Anne Roiphe's first novel, Digging Out, was published in 1967. Her second novel, 1972's Up the Sandbox, was made into a film starring Barbara Streisand, and was called "a feminist classic" by Salon in 1996. Now 79, Roiphe has just published her 10th novel, Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind, which received a starred PW review. Roiphe looks back on a life of writing.
It’s a long story—the one about how I published books, fiction and non-fiction and how I survived the rocks thrown and the debris in the path and how I kept going the way you do in a bad dream when you are trying to get somewhere and all roads lead in another direction and the train goes off the track and the car runs into a tree etc. That is the melodrama of it all. But after fifty years of work I see less melodrama and more of the quiet pleasure of the thing, the sweet moment of finding the right word, or the turn of plot, or the idea that opens the next idea.
Of course I am the heroine of my own writing story but I am all too aware that from another perspective I am a writing ant scurrying across a great field hiding in the grasses, hoping the bigger and better ants don’t have me for lunch.
It began in a writing class at Sarah Lawrence College when the poet Horace Gregory, after listening to a girl’s story of staying in a motel in Las Vegas while waiting for her divorce papers, said to her, “Who cares about your divorce?” I cared. I thought the piece he mocked was brilliant. But within six weeks after I graduated I married a writer and decided to devote myself to his well-being, to tend his wishes, work as a receptionist, type his manuscripts and mail them out to publishers.
We were divorced when I was twenty-seven and I then wrote the story of this misadventure, a kind of memoir disguised as a novel. I had met an editor at McGraw-Hill on the beach in Amagansett and I sent it to him and he accepted the manuscript and published it with a batch of new authors. I was twenty-nine and my mother had died but the other members of my family were furious and wounded and vowed never to speak to me again. They had a point. I had exposed, fumed, ridiculed, shamed, and otherwise carried on as if nothing mattered but my pages, my story. I am not the first writer to have taken revenge on old wrongs. I am not the first writer to look critically at the hearth. There was no feminism in the air when I began to write although it hovered just over the edge, just where I couldn’t see it, but yearned for it anyway.
I received a call from my editor. Sales of your book are incredible in one bookstore on the upper east side of Manhattan. The store can’t keep the book in stock because the demand is so high. My aunt who lived a block away from that book store was buying out the full supply again and again, not realizing the store would only reorder and reorder more. She was trying to keep her friends from reading it.
My next editor at Simon and Schuster was of the three-martini-lunch kind. He was fired finally for sleeping the afternoons away at his desk. And then I wrote books of all kinds. I had remarried a psychoanalyst. We had tuitions to pay. We had life to consider which is far more important than art, I quickly came to see.
I wrote about family and children and a thousand articles a year or so it seemed. I became a columnist for the New York Observer. I had opinions that grew like weeds in my brain. We never took a vacation that I didn’t write about for some magazine or paper. And I loved it. This writing that was not art but was like shoemaking, a craft, an honorable occupation.
And then not so honorably I wrote more memoirs. Yes, I was still writing about the things I knew all too well. While they tell you to write about what you know they don’t say you should keep at it for forty years. But I never felt I had it just right. I had something else, something further to say, some new perspective, some new fury possessed me and I repeated the story in variations. Perhaps this was a disaster for my writing life or perhaps that was the only way I could have had a writing life. Either way it was what happened. I am now old enough to see that I could have done better or I could have been a lady who lunches or plays golf at the club or raises roses in her garden. As it was I put my politics into my non-fiction and my imagination into my polemics and mostly I honored the distinction between fact and fantasy although sometimes in the fiction the facts molted into strange night moths that were no more related to the facts than the giraffe is related to the dinosaur.
Sometimes reviewers hated what I wrote and sometimes they didn’t. A bad review in the New York Times makes you feel run over, mauled, miserable. But that feeling does not last. Now I can chase it away in a day, at most a week. I am protected by the fact that I just write, the outside world need not admire me, may not admire me, but admiration is not fuel for my mind. I like it of course but I wouldn’t cross the street to find it. What I like best is the power of the good idea, the adrenaline rush of the words mounting into paragraphs, into pages.
