An Interview with Janet Malcolm

At the beginning of The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm declares that any journalist who is not too self-absorbed to comprehend the situation at hand recognizes the ethical wrongness of their career choice.

This 1990 work, just as many of Malcolm’s other nonfictional books, investigates a particular occurrence (a murderer suing a journalist) to the point that it reveals a larger concept – the intricate psychological principles of journalism.

Since the late seventies, Malcolm has been contributing pieces to the New Yorker that meld essay and reportage.

She has authored eight books on different matters, such as the troubles of psychoanalysis (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981), the troubles of biography through the lens of Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman, 1994), and a study of Chekhov’s life and work (Reading Chekhov, 2001).

Other titles include In the Freud Archives (1984) and The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), and two collections of essays, The Purloined Clinic (1992) and Diana and Nikon (1980, extended in 1997).

What captures and holds the reader’s attention in her writing is the skillful combination of investigation and reflection.

When reading Malcolm, one feels the presence of a mind that is always working on multiple levels, mediating between reality (which often consists of facts that clash) and her own awareness.

Apart from The Purloined Clinic, none of her books are longer than 200 pages, yet the precision of her writing gives them the depth of murals built by a miniaturist.

Malcolm’s depictions of those she encounters can be ruthless; however, her remarkable accuracy does not exclude sympathy.

Now and then, her subjects criticise themselves, but more often they exhibit the passions, fascinations, and aspirations that are common to us all–albeit in a more magnified form.

Malcolm and I exchanged emails while he was in the process of crafting a book concerning Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, taking place between the months of March to June of this year.

— Daphne Beal

Writing can be a great form of self-expression, allowing people to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a creative way. It also gives people the opportunity to explore their own creativity and style.

Through writing, individuals can explore their own unique perspectives and reflect on their experiences.

In this email interview, one phrase that has been stuck in my head is the description from The Silent Woman of writings crafted with computers being “marmoreally cool and smooth” compared to letters written on manual typewriters.

There is a significant presence of correspondence in your novels, including the content, tone, texture and feel of the letters’ pages.

Is email something that you use frequently or do you still prefer to communicate through “real” letters? How do you think email has impacted the way people communicate through the written word?

JANET MALCOLM commented that when she was writing The Silent Woman, email had not yet been popularized. She felt that email tends to be sloppy and it encourages a lack of attention to detail when writing.

She also noted that when she writes a real letter, she is careful with its presentation and will re-do it if something is smudged or not formatted properly.

With email, she has no idea what it will look like on the receiver’s screen, and it is often surrounded by elements that she has no control over.

Malcolm mentioned that doing this interview via email is giving her the opportunity to pause and think of answers to the questions. In contrast, if it were done in person, she would likely just be left in a state of blank helplessness.

BLVR: When I read your writing, it’s almost inconceivable to me that you have such a perspective! I’m always astounded by your ability to quickly shift and maneuver through any given moment of dialogue, especially when it has to do with the psychological aspects of it.

I recall reading somewhere that your father was a psychiatrist. Did that imply that you were knowledgeable of psychology as a discipline, philosophy, art, and science from a young age? Did you ever seriously contemplate entering the field?

JM never gave thought to becoming a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst, and paid little attention to their father’s work while growing up.

Their dad was the head psychiatrist at a Veteran’s Administration outpatient clinic, and was passionate about nature, literature, and sports, plus he was a talented comic writer in Czech.

Even though he excelled in his profession, he never boasted about it like many did in those days. He was compassionate towards his patients, but had no patience for social workers, often being sarcastic about them and their clipboards.

There is a piece of writing of theirs called “The One-Way Mirror” about family therapist Salvador Minuchin; would the listener like to hear about that?

I’m a real fan of anything to do with families and the effect they have.

In the late seventies, I quit smoking and soon found that I was unable to write. I then decided to embark on a long fact-based piece which would take a lot of time for reporting.

I recalled a story my father had shared about an extraordinary individual who could cure anorexic girls with one session by having them eat with their families at the end of it; he spoke of this person in psychiatry with admiration.

