The PEN Ten with Peter von Ziegesar
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with writer and filmmaker Peter von Ziegesar, who has written articles and essays for Art in America, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Out, American Ceramics, ArtNet.com, The Kansas City Star, and Borderline, among others. His 2013 memoir, The Looking Glass Brother (St. Martin’s), chronicles the intersecting lives of himself, his homeless stepbrother, Little Peter, and their father, Franz.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
Thinking of yourself as a writer probably starts very young, and is associated with certain disabilities, like preferring to live in books rather than in real life. Frankly, I resisted calling myself a writer for a long time. The idea of identifying myself with a profession rather than as a person seemed dehumanizing in some way, like becoming a featureless cog in a much larger social machine. Later I warmed to the idea, probably around the same time it began to seem quirky and retro even to read books, much less write or publish them, sort of like becoming proficient at making bird calls, or churning butter. Anyway, let’s say around the turn of the 21st century, being a writer started seeming like a very quixotic, though honorable, profession to be in. I started having respect for the sheer bravery that writers have, to take something that everyone basically has, the ability to read and write and communicate with words, and turn it into an art form with a huge range of possibilities of expression, i.e. metaphoric, onomatopoeic, rhyming, metric, confessional, didactic and so on. Writing well is like being able to take a blade of grass and blow a symphony on it. A writer is also brave in that he or she is really the person behind every word. And that can get scary because as an individual one is exposing oneself to scorn, indifference and even political repression.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Without question, Patricia Highsmith in the Ripley novels, although there is no way I’d get away with it.
Where is your favorite place to write? To make art? Are they different places? If so, is there a reason?
It’s funny, because normally I have what most people would consider to be the “perfect” place to write, a small studio apartment in the West Village that belongs, in part, to my in-laws, who live in Florida. But I sometimes find the studio is simultaneously too exposed and too isolated. I am obviously there to “write,” After a few hours I lose focus and wonder what other people are doing and start making phone calls or cruising on the Internet. Since it’s been rented out I’ve been working in the basement of our house. It’s dark and quiet but I’m also aware of things going on above my head, of movement and footsteps and murmurs in a comforting but not intrusive way. It’s nice to be part of and still separated from my family when I work. So this is my favorite place at the moment.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’ve never been taken down to the station and booked, but when I was a teenager and had long hair and lived in a series of fairly tough cities like Chicago, Tucson, and Kansas City, I was stopped by the police almost on a daily basis, often frisked, asked to take my shoes off so that they could be searched, and so on. This treatment made me familiar with the reality that one’s outward appearance can make you into a de facto criminal. When I first heard the term, DWB, or Driving While Black, as a mock criminal offense I had to laugh. I am white, obviously, but I feel that in my own small way I understand the injustice of racial profiling because for a while I had voluntarily joined a minority that was singled out for special treatment by the cops. Of course eventually I could and did cut my hair and stop wearing torn jeans, although a black man obviously can’t change his appearance so easily. And so this discrimination by appearance continues: look at what’s happening in Ferguson now! In another vein I’ve often wondered how bravely I would react if I were living in a repressive regime where just to express my fairly liberal, but by no means extreme views could land me in jail or earn me extra-legal beatings, or torture, or loss of family even cause me to be killed. Thousands of writers have to face that dilemma in reality and I don’t know how they do it. In the thirties Sinclair Lewis wrote a prescient book called It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist takeover in America. The hero continues to write editorials for his newspaper in somewhat muted and coded form, but eventually he’s imprisoned and tortured. It definitely CAN happen here, and in some pockets of America already has.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
As you can tell, I am fairly obsessed with jail and torture and have Edgar Allen Poe like fantasies of being suffocated, buried alive, placed in a box, etc. Everyone does, to some extent, I suppose, and that’s why threats of imprisonment and torture are so effective against people with imagination, i.e. writers. In this country we imprison far too many people for crimes that are illusory, such as possessing or using proscribed drugs, and this of course is unfairly imposed on minority groups. When I think of the living death called solitary confinement that’s often used as an in-house discipline in our prisons, I’m shot through with horror. This really should not be. In my writing this obsession of mine comes out at times in themes about a hidden pool of horror and disgust and unfairness lying just under the surface of our normally pleasure-filled everyday lives.
Of course I have positive obsessions too. I bake bread in a fairly single-minded way in large cast-iron Dutch ovens, and for a while recently became obsessed with cast iron itself as a fading, but low-tech art form. I have done a lot of art writing and reviewing and find myself inherently prejudiced towards crafts with lowered expectations of haute artistic value, such as ceramics, outsider art, and even film and photography. Of course all of these things have been thoroughly “discovered” by now. But I like the idea of artworks finding an alternative route out of and away from the galleries, for example a thrown cup you can hold in your hand and appreciate as much for its utilitarian value as it’s glazing and form, which can be crude or sublime. I’m also very obsessed with my children, speaking of crude and sublime, and have written quite a bit (believe it or not) on child creation as a low-tech art form that you can do in your own home. Try it and see!
