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Erica Jong, from “Fear of Flying” to “Fear of Dying”: “people see the sexuality and miss the satire in my books”

(E.L. Freifeld) – With the publication of her novel “Fear of Flying” in 1973, Erica Jong rose from relative obscurity to become an American Icon of women’s liberation and female sexuality. She writes: “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. erica-jong-slideThere is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’”. And further: “ . . . when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.”

Far less known and acclaimed is the fact that Erica Jong is also a great poet and has written and continues to write beautiful poetry.

Her work is firmly grounded in the vernacular, not merely a bi-product of ‘literary’ tradition. When I asked her at the end of this interview if she would like to add anything of her own, she replied: “The only thing I would like to add is my astonishment that my books have been considered sexual. I think they chronicle the absurdity of sex and are in no way titillating. I’m amazed that people see the sexuality and miss the satire”.

We’ve talked about her upcoming novel “Fear of Dying” and the announced filming of the classic “Fear of Flying” by Italian director Gabriele Muccino. We did want to convey not only the height of Erica Jong’s success in ‘Flying’ but also the depth, width and breath of her endearing soul.

There seems to be an ironic blend of past and present in the course you have followed between novelist and poet. Has the success of “Fear of Flying” in any way overshadowed your early efforts as a poet? You’ve said “If I didn’t write that book, I would go mad or die.” What exactly did it save you from?
“If I hadn’t written poetry, I could not have written the novels. It was poetry that put me in touch with the unconscious and the imagination. I notice that many of my favorite novelists started out as poets—D.H.Lawrence, Thomas Hardy. Poetry takes you into the realm of the dream world and that is also a great beginning for fiction”.

Yes, T.S. Eliot in his criticism of D.H. wrote that Lawrence couldn’t possibly be a great novelist and poet at the same time. He was wrong. Your bi-lateral work also proves otherwise…Lawrence hated the movies because he knew what adverse affect it would have on literature, as a whole.
In what way did “Fear of Flying” upset relationships with your Family?
“It’s impossible to answer that. Nobody likes having a writer in the family. Every member of the family sees the world in a different way. They will never agree with the writers view”.

Somewhat similar to when a member of the family undergoes psychoanalysis (here Portnoy comes to mind). Hubert Selby Jr. had some advice for writers in such circumstances: when writing about what hurt you, do it with love and before doing it, pray . . . What’s your remedy?
“I think Selby must be far kinder than I am. I try for honesty above all, knowing that each of us has her own definition of it”.

Which poets and writers of our generation of the 60s and 70s influenced you most?
Sylvia Plath liberated my generation to express anger. Philip Roth liberated us to express sexuality. The end of censorship made it possible for us to write honestly about women”.

So freedom seems a main element here. Kurt Vonnegut talked about “perfect freedom” as something that can cause writer’s block. You are a prolific writer but have you ever gotten stuck?
“Certainly I’ve gotten stuck. I envy writers who never get stuck. I’m not one of them. Sometimes I’ve had to resort to hypnosis in order to get unstuck. It’s a fascinating process”.

What are your origins and what emotions and thoughts inspired you to begin writing?
“I came from a family of painters and gave up painting in order to do something different from my family. Perhaps it was my unwillingness to compete or perhaps I needed to find my own way of expressing myself”.

About Italy you once said it has a “fatal charm” that can be found nowhere else: “a certain permission to be human.” There’s probably an anecdote which struck your personal experience of Italy in such poetic terms.
“Italians love to break the rules and so do I”.

Gabriele Muccino will shoot “Fear of Flying”. What are the risks in this transition to the big screen of the bestseller that made you an icon of feminism and self-discovery?
“Movies and books are different animals. We would be crazy to think that a book and a movie express the world in the same way. The best thing a writer can do is to choose a director whose vision she appreciates. Gabriele Muccino is such a director”.


►Erica Jong, with James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg (1978)

“Fear of Dying”, due to be published in September, promises to update female relationships with sex and elderly age. Can you give us a sneak preview, without blowing your cover, of what the book is really about? Or is the title self-explanatory?
“The book is really about accepting mortality with humor and ferocity. I hope people will laugh and cry”.

This is something very rooted in Jewish-American literature as well as in Italian-style comedy (Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, etc.). What was your personal inspiration (movies, books, people or other) in achieving “laugh and cry” in print?
We also wonder if “Fear of Dying” was the title of the book from the beginning or did you have a working title?
“About laugh and cry—I’ve always loved Isaac Bashevis Singer who is the expert in laughing and crying simultaneously. The amazing thing about Jewish writers is their ability to see sadness and humor simultaneously. In a way I get that from my family who were all very funny yet melancholy.
“The original title of this novel was “Happily Married Woman”. Of course, I meant it ironically. Then, “Fear of Dying” became the subtitle and eventually it became the title”.

In your poem “Without Parachutes” you wrote,

Sometimes I wake up naked
in Beverly Hills—
a table set for ten, a formal dinner—
a studio chief on my left side,
a fabled actor on my right.

Can you elaborate further on your relationship with Hollywood, and how it affected or influenced your writing as a poet and novelist?
“The novelist Robert Stone once wrote that Hollywood people are consumed by demons but a very low form of demon. Every time I have worked in Hollywood, I have come to realize it was not the place for me. I am not motivated enough to lie for the sake of filthy lucre. I wish I were a better liar and more obsessed with money but clearly I am not. I can’t say that Hollywood has influenced my writing at all”.

To quote from another poem of yours, “Explanations”

Propelled by passion
or the tip of the tongue moving over the lovers body,
or the eyelid floating over the dreaming sleeper . . .

Isaac Babel wrote “Passion rules the universe”. What are your greatest and most enduring passions? What passion rules your world?
“My greatest and most enduring passions are writing, writing, writing. I am ruled by love for my daughter and grandchildren. I can’t imagine my life without them”.

In closing, what are you writing now? on what crest of what wave are you flying?
“I am working on a historical novel about a French painter. She fled Paris after the French Revolution broke out and although she achieved much success professionally, very little is known about her personal life. She fascinates me . . . I am also writing poetry as always”.

→ E.L. Freifeld with Erica Jong in Italian

Erica Jong, novelist, poet and teacher, she is internationally renowned for her bestseller “Fear of Flying”. The groundbreaking novel was greeted on publication in 1973 with high praise from John Updike and Henry Miller. In the four decades succeeding “Fear of Flying”, she has written over twenty books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry: notably, “How to Save Your Own Life” (1977), “At the Edge of the Body” (1979), “Fanny” (1980), “Parachutes & Kisses” (1984), “Any Woman’s Blues” (1990), “What Do Women Want?” (1998) and “Sappho’s Leap” (2003). Her first selection of poems “Fruits and Vegetables” is dated 1971. Her latest novel “Fear of Dying” is scheduled to be published by St. Martin’s Press in September, 2015.


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