How did you become a writer?
Slowly. I always liked to write when I was a kid. I was the one who was made to write the Thanksgiving poems, and the George Washington Day poem, and all that kind of stuff. But I didn’t think I’d be able to be a writer because I thought they were geniuses. So I decided to be pre-law when I entered college. But then I hung around the students who wanted to be writers and they didn’t seem any smarter than I was, so I decided to give it a try.
I began writing fiction and later switched to poetry and eventually to nonfiction. Since I didn’t have much money—I was working class—it seemed a very risky thing to do. But I made some money as a ghost writer for a while.
You really can’t get a certificate saying “You’re a Writer Now.” The way that I became a writer is by reading a great deal and wanting to enter into the conversation with other authors, many of whom were dead, and imitating their style, however unconsciously.
Name your writing influences.
I guess the first influence was my father, who liked to write poetry. He’d started out as a newspaper reporter, but then, during the Depression, the newspapers that he worked for went bankrupt so he had to take a factory job. But I watched him write. He had a very concise way of writing. He was always trying to take out extra words. I have a more maximalist way of writing, which I suppose was something of a rebellion against his style. But he certainly was somebody who read a lot even when he was working in factories. He introduced me to Dostoevsky and to Kafka and to Faulkner. He brought a lot of cheap classics into the house—Pocket Books and the like. These were the days when the Modern Library and Pocket Books were all geared toward the self-taught worker.
Then in high school I began reading a lot of those New Directions books like Sartre’s Nausea and No Exit, Garcia Lorca’s poems—I suppose I became a good little Modernist. It was all rather bleak and despairing, you know? Even before I went to college I was reading contemporaries like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow. In a way, precisely because I was a next generation of American Jewish writer, I felt that they had taken up a lot of the territory. And given my natural perversity and impulse to fall in love with the old, in college I was much more interested in older writers like Fielding and Laurence Sterne and Diderot. I read a lot of Nietzsche, a lot of Flaubert. I had a friends who were much hipper than I, like Ron Padgett, who was a poet in the New York School. He’d say, “Why don’t you read Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs and Raymond Roussel and get with the program?” So I’d read them for a while, but then I’d go back to Stendhal and Flaubert and Balzac and George Eliot. I was very comfortable in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was drawn to ironic fiction. Italo Svevo and Machado de Assis influenced me the most, two writers who are ironic, who are playful. I suppose they came out of the tradition of Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy. I like that mischievous tone. Some of that was rooted in Dostoevsky, like Notes from Underground, you know? It was the heretic or marginal tradition that I connected with very strongly.
Are there any teachers that stand out?
At Columbia I studied with some great thinkers: Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley, and Meyer Schapiro. They were all rather remote, and in some ways I preferred the remote, withdrawn teachers to the ones who tried to be our friends. I was intimidated by the ones who wanted to go out drinking with us. I didn’t want to do that at all. I think because I had come up from the ghetto in Brooklyn, I had a kind of class mistrust of mixing with teachers. Somehow they were the enemy. I liked teachers I could watch but they weren’t necessarily watching me. That was certainly true of Lionel Trilling. He was a great mind but not a particularly good teacher, not a particularly good lecturer. There was something very poignant about the way he struggled to bring the interior swirl of his mind into the public space.
Again, I was separating myself from modernism and trying to find an older tradition and thinking that when I wrote it would matter even though I wasn’t taking the next step in Hegelian progression of Art. For instance, at one point I liked Heinrich von Kleist a lot and started imitating him. I think when a writer begins there’s a lot of imitation.
When and where do you write?
I write at home, in my office on the third floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn that we own. It’s fairly tiny now because of the piles and piles of manuscripts and books around. I’ve only gone to one writer’s colony in my life, and that was last May when I went to Civitella Ranieri in Italy. That was because they said, “Would you like to spend a month in an Italian castle?” Essentially, I feel comfortable writing at home and I don’t feel like leaving it to write. I’m not a night owl. I generally write during the morning hours and sometimes in the afternoon. You can’t get much intelligent writing out of me after 5 PM. You might say I keep banker’s hours.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m finishing two books: One is a collection of personal essays, which is my fourth collection after the trilogy of Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre and Portrait of My Body. The second book is a collection of teaching essays about the craft of nonfiction that I’ve been writing for several years. I often have a column in a magazine called Creative Nonfiction. It’s kind of my pedagogy of nonfiction. In a way the two books are Theory and Practice and I hope they’ll be perceived that way.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Only once, when I was running away from my first marriage. I lived in California for a year in 1968. California was strange to me and I think I felt a lot of inner emptiness in the face of all that beauty. I was used to New York City. I’ve never had writer’s block since. I write nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. If I get stuck I switch genres. Plus at this point in my career I’m often asked to write book reviews, articles, responses, and so on, so a lot of what I write is really initiated outside myself and I’m on deadline and have to do something. I do the best I can.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice is to read a ton and don’t be afraid of being influenced. Allow your brain to be reconfigured by thousands of pages. Don’t be in a hurry to get published, but try to amass a backlog. I think it’s a good idea to try to get published in small magazines, magazines that friends edit—don’t necessarily aim for The New Yorker or Harper’s right off. Get your work out there. I participated in a lot of open meetings when I was a poet and published in a lot of mimeographed magazines. It’s important to start to communicate with readers on however modest a level.
Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. He has written three personal essay collections -- Bachelorhood (Little, Brown, 1981), Against Joie de Vivre (Poseidon-Simon & Schuster, 1989), and Portrait of My Body (Doubleday-Anchor, 1996); two novels, Confessions of Summer (Doubleday, 1979) and The Rug Merchant (Viking, 1987); two poetry collections, The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open (Sun Press, 1972) and The Daily Round (Sun Press, 1976); a memoir of his teaching experiences, Being With Children (Doubleday, 1975); a collection of his movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically (Doubleday-Anchor); an urbanist meditation, Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Crown, 2004); and a biographical monograph, Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker (Harry N. Abrams, 2004.) In addition, there is a Phillip Lopate reader, Getting Personal: Selected Writings (Basic Books, 2003).
He has edited the following anthologies: The Art of the Personal Essay (Doubleday-Anchor, 1994); Writing New York (Library of America, 1998), Journey of a Living Experiment (Virgil Press, 1979), a best essays of the year series, The Anchor Essay Annual (1997-99), and the forthcoming American Movie Critics (Library of America, 2006). His essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in The Best American Short Stories (1974), The Best American Essays (1987), several Pushcart Prize annuals, The Paris Review, Harper's, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Threepenny Review, Double Take, New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Preservation, Cite, 7 Days, Metropolis, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other periodicals and anthologies.
He has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants. He received a Christopher medal for Being With Children, a Texas Institute of Letters award in the best non-fiction book of the year category for Bachelorhood, and was a finalist for the PEN best essay book of the year award for Portrait of My Body. His anthology, Writing New York, received a citation from the New York Society Library and honorable mention from the Municipal Art Society's Brendan Gill Award.
After working with children for twelve years as a writer in the schools, he taught creative writing and literature at Fordham, Cooper Union, University of Houston, New York University, and Hofstra University. He is currently the Director of the Nonfiction MFA Concentration at Columbia University.