Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger
Describe your latest book.
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
is an essay collection in three parts: the first, which has the same title as the book as a whole, includes essays on art and literature; the second, "The Delusions of Certainty," is a long essay on the mind-body problem; and the third, "What Are We?," is comprised of lectures I have given at various academic conferences in the U.S. and abroad.
The essays, all written between 2011 and 2015, explore versions of the same questions: What are we? How do we see, remember, think, talk, and feel? I have become convinced that no single discipline provides definitive answers to these fundamental questions. Therefore, over the course of the book, I turn to both the humanities and the sciences for answers, to philosophy, psychology, history, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and epigenetics for different perspectives on the same quandaries.
For example, research suggests that expectation is vital to perception. The expectant character of vision suggests that much of what we see is shaped by past experience. We see what we expect to see. This helps explain how biases of various kinds infect our understanding. As a woman, I am particularly interested in the ways in which work by women in many fields has been automatically and unconsciously underestimated and denigrated.
For years I have been puzzling over the mind/body question and have worked hard to understand what is at stake. The question "What is mind?" has not been answered. I also have discovered that most people do not have a sense of the philosophical dilemma or its enormous practical importance in our lives, and I wanted to present both my own bewilderment over the various approaches to the problem and the confusions involved.
Because we are continually inundated in the media with scientific discoveries of various kinds that purport to have discovered a "God spot" in the brain or "hardwired" differences between men and women, to give two examples, I wanted to present as lucidly as possible why much of what we read is both overstated and founded on slippery assumptions. My wish for this book is simple: I hope the reader will begin to doubt what she or he may have taken for granted before, to come to see how complex the simplest questions are once one begins to examine them closely.
When did you know you were a writer?
The summer after I turned 13, I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my family and spent the summer reading one novel after another: Pride and Prejudice
; The Count of Monte Cristo
(abridged version); Jane Eyre
; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
; Cry, the Beloved Country
; and James Michener's Hawaii
among many others. Although I have vivid memories of all the other books, I remember nothing about Hawaii
except that it had some pretty exciting sex in it. While I was reading David Copperfield
late at night, wide awake because the sun never set, I paused from my reading, stood up and walked to the window, looked out, and knew that I wanted to be a writer. It began at that moment.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I care deeply about ideas, how they come about, and the degree to which they shape us. Even as a girl I found myself wondering about questions many of my friends found ridiculous. When I was a child, I was tortured by thoughts of what I might have become if I had had Nazis for parents, for example, or white racists. Wouldn't I have believed them?
What were your favorite books as a child?
Grimms' Fairy Tales
, Alice in Wonderland
, Ellen Tebbits
by Beverly Cleary.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once worked for a physician and medical historian in Manhattan, a man in his 80s who had an office on the Upper East Side. I was a poor graduate student at the time. When he interviewed me, he asked me what I was studying and I told him I was working toward a PhD in English literature. I also mentioned that I wrote poetry, to which he archly responded, "Erotic poetry, I am sure!" No, I told him, my poems weren't particularly erotic. He appeared not to believe me. "And what languages do you speak?" he asked. I told him I spoke Norwegian because I had learned it at home. I had also studied German and French and had taken a single semester of Russian, which had left me with little more than the ability to transliterate. He then loudly inquired, "Do you speak Persian?" "No," I said. He gave me a look of astonishment and boomed, "Not a word?" Despite this heinous shortcoming I was hired.
My employer sent me off every day to do research at the medical library on 103rd Street, but after about a week of haphazard assignments, I became suspicious. One day, I investigated neurosyphilis in the 19th century, the next the history of "housemaid's knee," and the day after that, Harvey's discovery of heart function. When I returned with my notes at five in the afternoon, he was critical of them despite their thoroughness. I came to understand that the doctor had no project. My hours of work were a blind for our twice-a-day meetings when he took undisguised pleasure in a mild form of sadism. One might say he paid me to berate me. What can I say? I needed the money.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I am terrified I will die before I finish the book I am writing "now."
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I am impressed by Julie Otsuka. She has only published two novels as far as I know. I would begin with The Buddha in the Attic
. It is a brilliant book. I also really enjoyed the raucous, high-flying prose of Ben Metcalf's Against the Country
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
: "In the arts, feeling is meaning."
: "Art is the objectification of feeling."
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
For many years, I dreamed I was walking on a road with the sun in my face, and the light was so brilliant, it blinded me. I could see nothing but a painful, forceful whiteness.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I'm afraid I am driven crazy by the inability of large portions of the literate English-speaking population to conjugate the verb to lie, as in "to lie down." I lie down today. I lay down yesterday. I have lain down. It is "I am lying on the beach," not "I am laying on the beach." Of course, the error is ubiquitous in the media and in novels and texts of all kinds. This may suggest that soon it will cease to be a mistake. Language is an organism and usage carries the day. Still, I wince inwardly every time I hear this error.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
My mother once said to me, "Don't do anything you don't really want to do."
Share a top five book list of your choice.
The books below are all brilliant descriptions or interrogations of human sensual, embodied experience in the world.
To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
The Phenomenology of Perception
by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Philosophy in a New Key
by Susanne Langer
What Maisie Knew
by Henry James
"A Country Doctor
" by Franz Kafka
÷ ÷ ÷
has a PhD in English literature from Columbia University and is the internationally acclaimed author of six novels, and a growing body of nonfiction, including her new essay collection, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
. In 2012 she was the recipient of the Gabarron International Award for Thought and Humanities. She lives in Brooklyn.