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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Fran Lebowitz, 1996


Talking to Fran Lebowitz reminded me of something a book reviewer once said about one of Saul Bellow's novels: "It burns the fat right off the brain." Because if the brain were a muscle, mine was sweaty and well-toned after our two-hour talk at the Royalton Hotel's 44 restaurant last Halloween afternoon. She can be provocative: "I don't believe in interpreting writers. I don't think writing is that arbitrary." Enigmatic: "It isn't always good when things work. Even if you've made it better. Because, if underneath it is a lie, it's going to fall apart." And of course, devastatingly funny.
Intertwined within her public persona are several traditions in American life: that of the Jewish Comedian, borne out in the rhythm, precision and sheer velocity of her speech, sometimes ending in tshh-boom one-liners worthy of Henny Youngman; the Public Intellectual, who's invited to appear on talk shows to hold forth on the thorniest social problems of our day with her clear-eyed assessments and unequivocal prescriptions; the Humorist, established when her first two books of essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies were published nearly two decades ago. And finally, after an unforgivable wait of nearly twenty years, Novelist. Exterior Signs of Wealth will be published by Knopf, according to Ms. Lebowitz, before the turn of the millennium. She wore a blue wool sweater over a white, button-down oxford, turned up at the sleeves, and smoked an unbroken chain of Marlboro Lights. She lit them with wooden matches.

DAVID: So, in the spirit of Halloween, tell me your most vivid Halloween memory.
You mean my childhood memories? I was very interested in Halloween as a child. I have no interest in it as an adult, which I think is appropriate.

DAVID: Dressing up and all that?
Even having fun, I find, is not adult. I used to plan the entire neighborhood's costumes. One year I organized the entire neighborhood into a circus. I, as you will not be surprised, was the ringmaster. I remember that because it was a very famous Halloween in our neighborhood. Also, we used to go really far. We would go to a thousand houses trick or treating. I was born in 1950 so it was safe then. No one ever said, "You don't go to such-and-such's house," and the idea that it would ever be dangerous was out of the question, inconceivable, that someone would poison a child. If there were any known Communists, you would assume they would poison a child. Communism was such a big fear in the town I grew up in — Morristown, New Jersey — that no one had any fear left over for anything else. And so as long as there were no Communists in the town, which we were fairly certain of — a Communist was a Democrat — no one ever said, "Don't go to any houses you don't know." We went to every house. One year when I was pretty young, maybe seven or eight, I insisted on going as Humpty Dumpty, which was this very elaborate, really unwieldycostume that I designed.

DAVID: I guess that involved a lot of stuffing.
Thousands of pillows. And my father, he was an upholsterer, he made the cover for this, which covered like … I was a sofa. I was a small sofa. Except without nails or tacks. I remember that Halloween the most because it was the worst. Even as a child, I remember the worst things, as opposed to the best things. Every single house I went to, out of a thousand houses, the mother of the house had to completely reconstruct my …

DAVID: Restuff you.
Restuff me. All the pillows were falling out, it was raining, and because I was a very — I don't know how to put this — kind of a dictator as a child, it meant that every time I stopped in the street to restuff myself, one thousand children that were following me also had to stop, even though they were wearing much more sensible costumes. That is my most memorable Halloween memory. That was the last time I was a fashion victim.

DAVID: I was hoping we could continue the conversation we had over the phone about the evaporation of any sort of 'counter-culture' such as it was.

DAVID: Is Rent part of that phenomenon?
Yes, unfortunately, but you know, those aren't causes, they're effects. I personally didn't see Rent. When it opened, someone asked me to go to Rent, and I said, "I refuse to go." And this guy said, "You always judge things before you see them." Which is the best way to judge them if you ask me, then you don't have to see them. I said, "I know exactly what it's going to be like. It's going to be like Hair with AIDS." So I didn't see it. But then this guy called me in about the middle of the show, when he left, to tell me that I was correct.

DAVID: How were you so sure?
Because I'm 46. There's nothing like being old to be sure of everything. I knew. I knew what it was going to be like. I could tell from reading about it. I could tell from hearing about it. I could tell from the fact that it was a play. I mean, people make these big distinctions between what's on Broadway, what's off-Broadway, when, in fact, the theater itself is so archaic and old fashioned, that it doesn't really matter to me whether it's on Avenue D or at the Helen Hayes Theater. What's the difference? It's still a very nostalgic form. Also, it means you're knowingly walking into a room where there's actors. I feel it's very embarrassing. Because, you know, they're right there. You always think like, they can see you, and I think it's mortifying, frankly, and I hate to sit near the front, where you feel they actually might see you. It's too … it's too live.

