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 a