"You'll never write about me again."
February 7, 2015 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I know you may not care, but I do. I care about how to tell a personal story like the one I’m about to write, without falling into a million traps laid out in front of you. I’m thinking of the issues of trust and betrayal that come across between a writer and his or her subject. The transfiguration that inevitably takes place in writing. And my friendship with Philip Roth: in which trust was the fundamental condition, despite ambiguity playing a subtler, if ever-present, role.
posted by nevercalm (7 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
“A writer is someone who knows nothing about his life or about the life of anyone else, until he has not only imagined it, but has discovered, through writing, how to imagine it.”
posted by sammyo at 7:57 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I respect that she was in a hard position here, but . . . I was just trying to imagine Mallory Ortberg putting up with any of this crap. We can't leave the time of the Important Male Novelist soon enough.

"You'll never write about me again." God! Who did he think she was, Claire Bloom? She should have farted directly into the phone.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:04 PM on February 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

If your spouse passes away do they then become an ex? I know that is only one line in the article, but it seems weird to me.
posted by Literaryhero at 9:22 PM on February 7, 2015

It's an interesting art, the interview or profile. You (or at least I, back when I did such things) pore through a person's vocational and creative output, snatching at flashes of the genuine like a greedy fossicker, hoarding those nuggets in the hope you can polish them into something valuable come interview time.

You start building up a profile - a smoky, shifting profile based on these words and work and the gaps in between them, spinning up airy theories you hope to solidify through the delicate ritual of the interview itself. You are conjuring a shadow person, and plumbing the difference between it and reality will form the basis of your article.

Most interviewers don't give a shit, so generally your investigative efforts will yield good results. However, you must be careful, can't cross the line into a fan or acolyte. You don't want a subject to patronise or simplify for you. You are offering up - in addition to the publicity, I mean in the raw, often quite intimate space of the interview itself, your insight into this person and their work, in exchange for their essence. It's a trade that's rated against you, really, so you will need to be interesting and entertaining, too.

You get into the interview itself, often a little boundary testing at first. Establishing how well you know the subject, and seeing what kinds of things they are prepared to expose to you. Once the terms of engagement are outlined, you get into it, and god it can be enjoyable. Handling a fine mind on a terrain they are master of. It's like working with a powerful animal; you are at once exhilarated but also outside yourself, constantly checking and rechecking to make sure everything is okay, changing your behaviour to keep things stable.

Sometimes, maybe often, you do get too close to the subject - damn it. The interview and its confines have been swept away, the illusion has become real and now you are relating as people. An ethical quandary, to publish something told to you as a human being, rather than a journalist. The false intimacy of strangers has led you to a dilemma.

Once things become relational like this, it can be challenging to keep yourself out of the piece too. There's a relationship now, not a stage-managed and professional piece of theatre, and it's very hard to tell its story without including your half of it.

Generally, I found this made the piece weaker, not stronger - and I find it does here, too. There's an element of star-fucking to it, an... uplifting oneself amongst these larger-than-life titans, cause you know they're not larger than life (but they are still symbols to the public).

I'm rambling. I enjoyed doing interviews, when I did them, and I enjoy reading the good ones. People will say the interesting things if you lend them a willing ear - I would have liked more from Roth and less from the writer in this piece. The process itself is a loaded and complex one, though, I agree.
posted by smoke at 9:29 PM on February 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

I read it with the voice of Mrs. Thurston Howell III.
posted by clavdivs at 11:14 PM on February 7, 2015

> Generally, I found this made the piece weaker, not stronger - and I find it does here, too. There's an element of star-fucking to it

Exactly. I got more and more irritated the more I read. The whole thing boils down to "I've been deluding myself for years that I'm a close personal friend of Philip Roth, so I put up with his insulting behavior." Pathetic.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Roth fan and I'm sorry he stopped writing, but it would never occur to me to think that getting to know him personally would be a good idea. Him or any other artists I admire. But apparently Livia Manera Sambuy's entire career is built on sucking up to famous people and sharing their personal details (but only some of them!) with the world.
posted by languagehat at 8:59 AM on February 8, 2015

You can read more of her journalism here, if you care to, including various pieces on Roth. Only three entries are in English, I'm afraid. The rest are Italian.
posted by BWA at 9:47 AM on February 8, 2015

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