Part of my job as a journalist is doing interviews, particularly with writers. They often take place in gardens, cafés, restaurants, at their publishing houses or in university offices. However, most interviewees suggest doing them at home. I enter those intimate places with the idea that such an act – that of entering the home of someone I don’t know – stems from another act: the generosity of someone who opens their door and trusts the stranger coming through it. The relationship that begins like this is based on a tacit pact between two parties: someone who is being revelatory and someone observing, each one feeling their own, distinct discomfort. The aim of such a meeting is an interview, and the pact is one of mutual respect. For example, saying that there are dirty dishes in the kitchen would be an intrusion, unless it was relevant to the conversation. Seen from the outside, there are two people tacitly sizing one another up until they get to a comfortable point, which would not happen in the same way in an impersonal place. And the conversation flows according to how they are feeling, until that desirable moment when the space becomes secondary, when the one revealing no longer feels observed and the observer does not feel like an intruder, and the awkwardness disappears.
When the writer James Salter fetched me at the bus station in the town where he lived, Bridgehampton, in New York’s Hamptons, he drove me to his house in his old Saab, just days before his 90th birthday. The first thing he showed me when we got there was the kitchen, giving me access to a part of his life I was unaware of: his love of food, mealtime conversations, the whole ritual involving food. With that gesture, he knew that my article could not but mention the great collection of copper and porcelain pans covering the walls of an area illuminated by the light of a rainy morning. I vividly recall the light reflected in the tin jug on the table. Only then did he sit in the armchair where he spent his afternoons reading. We spoke about almost everything: writing, the war he fought in, the Greece that inspired him, New York clubs, food.
Entering Salter’s life for a few hours via the kitchen was his way of telling me I could relax; that I should not feel intimidated because I was in the home of one of America’s most venerated writers. A month later, he died, and that light reflected off the tin jug, like the twilight of the armchair that drew his profile that day, found an eternal place in my memory.
Neither have I forgotten Jennifer Egan’s cat, the window of the room where she writes in notebooks; longhand. They were there, she opened them so I could read the beginning of each book, and so was all the research material that led her to her novel, Manhattan Beach. There was the tea and cakes she served. There were also tea and cakes in E. L. Doctorow’s living room because he felt sorry for me. He welcomed me, his hands in mine. Mine were freezing, so he wanted me to recover from the minus 15-degree temperature outside.
Do these things affect the conversations? At least in the way they unfold, they do. With the illusion that, by accessing that intimate, private world, we get a little closer to the mystery of creation. As if the house, or someone in the house, had that power. A few days ago, the Brazilian writer Sergio Sant’Anna had a table set with cheese savouries, wine and fruit. He pointed to a chair opposite the window that offers a view of Christ the Redeemer statue every day. “I think he’s always got his eye on me”, he said. Half ironic, half serious? Who knows?
by Isabel Lucas
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