The PEN Ten with Domenica Ruta
Writer as a professional identity was not something I even entertained until college, when I had a summer internship working for an actor’s production company. One day I was sent on foot to deliver script notes to these two screenwriters. When I got to their apartment they were in their bathrobes, drinking coffee, a mess of papers and books and laptops strewn around the kitchen table—and it was two in the afternoon! The lesson I gleaned was that writers are people who don’t have to get dressed in the morning. That identity suited me as well then as it does now.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Nabokov. Euripides. God.
Where is your favorite place to write?
At the kitchen table with my dog nearby.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’m good at being invisible, always have been. White female privilege helps, but also the physical reality of being small and unnoticeable has protected me. Then there’s Sicilian DNA. My people are cunning and stealthy, pretty good at evading the long arm of the law. So no arrests. Not yet.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Wolves/dogs, whales, bears, folklore, prostitutes, incarnations of the end of the world, murder, echoes, anything at all Russian, the ways in which our bodies betray us, the ways in which theft changes the fundamental nature of the thing that is stolen, the sacred union, cosmogony, symmetry—but honestly, I’m really trying to get over symmetry. It’s boring. Not worthy of obsession.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I love you.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
It is the same responsibility of any human being regardless of occupation: To keep our eyes open at all times and participate in the world with a critical mind and uncritical heart; to love this world even when it wants to kill us.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I don’t care about fashion. Great minds paired with enormous hearts will always transcend fashion, no problem. The public intellectuals who are to remain vital will have to be shape shifters. They show up on Twitter and TED talks and publish meditations in obscure journals and give lectures to undergraduates in Indiana. My friend Greg Koehler is a public intellectual, meaning in laymen’s terms he is a non-practicing lawyer/ itinerant poet, a magus whose wisdom maybe 500 people will ever know. I had a professor at the University of Texas who’d gotten his masters degree back when mastery was actually required to do so. He knew about everything—the bible, medieval history, chamber music, horticulture, dog training. Doubtless he changed the hearts and minds of thousands of students over his tenure, and he published some books, too, but you’ve never heard of him. It’s too big a task to leave the intellectual commons to writers alone. Everyone needs to participate. I don’t believe all writers should join together in some political union. That would be boring at best, insufferably righteous and impotent at worst. A lot more people think they are writers—blogs and micro-blogs and all those things. It can be noisy and overwhelming, so much to read in so many media, hard to find the real public intellectual who makes an impact on a broad swatch of the world. Sometimes I hate that noise and sometimes I love it. The trick is to take a step back, take a deep breath, wait for the singular voice to stand out. You hear it and you are changed. It doesn’t matter if the collective agrees or even hears it, too.
What message would you send to an imprisoned writer?
Your sacrifice matters. In the meantime, we are out here fighting for you.
What book would you send to the leader of his or her government?
Maybe I, Claudius by Robert Graves, but he’d have to read it while locked up in a room with only a full scale replica of Guernica to look at…