I chose this individual, Minuchin, as the subject of my piece and took many trips to Philadelphia, where he had a clinic, to observe him train young psychiatrists in his theatrical family therapy.

When it came time to write, I found that I was able to do so without the need to smoke. This was the first time for me to write a long fact-based piece and it turned out to be a good fit for me.

BLVR: After how many years of writing did you have that experience? In addition, did the selection of Salvador Minuchin as your theme in any way influence how you have selected other topics in the future?

After writing for around a decade, JM had produced book reviews, essays on photography, and pieces on decorative art, but had never done reportage.

As is often the case, JM came across Minuchin as a subject by chance; it was a situation that is typical when it comes to journalistic topics. Specifically, JM became aware of the story after hearing or reading about it, or following a letter they received.

The letter which triggered the creation of The Crime of Sheila McGough was distinctive in its atmosphere, and JM replied to it. When asked why they were sharing this, JM responded that it was because of the significant power of a question. Journalists understand this power after working in the field for a while.

BLVR: I’d like to go back to Sheila McGough, however, I’d like to take a slight detour first if possible.

Last autumn, a show of your collages was presented at the Lori Bookstein Gallery here in New York City. This is a medium you’ve been engaging with in a more private way for a while.

How did you come about creating collages and what queries does it answer that writing can’t? Alternatively, do you find it is more related to your writing than I’m assuming?

JM: To address your query, I’d like to cite a book I wrote about a decade ago about the artist David Salle. It’s been said that writers often seek solace from painters in the form of aesthetics.

To writers, painters are a kind of otherworldly representation of the pleasures of the physical world, something the writer has given up to pursue the intangible and odorless life of writing.

When I was interviewing Salle, I was in the process of writing a book. I cannot quantify the impact, but I know that each conversation in his studio brought clarity and invigoration to my task. This excerpt exemplifies my approach to combining elements in my writing.

I incorporate a lot of quotes and references from people and texts in my books and articles. Salle is an artist who only “quotes” or “appropriates” in his paintings. I’m trying to say that collage is more pertinent to my writing than you might think.

BLVR: I recall reading that you had revealed your collages to Salle, however having your artwork on display in a gallery is a different matter altogether. In what ways, if any, has exhibiting your work transformed your connection to it? To start with, is it still as pleasing?

When I first began exhibiting, I was ambivalent about the concept of people obtaining my collages. Publishing a book keeps the content in possession, whereas selling a painting, drawing, or collage means you no longer have it.

Initially, I was not willing to part with my work. However, over time, I became content with the idea of someone purchasing a collage. Now, I am perfectly happy when someone buys my work, and there are plenty of them.

Nevertheless, I still experience a twinge of regret when I realize that the collages are now hanging in the homes of strangers, and I may never see them again. As for whether the work is as enjoyable as it was before exhibiting, I have to say no.

I have to strive harder and my expectations of the quality of the craftsmanship and what is deemed satisfactory to show are much higher.

BLVR: It appears that although your writing and your collage have some common characteristics, the truth uncovered by collage is more ambiguous than that of writing.

I am thinking of the amazing beginning of The Journalist and the Murderer, which talks about how the journalist’s duty of uncovering facts always results in the betrayal of the subject.

This theme of betrayal appears in much of your work, such as the biographer, the mentor’s student, the photographer (such as Diane Arbus), Gertrude Stein, and her Jewish acquaintances. Could you comment on this recurring subject?

JM mentioned that through the writing process of journalism, biography, and photography, betrayal was a theme that kept coming up.

They noted that these genres inherently contain a high amount of power over the subject, and oftentimes the result of this power is an unkindness towards the subject.

Even the simple act of having one’s picture taken can lead to feelings of betrayal, as can being the subject of a news article. As for the deceased, JM suggested that they too have been wronged in some way.

BLVR: How do you maintain your subject’s trust while crafting a work in a profession that often is not very kind? Does the person you interviewed have a different place in your mind by the time the writing is complete compared to when you were in the midst of the questioning?

JM: In response to your first inquiry, there is no way to reconcile journalism with morality. It is not necessary for journalists to seek the trust of their subjects; they simply volunteer it. Although the profession is often seen as unkind, the final product can be quite beautiful.

