The PEN Ten with Maud Newton
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I remember pretending to write—making loops and scribbles in fake cursive—before I could form the letters of the alphabet. My mother says that I memorized my picture books, where to turn the pages and everything, and followed her around the house with them, endlessly “reading” Doctor Dolittle and Millions of Cats. She’s the most charismatic storyteller I know, more gifted with timing than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m more introverted than she is and a lot less extemporaneously entertaining, but I inherited her love of stories, so I took to the page.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I used to think that if I could somehow make a Faustian bargain to change history so that I had written Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I would gladly die immediately upon publication of the book. (These kinds of morbid hypotheticals have taken up a surprising amount of my time.) Now I just want to write what I want to write, as well as I can, however long it takes.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Any place I’m not supposed to be, whenever I’m supposed to be doing something else. But these days I usually write at my desk.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I haven’t. I go to protests, but I am a cowardly protester, staying on the sidewalks, keeping close to buildings, doing what I can to exercise my right to free speech while minimizing my chances of getting beaten or groped or spending the night in a jail cell. Sometimes, as Cecily McMillan’s case horrifyingly shows, you can’t avoid it. So far I’ve avoided it.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m interested in the passions of human beings, individually and collectively. Why do we love the things we do, hate the things we do, want the things we do, believe the things we do, do the things we do? Right now I’m writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry. I started posting years ago about my ancestors: my grandfather, who married thirteen times,his father, who killed a man with a hay hook, and my ninth great-grandmother, who was accused of being a witch. Since then, I’ve dug around in census data at Ancestry.com, taken DNA tests, corresponded with genetic cousins. I spent the last year researching and writing an essay about ancestry and genealogy for Harper’s—it’s the cover story of the June issue—and I’ve read and thought a lot about what our genes do and do not predestine us to be.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
For me at least, the things that feel most daring to write or to say don’t really sound all that earth-shattering to other people. I remember the first time I confessed in email to someone that I was afraid of having a religious conversion (like my mother’s). I’d joked about this before, with my sister and my husband and my friends, but this person took the fear seriously. Being heard in that way was incredibly powerful—scary but important for me. Recently I wrote about this same fear, now greatly diminished, in a “Lives” essay called “Doubter in the Holy Land,” for the New York Times Magazine. I find that the more clearly I can express my fears, the less power they hold over me.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I’m not sure it’s an obligation or a moral imperative, but I always tell young writers who ask me for advice that the very best thing a writer can do is to figure out her or his obsessions and preoccupations and focus on those as intensely as possible.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
In one way or another, writers cast light on the world as it is and as it could be.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
At one time I would have said 1984, Brave New World, The Trial, or something by Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, but at the moment I’d send a meditation cushion and Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
That’s a tricky question for a writer, one I often find myself grappling with on New York City public transit…. The U.S. government has gone much too far over that line, so far that these days films like Brazil and books like 1984 look very different to me now than they did twenty years ago—a lot less fictional.