Sometimes I wish I had been born with a greater gift. Sometimes I am thankful for the one I have. I have friends who talk of the famous writers they know and friends who think of book parties like bee keepers think of their hives. I used to have names to drop. The owners of those names may have died or drifted away. I am not a better writer because I knew better writers. If only that were so.
In the beginning I had a decent and kind agent who knew exactly how to get me the least money possible. I should have stayed with him but I was attracted by the glitter of a more famous agent. Oh well, mortal flaws are common enough even in people who don’t write for a living. The glittering agent made a deal with Robert Altman to turn a novel of mine into a movie. And then Altman couldn’t do the movie and the agent would not ask for my promised advance payment because he didn’t want to annoy the director and soon I heard he became Altman’s agent and so it went. You really need some shark teeth to survive out there. In my fantasies I am a killer shark, a poison spider, a meteor dropping out of space on someone in particular’s head. In reality, I am a pussycat whose claws have been removed. Except of course if I am writing and then my claws are long and strong and could tear apart an adult in the space of a paragraph. I no longer shock myself by the wicked things I write.
I look at the long shelf of books I have published and I think how much better they might have been had I only—. Then I look at the shelf and I think I would rather have had three more children. Then I think I might have preferred to have more books and fewer children than I actually have. Then I remind myself that there is no reason to place children and books on a scale. There is room in life for numbers of both and one never precludes the other. That is a false assumption lurking in my brain from the days of my youth when I wore a garter belt that pinched and thought I should serve as muse instead of listening to one.
When my husband died and I was grieving I began to write a book about the new land I was inhabiting where widows mircrowaved dinner and consumed it watching the evening news. The writing did not make me sad. I was sad to start with. The writing made me feel strong and the writing told me what I was thinking and it is always a good to know what is happening in the dark recesses of one’s mind. When years earlier my teenage children had made me feel like a horse ready for the glue factory I wrote about it. When my brother died of AIDS I wrote a novel about cholera in Egypt and then I wrote about him. When I was still under thirty I wrote a novel about a mother dreaming of other lives as she sat in the playground awaiting her third child. My alter ego danced with Fidel Castro, nearly blew up the George Washington Bridge with a group of revolutionaries and roamed the globe as a foreign correspondent. When it was published the reviewers said it was a feminist book. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was and I was glad.
When I was young I thought money was evil. I soon saw that evil or not it was necessary. As a writer I made some money in the days of large advances and movie sales. But I never reached the end of the rainbow where the pot of gold waits. I just wasn’t that kind of writer. I hovered in the mid-list or sank below the surface. Publishers have a track where they can see your lifetime sales figures. Mine must hover somewhere between anorexia and famine. Am I jealous of writers who can fly to Paris first-class as often as they like? Not really. But I am jealous of writers whose sentences pierce my brain and writers whose words matter to many. But jealousy is not a real sin whatever they say. It makes me try harder, push myself to do better.
In today’s world where publishers are counting pennies and blockbusters only pay for more blockbusters and young writers bang and bang on closed doors I doubt that I would be published at all. And so I am thankful that I came of age when it was possible to write a book that some people liked, that was read a bit, even though the publisher never took me to the Four Seasons for lunch or flew me in a private plane to a distant resort.
I will be eighty years old when the winter snows arrive. Some eighty-year-old writers rest. Some do not. I am not sure what I will do. I have a new book I have to finish before I consider if there will be another following. The books I have written, the ones on my shelf are not immortal. I am however proud to have been part of the conversation that takes place among the readers of books, the readers of small magazines, of journals, the curious and the angry, the hopeful and the not so hopeful among us.
And then there is this. My daughter Katie just called to tell me she is dedicating her new book, The Violet Hour, coming next winter, to me.