PW: You've been writing about New York for more than 50 years. How has the New York that you know changed, and how that has affected your work?
Louis Auchincloss: Well, New York has changed terrifically, and continues to change all the time. That was illustrated to me, for example, some years ago when I did a short play based on a story taking place in a law firm, written toward the end of World War II. This was about 1960 or something, and it was plain to me the play had to be completely rewritten. The law firms were totally different. For example, immediately after the war, those big law firms were 99% men. Then the introduction of the computer completely changed things. It might as well have been written in the 1890s.
How long did you practice law?
I started practicing law in 1941, and I retired at the age of 69 or 70, which is 16 years ago. But I've done so much writing since I retired. And writing has always been much more emotionally important to me.
Your new novel, East Side Story, is concerned with moral hypocrisy and ambiguity. Do you consider yourself a novelist of morals, or a novelist of manners?
I would consider myself a novelist of manners, and a novelist of manners has to be a novelist of morals, too.
The title of the novel seems to refer to the musical West Side Story. Was that intentional?
Absolutely intentional. Bernstein's West Side refers to the West Side of Central Park, and my book refers to the East Side of Central Park, which used to be a tremendous social division. When I was young, you could live West of Central Park below Central Park. But above 59th Street West was extremely unfashionable. Now, of course, that's all gone.
In many of your books about the rich and powerful in New York, there has been a sense that the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant class is dying. How true is that?
Certainly when I grew up, there was what was called a WASP superiority, which was a very definite and clear thing. They controlled all the clubs in New York, the private schools. The anti-Semitic attitude was very widely spread and so on. Terrible. And now there's a general feeling that those people have collapsed. They haven't collapsed at all. What's happened is that they've lost their monopoly. In other words, the sort of social revolution that's been going on perfectly steadily in the United States simply accelerated in pace a little bit. But instead of like [the French Revolution], killing everybody at the top, they just told them to move over. There's plenty of room.
You've mentioned Henry James and Edith Wharton as literary influences. Are there other authors that you read and enjoy?
I used to read contemporaries very carefully—I deeply admire John Updike, and I admire Tom Wolfe, too. But I've gotten way behind on modern things, because I've frequently taken up nonfiction writing jobs which involve a whole year of working on historical things. I'm not up on modern writers at all.
When you say writers who influenced you, it's very hard to know what that means. Henry James is perhaps the novelist I get most pleasure out of, and yet I wouldn't for a minute say he's influenced me. I would never try to write in the lacquered style that he so beautifully commands, and that nobody's ever been able to imitate.