The PEN Ten with Lauren Cerand
In this week’s PEN Ten, I talk to Lauren Cerand, New York City book publicist and co-founder and curator of the PEN Ten interview series.
After two years running the show, Lauren is stepping down as curator. It’s been an incredible ride from the series conception at Chez Andre during the PEN America launch party to hammering out questions over chocolate con churos at a Spanish joint around the corner from the PEN offices to putting together wish lists of writers we wanted to be in the series. Through it all, Lauren has been an insightful and patient collaborator who convinced over fifty writers, translators, and editors to answer the PEN Ten, including Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, Emily M. Danforth, Alexander Chee, Laila Lalami, Lawrence Venuti, Jean Kwok, and Saeed Jones to name just a few.
In February, the PEN Ten will continue with four new guest editors: Natalie Diaz, Randa Jarrar, Nicole Sealey, and Alex Segura—keep an eye out for interviews with Sherman Alexie, Mat Johnson, and Elif Batuman.
As her final contribution to the series, I asked Lauren to face the very questions she helped craft.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I wrote a novel in high school, although I would not have called it that. It disappeared, and although my recollection of that period can be slightly hazy, I am almost positive an ex-boyfriend was jealous of the better boyfriend in the book and stole it, and that sense of loss was the first time I associated my private tales with the sense of having committed them to paper, or having a relationship to a reader.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Most recently, I felt a keen love-envy for one entry from Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, which I read at the end of ten days in Paris that felt too short by years: “I have not a desire but a need for solitude (1/22/78).” That one sentence was the beat of my heart at the time.
Where is your favorite place to write?
A library in London, by the fire.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
When I worked in the labor movement, where my career began, I always wanted to get arrested during the protests that were a part of the job, as that was considered the most noble service to the cause, but I was coordinating media coverage. Looking back, I see how everyone’s role is important, and I’m glad that I was able to make a contribution of any value.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Gaze, the hedonistic luxury of smoking, fur on bare skin, taxis in unfamiliar cities, the brightness of stars as night falls in the desert, cloth napkins, elaborate fastenings, extremely rich pleasures in very small quantities. Just a few.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Probably this question.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To witness, and to affirm our common humanity through shared experience. Compared to anything at all of any significance, we, as people, are present for so little time in this life—memento mori—and are tasked with so much to learn. Just the weight of what we have to figure out overwhelms me sometimes, much less the fruit of the lessons.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I do. Writers can tell us, as a society, how to live better, how to develop empathy, how to love, how to see injustice, and how to better navigate our failures, which are an everyday thing.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
There are plenty of books that have changed my life, and the wonderful thing about literature is that readers can come to that transformative experience on their own terms. So, I would want that person to read, something, anything, and often.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Depends on what you have in mind.