For instance, when writing about Anton Chekhov, it was difficult to find anything bad to say about him. His biographers have tried, but were unsuccessful.

Could you make your second question more clear? I am currently reading Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which may make it hard to comprehend a sentence that is not simple and has not been repeated.

BLVR: I’m looking for advice on transitioning from an intimate connection in interviews to a more critical lens as a writer. Chekhov is a rare example of a person of whom nothing bad can be said, and yet their contradictions are still interesting.

This transition can often feel like a betrayal. My question is how to make the switch from interviewer to author? If this isn’t clear, we can move on. I’m also aware that The Journalist and the Murderer deals with this topic in detail.

JM declared that the journalist’s task of writing about someone is challenging, referencing The Journalist and the Murderer and commenting on the novelist’s capacity for imaginative leaps.

He postulated that the journalistic encounter has a regressive effect on the subject, in that they regard the writer as a forgiving mother and expect the book to be written by her, while the reality is that the book is written by a strict father.

With regards to the discrepancy between the comfort of the interview and the coldness of the writing process, he acknowledged that it is a problem which cannot be resolved, for when one makes the switch from interviewer to writer, they are committing a moral misdemeanor.

BLVR: It’s possible I need to adjust my perception of my wrongdoing from a crime to a lesser offense. I also recall your reputation as a writer for being quite rigorous with your subjects, which may be why some admire you while others are bothered.

I’m curious if you ever felt the response to your work may be influenced by you being a woman.

Are women still expected to be “nicer” and less abrasive when writing? I usually try to adopt a lower-level, compliant, and light-hearted attitude when I’m talking to people for an article, but then I tend to transform into a different person when I’m writing.

I’m familiar with your “more Japanese technique” in The Journalist and the Murderer, but I was wondering what you exactly meant by that?

JM pondered if the people who disliked her writing had an issue with her as a tough, not-nice woman.

They were probably perceiving her differently than she saw herself as a regular, harmless individual. JM’s nonfiction pieces were narrated by someone who was more eloquent and creative than she was, so this person could come off as a bit presumptuous.

To nullify her feeling that she was not being as honest as she should be, JM suggested being more candid and to remember that the subject will still say what they want to, regardless of what she does or does not say. She noted that it was difficult to stay silent at times.

Furthermore, JM did not think the “feminine behavior” she described was exclusive to female journalists, as male reporters could be just as accommodating and sociable. To conclude, when JM was asked to explain the Japanese technique, it was an example of this very behavior.

BLVR: Your response made me laugh. I can’t pinpoint why, but I think it has to do with the perplexity of writing–it looks like it’s in one’s control (unlike, for instance, theater or visual art), but there’s still that mystery of who this character is who insists on speaking for me?

The undeniable truth is that the work and its impact are not in one’s hands.

Maybe this is the ideal time to refer to the simultaneously bewitching and cantankerous Stein–discussing being hard.

(I recall from my Midwestern childhood in the seventies blurring Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem, as, well, they were both viewed as unimaginable by local criteria, but that is a different story…) How did you approach writing about her and Tolklas? Is the New Yorker piece being developed into a book, and have you completed it?

JM: Your mix up of Gertrude and Gloria really made me laugh! I’m still tackling my project on Stein and I’m not done yet; however, the weather is so gorgeous today that it reminded me of something Stein wrote on an exam paper in a course at Radcliffe.

Allegedly, she wrote “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.”

Apparently, James replied to her with 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.

Although, there is some uncertainty surrounding if this actually happened the way Stein said it did. Could I be excused from the test today?

BLVR: Dear Miss Malcolm, I understand your feelings very well, as I can often relate. [And a week later…] Your answer to the GS query left me unsure if you wanted to address the subject in the present, though my Malcolm-admirer acquaintances are pressing me to inquire why her, why now?

I was pondering if Stein’s impressive persona and works attracted you to compose about her, or was it the consideration of her Jewish identity and staying in France that spurred your exploration?

In comparison to Chekhov, she appears to be a more complex literary figure and her writing arguably less universally cherished than his. It made me ponder if the topic of your last book directed you to a different path for the next one.

