No One’s Making You Do This: An Interview with Vivian Gornick

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters

Vivian Gornick is a one person Renaissance, writing on eminent women scientists, feminism, civil activism, anarchism, and this country’s greatest authors. She is a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Phillip Lopate has called her, “One of the most vital and indispensable essayists of our cultural moment.” Her short, zippy, craft book that’s not a craft book, The Situation and The Story has been oft-assigned to nonfictionists, the terminology of “the situation” and “the story” de rigeur parlance in workshops across the country.

Born to New York left-wingers in the 1930s, Gornick’s mom was a former communist organizer and her father died when she was just thirteen. Gornick was a journalist for the Village Voice in the seventies, and has amassed personal essays and literary and cultural criticism to add to her dozen books and counting. Her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, a staple in the nonfiction cannon, precipitated the memoir craze the of 1990s and 2000s, exceeding it with her biting insight, novel-esque scenes, and studied, penetrating reflection.In May, Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City came out. It has been described as a, “narrative collage,” that, “bookends” Fierce Attachments.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Starting off, I wonder if you would talk about your new book?

Vivian Gornick: Well, we’d have to go back to Fierce Attachments. When I wrote it, I was thinking about my mother, the woman who lived in the tenement across from us, and how these two women together made me a woman. I wrote forty pages and got stuck. I realized I had a lot of unfinished business with my mother. So I sat there for six months not knowing what to do, completely miserable. And then one day my mother calls me and tells me a story. I thought this was funny and because I was stuck and didn’t know how to go forward, I decided to write this little story. But I realized I had to set it up because nobody would understand what it means if I just tell the anecdote. So I wrote a scene of us walking and her telling the story. And in that way Fierce Attachments became a collage of tales told from the past in this Bronx tenement I was growing up in and then my mother and I walking the streets of New York.

I stumbled on this style that was congenial to me, the collage. Which was a difficult thing to do, because a collage works only if all the pieces are in the right place and all the transactions get you to the next place. That may sound easy, but I’m here to tell you, it’s real hard.

Just so I wrote and rewrote this new tiny book about fifty times. It started off as a tale I was going to tell about my friend Leonard. I’ve had this friend Leonard in New York for many years and always thought our relationship was paradigmatic of the city. I’m a divorced woman, and he’s gay. And we each live alone and have gone through the politics of the city. But as I went on, I realized I had a situation but not really a story. I could not carry this on into a book. And I had to rediscover the city, which has always been gold for me. I walk the streets of New York City like an anthropologist. The city has always given me more sustenance, more comfort than anybody I know. So once I had the city in my mind as well as Leonard and I, I began to think about friendship. The three strands became this memoir.

CCP: Thinking about how you worked for the Village Voice for nine years, how do you feel that has influenced your work now?

VG: Oh, that was as strong influence. At the Village Voice I was a polemical journalist. I developed very quickly into a feminist journalist and they let that happen because polemics and feminists were what they were all about. That’s what the counter-culture was. Because of that I developed a point of view. My politics led me quickly to see that everywhere in the world I saw sexism. So I walked out in the street and picked a leaf off a tree and somehow managed to turn it into an article about sexism. Whenever I went, to a movie, to dinner, took a walk on the street, had an exchange at the drug store, I saw sexism. So this became a point of view. What made me a writer was the realization that I wasn’t going to hammer the reader into seeing the world as I did. I had to dramatize it. I had to make in persuasive. I had to find ways to move into what I ultimately wanted the reader to see. When I got tired of that, got tired of being a journalist and was hungry to enter myself instead of the world, I had the experience of knowing the value of a point of view. That became a leading element of my development as a writer, the recognition that every piece of writing has to have a point of view to make it strong.

CCP: May I ask a similar question about criticism, about your work with feminism and how that’s a lasting influence on you?

VG: Oh, no doubt. I will say this, over the years, there’s no question that there’s always a feminist speaking in my writing. There’s no question feminism has influenced how I’ve seen the world immensely. But as a literary critic, I’ve made it a point of honor never to sacrifice the book to the politics. I’m sure that my feminism is the source of many of my judgments, but otherwise I hope I’m faithful to the writing.

CCP: I love what you say about creating a point of view, it reminds me of your friend Philip Lopate talking about creating a narrator personae and how different books need different personas, that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m wondering why you think people have that need to recognize personas outside the text.

VG: This is no literary personae outside of the text. What do you mean?

CCP: I’m thinking of a story you’ve told about a woman at a dinner who said, “You’re not the Vivian in that book.” Why do you think she wanted you to not be you, that she wanted you to be the person in the book?

VG: Well, that’s the oldest thing in the world! It’s true for anyone whose ever met a novelist. Once at a public lecture to a group of women engineers in Houston, I was reading from Fierce Attachments. They were all wearing blue suits with skirts instead of pants. This woman, thin-faced, blonde, raises her hand and says, “If I come to New York, can I take a walk with your mama?” I said to her, “You do not want to take a walk with my mother. You want to take a walk with the woman in the pages of this book. She is not the same. Do you know how much dead time I had to put in to make that woman interesting on the page?” Everybody longs for the writer of the book to be a hero and to be a movie star and to be what they are in the book. It is the power of literature speaking. But when I was at the dinner table I was everything that I am now. I was a million things and many of them were not palatable. At Houston, it was a long evening and I shot my mouth off at everything, and the woman who asked about my “mama” sat there getting more dismayed because I also wasn’t the Vivian in the book.

CCP: Did I get the story right that your mother for Fierce Attachments went on the tour with you?

VG: She didn’t go on the tour, but in the course of her daily life, walking around New York City, she would go around signing the book. I said, “Ma, you didn’t write that book! You can’t sign it.” She goes, “Well, without me, there was no book.” She was hopeless, uncontrollable.

CCP: I like your spin on the Joan Didion quote about how writers are always selling people out. You add she doesn’t mean it maliciously but as a way to serve one’s writing. Could you talk about using others to speak for your projects?

VG: What she meant was the obvious, which is that you’re not more faithful to the model for your characters than to the use your characters have in a narrative. People use to ask me always, cringing, “Was your mother alive when you wrote this?” She was. She would stop dead in the middle of a walk and say something like, “Why are you writing this, so the whole world will know you hate me?” Then I would go home and be paralyzed for three days and wouldn’t be able to write. And then I would recover myself and realize that my intentions were honest. I was not writing to trash her or to aggrandize myself. I was writing to dramatize this fierce attachment. That honesty would remind me that this was my writing material, my experience, my life, and that she, in this project, is only a player. She is not the cause of anything. I am not writing to even scores. I am certainly not writing Mommie Dearest. I am not writing to accuse her or to see myself as a victim. And I would have to remember that and believe again in the honesty of the project.

Nevertheless, when she read it, she was very childish about it. One day she’d be very proud, and the next day very violent. One day she’d say, “You only told the truth.” The next day, she’d say, “Now you’ve held me up to ridicule!” I thought, “Screw this. She’s a baby, and I can’t let her   pull me down.”

CCP: A good quote from you is, “Nothing is more seriously difficult than the familiar.” And I’m wondering about how you penetrate the familiar to write?

VG: You got to think hard. [Laughs] And live long.

CCP: So, it’s a matter of time?

VG: Well, it’s a matter of the seriousness of the writer recognizing life with awe. It is essentially what all good writing does. It is looking at the familiar with every bit of penetration one has. The question is how good the writer is. That’s the work of every w