DAVID: If you were offered a chance to do an adaptation, say, of The Importance of Being Earnest for the screen, would you ever do something like that?
No. Because what would you adapt? There's already been a wonderful movie of The Importance of Being Earnest, and it's a play. What always shocks me — this is the main thing I hate about the theater — is that every single person in the world can fuck with Shakespeare. Like you know, "Shakespeare? What does he know? He should have made Lady Macbeth … a Hell's Angel! Why didn't he think of that?" You know, any idiot can do that, but you can't touch a word of Neil Simon. Shakespeare doesn't have that … writer's guild, or whatever the union it is that represents playwrights …

NAFTA, that it. The Teamsters. Whatever it is, the reason people like to write for the theater is because no one can change it. So it is against the law to change a semicolon in a Neil Simon play. But anyone in the world can completely change Shakespeare. It's absurd.

DAVID: What do you make of all these screen adaptations of 18th and 19th century classics? Have you seen any of them?
No. I've seen none of them and I will see none of them unless I get sentenced to it. Ever since I was a little child, I refused to see movies of books that I loved. Because you already know what Heidi looks like and she doesn't look like Shirley Temple. So, the same is true of Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country. I don't want to see these things. It's not surprising to me, and it's probably a better idea that these people write something they made up themselves. The things that made those books great are not transferable to the screen. I would say especially Jane Austen, who, with the exception of Henry James — and I see they're making Portrait of a Lady, or they made it already — no one is less transferable. The things that are great about great writing is the writing. And it's very rarely the thing that makes great movies.

DAVID: I want to ask you about your novel.
It may be a movie before it's a book, that's how slow it's coming along. It may have already been a movie!

DAVID: From the reading of the work in progress you gave a few years ago at Three Lives, it seems to traffic in the same waters as Edith Wharton in that it deals with the intricacies of social intercourse and mores and etiquette in a kind of 19th century way. Is that an accurate impression?

Well, it's certainly not like a 19th century novel to me, I mean it's certainly not meant to be. That may indeed be a criticism it gets. I wouldn't make that criticism. It is, in a way, a novel of manners. But it isn't purely a novel of manners. The things that it may have in common with a 19th-century novel is that there are a lot of characters in it, which is not contemporary. And that's deliberate, but not because it's not contemporary. It's deliberate because it's one of the things that strikes me as insufficient about contemporary fiction. You read a novel, and it seems like the characters each know two people. Now, although I would say that to be an immensely lucky situation to find oneself in, unfortunately we all know many more people than that. We wish we knew only two or three people, but in fact we know two or three million people! And so I have a lot of characters in my book because there are a lot of characters in life.

DAVID: You seem to be one of the only writers, along with Christopher Buckley and a few others, who writes about society.
Well that's because most people are unaware that we live in one. One of the things that was very valuable about Edith Wharton is that she came from that class. So you got an inside view, but a very harsh one and a very clear-eyed one even though she was in no way a rebel in her class. I mean, she wrote her books in the morning. Then she went out to lunch. I know a lot about her life because I envy her her life. She never discussed her work, and no one in her family ever mentioned it because it was unseemly. First of all she was exceptionally intelligent for a writer. Most writers are not that smart.

DAVID: That will come as a surprise to a lot of people.
I know, because we live in a society where if anyone knows how to write a sentence, they seem like geniuses because we live in such a degraded era. Especially novelists. There are very few novelists where one of the salient elements of their work is their intelligence. And that is certainly true of Edith Wharton. I mean it really pops out at you. It's a necessary element to being a greatwriter but it's not a necessary element to being, say, a fairly good novelist. You don't have to be that smart to be a fairly good novelist, but to be a novelist at the level of Edith Wharton you do.

DAVID: Could it be described as a roman ˆ clef?
No. Absolutely not. It will be, but it should not be. Because …

DAVID: Because of who you know.
It's not. First of all, there are two characters in the book that are based on, not wholly, but somewhat based on people that I know. They're not well-known people, not people that would be recognizable. Those kinds of people make very poor fictional characters.
DAVID: It seems that people who you know really well, you'd never write about. It's only the people that you barely know that make the most interesting characters.

No no, I don't mean that. These are people I know really well. I mean that people who are well-known, famous people, I think, make very poor characters for fiction. They make good characters for gossip columns. But not for fiction. So, no, there are more actual pieces of furniture in my book, that I've met, than people. You know, unfortunately, by the time you're about 25 you realize you've pretty much met all the people you're ever going to meet, by which I mean everyone you meet after that is some sort of variation on the theme. It would be as much of a test to find a unique person in life as it is to make one in a book.

DAVID: One of the things about your writing I pick up on is your interest in the erosion of the distinction between public and private life.
Well because this is what I think is wrong with everything. I think every single thing that's wrong in the world is about privacy. Or public life. You can't have one without the other. And because there's no privacy any more, there's no public life, in a real sense. You could take a very tiny example, you could say, "What's it like to go to the movies now?" I love movies, but I almost never go to the movies anymore. One reason I don't is because the screens are too small, and because people act as if they're in their houses. They talk. They cut up. They walk around. They disturb you. And you can't not be aware of people if they're sitting behind you talking. That is someone who has an eroded sense of what going out means. Going out means you're not home. You're not home means you have to abide by certain rules of etiquette which is that you don't disturb people at the movies. That's a very tiny example.

