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Interviews: 2010s

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann

It’s a little strange to encounter Michael Hofmann in Gainesville. He has taught creative writing for over twenty years at the University of Florida, whose sprawling campus is dominated on its northern edge by a football stadium, the Swamp, where orange-and-blue Gators chomp their unlucky opponents. A short drive from there, you can pick your way past dozens of real gators, dusky green and preternaturally still, in the Paynes Prairie Preserve, which is also home to herds of wild horses and bison. How the bison got to Florida, and why they stayed, must be an interesting story. In one of Hofmann’s few Gainesville poems, “Freebird,” written after his first visit in 1990, he quotes D. H. Lawrence: “One forms not the faintest inward attachment, especially here in America.”

Lewis Lapham

Lewis Lapham

It is dangerous to excel at two different things. You run the risk of being underappreciated in one or the other; think of Michelangelo as a poet, of Michael Jordan as a baseball player. This is a trap that Lewis Lapham has largely avoided. For the past half century, he has been getting pretty much equal esteem in a pair of distinct roles: editor and essayist. As an editor, he is hailed for his three-decade career at the helm of Harper’s, America’s second-oldest magazine, which he reinvigorated in 1983; and then, as an encore a decade ago, for Lapham’s Quarterly, a wholly new kind of periodical in his own intellectual image. As an essayist, he was called “without a doubt our greatest satirist” by Kurt Vonnegut. 

 

By the time I arrived in New York in the late seventies, Lapham was established in the city’s editorial elite, up there with William Shawn at The New Yorker and Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers at The New York Review of Books. He was a glamorous fixture at literary parties and a regular at Elaine’s. In 1988, he raised plutocratic hackles by publishing Money and Class in America, a mordant indictment of our obsession with wealth. For a brief but glorious couple of years, he hosted a literary chat show on public TV called Bookmark, trading repartee with guests such as Joyce Carol Oates, Gore Vidal, Alison Lurie, and Edward Said. All the while, a new issue of Harper’s would hit the newsstands every month, with a lead essay by Lapham that couched his erudite observations on American society and politics in Augustan prose.

Today Lapham is the rare surviving eminence from that literary world. But he has managed to keep a handsome bit of it alive—so I observed when I went to interview him last summer in the offices of Lapham’s, a book-filled, crepuscular warren on a high floor of an old building just off Union Square. There he presides over a compact but bustling editorial operation, with an improbably youthful crew of subeditors. One LQ intern, who had also done stints at other magazines, told me that Lapham was singular among top editors for the personal attention he showed to each member of his staff.

Our conversation took place over several sessions, each around ninety minutes. Despite the heat, he was always impeccably attired: well-tailored blue blazer, silk tie, cuff links, and elegant loafers with no socks. He speaks in a relaxed baritone, punctuated by an occasional cough of almost orchestral resonance—a product, perhaps, of the Parliaments he is always dashing outside to smoke. The frequency with which he chuckles attests to a vision of life that is essentially comic, in which the most pervasive evils are folly and pretension.

I was familiar with such aspects of the Lapham persona. But what surprised me was his candid revelation of the struggle and self-doubt that lay behind what I had imagined to be his effortlessness. Those essays, so coolly modulated and intellectually assured, are the outcome of a creative process filled with arduous redrafting, rejiggering, revision, and last-minute amendment in the teeth of the printing press. And it is a creative process that always begins—as it did with his model, Montaigne—not with a dogmatic axiom to be unpacked but in a state of skeptical self-questioning: What do I really know? If there a unifying core to Lapham’s dual career as an editor and an essayist, that may be it.

Jim Holt


INTERVIEWER

You started your career with the San Francisco Examiner.

LEWIS LAPHAM 

My reasons for going into the newspaper business were twofold. One, to learn how to write. When you’re young you tend to use too many adverbs and adjectives, to think every word you come up with deserves to be engraved in marble. I hoped to cure myself of the habit acquired while writing papers at school and college. 

