PW: Why did you write The Face of a Naked Lady?
Michael Rips: The idea came to me in the year following the discovery of the portraits my father had done, the secret portraits of a naked black woman. I decided that these portraits might hold the key to a rather remote person, who was my father. So I set out to find the woman in the portraits, the idea being that she would lead me to my father, who had died years before. I was about a year into searching for her when I began to think that I might record my search. Because what I was finding had to do with something other than just my father. It seemed to me that what I was finding was mysterious and unexpected.
PW: Yes, but why write it down? What are you trying to express?
MR: I found the idea of what I'm trying to express in an obscure but brilliant 20th-century thinker by the name of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas talks about the mysterious and the unfathomable as a way of reaching some sort of spiritual understanding in the world, though not a lot of it. Levinas is a radical departure from 20th-century philosophy and even religion in that he turns us away from ourselves. He isn't particularly interested in who we are as humans. And he suggests that we will never understand either ourselves or what's around us, but that in that mystery lies the road to something important.
PW: What did you find in the end?
MR: It relieved me of the burden of self-discovery. And that's the 20th-century burden. In Levinas's philosophy, that was the radical departure, that you don't have to think about yourself. There are other ways to exist in the world and be engaged by the world, without doing it through the lens of self-discovery. And that's the lesson that I find in my father, in these portraits, in his stories from antiquity, and ultimately in the teachings of Levinas.
PW: It's interesting that the subtitle of your book is An Omaha Mystery. It's set up as a traditional mystery, and at least on some level the mystery is solved. Which conflicts with the philosophy within the book, the idea of accepting mystery.
MR: I discovered the woman. It would have been far better in terms of connecting the philosophy of the book if I had not. But there she was. Even though I did discover her, I think the question still remains to a certain extent: why was my father, a conservative, Republican Nebraskan, fixated on a poor black woman with a mutilated face? And the answer to that is, because she was unknown to him.
PW: The Omaha in the book is not most people's idea of Omaha. How much of the book is real, and how much is magical realism?
MR: When someone tells me a story about Omaha, I'm not interested in whether their picture attaches to a reality. I'm interested in their thoughts about the reality. So when my grandmother calls me up and says, "We've just had a terrible tornado and I was sucked up the garbage chute," I'm not necessarily concerned with going back and finding out whether the newspapers reported my grandmother whirling around in the kitchen.
PW: You do your writing in coffee shops?
MR: Absolutely. The cafe [in Manhattan's Chelsea] in which I do most of my writing, it turns out, is next door to where Kerouac wrote On the Road. It's next to the seminary. So it's the cafe of the seminarians. So all these people are sitting at the tables talking about God and scripture and reading Aramaic. It's a wonderful atmosphere, and in fact my book opens in that coffee shop, talking to a brilliant seminarian about Levinas.