Erica Jong knows something about love, especially its sexy side.
Her first novel, Fear of Flying, electrified the literary community
in 1971 with its frank sexuality and passion. The public was seduced: the
book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and was translated into
37 languages. Many books later, and now the grandmother of three, Jong has
returned to her original calling, poetry, in her compelling new volume of
poems, Love Comes First. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached
the author at her Manhattan home:
Fear of Flying was a international phenomenon. What was
that like at age 31
It was unimaginable what happens to you when you get known for a book
that everybody reads, or that everybody has heard of. If the book is said
to be sexy, the crazies come out of the woodwork. It’s unbelievable. So you
have to really get used to that, and you have to get used to protecting
yourself, which I knew absolutely nothing about.
Protecting yourself in what way
Protecting yourself from strangers. I mean, I was a graduate student at
Columbia. I was teaching at City College. I was an academic. It never
occurred to me that I had to take my name out of the phone book and hide a
little bit. And then came Fear of Flying and every crazy lunatic
gets your number and has some proposition to make. They want to move in
with you, they want you to save their lives, they want you as a lover. I
mean, mostly they want salvation and they believe that a writer can deliver
What were the critics like
Some of them were vicious and horrified, and some in love with the book,
like John Updike and Henry Miller. There was no gray area. They either were
outraged or ecstatic. Nothing in-between, which I suppose is good.
Some people thought you were condoning promiscuity.
Right. It became a cause celebre. I remember the New York Times
magazine ran an article called “Who’s Afraid of Erica Jong” That was
typical. Over the years it settled in and became a classic, but initially
the feelings that people had were extremely violent. And living through
that was an interesting experience.
There was a TV incident, too, wasn’t there
It was on a talk show. I can’t remember who the host was, but he said,
all you women’s libbers want to pee standing up. I mean, that was the level
of the discourse. People just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that
women’s rights are human rights, that women were given really no
But why do you think so many women refuse to identify themselves
It’s a mother/daughter thing. Their mothers called themselves feminists,
so the daughters, in an attempt to distinguish themselves, have to call
themselves something else. I think it’s mostly terminology, that any
terminology associated with women sooner or later becomes degraded. An
executrix is laughable, an executor is not. An aviatrix is not as strong as
an aviator. It has to do with the sexism that is in our society and often
It’s rare for a writer to be so defined by one book. You’ve
written eight novels, seven books of poetry, a significant amount of
nonfiction, and yet you’re so known by this one book. Is that
Of course it’s frustrating. But one realizes it’s also blessing to have
a book that is so widely known even if misinterpreted and a book
that makes your name. It’s rare. You have to feel that it’s a blessing and
a curse because it is. Whoever promised us we’d be understood anyway
Your new book is a poetry collection. You began as a poet, didn’t
Yes. I guess the thing that I’m most proud of is that I kept on writing
poetry. I understand that poetry is sort of the source of everything I do.
It’s the source of my creativity. I go on using it as a way into my deeper
mind. Often I find that poems predict what I’m going to do later in my own
writing, and often I find that poems predict my life. So I think poetry is
the most intense expression of feeling that we have. I’ve never given up
writing it because it’s essential to me. And poems don’t come over time.
Sometimes poems don’t come to you at all. But when they come, you have to
sit down and write them.
What can you do in poetry that you can’t do in prose
In poetry you can express almost inexpressible feelings. You can express
the pain of loss, you can express love. People always turn to poetry when
someone they love dies, when they fall in love. So poetry is what we
reserve for the most intense human emotion.
This poetry is serious. The love that you describe here is sober;
these are serious reflections on mortality.
There’s an awful lot of that. I think you reach a certain age and friends
begin dying around you, and it’s impossible not to contemplate that. I
think that’s a stage of life where you have to make your peace with the fact
that some of the people who have been the most important to you are going or
are gone. Sometimes you look through your database and you think, half the
people in here are dead. Do I take them out or not And I think that’s a
profoundly human need, to make peace with mortality.
You write that love is never enough to save us. Why
The experience of love yes, it’s mind-expanding and soul-expanding,
but it cannot save us from loneliness or mortality. That’s a paradox
because we hope it will.
How many years have you been married to your current
20 years. We got married in 1989.
And you’d been divorced three times before that.
Yes. My first marriage was really a starter marriage of one year to
somebody who was quite mad. Brilliant and mad. And the marriage came apart
when he had a breakdown. So it seems like not a marriage at all because we
were both so young. My marriage to Allan Jong and to Jonathan Fast were
more real marriages, but we outgrew each other. Ken and I have a good
marriage, I think, in that we allow each other complete freedom and space.
Nobody is trying to imprison the other.See pictures of people who have been married for 50 years.
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