In the elegant round dining room of her art-filled apartment in New York City’s East 60s, Erica Jong offers me a cappuccino, makes herself comfortable in the seat across from me and asks, evenly, “Have you read a lot of my work?”
Jong made her reputation with her debut novel, Fear of Flying, which was published in 1973 by Holt and blew open doors with the protagonist, Isadora Wing, who made an indelible mark on pop culture with her pursuit of the “zipless fuck.” But before Jong was known as a confessional novelist, she was a published poet, and she has continued to write poetry as well as fiction, including historical fiction, and memoir (Fear of Fifty, Harper Collins, 1994) over her 40-plus-year career.
For Jong, poetry is “the source.” She took it up “with a vengeance” when she got to college, abandoning an early interest in painting that was nurtured by her family of artists.
Fear of Dying, Jong’s first work of fiction in 12 years, is due out in September from St. Martin’s. She is quick to point out that, despite their similar titles, her new book isn’t a sequel to her debut, and it’s also not a memoir. Instead, she chose to tell the story of a fictional character, an actress in her 60s, married to a significantly older man. “Vanessa Wonderman is a character; she’s not me,” Jong says. “I tried many times to write in the voice of Isadora, and I couldn’t. For me, it was such old news. And there was so much baggage accumulated on the character through the years, from people teaching it and writing about it, that I just couldn’t come back to in it in a fresh way although I truly tried.”
“I wanted Vanessa to be a happily married woman,” Jong notes, adding, “But is anyone completely happy? And what does that mean? Everybody has conflicts—more than you would think. And when you look at people externally and you think they’re happy, you know, what does that mean?” Vanessa begins the book grappling with sick parents, an aging husband, and an unwillingness to accept the sunset of her sex life. On an impulse, she joins a dating website, seeking “eros one afternoon a week.”
In a late draft of the book, Jong had an idea “of bringing Isadora in as a sort of Jiminy Cricket best friend.” It clicked, and the title was eventually changed from Happily Married Woman to Fear of Dying. “It occurred to me that Isadora could be a foil for Vanessa, and I could show an Isadora who has grown up and who is wise and serene,” she says. Asked about how Isadora gained this wisdom, Jong replies, “A lot of things have happened to her. Her husband died in an avalanche, she’s had a lot of experiences, and she basically says to Vanessa, ‘You want connection’—not sex, but connection: connection with others. And I think we do all want connection.”
Isadora also advises Vanessa to seek joy but is less clear about how to find it. According to Jong, “Joy happens when it happens. It’s a blast; it’s like when a poem happens, you don’t know where it comes from. It’s a kind of ecstatic thing. And I don’t think you can plan it.”
When I point out that this kind of spontaneity sounds a bit like the zipless connection, Jong demurs. “Yeah, but zipless became... it was so misinterpreted. I was looked upon as an advocate for sexual freedom. I never really was. I never wanted anonymous sex, but it was so in the air that I felt I had to chronicle that longing. But it’s not my thing.”
These days the pursuit of love and sex has moved online, and Jong’s new book comments on the modern ritual’s concomitant foibles. This development falls outside her personal experience; she has been married to a lawyer specializing in child custody disputes for more than 26 years—her fourth marriage. “The other marriages barely matter at this point,” she says. In contrast, Vanessa in Fear of Dying is using the Internet to fulfill a fantasy, and “what she’s looking for is not there, which is what I’ve heard from a lot of people.”
Jong doesn’t dismiss online dating completely, however. “It works for people,” she says. “Because some of the book is satire, I wanted to show this older woman reaching out for sex and meeting these lunatics. One wants to be her personal slave; she doesn’t even know what the term means.”
Satire has been an interest of Jong’s since her days as a graduate student at Columbia studying 18th-century English literature. She also finds that humor is a way of keeping people engaged in reading uncomfortable truths.
I ask if, in writing a character like Vanessa, there is a danger that someone is going to take what’s going on in Vanessa’s head as how all women think. Jong replies: “I can’t control that. You know when you put a book out there it’s like a note in a bottle. And if people find their own prejudices about it, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I applaud Jong’s Zen attitude and ask whether that was a learned response. “Yeah,” she says, “because through the years, I never expected that so many people all over the world would read Fear of Flying and find themselves in Isadora. You really can’t control what people see in books.”
Though her characters Vanessa and Isadora talk a fair amount about sex, there’s a thread of conversation throughout the book about privacy versus self-disclosure, which speaks directly to the writer’s life. It’s a life that Jong acknowledges as presenting many challenges: “The thing is, there is an ambivalence about writing. On the one hand you want everybody to read it, and on the other hand you want no one to read it. I always say to my writing students, there’s no way to be a writer and not reveal yourself. Writers reveal themselves, even when they think they don’t.
However, Jong knows that books have a capacity to transform lives. It’s why she wanted to be an author. “When you read a book, and it moves you, it’s like in a private space you learn you’re not alone. You’re not the only person who ever had these feelings. You’re not the only person who struggled with self-image. You can do service for people by writing a book. What a lot of people got out of Fear of Flying, women first and then men, eventually, was ‘I’m not alone. Other people have these feelings. I feel I’m not a freak.’ Being a human being is a difficult thing, but you’re not the only one.”
Even with such higher purpose in mind, writing candidly takes guts. I ask Jong if her family encouraged her. “My father adored my writing and was very supportive,” she replies, adding, “My mother said, ‘Write poetry. Your novels are my obituary.’ ”
Speaking of her own daughter, writer and memoirist Molly Jong-Fast, Jong says, “She would never listen to my advice. She’s got a very strong character, and daughters never listen to their mothers. It’s not even clear that she has completed any of my books, and I wouldn’t care if she did or didn’t.” To her writing students, Jong offers the following maxim: “Don’t show anything to your family or you will never finish it.”
When Jong is writing, she says it helps to tell herself that the book will never be published. “At the beginning, when I was a novice, it was true. Now publishing is in such a state of flux. It’s going toward e-publishing, self-publishing. It’s not really clear what the publishers are doing, and I just said to myself, ‘No one’s going to want this book,’ and I really believed it.”
I ask if Jong thinks this is the last Fear book. “When I look at the list of my books, it upsets me that there is so much fear in the title,” she says. “I think, Oh God, am I still harping on fear? What’s going on?”
So is there anything Jong is afraid of now? “I’m not afraid of anything, really. You know, I find that getting older is wonderful in many ways. You see circles get completed in your life. You see how things turn out. You have grandchildren. I think getting older is great. I used to be very afraid of it, but I’m not anymore.”
Deborah Bander is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Brooklyn.