Or, on the contrary, I was thinking about the continuity–if there is more gratification in writing about the “notable deceased” than living subjects at this time?

When asked to write for an issue on food, JM was inspired to do a piece on the Alice B. Toklas cookbook.

His curiosity was piqued when he read Toklas’s chapter on her cooking during the German occupation of France, which led him to delve deeper into Gertrude Stein and Toklas’s wartime history. This longer piece was a follow-up to his short article on the peculiar dish involving artichoke hearts, asparagus and calf brains. He is planning to write more on Stein and

Toklas, though he can’t tell why just yet.

He believes that whether it is more agreeable to write about the dead or living depends on who the dead and living people are.

BLVR: I couldn’t help but chuckle, mainly because I was scared to consider in depth the concept of “a mush of calf brains.”

With regards to live as opposed to deceased subjects, did the extended Masson case have an impact on your selection of subjects afterwards, if at all?

I don’t want to keep on with this inquiry concerning picking topics, but I’ve been pondering how one can recognize what will be a beneficial subject over a prolonged time span–fulfilling both the requirement for a certain complexity and difficulty, and for a delight in the job.

JM commented that up until that point, the interviewer was the first to not bring up Jeffrey Masson. He responded to the question of whether being sued by him had made him cautious to write about living people by saying no.

He further explained that he had refused to settle the lawsuit, in order to prove that Masson’s accusations of misquotation were false. He then went on to give an example of a subject he had written about that had not been pleasurable: the book The Crime of Sheila McGough.

He noted that understanding the complexities of the con man in the book had been difficult, and he wasn’t sure if he had been successful in not boring the reader. Even though the book was not popular, he still had a certain fondness for it, though he wasn’t sure if it was deserved.

BLVR: My apologies for being like everybody else and bringing up Masson. It’s hard to not be curious when I contemplate events or situations in my own life that have an effect on my writing. My final inquiry is twofold.

To begin with, I was captivated by what you wrote about Sheila McGough’s book and your special fondness for it.

Could you elaborate? Does the difficulty of writing it explain the fondness? (Sometimes I think I might have placed too much value on enjoying the writing process…) My reprise query is about email and it completes the circle.

During this interview, I’ve often reflected on your description of email as inherently muddled and a kind of letting down of one’s hair.

Do you still feel the same way, particularly when the recipient is not someone you know well? In other words, has your view on email changed since you initially answered the question and is this the first interview you’ve ever done by email?

JM: When asked why The Crime of Sheila McGough is a favorite of mine, I’d say it’s the unusual nature of the book. I enjoyed the second part, where I went to the South to meet various odd people, as well as the closing scenes in Treasure Mountain.

I connect to the book’s late summer melancholy. I can also relate to Sheila McGough, as she’s a unique and sorrowful character.

Plus, I was able to put some of my own experiences as a defendant to use in the writing, an experience I would not have been able to capture without that knowledge. Regarding email interviews, this is my first and I acknowledge it’s the messiest medium.

But, I don’t think this interview falls into that category, as I’ve put in more effort knowing it will be published. Therefore, I haven’t changed my opinion of email as I’m not taking advantage of its laxness. [Later, Malcolm included this in an email]

JM: Examining the interview as if it were a collection of photographs of myself, I was generally satisfied with the results; however, the one place where I was not is the most intriguing. I am referring to when you asked me about the Masson lawsuit.

Before the question, the atmosphere was cordial, almost like we were in on something together. Afterwards, I made a negative comment, and then tried to protect myself.

To explain why I acted this way, I can only point out my mistake in assuming everybody knew the accusations against me weren’t true. Looking back, I find it strange how I answered claims that hadn’t been made in years.

What is so interesting about this moment in the interview is the way it shows a subject’s feeling of betrayal when they realize that the journalist is writing their own version of the story. In my own version of my writing journey, I would not have given Masson any part.

But your version, or any other journalist’s, would give him a role, since the lawsuit happened. My indignation at your fair question only speaks to the vanity and self-delusion that interviews often bring out in their subjects.

It also shows that journalists and novelists alike are on the lookout for these kinds of moments.

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