An Interview with Phillip Lopate

Interview by Ingrid Wassenaar

Phillip Lopate, photo by Sandy Gall
Phillip Lopate, photo by Sandy Gall

1. Phillip, how did you come to essay writing?

I came to essays through fiction. When I was starting out, I loved Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, or Gide, or the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, or Svevo. What I liked was first-person narrators who were singular, odd — I liked them provocative, not ‘making nice’. I felt they should be cheeky. Later on I discovered Hazlitt, Lamb and Montaigne, the essayists, and saw they were doing something similar. It’s maybe in the nineteenth century that you start seeing this complex character of the neurotic figure starting to emerge in writing

You can’t forget the confessional strand, Augustine and Rousseau; a friend of mine recently suggested that we need to distinguish between ‘confessing’ and ‘confiding’, which I think has a lot in it. ‘Confession’ has theological connotations — when one confesses, one is looking for absolution. ‘Confiding’ is about having a friendly conversation. I’ve been editing a collection of Max Beerbohm essays: you don’t learn facts about his actual private life, he’s confiding only about his own quirks. He is establishing a space — he doesn’t force the reader to fuse with him, he isn’t asking for empathy.

I struggle with empathy, I think it presumes too much. There’s The Empathy Exams, by Jamison — I can see that her writing comes out of that idea that a woman’s pain is being dismissed, and attention ought to be paid. It’s not PC to say so, but I find myself thinking, ‘She could use a little more stoicism’.

A few years ago I wrote The Stoic’s Marriage. I have become attracted to stoicism. I think it becomes inevitable. I am an optimist — I may be a contrarian but I am hopeful. I want my writing to be a consolation: ‘You are not alone, someone else has had these anti-social thoughts, these ambivalent thoughts’. I am sceptical about the apocalyptic imagination, you cannot force things to where they are destroyed and pierced — there is always complexity.

The personal essay, in our time, is a place where one can assert the the existence of the self. I begin Portrait Inside My Head with the value of limits: the personal essay, for me, marks a border of the self. Part of my sense of self-irony is realising that I cannot be everything. People can now choose their genders, they can mutate themselves — sometimes I wonder whether maybe you shouldn’t work with the cards you are dealt — I know that’s terribly un-PC of me. I feel I’m responding to a certain attitude towards the nature of change.

2. Your lineage of quirky narrators and essayists is – if you’ll forgive me – populated largely by male writers. Are there female essayists you admire?

Yes, of course. I’ve written a whole book about Susan Sontag! I love Virginia Woolf; and Sei Shonagon’s persona in the late-tenth-century The Pillow Book I would categorize among my ‘cheeky narrators’. I agree with you that there is perhaps a greater tolerance for the male eccentric. I have an ambivalent relationship with Sontag. She is a great essayist, but for me she is a little doctrinaire. As a reader, I require some speck of humour.

3. What do you think about the difficulties of self-justification in the first-person narrator, in fiction or in essay-writing?

Lopate bookIt’s impossible to be fully objective or undefensive if you are writing about yourself, or writing in the first person, so the real question is, how much you can play with the comedy of that? I’m pretty sure I admit to things before I can be accused of them. I continually ask myself, ‘Am I being honest?’. It’s almost a formal strategy — it’s a technique that sets up a topography, that takes you places. If you simply take a position and then say the same thing over and over again, you are not thinking against yourself. This is part of my hesitation about Sontag. My favourite of her essays show her exploring contradictions she has admitted within the piece itself.

I am very interested in creating a persona in my writing. I’ve explicitly written about it, in ‘On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character’. There is a Phillip Lopate character who is not synonymous with me. I can be more comic if I’m aware of the distinction between the two Phillips. Again you find this in Montaigne, the undulating changeable reality — but over the course of the writing, you realise that someone takes shape, he is consistent, cohesive.

What I do I call ‘additive’ writing — you need to keep writing, adding things on. There are writers who write just one book, like Proust. I think I am also writing one book, I’m just doing it a piece at a time.

4. How do you think one goes about retaining a love of ambiguity as one gets older?

I’m not sure I think about ambiguity. Having said that, if you are ambivalent about something, you already have two paragraphs, you can at least work out the tension between your polarities. When I was young, I was always provoking my elders, I was rebellious, but at the same time I wanted to be liked by everyone. It would subsequently surprise me when I didn’t win some Fellowship, when I had busily antagonised the entire department. I liked to be both provocative and charming!

