I heard that you wish someone would ask you how much money you make. So how much money do you make?
[Laughs] Whenever I go to a school group I’m always surprised that no one asks that question, because that would be the first question I would ask! So I can’t answer it, but I always thought someone should at least ask. I’m so surprised it took somebody this long!
Is it weird having to answer people’s questions about work you’ve written about yourself?
I never read anything about myself. Anything. So I think that really helps, in a way. Because I think if I did read things that came out of my mouth, I would never open it again. I would think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe how stupid I sound.” Like my brother was interviewed one time, and he read it, and he said, “That’s it, I’m never doing another one.” If you really wanted to be that much of a control freak, that’s a full-time job. You wouldn’t be able to do anything else!
Even if you heard a review was positive, you won’t read it?
Nope. I feel like if you read the positive ones then you have to read the negative ones, too. So I just don’t read any of them.
You write about some weird people. Are you concerned with not making fun of them, or trying to keep it fair?
I always think that if you’re going to make fun of somebody, it helps to make more fun of yourself. I was reading something from my diary recently: I was in a hotel and I ran in [to the coffee shop] to get a quick coffee, but I hesitated for a moment and this woman got in line in front of me. And she looks up at the board and says, “A latte. Now, is that the same thing that Barbara likes to get? The one with the whipped cream?” And I’m behind her thinking, Oh, fuck. That’s the last person you wanna be in line behind! And so I do kinda make fun of her, just because she’s one of those people that ask the guy at the counter, “So, did you go to college? Where did you go? ’Cause my son went here, but he’s not working yet, but I tell him, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day!’ Are those lids different sizes? How do you keep them straight?” And I’ve got steam coming out of my ears. But, in the end, it’s just about what a complete jerk I can be.
This is a stock teen-magazine question, but that’s why I think it can be very telling: if you could tell your teenage self anything now, what would it be?
I would tell my teenage self, “You were right!” You know? Whenever a story comes out in The New Yorker, I’ll open the magazine, put it on the table, walk by it as if I just happen to be walking by, and I’ll think, Wait a minute! Is that my name? There’s my name on the cover of The New Yorker! And it says—oh look! Table of Contents, my name is there! And — oh look! On page 43, oh, there’s my name! And I always want my teenage self to see that. But, of course, my teenage self never will. But I guess all the advice when I was a teenager—well, not all of it, ’cause my mom was a pretty great person—was like, Don’t be yourself. Fight your instincts. Become somebody else, because what you are isn’t good enough. I mean, every young person goes through a phase of trying on different personalities, but I think in the end I came back to myself. And I think that I was right to do that.
I read that you keep a diary every day. Do you ever reread it?
I’ve been keeping a diary for 35 years. At the end of every season, I print it out and make a cover for it and I put pictures in it—it’s pretty elaborate for something that no one’s ever seen. I go back to the diaries all the time. If I’m working on a story, it really helps. I can go back and look things up and look up names and details. Writing in my diary is a compulsion at this point.
Are you ever worried that you’ll run out of stories and weird things that happened to you?
No, because all you really have to do is be alive and be observant. When I first started writing, it was a question of writing about big things. My mother died—that’s a big thing. I was a really horrible performance artist—that’s a big thing. My grandmother lives with us, that’s a big thing. But as I get older, it’s more like making something out of nothing and I actually think those make for better stories.
The story “SantaLand Diaries” is like, you worked as an elf, and in When You Are Engulfed in Flames it scales down so much it’s about a spider.
Yeah! I guess that’s the thing. It just all depends on how you write about it. I think I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote “SantaLand” because that’s so choppy to me. The last time I reread it I was mortified.
I think we’re about done. Thank you for doing this.
May I ask you a question?
I love your blog. [It said] you went to Japan. Are you familiar with 45 RPM?
It’s a Japanese clothing company. They have like 12 different stores in Tokyo and each one sells different things. And it’s Japanese, so everything is really nicely made and it’s crazy expensive. It’s not as bold as Comme des Garçons, but it’s almost like hippie clothes. Anyway, I didn’t know if you had ever written about or seen those.
When we went there, I was really homesick. I had never had Subway before in my life and then we got it twice in one day. It was really pathetic. But we did go to one store that was tiny and it was all imitation ’50s Americana.
There’s a lot of that there. Did you meet Rei Kawakubo?
I met her when we went there a couple years ago. She’s terrifying.
Yeah. I’m just intimidated by her because she’s one of my heroes. Where does your interest in fashion come from?
My sister Gretchen has always had a good sense of style. It was never prescribed. She never looked like anyone else, and I always admired her confidence, and the ease with which she combined things. When she was a teenager Gretchen subscribed to Vogue, so that was when I first started reading about fashion. This was in the mid-’70s, when Yves Saint Laurent was doing his gypsy thing. I always liked to keep up, but after leaving my parents’ house I was too broke to afford magazines, so I’d read them at the library. Then I moved to New York, and on recycling night I’d go through the trashcans in my downtown neighborhood, and come away with all sorts of things: L’Officiel, Harper’s Bazaar, the now defunct Mirabella, British and Italian Vogues, you name it. [My boyfriend] Hugh and I moved to Paris in the late ’90s. We had a friend who worked for Givenchy, and she’d sometimes give us tickets to the shows. This was back when Alexander McQueen was the designer, and it was like going to a fantastic circus.
I’ve just always liked knowing what’s out there. Clothes are interesting to me in the same way that buildings are. Most interesting, I think, are the Japanese designers. I like looking at things at the Dover Street Market in London. It’s mainly Comme des Garçons, and everything appears to have been made by elves. In Tokyo I love a company called Kapitol, and another called 45 RPM. It’s basically hobo clothing, but with nicer fabrics. What I like about Japanese stuff is that it’s generally not about looking sexy. It’s good clothing for older people who like having a little secret: special lining inside their pockets, or really big buttons. ♦