By Alain Elkann
“I am a foreigner in America. From the time I was a child, I dreamt of being somewhere else.”
Susan Sontag, in your latest book, you write that the United States is a country where one can always start over in life. Is that true?
“It’s definitely a myth, but because people believe in it, it ends up being possible. This is people’s fantasy when they come to America, a land of new horizons. It’s a more profound idea than finding one’s fortunes in America. Moreover, the characters in my book found success in Europe and come to America where they have a worse life, but with the hope of starting over. In America, you can be a grandmother and take parachuting lessons and everyone will tell you, “Good for you!” There’s no sense of being ridiculous.”
Is this freedom?
“No, I don’t know. I love the theatre and actors. I wanted to write a book with a protagonist who was a great actor and then I planned on writing a book on a foreigner. So I created a story about a great Polish actor.”
Do you consider yourself a foreigner in America?
“Yes, but I am cosmopolitan by nature. As a child, I loved to read travel books and I liked to feel like I was somewhere else. My parents even lived abroad. I always wanted to be far away. Yet when I am in Europe – and I’ve lived half of my adult life on the Old Continent – I see myself as American. I see it in my interest in constantly fixing and improving things. Perhaps my European friends are more cynical and, all in all, not being cynical is very American. I live in New York, a city full of foreigners.”
Does being Jewish also make you feel cosmopolitan?
“I don’t think so. Maybe a sociologist would say that. And I come from generations of atheists. I would be a nationalist if I came from a small country.”
What can you tell me about Bush’s America?
“The Supreme Court just carried out a coup d’état, and the court should be above taking sides politically. Yet two people should have stepped down because they were part of Bush’s electoral campaign. But what America do we see? Isolationist and more focused on money than ever before. Ideas of social justice no longer have support in this country. Two businessmen from the Texas oil industry were just elected president and vice president and one of them is the son of president George Bush who used him to vindicate himself.”
What will happen in the intellectual world?
“I don’t know. I believe Gore should have won. I don’t understand how he lost and how he could have run such a terrible campaign. People are furious and today certainly cut off from politics. Gore won in Florida, but they stopped counting votes. I think we will see apathy in America.”
What will you do?
“Nothing, like all of the rest of the people. Well, I will certainly continue to talk, be active and write. I certainly won’t leave the country. But I have clearly said what I think.”
What is your life like?
“Being a writer means alternating periods of complete solitude and putting oneself in another’s shoes with periods of active participation. I am convinced that the so-called “writings that will remain” must be written in solitude. “In America” is a book I am very proud of. I wrote it in isolation. Far away. You might find it funny, but I wrote a lot of it in Bari where I lived for a long period, at the home of my translator who is also a friend. I love that city, and I spend two months a year there. I was in Bari a year and a half ago when the war broke out in Kosovo, and I could hear the planes going by overhead. I also wrote a part of the book in New York. It took a lot of time. I also spent a few years in Sarajevo and then I had cancer. I was really ill, but now I am getting treatment. I am doing tests and am in remission. If it lasts long enough, I will be cured.”
Why do you choose always to wear black?
“Because I live in downtown Manhattan, and I think one dresses this way because it is attractive and affordable.”
When you travel what do you look for?
“I want to be as in touch with reality as possible. I like realities that are not my own. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have great respect for most of the people on the planet. It’s too easy to live in one’s own small privileged bubble. If you aren’t careful, as you get older, you can go back to being more like a child. I, however, want to travel and to see things. I have travelled and spent a lot of time in the Balkans. I just came back from Sarajevo where I saw a lot of friends. I go there often.”
Is friendship the driver in your life?
“Passion, loved ones and contact with others especially… .”
What about love?
“Sure [she laughs], that’s one type of passion.”
Do you like being an American writer?
“I don’t particularly love being American. It might sound snobbish. I am an American writer, of course, but many foreigner writers are more important in my mind. Take Calvino and Tabucchi who are certainly better than many American writers. I am happy to merely be a writer.”
Do you write every day?
“I would like to. My friend Alberto Moravia wrote every day. I asked him once, “But what happens if, while you are writing something important, you are called to breakfast?” He told me that he would stop and start again the next morning. I, on the other hand, write intensely, but I do it in bursts. I don’t feel like I have to do it every day, but I admire those that do. I have written 15 books, and I could have written 40, but I believe in what you leave behind and in the judgement of posterity. I don’t think it’s important to write a lot of books. And then I love to read.”
What do you prefer to read?
“A lot of history. A lot of poetry. And I reread a lot.”
Do you think women are extraordinary in this historic period?
“The situation has improved for privileged women in the rich parts of the world. But elsewhere – if I think about Congo, Peru or Afghanistan – it’s a completely different story… ”
Has Susan Sontag changed a lot?
“I am wiser, and I am perhaps a better writer.”
Are you courageous?
“I don’t think I should make those kinds of judgements about myself. It’s not for me to say. I think it would be crass.”
What would you like to do?
“I would certainly like to continue to write and read a lot.”
Jan 28th, 2001
Susan Sontag died in New York on December 28th, 2004.