I can find many polarities in myself — for example, I am a family man, but my wife says that, in my head, I’m still a bachelor. I have never signed on completely. It’s outrageous to say that, in the ideology of The Family. I say — outrageously — to my daughter, ‘You are the most important thing in my life. After my writing’. I love her absolutely, up to a point. I happen to think it’s important to show your child that you have your own life, needs and desires. That is a polarity in me, and in my life, that doesn’t — can’t — get resolved.

I have not found myself becoming either radicalised or more definite one way or the other. I have always had a strong need to extricate myself from any groupthink — when our child went to school, I started meeting people who had very Definite Views. It felt coercive.

5. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about modern parenting and fatherhood.

Before I had a child of my own, I had experience as a Writer In The Schools. Then I wrote Being with Children, which made me think I was ‘good with children’. I thought of myself as confident to stand up to other opinions on raising children.

Then we had Lily. My mother-in-law would try to distract Lily whenever she cried, because of Lily’s condition — our daughter was very ill when she was a baby. My mother-in-law was hoping to distract her from vomiting — she and my wife were horrified by her crying. Because of my past experience, I felt able to say that she had to come to end of her tears. But I came upon the Steely Fortress of Motherhood. My opinion simply did not count. They knew best. When Lily got better, the fortress opened up a little, my opinion counted more. But all the way through, there was a danger of the drawbridge clanging shut. My wife didn’t want Lily to walk to school alone, even once she was thirteen or so. I always wanted her to have more independence.

Lily’s illness is a trauma that is important to me. I don’t want to give it up. I faced opposition to publishing about it [the essay ‘The Lake of Suffering’] from my wife and from Lily. Lily partly sympathised, she was prepared to accept that writers use whatever material is to hand. My wife felt that Lily would be stigmatised. I took the pragmatic view that her fellow undergraduates were hardly going to rush out and buy my book.

But I also discovered something else through writing that essay — that my wife thought that this was her and Lily’s story, that I was expropriating it, that she had literally saved her daughter’s life — because she had trained herself to care for Lily during her illness. She had literally examined the stools. It came as a shock to my wife that I, too, had gone through something.

Lily has put it behind her — she has never written about her illness. But Lily, for me, is a miracle child — when she is complaining about boyfriends, I look at her and all I’m thinking is, ‘You’ve made it! You’re fine!’.

The family accepted unwillingly that I should publish something about it — I asserted myself here. My wife was angry, she wanted me to listen to her, and I ignored her. So many people have since told me they benefited from that piece. When a child is sick, it often leads to the dissolution of the marriage — we toughed it out.

One of my aims is to be open about trouble — I have often told Lily that every family has its troubles. The more you scratch the surface, the more stories you find out. So much of my moral perspective has to do with accepting trouble and getting past some positive-negative dichotomy. When I am teaching, I see my students pull back from writing about things that are sad. But there isn’t happy writing or sad writing. There is only good writing. I’m advocating an impure universe — we are not going to get to a point where everything is all right.

6. How do you feel about history, and perhaps your place in history?

I am reluctant to pontificate about this age — I call that Sunday newspaper opinion writing. My interest in history has come to mean reading older and older writers — Pavese said that he wanted to read what the dust had settled on. I am mistrustful of having the right vantage point — I want to go back to get a better look.

I think I’m an intellectual but not a public one. I don’t like opining about the latest scandal. I can’t devise a persona who can speak like that. I feel like my politics comes through in my writing. My moral position is not foregrounded, I don’t want to tell someone what to think. But I’m no relativist. Perhaps I am a left-leaning conservative.

I don’t think I identify with anything except being an intellectual. I have always identified with immigrants, although I am not one. Intellectuals in society are outsiders — they care deeply about things that most people don’t care about. I have a complete lack of interest in pop culture. I wrote an introduction to an edition of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays, to keep Lamb alive, that is important to me.

If I have any advice, it’s that it’s vital to work out what you love and keep loving it. I teach non-fiction, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Freud and Benjamin — I am unashamedly in that camp. What I love is the art of the personal essay — I assert a canon from Seneca onwards, and I’ve done so in other domains, I’m happy to assert a canon in American Movie Critics. Why should I be ashamed of it?

It’s all about finding your family — I’m asked who I’m writing for, and it’s for Montaigne.

7. What are you looking for in your role as one of the judges for the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize 2015 competition?

I have a notion of the essay as not an article — it’s an exploration, it’s open-ended, and kicks against itself, it has a sense of humour, it is self-unfolding. Essays are also conscious of being part of a tradition, there is latent allusion: if you write on friendship, you know that you are not the first to do so.

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Read our review of Portrait Inside My Head in our Non-Fiction section, click here.

Phillip Lopate, Portrait Inside My Head (Notting Hill Editions, London, 2015). 1907903960,  254 pp., hardback.

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