Allen Shawn, the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, tells of his phobic life in Wish I Could Be There.
What prompted you to write this book after living with your phobias for so long?
Writing has sort of snuck up on me. I'd written a few articles about contemporary music, and I'd be interested in [doing] other books about music. But a friend suggested that I write about these really debilitating problems of mine. I was very reluctant to think I could do that. It's even difficult for me even to talk about the subject, because these problems seem like they belong to somebody else.
What changed your mind?
I began to realize that the tendency to be phobic was itself not only interesting but probably universal. We think of ourselves mainly in terms of what we can do, and the things we can't do are just way off there in the shadows. You certainly don't present yourself in terms of what you can't do. But that's exactly what I've done with this book. I became committed to the idea of describing personality from the wrong end. Not the part you put on your résumé, but the part you leave off.
Were the sections dealing with your family life difficult to write?
I was mainly concerned that the book stick to its subject and not be derailed as a memoir of the New Yorker. I don't talk much about my own life in music, either. That's one reason that I only use my father's name in the introduction, and then I try to abstract my family in the rest of the book. My father was a very private person, but if there's anything that's known about him, it's his phobias. They're described in just about any book about the New Yorker.
But you describe how those phobias helped make him the great editor he was.
My father was a very courageous person when it came to being himself and making the New Yorker with, whether you agreed with them or not, certain principles that were unique to it. There's a connection between that and the fact that he navigated through the world in a very particular way, and that there was a lot he couldn't do or didn't like doing.
You mentioned you'd like to write more books about music. Any specific ideas?
I've always wanted to write about Stravinsky. And I've definitely got a Mozart book in me, if anybody's interested.