The other reason was to get an education. Having grown up in Pacific Heights in San Francisco and then gone to prep school in Lakeville, Connecticut, and to Yale College, I knew I’d been living in a privileged, safe space and didn’t know much of anything about the rest of the country. Didn’t know how the politics worked, where the water came from, how the garbage was collected, who was living on the wrong side of the tracks. As a newspaper reporter, I expected to learn who were my fellow citizens, where and what was the American democracy. 

INTERVIEWER 

Let’s back up. Your grandfather was the mayor of San Francisco when you were a boy.

LAPHAM

Also a shipowner, the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company. Intercoastal trade. The ship would start with dry cargo in Seattle, go down the West Coast, through the Canal, around the Gulf, up the East Coast to Portland, Maine, and then back on reversed compass bearings. A very profitable business before the interstate highway system. On December 7, 1941, we owned a substantial fleet of ships. In early 1942, the United States government commandeered all of them for the North Atlantic convoys. Most of them were sunk by German U-boats. If I remember the story correctly, we were never reimbursed for the loss. 

INTERVIEWER

As a boy, what were your passions? You must have read widely.

LAPHAM

Books were my boyhood. I can remember my mother reading Moby-Dick to me when I was six years old. Each evening I had to know exactly where the story had left off the night before or she wouldn’t read the next page. So I learned to stay with it. My father had a large library, he was himself a constant reader.

 

INTERVIEWER

And a writer, too. He was a columnist for the paper, right?

LAPHAM

Had been, yes. My father came back to San Francisco after graduating from Yale in 1931 to work for the Examiner, on occasion speaking directly to William Randolph Hearst, then enthroned at San Simeon. Under pressure from my grandfather, my father gave up journalism to become president of the family company.

And then my grandfather was elected mayor in 1942. He sometimes would go out to meet the aircraft carriers coming in from the war in the Pacific, take me with him in the launch, bring me up to the bridge to meet an admiral. When I was ten years old I wanted to become a navy carrier pilot. At Yale I didn’t qualify for the naval reserves because I was color blind. 

 

INTERVIEWER

So what did you do? 

 

LAPHAM 

I was also in love with words. I tried my hand at poetry at Yale, and later at Cambridge in England, attempted to write in imitation of Yeats, Auden, Donne, Shakespeare, and A. E. Housman.

 

INTERVIEWER

The poetry you wrote back then, it scanned?

 

LAPHAM

It did. At Yale I discovered classical music and that also was an influence. 

INTERVIEWER

You were already trained as a pianist?

 

LAPHAM

No. The house in San Francisco offered a fine view of the bay, but it wasn’t furnished with a piano. My parents listened on the Victrola to Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, and the Great American Songbook. At Yale I met Beethoven, Bach, Handel, and Mozart.

 

INTERVIEWER

Who was the first composer that moved you?

 

LAPHAM

My first lessons were on the harpsichord because I wanted to play Bach.

 

INTERVIEWER

So when you went on to Cambridge, you had an amateur interest in music and keyboard. You were there to study history.

 

LAPHAM

Medieval English history. At Magdalene College, I met C. S. Lewis, who had just come over from Oxford. I met Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Admired the poetry of Robert Graves, wrote him letters in Majorca. He didn’t write back. 

At Cambridge, I was never in any kind of inner circle. I wandered around, audited lectures, wrote poetry, acted in plays. It was a lovely year, but I understood at the end of it I was not a scholar. I didn’t have the patience for footnotes. My parents were unwilling to fund my further education unless I was going to make an academic career.

Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott

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Photo courtesy of Mimi Levine.

Before I met Alice McDermott, I’d heard a story: when her students became distracted with excitement after she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy (1998), she settled the class down by offering a hundred dollars to anyone who remembered the last winner. As the rumor went, she kept her money. Not one M.F.A. student of fiction could recall the winner or the book (Charles Frazier, for Cold Mountain).

This is a revealing wager from a writer as recognized by awards committees as McDermott; her novel That Night (1987) was a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize; At Weddings and Wakes (1992) was also a finalist for the Pulitzer. Charming Billy won an American Book Award as well as the National Book Award. Child of My Heart (2002) was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After This (2006) was yet another finalist for the Pulitzer. Someone (2013) was long-listed for the National Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The French translation of her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour (2017), received the Prix Femina étranger.

