Tama Janowitz

In 1985, I was a junior in high school trying to pass algebra like any other 16-year-old. Around the same time, I became part of an imaginary club, as much of a media-created fiction as the Spice Girls would become in the following decade. The Brat Pack was a clever play on the “Rat Pack,” that legendary group of talented Hollywood hedonists. Even though I couldn’t order a drink in a bar and had only recently gotten my driver’s license, I was implicated just by having done a couple films with the twentysomething actors who were doing what twentysomething actors do. Still, as fictitious as the Brat Pack was, the term stuck like an ungainly appendage. And it sucked.

Soon the Brat Pack moniker took off and began to adhere to other things, much in the same way that Watergate is still referenced in anything that carries a whiff of scandal (Celebgate, Nannygate, Squidgygate). Most notably, it adhered to a talented group of young literary writers. Unlike the Hollywood counterpart, whose membership roster seems to vary (Wikipedia still can’t decide), the literary version was made up of exactly three writers: two men (Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis) and only one woman, Tama Janowitz.

Tama became a bona fide celebrity after the runaway success of her second book, 1986’s Slaves of New York, a collection of interconnected stories unfolding in the ’80s art scene. The book was entertaining, the writing confident, and the author exotically beautiful and eccentrically glamorous. She was chums with Andy Warhol and a frequent guest of David Letterman. A film adaptation of Slaves was released in 1989, starring Bernadette Peters, The New Yorker published her stories, and her feline beauty graced Amaretto ads. The ’80s were good.

But anyone who knows the fickle nature of celebrity would not be surprised by the whiplash effects of the fame pendulum swinging back sharply in the other direction. Tama has kept writing all of these years, but in many ways, has been trapped by her earlier success (a phenomenon I am not altogether unfamiliar with). There are those detractors who mistakenly assume that Slaves of New York is all that she is, and then still others who complain that her writing isn’t more like it. But if you spend even five minutes with Tama, there is no denying that her voice—and the workings of her brain—is singular. I found her simultaneously intelligent, complex, funny, and a little wounded in the way that makes you fall in love with her the way you would a heroine in a French nouvelle vague film.

While Tama now lives out of the city in upstate New York near the Finger Lakes, we had lunch at Cherche Midi in Manhattan to talk about her new book, Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction (HarperCollins), and discussed writing, fame, mothering, grief, and metamorphosis. Both New York’s and our own.

MOLLY RINGWALD: Do you miss the city at all?

TAMA JANOWITZ: I don’t. I was no longer using the city. For all those years, I was excited to go to new restaurants or the ballet or opera, and I just loved going on the subway and watching people. More and more, I wasn’t getting pleasure out of any of those things. I had just run out of the city being inspirational for me.

RINGWALD: When did that start to happen? Was it around the time that your mom [the poet Phyllis Janowitz] got sick?

JANOWITZ: Yeah, pretty much when I left here to go take care of her. And it had changed so much since the days when we were all kids in New York. There were nightclubs that were unbelievable. They were like going to the theater: an area where there’d be different little booths—like going to Amsterdam with sex booths, a city with all these different plays happening. The excitement of just running around with Andy [Warhol] and my friends … It’s a different city now, and it chews you up pretty quick. When I came here, I was struggling just to make the rent, and then all of a sudden, I had a successful book and was on the cover of magazines. But within moments after that happening, they’re like, “Well, who does she think she is?” I think that’s true not just of me, but of people who become a success in this city. They’re not cherished. There’s too much jealousy and hostility.

RINGWALD: I don’t think it’s just the city, though. It’s just our culture. I mean, I can certainly relate to what you’re talking about. We sort of became famous around the same time. I experienced what you’re talking about, although I lived in California. I think that’s just the nature of fame.

JANOWITZ: But you were really, really famous.

RINGWALD: [laughs] But there was a period of time where I couldn’t look at a magazine because I knew there was something in it that was going to be hurtful.

JANOWITZ: You’re a writer as well—whether you’re acting or you’re writing, your skin is just basically ripped off and you’re putting yourself out there. At least the acting part comes with a bit more social interaction. And you’re a bit less isolated because you are working with the director and the crew, and there’s a general camaraderie. Writing, you’re totally isolated. You’re just trying to get the words on paper. You haven’t committed a crime, you know what I mean? You’ve just, like, torn your skin off to try to get your words down the best you can. And then you go out, and it’s like, “Well, who does she think she is?” You look at artists like Andy; they were so hostile to him in the last years of his life. He was considered a has-been pop artist. He never got a retrospective.