DAVID: And a bigger one?
A big example is the idea of privatizing what clearly should be public institutions. What could be a worse idea in the world than privatizing jails. What could make the whole idea of jail any worse than the idea of: Let's introduce the profit motive. This is already a horrendous situation, and let's let someone make money off of it! What could be a worse idea for health care than letting hospitals make money. This is a terrible idea. People don't understand that when they say, "The Government," they act like we live in … this isn't fascist Italy. This is a democracy. We are the government. I don't mean this in some sort of stupid Republican Boy Scout way, I mean, unfortunately, we are the government. I wish we weren't. I wish there were a bunch of really smart people who were the government, and you weren't the government. But, unfortunately, you are. So in the case of, say, health care, people who can't afford to pay for their own health care have a public hospital, which is paid for by the taxpayers. Which means you have lots of levels of bureaucracy, lots of incompetent people, because who gets those kinds of jobs, and lots of wasting of taxpayers' money. That's bad. That isn't nearly as bad as letting people earn that money. I mean, it is a billion times worse to let insurance companies and hospital companies — think of hospital companies … to put private enterprise into the idea of health care is a heinous crime! Much better, waste it! Let it be frittered away! Let a bunch of dopes lose it! Those are your two choices because, after all, human beings are really kinda crummy. So, much better incompetence than greed. Much safer, much more moral, much more democratic.

DAVID: More democratic.
People are always saying things like, "Why is Tom Cruise complaining about his lack of privacy? That's the price of fame." And I would say to that, why is that the price of fame? That is an absurd price. It's a ridiculous price. Tom Cruise, yes he's an extremely privileged person. In any kind of society you have privileged people. Better Tom Cruise than a king. So you don't have to hate Tom Cruise. In other words, the second people stop paying $8.50 to see Tom Cruise there's no Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise lives at the whim of the audience. That's the price of fame, $8.50. Because unless you let Tom Cruise have privacy, then no one gets to have privacy.

DAVID: What are your thoughts on the O.J. civil trial?
The salient feature of that crime and how it played out had to be the fact that it was in Los Angeles. To me that explains the whole thing. I think he could have been, instead of an athlete, a movie star. I think he could have been white instead of black. It was that he was a man and that it was in Los Angeles. That's not to say that Los Angeles police aren't famously horrendous and racist — but I don't think that race was a real element in this trial. Because if that were true, what happened with Mike Tyson? O.J. Simpson, who is, of course a black man, was probably one of the least identified as black of almost any famous athlete. He was a real, racist white person's idea of a good black guy. He wasn't political. He was very amiable, he was very soft in his personal manner, he wasn't threatening in his personal manner, he acted in a friendly way, he wasn't scary. Here you have Mike Tyson, who is a real white racist's idea of a scary black guy. First of all, he is engaged in a very brutal sport. His whole fame has to do with the fact that he beats someone up. Second of all, he has a very brutal presence. He looks like a racist cartoon from the Civil War. He's a very scary … figure. And he's accused of a crime that most white racists are most afraid of from black men, which is rape, much scarier than murder. That's the big thing. And he is the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World, which is the highest thing an athlete can be, as opposed to a football player who hasn't played football in fifteen years! The Tyson trial was in a place where they have real life! But Los Angeles is not such a place. Los Angeles is the world capital of celebrity. Los Angeles is the only place in the world, where, when rich men get divorced, they get to keep the house.

DAVID: They keep the house.
And the wife lives in a condo in Brentwood. Where else does that happen? Not here! And that's what happened in Los Angeles. I mean, that whole thing with Kato Kaelin, when the media was explaining to the country who this guy was? And they call him a houseguest? Anyone who's ever been around people like that knows who Kato Kaelin is — he's the guy who gets the drugs! He's the guy who gets the girls, or the boys, or whatever the case may be. All celebrities have someone like that around! There's not an unoccupied guesthouse in Hollywood! There's not a place other than Hollywood where people still have guesthouses! And who's in the guesthouse? The guy who gets the drugs or whatever. Obviously, a movie star can't go and buy cocaine. It was very clear to people who have this sort of life who Kato Kaelin was. And very unclear to the rest of the country. A complete mystery apparently, you know, no one ever figured it out! Because no one ever jumped up and said, "You know, I've got one in my guesthouse too! I just hope he's not around when I kill my wife!" To me that's what that trial was about. That trial was about celebrity. They should have had Rona Barrett explain this trial! Instead of having like, professors from Yale. Those guys at Yale, they don't know about this! They could have found some girl with a development deal at Paramount — she could have explained this!

