David Rakoff wasn’t merely a talented essayist, he was a sweet, funny, astonishingly pleasant guy and I’m sorry he’s dead, though it comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all him. If you haven’t yet read Don’t Get Too Comfortable or Half Empty, I envy you those first readings. I interviewed him once. He made an impression, obviously.
One of the funniest sections in the book [Half Empty] is your takedown of Rent, a musical that a lot of people love.
Yeah, there’s a sort of romantic notion of the artist [in that show] that doesn’t seem to involve doing any work. Far more than the Rent takedown, though, I wanted to capture what it takes to be creative, and how that feels. It’s typically the notion of sitting and tolerating oneself long enough to turn out a first draft that necessarily has to be bad, and how different that is from most other tasks, which get easier as one gets older. Turning into the perceived media representation of an artist is really the dessert that comes after years of eating vegetables.
You talk about some of the weirdest, worst aspects of being in New York in that same essay, but you really seem to love it here, too. Why is it that people who lived through the “Taxi Driver” years seem to be so attached to New York City?
The day I arrived here at age 17 I felt like this was my home, although it took many years before it actually was my home. The city seems less unique than it once was – but everywhere seems less unique than it once was, and part of that is the velocity of the information.
How do you mean?
Well, there’s that old apocryphal story of the guy who comes to a small town and discovers all these amazing antiques in a back yard. Now everyone knows the value of everything. [pause] This makes it sound like all I care about is traveling to small villages and gulling rubes out of their valuables.
There’s an essay in “Half Empty” about working on a movie that may or may not be “The First Wives Club” and you’ve been in the Oscar-winning short “The New Tenants.” Is acting something you want to continue to pursue?
I like to do audience readings – you get the sort of heroin thrill of audience response, which is lovely. I’m treated quite well in the writing world and for me to be treated as well in the acting world, I’d have to be Julianne Moore. [Solo theater performer] Mike Daisey is a total, total genius. My dream would be to do that kind of performance, but I see him, and I think, “Why would one even bother?”
Have you ever considered writing a novel?
Something happens to me: almost every time that I’ll be transcribing my notes from a story that I’ve been sent out to report, I’ll see a little detail – it’ll be the most quotidian thing, it won’t be “that’s when she took the ball-peen hammer and killed her children – and I just think, I could never do that.” So I think that I’d never make things to the satisfactory level that I’d want.
When you’re writing an essay, how does it evolve? Do you plot it out fully, or do you just sit down and go?
I wish I were better at outlining things and plotting them in advance, because it would be less torturous kind of riding-a-moving-bus-holding-on-with-my-teeth thing. The first agenda is that it be a classically familiar essay – which is a 19th-century idea – that begins in the personal and ends in the universal. So there’s a real hope and objective that I end up saying something bigger than just the initial jumping-off point.
So you want readers to focus on the bigger ideas.
Which is why I so bridle at the term memoirist – I want to be known for the way I use language and whatever style I have as a writer, as opposed to the particulars of my biography.