The Trouble with Talking to Cynthia Ozick


I once had a conversation with Cynthia Ozick. This was last October, in the prim, polished lobby of Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel. Well, we began in the lobby and then, after a run-in with one of the lobby’s glimmering lamps—“Do you think that light is shutable-offable? It’s so glarey, and they’ll probably be mad at us if we try”—we booked it to a booth in the hotel restaurant for hot chocolate and talk.

This wasn’t your ordinary hot-cocoa chinwag. We’re talking about Cynthia Ozick, the most serious of stylists, who turns 77 on April 17. The author who once wrote, about the long failure of her 30s: "What I wanted was access to the narrowest possibilities of my own time and prime; I wanted to bore a chink. I wanted a sliver of the apron of a literary platform. I wanted to use what I was, to be what I was born to be—not to have a 'career,' but to be that straightforward obvious unmistakable animal, a writer." There was a ridiculous amount of hubris in the idea of interviewing Ozick, and it made me nervous. Why, I thought until the last possible second, force someone who can write like that to waste her powers in the scattershot imprecision of mere conversation? Also: I wanted everything to go perfectly, and so feared that something absurd and awful would happen—like my recorder battery dying in the middle of the interview.

Of course, there was another, somewhat embarrassing, reason for my wariness: Talking to Cynthia Ozick is an extremely daunting proposition if, like me, you happen to believe that she writes essays better than just about anyone on the planet. She is such a literary superstar, a true red giant, that her talent reminds you of how dwarfish your own writing and intelligence seem. Indeed, there are moments on the interview tape of my own momentous stupidity that even now make me shake my head with shame. Ozick, however, was more or less tolerant of my own conversational missteps—though she seemed quite annoyed when I called her a Jewish writer; for those people interested in this subject, she has an essay on literary labels in the forthcoming On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer—and the matron saint of American prose dished up an enormous helping of interesting copy.

It was a long, digressive, informative, funny, weird conversation, and during our two-and-a-half hours of kibbizting she told me some interesting things. For instance, the protagonist of Heir to the Glimmering World, Rose Meadows, was named after Ozick’s six-year-old granddaughter. Ozick didn’t like the name Rose at first, “because I thought of it as a kind of steerage name. You know, everybody has a Bubbe Rose and an Aunt Rose, and I had the sense that I just did not like this name.” This made me laugh. When her daughter got pregnant she heard talk of the name Rose. “So when I started the novel I chose the name so I would get used to it. And it worked. And it worked.” Or consider her comment about the job she had, at 24, as a copywriter at the Boston-based department store, Filene’s: “Whenever I come here, yes, the ghosts of Filene’s rise up for me.” And then she said this about her short-lived career as a Beantown poet during the1950s: “You remember that Wordsworth line, ‘Bliss was it then to be alive’? And it was. I would go down to the Charles River and sit there and write poetry—poems I should say, not poetry; there’s a distinction—and it was bliss. It was a beautiful time…”

It was hardly bliss getting all this down on paper. Why? For one, I paid someone to transcribe the interview and it returned completely scrambled. The topsy-turvy transcript turned Jonathan Rosen into Jennifer Rosen. Ozick mentioned Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis, and this became “Lara Bastien” and “There’s no Gifts.”She expostulated about “the tradition of Willa Cather, Hemingway”; the transcript rendered this as “the tradition of well a catholic in a way.”

But there was something else that made writing this difficult. Many of the witty, highly intelligent things she said turned out to be slightly altered or unfinished versions of things she’d written or said elsewhere. And then, not long after we spoke, she published, in the New York Times, an essay about her life on tour, the “stuttering recollections of interviews, photographers, trains, planes, limos, taxis, escorts, greeters, platforms, bookstores and diligent behind-the-scenes planners and facilitators, all requisite for the arousal of the gargantuan Public.” What good would one more Ozick interview do anyone? What would be different and new about this?

Well, there is one, very personal thing, about our conversation that, alas, only I can report. At one point, we were discussing James Salter, who has a new collection of stories coming out this month called Last Night.

“You know James Salter?”

She knew of him, but she hadn’t read him yet. “He’s Jewish,” said Ozick.

“He’s sorta Jewish,” I said.

“Well, he is Jewish,” she said, and we bandied about the topic of his Jewishness. Then she said, “Salter is not his real name.”

No, I told her, it was Horowitz. And here’s the chutzpah moment: I mentioned an essay I’d written about Salter in 2002, in which the whole name-change thing, as well as my ambivalence about the writer’s Jewishness, was spelled out.

“Did you write that thing in the Forward about Salter?”

As modestly as possible, I said, “Yeah.”

That, she said, was how she knew about Salter. She laughed: “You’re my source.”

“There it is,” I said, nearly falling out of the booth. And while I was flattered out of my mind that she not only read but remembered something I’d written, I now realize that her remark was merely a function of her excellent powers of recall, if not basic politeness. (Note: If you’re interested in hearing Ozick’s uncensored opinions on writers in society, read her classic essay, “On Permission to Write,” in which she talks of “good-citizen writers” who “while the room fills up with small talk… will glaze over and inwardly chant ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.’”) And this point—that one of our very best writers also happens to be a gracious person—is well worth making. So let's hoist our mugs of virtual hot chocolate and wish Ozick the happiest of birthdays.