stein and Toklas, but I can’t really say why right now. I may know when I’ve written the piece. As for whether it’s more agreeable to write about the illustrious dead than about the living, I’d say it all depends on which dead and which living.

BLVR: I laughed again, mostly because I was afraid of what would happen if I thought too much about the idea of “a mush of calf brains.” Re: dead v. living subjects, how did the prolonged Masson suit affect your choice of subjects after that, if at all? I don’t mean to belabor this question of choosing subject matter, but again I’ve been reflecting on how one knows what will make a good topic over a lengthy period of time—satisfying both the need for a certain meatiness and challenge, and for a pleasure in the task.

JM: Until this moment you were the first interviewer who did not bring Jeffrey Masson into the discussion. I guess that isn’t possible after all. What you seem to be asking is whether being sued by him has made me leery of writing about people who are alive rather than safely dead. The answer is no. One of the reasons I refused to settle the Masson lawsuit (as the people he previously sued, Muriel Gardiner and Kurt Eissler, had done) was to leave no doubt in the minds of readers and future subjects that Masson’s accusations of misquotation were untrue. As it turned out, a year after he lost his lawsuit at trial, my two-year-old granddaughter pulled a red notebook out of a bookcase, in which the things Masson said he didn’t say were scribbled in my hand. The notes had been lost for ten years. The jury had decided to believe me anyway. But if the notebook hadn’t got misplaced, there would have been no lawsuit. Your reflections on your desire to find a subject that is meaty and challenging and pleasurable to write about interest me very much. They remind me of one experience I had of not taking pleasure in a subject. That was the subject—business crime—of my book The Crime of Sheila McGough. To master the intricacies of the con of a certain con man was very difficult for me. I may not have solved the problem of how not to bore the reader with what gave me enormous trouble to understand. The book was not popular. But I have a special fondness for it, though I may be wrong about its merits.

BLVR: Sorry to be so tiresome as to bring up Masson, just like the rest. I think it’s impossible not to because it does sound like it was such an ordeal, and when I think about events or circumstances in my own life that affect my writing, it’s hard not to be curious. My final question is a two-parter. First of all, I was intrigued by what you wrote about the Sheila McGough book, about your special fondness for it, and I wondered if you would say a bit more. It sounds like it gave you some trouble in the writing. Is that difficulty where the fondness springs from? (Sometimes I think I may have assigned too much value to pleasurability in the writing process…) The second part is one of my reprise questions, and it has to do with email (just to complete the circle). In the course of our interview, I’ve often thought about your description of email as a letting down of one’s hair and inherently messy, and tried to figure out if I agree. Messy, yes, but is it truly a letting down of one’s hair, especially when the person on the other end isn’t particularly known? I’ve often felt that email has a kind of conscious messiness (as in, “Well, this isn’t perfectly articulated, but hopefully she’ll know what I mean…”), whereas talk seems like the messiest form of communication of all, the way things slip out. In short, my question is this, at the end of this interview, has your opinion of email changed any since your original answer, and is this the first interview you’ve done by email?

JM: To answer the first part of your question, about why I am specially fond of The Crime of Sheila McGough: I like its oddness. I think it may be the most original of my books. I like the second part where I travel to the South to interview various strange persons, and the coda where I go to Treasure Mountain, where Bob Bailes, the con man, was going to build a fantastic resort, and where I find a peaceful late summer landscape. I like the book’s own late summer melancholy. And, of course, I like Sheila McGough, a most unusual and sad person. Finally, I was glad to use some of what being a defendant myself taught me about the law and lawyers. Without that knowledge, I would not have been able to write (or even been interested in writing) the book. About email. Yes, this is my first email interview, and yes, talk is the messiest medium of all. Any transcript of a tape recording confirms that. Email lies somewhere between speech and proper writing. But I don’t consider our interview a true example of email. Knowing that what I write will be published, I naturally take some trouble over it, and I assume you have done the same. So, no my opinion of email hasn’t changed because I haven’t really availed myself here of its permission to write sloppily. [After reading the interview, Malcolm sent the following in an email]

JM: I read the interview in the way one looks at photographs of oneself, and, except for one place, I thought I came out looking OK. But the exception may be the most interesting part of the interview. I’m talking about the place where you ask me about the Masson lawsuit. Until that moment the atmosphere of the interview is friendly and collegial, almost conspiratorial. Now it turns icy. I make an unpleasant observation and then launch into an absurd defense of myself. In defense of my defensiveness, I can only say that for a long time I wrongly assumed everyone would know that the accusations against me weren’t true. Now, having finally learned that accusations must be answered at once, I ridiculously answer accusations that, years later, no one is making. But what is most interesting about this moment in our interview is the illustration it offers of a subject’s feeling of betrayal when he or she realizes that the journalist is writing his or her own story. In my version of the story of my writing life, I wouldn’t give Masson any role whatever. But your version—and any other good journalist’s—would naturally give him a role. The lawsuit happened and my wish to deny its significance cannot cut any ice with you. My getting all huffy about your natural and not at all badly intentioned question just goes to show that even journalists are not immune to the vanity and self-deception that interviews bring out in their subjects and that journalists, like novelists, lie in wait for.

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