JANOWITZ: He never had a retrospective in New York in a major museum except once early on in his career. He could barely find a gallery right before his death. But he seemed to let it roll off him. It didn’t seem to affect him the way it affected me.

RINGWALD: How did you get to be friends with Andy Warhol?

JANOWITZ: In the early ’80s, you would just see Andy out. It was such a different time. People weren’t really separated into VIPs with handlers ushering them into a separate room. He loved the kids, and he just loved going out. Everybody says he never talked, but he talked a lot! He was absolutely the funniest, most brilliant person I’ve ever met. He would have me on the floor in stitches. He loved [my first book] American Dad. He said, “Gee, Tama, that was a really great book. But you should have written it from your own point of view, not from a man’s point of view.”

RINGWALD: I found it interesting that you write so often from a male point of view. A lot of people feel like it’s difficult. I like writing from a male point of view. I find it sort of illuminating.

JANOWITZ: To put it bluntly, it’s like wanting to know what it feels like to have an orgasm as a man. You just can’t know what it feels like. [Ringwald laughs] It puts a different twist on things. And you get inside the head. I think in a lot of ways, writing, when you’re really in there, is like being an actress because you’re in somebody else’s head. And that’s when you can pretend that you know what it’s like. I think it’s more difficult writing what it’s like to be a child. You can pretend you know what it’s like, but you don’t really know. The only parts I can remember is that the adults were like, “Aren’t they cute?” But [when you’re little] you’re looking at the other kids like they’re your colleagues. They’re not like, “Oh, we’re all cute little kids.” They’re more like your office acquaintances. It’s very hard to grasp the memories of what it actually was like to be a kid.

RINGWALD: Recently somebody gave me letters that I had written when I was 13 years old, and I could not believe what a potty mouth I was! I had no recollection of the stuff I had written. It was shocking. If it were my daughter, I would say, “You went too far. You can’t write that!” I was trying to show how cool and provocative I was, but it was borderline gross.

JANOWITZ: Memory is just such a bizarre thing. You might have been a whole different person then.

RINGWALD: But I feel like all of that informs who you are eventually. It all kind of goes in there, right?

JANOWITZ: I hope so. I think of my grandparents; they waited to retire, and they had a little money so they took trips, and by the time they died, they didn’t remember those trips they took. It was just slides that they took in Turkey or Egypt. I mean, it all vanishes. It just all disappears. It’s all gone the same as being a 6-year-old disappears.

RINGWALD: I find that with my parents, now that they’re older, they remember everything. They tell these really rich, detailed stories from their childhood, but they can’t tell you where they put their keys down. Did you find that with your mom?

JANOWITZ: Yes. My mom would repeat the same story about being 5 years old, Cookie and Juju fighting over her in the playground or going out and taking bubbles on the subway and getting into a lot of trouble. But I don’t remember any of the stuff from my childhood.

RINGWALD: But you’re not old enough! [laughs]

JANOWITZ: Maybe! Maybe, all of a sudden, I’ll just be blabbing on about somebody from first grade.

RINGWALD: How do people look at you where you live?

JANOWITZ: Oh, they’ve never heard of me. It suits me just fine. Particularly at my age, the older a woman gets, the more invisible you become.

RINGWALD: I don’t think you could ever be invisible. [both laugh]

JANOWITZ: Fame is really great in a lot of ways, you know? People are a lot nicer to you. Like, the more famous you are, the more free presents you get. And invitations to really amazing things.

RINGWALD: It always seems ironic to me that the people who really don’t need it are offered the most free stuff.

JANOWITZ: I know! It’s just so unfair.

RINGWALD: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

JANOWITZ: When I was young, I really wanted to be a painter. In high school, the teacher was just, “Oh my God, this painting is so bad! Why don’t you sit in front of the class, and you can be the model?” Because she thought whatever I was painting was so terrible. It wasn’t, but you get so discouraged so young. And paint, paper, all that costs a lot of money, and we were really broke. If you want to be a writer, all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil, and I had a manual typewriter. It doesn’t cost money to write. It costs money to make art. So I would just write. I would hand out stories in the classes in high school. And the teacher would say, “Whatever you do, don’t become a writer.”

RINGWALD: But that didn’t stick.

JANOWITZ: No! I continued to receive discouragement. But I think I had drive, real determination. And I knew if I wrote one book, and it didn’t sell, I would just keep writing them.

RINGWALD: But it seemed like you sold your stuff pretty quickly.