DAVID: You should have been explaining this trial!
I refused.

DAVID: Were you offered to?
Many times. I refuse to participate in this sort of activity. I think it's … repulsive.

DAVID: Do you watch much television?
I never really watched television in my life until about two years ago. I rented a house in Princeton — I lived there a little over a year — and I started watching TV. I think it is a suburban pastime.

DAVID: Does it ever provide you with material?
No. Television is anti-material. In other words, I don't think television is a provider.

DAVID: Does it eradicate material?
Well, yeah. It's the opposite of life. When I lived in Princeton I started watching television. Because it's a kind of tropism for suburban life. I mean, I never thought about watching TV. I've always had a television. It just never occurred to me. I also have a cappuccino maker. I've never used it. Someone gave it to me, and that's how the TV was.

DAVID: Is New York too distracting for you as a writer?
Distracting makes it sound like tempting. New York holds no temptation for me any longer. I'd be out of here like a shot if I were not owned by my apartment. But it is incredibly hard to work here because it's distracting in a non-tempting sense, by which I mean that it is noisy, it is problematic in the tempo of life, it is antithetical to the tempo of writing, which is slow and contemplative. If you're a fast writer it's still slower than life in New York. I don't think New York is any longer a place to make things. I think it's just a place to sell them. It used to be a place to make things because life was, in some sense, inspiring — stimulating would be a better word. Maybe if you're 20 and you just recently moved here from Omaha. But I haven't and it's not.

DAVID: How do you envision your audience, if at all?
I don't. You mean, who do I think they are? I used to know. The only time I ever knew who my readers were was at Interview. Because there were six of them, so it was a small group to know. I don't know, I would say it depends much more on where you are, than who you are. By which I mean, for ten years, when I wasn't writing at all, when I was sulking, the way I earned a living was I went and spoke at colleges.

DAVID: That's where I first met you actually.
DAVID: At the University of Oklahoma. Where you alighted from a stagecoach.
I can't believe you were there … I have been to a hundred thousand colleges and that is my most vividmemory.

DAVID: You were forced to ride in the "Rufneks Wagon."
That's right. I have told this story twenty times and no one believes me. Now I have a witness. I cannot believe you were there! And imagine my surprise when I arrived there to discover I was to be speaking in a football stadium. You remember these things because, first of all, if I'd known what the size of a football stadium is — too big. Also you have to speak on a public address system which I've only done four or five times which is very disconcerting because there's a delay and you can't hear yourself. But I learned many things there. First of all, my whole life, I thought Astroturf was plastic grass.

DAVID: It's not?
No, it's carpeting. That football field, which I was on, is like a kind of synthetic carpeting, the kind they would have in a Motel 6 or something, only green and marked off for a football field. Second of all, it was obviously the only time that I've ever been in a stagecoach. And when that little stagecoach was outside the stadium and it came trotting over and it had little horses with it, the girl who was in charge of taking me around, who was head of the sorority council or something, said, "This is the home mascot," or something. And I said, "Oh that's very cute." And she said, "Get in." And I said, "What do you mean get in?" She said, "You have to get in because that's how you're going into the football stadium." And I said, "No I'm not." And she said — she was one of those sorority girls who was like made out of stainless steel — she looked at me and said "It's in your contract." Which of course I never see. They go to the agent. I only tell them what to put in, not to take out. It never occurred to me to say, "And make sure that stagecoach clause is not in that contract!" So, you know, I don't know if you vividly remember it, but I vividly remember that they shot off a cannon.

DAVID: I do remember that.
They shot off a cannon and this stagecoach started careening around that football stadium, which seemed to me like a thousand miles an hour, and it started to tip over on two wheels, and all I could think of was, I was going to die.

DAVID: [laughing] In a stagecoach.
In a stagecoach, and people were going to say, "Did you hear what happened to Fran Lebowitz? She died in a stagecoach accident!" And that, like, it was going to be the worst death since Nelson Rockefeller's, and he had a much better death than I was going to have, and all anyone remembered about Nelson Rockefeller is how he died, and it's been a hundred years since anyone has died in a stagecoach accident. I mean, it's as if I was going to be hung as a witch! It was a really horrendous experience.

DAVID: This interview is actually going to be published in February, so in the spirit of Valentine's day do you have any advice for the lovelorn?
There's no such thing as advice to the lovelorn. If they took advice, they wouldn't be lovelorn. You see, advice and lovelorn don't go together. Because advice makes love sound like some sort of cognitive activity, but we know that it isn't. We all know that it's some sort of horrible chemical reaction over which we have absolutely no control. And that's why advice doesn't work.

DAVID: Being in love is a chemical activity?
In love, lovelorn, anything having to do with romantic love, has nothing to do with the ostensible ability to think.  

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Fran Lebowitz by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1996
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