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Into an image?
For me, writing about my family in a memoir (The Looking Glass Brother) was about as daring as it gets, in the sense that while I was writing it I was sure that when the book came out I was going to be ostracized not only by my family but everyone I knew. Of course the reality was a lot less extreme, although one of my sisters still doesn’t talk to me now. When I started out I admired other writers who were not afraid to lay everything out on the table: who they were, what they liked to do. I could not believe the bravery of writers like Miller, Jong, Kerouac and Burroughs, and had literally no idea how they had developed the guts to write about things like sexuality, strange family members, personal failings, including cruelty, and drug use, things that I never dared talk about to anyone, much less confide to a book or novel. Now that The Looking Glass Brother has been published I feel that I have joined that fraternity—not to compare myself in any way with them as the great writers I think they are, but simply that a some risk I have broken through “through the looking glass” myself, and am with them on the other side.
What is the responsibility of the writer? The artist? Is it the same?
The responsibility of the writer is to put into words what everyone knows is true. And sadly, truly, most of those things have usually been left unsaid. When Henry Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, for example, the word out on the boulevards in Paris was that he was putting into the book all the things other writers had left out of their own novels. In the end what he wrote wasn’t surprising in itself—most intelligent people know that stuff. What was shocking was that he dared to put it out on the marketplace where it became a part of the common culture and couldn’t be ignored. The same I feel is true when Alexander Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Most thinking people in Russia knew about the gulags. What they didn’t have from first- or secondhand knowledge, they knew from their dreams and nightmares: their imagination filled in the rest. Solzhenitsyn added some specific details, obviously, but the main thing he did was to put the experience of the gulag out on the chopping block where everyone could see it, where the full shame became a part of public discourse. After that the fall of the Soviet regime was inevitable. What Edward Snowden did in concert with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in revealing CIA and NSA documents is in the same vein, I feel. It took incredible bravery on their parts to do that. While there are amazing and horrifying details to be obtained by what they revealed, my feeling is that they only confirmed what everyone knew, that the CIA and NSA are listening to our every word and scanning our every text.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose? How about artists? Is it a shared purpose?
I don’t think that the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion. I think that he or she has moved their place of discourse to another location. Typically in the past the public intellectual, on the model of Susan Sontag, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal, lived in New York and published in esoteric journals, such as The New York Review of Books, or The Nation, and occasionally appeared on the Tonight Show. A friend of mine, Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written several books and fits the role of public intellectual perfectly, in my opinion, told me recently that he originally moved to New York City hoping to discover just such a vibrant pool of committed intellectuals to join and was disappointed when he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until he started blogging and created his own website that he found that group of individuals he’d been looking for—on the Internet.
To answer the second part of the question, I think that writers and artists do have a shared purpose, to be what E.M. Forster once called “the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” His definition was a little elusive but it included an internationalist point of view, a strange ability to recognize and understand one another on sight, the power to take a joke and to endure, to be impossible to organize and to be sexually worldly and pleasure-loving rather than ascetic. To these traits I’d add a few more: to be self-deprecating almost as a reflex, to be observant and unafraid to repeat to others what you have seen, even if it might embarrass you or get you in trouble.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers? What work of art would you like to show them?
The obvious ones would be something like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which shows a prisoner of conscience’s grim last hours before the inevitable shot in the back of the head, or Orwell’s 1984, which shows another prisoner’s brainwashing and ultimate “rehabilitation” as a burnt-out shell. I’d prefer to send him or her Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection. In it a group of political prisoners undergo a horrific forced march into Siberian exile during the waning time of the tsars. On the road they mingle with criminal prisoners who are brutal and treated brutally. Inexplicably when they reach their destination the male and female political prisoners are housed together. One thing unites them, Tolstoy comments: they are all in love. Somehow just in the short time, despite the knowledge of the certain doom they are facing, each man and each woman has found another with whom to fall in love. To me this is a much greater revelation than that one can torture and imprison writers and politicians and make them do your will.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Observation is a passive act. To me, it is what you do in a bar or a café, watching people go by. Surveillance is observation with a purpose—and that purpose is almost always sinister. Present day surveillance takes place passively only in the sense that action is reserved for later. All of the information gathered by search engines or by the NSA goes into vast pools of data that can be mined when a target has been identified—or can be used to identify a target. Certain words used in certain contexts in a certain order can now earn you a visit from the FBI or other disturbing government body. You don’t want to use the Internet to purchase a shoulder pack and a pressure cooker on the same day, for example. I have to admit I’m horrified and intrigued at the same time. This close examination of words on a global scale seems like a kind of poetry…powerful poetry…but evil juju at the same time. Slipping through the cracks just got a whole lot harder.