And yet McDermott is the one wryly reminding her M.F.A. students of Ozymandias.

McDermott was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island; she attended Saint Boniface School in Elmont, Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, the State University of New York at Oswego, and the University of New Hampshire. She has taught at the University of California, San Diego; American University; and, before she stepped down this past June, for twenty-three years at Johns Hopkins. Her three children are grown and she lives with her husband, David Armstrong, a retired neuroscientist, in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were to meet last December.

But the doorbell didn’t seem to work at the house where the Uber dropped me. Stately homes were set far back on lots with deciduous trees and we’d found no numbers on the curb. Through a front window, I could see a large, decorated Christmas tree as I rang the bell again. The Uber made a U-turn and was driving away.

McDermott finally answered, seeming unsurprised that her bell hadn’t rung. “You could recognize it for being the house with the most Christmas decorations,” she said. Once inside, I noticed that there were indeed two fully decked trees, a cedar bough in the bathroom, and an Advent calendar hanging from a doorknob on a piece of red yarn.

We settled around the kitchen table and continued a conversation that had begun as a discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum the previous April, following a reading McDermott gave from The Ninth Hour. We talked most of the afternoon, roving from books to teaching to real estate on New York’s Upper East Side, the iPhone recording failing only when we discussed a public interview Alice had conducted with Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Divine intervention, she claimed.

We finished the evening in a nearby Irish pub, where Alice and her husband ordered Guinness with dinner and everyone seemed to know them. They told me the story of an Irish musician friend, a well-known box player who worked by day as a high school janitor. When an acolyte wondered whether he would ever learn to play as well, the janitor/box player asked him, “Do you like what you do?” The would-be apprentice answered that he liked it well enough. “Then you’ll never be as good as I am. I hate what I do.”

—Mona Simpson

INTERVIEWER

A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), your first novel, feels different from your later books. It’s longer and the atmosphere is more emphatically contemporary. It’s about the vain hopes of writers and the economic realities of a vanity press. Can you talk about the genesis of this first book?

ALICE McDERMOTT

Context is everything, I suppose, whether the history is personal or ancient. To say I was tentative about my ability to make a career out of this longing to write fiction hardly captures the despair/determination/hope/anguish of starting out without pedigree or connection or even much encouragement. I was an excellent English major at Oswego State, and a marvelous professor there told me I was, indeed, a writer. But everyone else I knew, family and friends, was wary of my ambition. And so was I. So, following my parents’ well-intentioned advice, I looked for an entry-level position in a publishing house after college. I quickly learned that all the entry-level positions at the real, glamorous publishing houses were well stocked with Ivy Leaguers, but I did manage to get hired by Vantage Press, a vanity publisher on way West Thirty-Fourth in Manhattan. In many ways, the experience was a parody of that “real” publishing world: vain and hopeful authors paying to have their books published, publishers and editors who stroked these poor souls’ egos even as they bilked them. A year of this and I fled to the woods, to the University of New Hampshire for a master’s in English. Said my dear, worried father, You already have one degree you can’t do anything with, why would you want two? I took a course in long-form journalism, and one of the first investigative pieces I wrote was about the world of vanity presses. I had no intention of publishing this piece, well aware that my fiction-writer’s impulse to finesse every quote, to reshape every anecdote, to sacrifice what actually happened for the aesthetic shapeliness of what should have happened, barred me forever from the reporter’s trade. But I did enjoy the research.
Two years later, I was back in New York and newly married. My husband was in a Ph.D. program that gave us subsidized housing, and I had part-time work reading unsolicited manuscripts for Redbook magazine—the pay was forty cents a manuscript—and young-adult novels for Disney, which paid about twenty-five dollars a synopsis. I had by then published a couple of stories, here and there, and saw myself as a short story writer. It was that tentative thing. But I also had more time to write than I had ever had, and so I thought, I might as well write a novel. This was 1980, a time when, it seemed to me, all the contemporary novels by and about young women were about feminist awakenings of one sort or another: Surfacing, The Women’s Room, Final Payments, Fear of Flying. I couldn’t help but believe I should go and do likewise. But what would the story be about? Well, I had one year of experience at a vanity press, and, better yet, all this research . . .