JANOWITZ: Hollins [University] gave me a scholarship and tuition for one year. After I lost my first job, I thought, “I’ll go back to school and see if I can become a writer. I’ll have this one year paid for.” That’s when I wrote American Dad. I sent it to a couple editors. One kept it six months or a year and sent it back. And the other was like, “I’m going to publish it. Just rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it.” I rewrote it, and he told me “Oh, I couldn’t get this through in a meeting.” So there I was with a book that I wasn’t any happier with and somebody that had stalled me for a year. Another writer suggested a name of an agent. She took it, and that book sold. But it wasn’t in any bookstores or promoted, so it sold about 1,500 copies. They had given me an advance of $7,500. Later, I got a bill from my publisher to pay them back the advance because the book hadn’t sold. And then I had a bad track record. I’d write a book and try to sell it, but nobody wanted it. So I’d write another book, and that would take a year to write. So then I thought, “Well, I’ll switch to short stories because they don’t take me that long to write, and I can get them rejected much quicker.”

RINGWALD: [laughs] Is that really why you switched to short stories?

JANOWITZ: Yeah. I mean, I had been writing stories all along, but I thought, “To hell with writing these novels! Let’s just move things along here, and I’ll focus on short stories.” Then The New Yorker started publishing me, and that was sort of a game changer.

RINGWALD: How many stories of yours were published in The New Yorker?

JANOWITZ: I don’t know, not that many—five, six, something like that.

RINGWALD: That’s a lot!

JANOWITZ: It was a huge thing when Mr. [William] Shawn published me because it was like nothing else that had ever been in The New Yorker. And it was really the first time I was having an audience for my work. Once I was in The New Yorker, Crown contacted my agent and said they’d like me to do a book of short stories.

RINGWALD: Do you feel that since you’re a part of … I mean, I can’t even believe I’m going to ask this question because I’m asked this constantly and I find it so annoying … I’m supposedly a part of the Brat Pack, right? But it didn’t really exist. It was a complete fabrication based on this New York magazine article, and I imagine that the literary side of it was pretty much the same.

JANOWITZ: Exactly.

RINGWALD: It was just, like, you were young people publishing books at the same time—

JANOWITZ: And the books happened to sell to an audience that was not normally … Normally, this audience would have to go buy a book for college, you know? But all of a sudden, they were going out and buying books for fun to actually read.

RINGWALD: I wrote a book report in the tenth grade on Bright Lights, Big City. [both laugh] I feel like you were the only woman mentioned in that group. There was Jay and Bret, but I can’t think of any other female writers.

JANOWITZ: Sometimes they’d put another woman’s name in there. But it wasn’t, like, the same deal. I mean, I was flying around the world. I was invited to go to literary festivals every place …

RINGWALD: You were on David Letterman a number of times, right?

JANOWITZ: Yeah, a lot. Maybe eight times?

RINGWALD: Eight times? I was on twice. The first time went really well. The second time, I gave him a noogie, and I was never invited back. It was one of those moments … See, they had made this little film skit to show before I came out, but they didn’t tell me. The premise of the skit was that he was answering a question about what to do if a celebrity guest doesn’t answer a question. And he said, “Well, actually, this happened with Molly Ringwald the last time she was here!” He asked a question and they pulled a clip from the last interview with me just kind of nodding and smiling. Then they had somebody dressed to look like me from behind, while he lunged across the desk to give her a noogie. I was literally watching this as I was getting ready to walk out onstage. So I walked out and the interview starts, and I don’t know what came over me because this is very unlike me. I’m a fairly shy person, and I don’t really like a lot of physical contact, but I reached across to give him a noogie, and it was like time slowed down …

JANOWITZ: Oh, no! [laughs]

RINGWALD: I could see my hand, like … [hums Jaws theme] I could see the panic on his face. And apparently everyone backstage was like, “Oh my God! She’s touching his hair! She’s touching his hair! What is she doing?” And as soon as my knuckles made contact with his scalp, I was like, “Oh my God. This is the worst thing that you’ve ever done in your life.” And the interview was horrible. I could just see in his eyes. I was one step below Crispin Glover. You know when Crispin almost drop-kicked him and he was kicked off the show? I was never invited back, unlike you. [Janowitz laughs] Did you feel like you have been treated differently as a writer because of being a woman?

JANOWITZ: Oh, yes, very much. I think there’s a major sex thing that happens with the male writer. And, of course, we know that the majority of readers are women, and they will flock to a man’s reading.

RINGWALD: It drives me crazy that people say, “Oh, she’s a really great writer. She writes like a man.” Like that is something that you should aspire to. I feel like women very often do write differently than men, but women write things that men can’t write.

