Interviews

“I never thought of myself as an ‘influencer.’”

Eve's Hollywood BY Eve Babitz. edited by Holly Brubach. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 352 pages. $17.
I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz BY Eve Babitz. New York: New York Review Books Classics. 448 pages. $18.
Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. BY Eve Babitz. New York: New York Review Books Classics. 184 pages. $15.
Sex and Rage BY Eve Babitz. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 256 pages. $16.
Eve Babitz.

JULIA PAGNAMENTA: In the preface to your first book, Eve’s Hollywood (1974), you write, “I believe that places should be capitalized . . . West, especially, is a serious place that should ALWAYS be capitalized. It also sounds more adventurous to go West than to go west.” The spirit and sense of a place—genius loci—are such prominent parts of your writing. How does sense of place influence your writing?

EVE BABITZ: I was a visual artist first, my collages and drawings, and I really like the way certain words look, like West rather than west.

I love reading descriptions of places. It’s how a reader gets to take that marvelous trip to another place, reading about it and then imaging it. And, I’ve always loved giving readers a sense of what LA is to me.

Your sense of belonging to Los Angeles is striking, perhaps because for millions of people around the world LA is not an actual place: It is an image, a destination in our collective imaginations. You write about how your parents came to LA from elsewhere. Your mother from Sour Lake, Texas, and your father from New York City. How did being raised by transplants shape your understanding of LA and its mythology?

I don’t know how to compare it to anything else, ​but my parents were very happy to be there. My mother really loved it all and the way you mostly got a break from Mother Nature—except for the fires and earthquakes, which she thought were lightweight compared to the sky opening up in South East Texas, where it could rain snakes. I was raised by two people, one who had an actual sense of the world and one who imagined it. So, I got to experience the macro and the micro.

New Yorkers, too, have a strong sense of self rooted in local culture. In an essay in I Used to Be Charming [recently published by New York Review Books], you write of New Yorkers: “Watching them eat donuts as though they were fit for human consumption made me realize what a schism had developed between me and the rest of the country.” Your descriptions of New York are often an attempt to tease and provoke New Yorkers’ inflated sense of self. As an outsider, how did you experience New York’s deep provincialism?

​My tongue was firmly in my cheek when I wrote about New York. My friends from New York are as pathological about it as I am about LA. I do love NY, but not to live there, and they say the same about LA. When you love the place where you live, it almost seems disloyal to like the place that is its exact opposite. Although I love Rome, ​Paris I can bear if necessary—but not on purpose! Other places can either seem like a delicious dessert like Rome or just too cold or too hot like Paris always was. When Jim Morrison wanted to move to Paris, I told him it was a big mistake.

Joan Didion is another writer closely associated with California and its subcultures. What was your relationship to Didion?

I loved the Didion-Dunnes, as everyone referred to Joan and her husband, John. Joan was very instrumental in helping me when I started my career. People tried to start fights between us, saying one of us was a better writer than the other, but that never took hold. I love Joan and will always be grateful to her for being what I wasn’t. Room for both of us! And I will always remember hanging out with their great kid Quintana at Ports.

You write a lot about the men in your life, oftentimes men who would go on to become famous and have extensive public profiles. Yet, to some extent they are almost beside the point in your work. It is your narratives of them, your views and insights that render them into compelling figures. Do you see your writing as having contributed to a mythology of celebrity and masculinity, and thus to a larger extent, of Hollywood?

I never thought of myself as an “influencer.” And I think the mythology, as you describe it, was there before me and after me. That is brought about by others. As you put it, the men in my life were just that, the men in my life. The celebrity wasn’t the point, they were.

In Slow Days, Fast Company, grapes play a starring, political role. You write, “I had almost bought some grapes earlier in the year, but they cost $1.40 for a tiny bunch, and it occurred to me that I’d probably never eat grapes again. First I’d abandoned them for Chavez, and now that the unions had won, grapes were out of my income bracket.” Slow Days, Fast Company came out in 1977, only two years after California passed the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Nowadays, California’s agricultural sector is still a large part of its economy and cultural identity—despite, or in spite of, labor exploitation and the state’s precarious environmental situation—and grapes continue to be one of its largest crops. Are you eating grapes these days?

I love grapes ​and since my sister gave a year of her life putting on rock concerts to raise money for Cesar Chavez I figure I get a pass to go on eating grapes to the end of my days!

Through the decades—in your books from the 1970s, such as Slow Days, Fast Company, and Sex and Rage, as well as in your more recent essays in I Used to Be Charming—you’ve written extensively about your body, about sex, and about femininity and societal expectations of gender. You write, “There was very little precedent for not getting married, I’ll admit, and the women I knew who weren’t were all going to analysts and wondering what was the matter with themselves.” However, your writing is often in stark contrast to these expectations. It conveys an underlying sense of self-sufficiency, of pleasure, and bodily freedom. Were you writing in reaction to these female norms?

The wonderful thing about writing is the readers’ perception of the work. I think my work is very much without subtext, at least that’s how it felt at the time. I did feel self-sufficient and wanted the freedom to have pleasure, and not to feel upset about the way I looked. Sometimes that made a difference, but it passed, like a headache passes. It’s painful and annoying and then goes away.

In your writing, vulnerability and confidence are interwoven, a juxtaposition captured in your essay, “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art,” where you write about being photographed naked while playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in 1963: “I want to be on the cover, immortal, but I don’t want anyone knowing it’s me.” It is as though you are describing the double edged sword of celebrity. How have you experienced the increased interest in your work since Lili Anolik profiled you in Vanity Fair in 2014?

Of course . . . I mean, here you are! Vanity Fair was lovely to me. My agent then got all the rights back to most of my work, had it republished, and now it’s been published all over the world. I was even nominated for a PEN Award for I Used to Be Charming (​and I was a finalist.) So, yes, this incarnation of my work has meant a great deal to me.

The title of your recently published collection of essays, I Used To Be Charming, stems from something you told a male assistant at the rehab hospital you were sent to after suffering third-degree burns on your legs after you dropped a match on your skirt in 1997. Despite renewed attention to your writing, you largely stopped publishing after the accident. Will there be a Post-Charming Literary Renaissance for Eve Babitz?

A question too difficult to answer. I would love to continue to write, and I do. I think what you are asking is if I would publish again, and that I just don’t know yet.

Julia Pagnamenta is a fact-checker and researcher living in New York.