Tama Janowitz may be a celebrated author with many books to her name, but her main claim to fame is the 1986 book “Slaves of New York,” a collection of short stories about the most horrifying scenario known to the fair city’s residents – trying to secure some small piece of real estate on the island of Manhattan.
Younger readers of The Z Review may not be aware that once, long ago, you could be an artist of limited means and live in Manhattan, provided you got a roommate. That last bit opened the door to a circus horror show of unstable personalities, whom strict economics dictated one must share space with if there was to be any hope of hanging on to one’s 700 square feet of hard-won squalor.
Since then, Janowitz has written 10 other books, including her 2016 memoir, “Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction.”
Now 30 years on from her associations with such writers as Bret Easton Ellis and such iconic personalities as Andy Warhol, her memoir covers such topics as the aging process and caring for a mother who was in the throes of dementia. It’s a big change of pace and an even bigger change of tone, and people who are only familiar with her older work will find it surprising.
The Z Review subjected Janowitz to the journalistic scorch trial known as “Five Questions,” and she gave us much to ponder in response.
TZR: How much was “Slaves of New York” based on real life?
TJ: It is hard to explain that fiction is both “real” and “fabricated.” For example, most people have two arms and two legs, unless you are writing science fiction or about a challenged person. The characters I wrote about had arms and legs. That is based on real life. The times and place, New York City in the early 80s, were real. I knew many people who made crazy jewelry, and hats, and lived in odd places.
Once, I remember I was hit by a car as I crossed between two vehicles I thought were parked. I was not hit hard but the driver yelled at me. Then I went to get pizza. That became the basis for a story. Another story might have been vaguely based on a friend’s telling me he invited women he didn’t know to go shopping with him at Tiffany’s. I think.
It has now been thirty-one years since “Slaves” was published and I no longer remember much of the times, the place, and even the stories! I do know that for years – at readings, at book signings and so forth – time and again someone would come up to me and say, “You wrote that book about my friend so-and-so.” And the person they mentioned was someone I didn’t know and had never heard of. Once a fellow came up to me at a party following some television airing and said he was going to beat me up; his girlfriend, who I knew vaguely had told him I had written about him in “Slaves” and although he hadn’t read the book, I didn’t know him, couldn’t have written about him, was now going to “teach me a lesson.” I think my bafflement put an end to it. In fiction, bits and pieces of people, event, incidents are combined by the author to create the work.
TZR: What motivated your decision to write your memoir? And was going through your entire past like that a difficult process?
TJ: My memoir was a blend about living up in the country in one of the most depressed counties in New York State. The move here came as a shock to me; coming up here to look after my mother who was rapidly deteriorating following her retirement, and looking back at some of the quirkier things that occurred to me. Because it was my memoirs I was free to include whatever amused me. I didn’t have to follow any kind of standard. Some parts were painful, some parts I howled with laughter at the memory.
I wrote it at a time when so many things were going on that were so complicated I did not have the patience to sit down and struggle with the various issues that arise when I write a novel. Because it was non-fiction, not only did I not have to “create” a plot or make anything up – and because it was my memoirs, I could use my memories and events that were playing out.
TZR: Who are your writing influences, and what have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed?
TJ: Everything a writer reads is an influence. You are either influenced to write in a similar style, or to create a book in the same vein, or you are influenced by admiring a work although knowing it is nothing like what you would want to write. Or you are influenced by thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that is terrible! I don’t want ever to write something like that!”
So I would have to say the question is “Who do you admire?” and off the top of my head there are so many writers I admire and for so many reasons. I have always loved Jean Rhys, the Balkan Trilogy, “Fortunes of War” by Olivia Manning. George Gissing, W.G. Sebald, Nabokov, Edith Wharton. James Anderson. Dan Rhodes. Fay Weldon. Tolstoy. Somerset Maugham! For each of the aforementioned there would be a different reason as to why I admire his or her work. Parts, elements that I like. And of course there are hundreds of others.
TZR: You’re usually mentioned in the same breath as Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and the rest of the literary world’s “Brat Pack.” Do you feel like that’s fair, or do you feel like you’re just getting lumped in with them due to being in the same places and time as them?
TJ: My response to this would be that, in the same approximate period, the three of us wrote books that were widely popular, not because they were assigned in colleges or were considered “mainstream,” but because they were being purchased by people, primarily young people, to read for fun. Purchased by people who did not normally run out and buy books. So, suddenly, the fact that three such books appeared in a relatively short time made it appear the authors must have some kind of connection. But the reality was I did not know the others associated with this group at all, and it was only after the publication of “Slaves” that I did meet them and see them once in a while.
TZR: You spent a lot of time with Andy Warhol. Do you think he would see President Trump as a natural extension of his prediction that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, or would he see it some other way?
TJ: Well, of course I can’t answer for Andy. I think he would have been shocked. Trump sneered at anyone he considered freakish. Andy got along with almost everyone, from all walks of life, but I think Trump would have made him feel bad. Trump was famous, or “well-known,” even back then, in New York City, but the events Trump attended or hosted were not those that Andy went to.
I think another way of looking at the prediction that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” might mean that everyone will have a chance to be the center of attention, to be admired or noticed. But that there are so many people out there, it can’t last for long before the public’s eye moves on to someone else.