JANOWITZ: And men write differently than men.

RINGWALD: Yeah. Not all women write the same. But I don’t understand why the model is that you’re supposed to write like a man, and that means you’re a real writer.

JANOWITZ: I don’t know what it means at all. Does it mean that all women’s writing is evocative and sensual? And men’s writing is tough and cutting-edge?

RINGWALD: I think people assume that women write about the domestic sphere. Women write about relationships and family. Men do, too, but then it’s the Great American Novel. Do you write every day?

JANOWITZ: It depends. Before I had my child, I wrote every day seven days a week. After the kid, I stopped writing on the weekends. And now it’s seasonal.

RINGWALD: Do you write longhand, or do you still write on a typewriter?

JANOWITZ: No, now I have a laptop. So, most of my life is just spent lying in bed. I mean, it’s enough pressure to write the words. Do I need to use the additional energy exerted by sitting up?

RINGWALD: I write in bed, too. I find it very comforting. I want to sort of, like, crawl in a fetal position if I have to.

JANOWITZ: And it almost helps to be half-asleep.

RINGWALD: Were you ever interested in acting?

JANOWITZ: I was interested in doing anything that gave me a different experience. So I asked for a small part in Slaves of New York.

RINGWALD: How was that for you?

JANOWITZ: Oh, it was horrible because they were my own lines. I had written the screenplay with James Ivory. And so when I was doing these lines, I would think, “This is so badly written. I can’t read these lines!”

RINGWALD: How do you get rid of that critical voice?

JANOWITZ: It’s a battle of myself against myself, and I keep pushing through. The novel is never really in the first draft. The novel really happens in the revisions.

RINGWALD: What made you want to write a memoir?

JANOWITZ: I was just too depressed to write another novel. When my mom was failing so rapidly, I thought if I write my memoirs, I don’t have to come up with something, I can just write what happened to me. But that wasn’t easy at all because I was so depressed with my mother getting so much worse. And she was such big support to me …

RINGWALD: Was your mom your first reader?

JANOWITZ: Yes. She was not just a mom, she was my friend, and I would talk to her every day. She knew my whole history, so we could always be shorthand. You know the way an old friend is?

RINGWALD: Did you always have that relationship? Was she always like a friend?

JANOWITZ: I think it’s true about people now being closer to their parents, since the ’60s, really. The parents are no longer from a different planet, the 1950s ideas of American family. We could be friends with our parents. After the ’60s, it wasn’t like a person smoking pot was what the parents would be appalled at.

RINGWALD: Did you smoke pot with your mom?

JANOWITZ: No, I didn’t.

RINGWALD: You weren’t ever really a pot smoker, right? Or a drug person?

JANOWITZ: I have enough trouble with reality!

RINGWALD: So who is your first reader now that your mom isn’t there?

JANOWITZ: My agent, Christopher Schelling. He’s very tuned in to my writing in a way that my previous agents couldn’t really stand. They would have preferred it if I did some different kind of writing. So as soon as I found someone who got my writing, I immediately switched gears and started to write a book that’s very different.

RINGWALD: Do you mean that you’re susceptible to other people’s opinion? Like, you’re changing because of them, or do you feel like you’re writing what you really want to write?

JANOWITZ: I’m writing what I want to write. But it’s almost an act of rebellion on my part. Because as a person, I’ve always wanted to be very likeable, and I think that’s a horrible thing, particularly for women. You’re always like, “Oh, I hope I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I hope they like me!” And that’s just so stupid. I think powerful women don’t care whether or not they’re liked. But in my writing I wanted to be liked for writing really unlikeable stuff. There were books that people, particularly women, hated so much. They said, “I threw it against the wall!” Which, in my opinion, was a compliment. Because it’s very hard to get somebody to throw something …

RINGWALD: What is it that you find intriguing about unlikeable characters? Is it the fact that in life you want to be liked, and so you’re able to sort of rebel in your characters? Or is that just reductive?

JANOWITZ: I’m not sure. I mean, to me, the best writing wasn’t soft or sentimental. And people are not nice! But then, if you want to write about a person who isn’t nice, people say, “This is a bad book. It’s about somebody I couldn’t stand.” But that’s not the point. You don’t have to like a character to like a book. Most of the time, people would misjudge and say, “I didn’t like the book.” No, you didn’t like the character. That doesn’t make it any less interesting of a book. In fact, to me, it makes it more interesting. Why would I want to read something about somebody that’s just a really nice, decent person who overcomes terrible trials? That’s not how life is to me.