Conversation: Susan Sontag

February 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Susan Sontag’s novel “In America” won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. It was the latest of many honors– including a McCarthur Genius grant– for Sontag, who has written three other novels, short stories, a play, and six works of non-fiction.

Sontag once reflected that all her work says: “Be serious, be passionate, wake up.” And she has lived a life strongly committed to ideas and activism. She has read and written voraciously, covering topics ranging from illness to photography, film and literature.

She first gained wide notice with a 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” in which she virtually defined that slippery term. As an anti-war activist, Sontag visited Hanoi during the U.S. bombing there, but she later took the American left to task for not having more vigorously criticized repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

SUSAN SONTAG: So then it makes sense when Petrov says, “you’re making me nervous.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In recent years, Sontag staged Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in besieged Sarajevo, using flashlights and candles in the absence of electricity. She traveled more than a dozen times to the city during the height of the war there. And audiences appreciated the risks she and the cast took to put on the play. Her 1992 novel “The Volcano Lover” was a best seller. She is well enough known to be on Kevin Costner’s list of beliefs in his role as a baseball player in the movie “Bull Durham.”

ACTRESS: What do you believe in, then?

KEVIN COSTNER: The small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, but the novel’s of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.

ACTRESS: See my hips?


ACTRESS: And I think Susan Sontag is brilliant!

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We turn to National Book Award Winner Susan Sontag now.


SUSAN SONTAG: Thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The book “In America” is based on the real life story of a Polish actress who came to America in the late 19th century to create a kind of utopian community. What about that story attracted you and made you want to make fiction out of it?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, first of all, I’ve always wanted to write a novel where the principal character was a performer, a woman, an actress, an opera singer, a dancer. I once started a novel that I never finished where the character was vaguely inspired by Isador Duncan. So I wanted to write a theater novel, and then I wanted to write a novel about people discovering America. So the two came together when I heard of this actress who came in the 1870s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And did it need to be in the past for to you do what you wanted to do?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, again, I wanted to put it in the present. And then I thought, “oh, why not, why not,” because what is so interesting about the past is that it is so much like the present. And all kinds of things that we think of very contemporary American are already there in the 19th century. So I had a great time discovering that period. It’s just the post-civil war period. I didn’t want to do all the work that’s required to work it up and get it right, but I felt in the end it was absolutely worth it and very thrilling.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is so much about the actress but I was struck by how much this novel is about America, and I was struck by the two tones. There is a kind of mournful tone for what is lost here of the past, and also this great joyful tone about what’s possible here. Is that what you intended?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, what’s interesting is all these things are always in America — in the post-Civil War United States people were already regretting modernization and corruption and the mercenary spirit and harking back to an older America where people were virtuous and family values were stronger and people weren’t so interested in money.

So that’s a perennial idea. And then there is this wonderful, I must say I participated myself, belief in the power of possibility of self-reinvention. We always believe in America: We can start again, we can turn the page, we can invent ourselves, we can transform ourselves. So I thought that was… That was the appeal of America for this group of Polish émigrés. They’re not economic refugees; they’re not coming over in steerage. They choose to come over to America; they want to become different people. And there is a great adventure there to transform yourself, reinvent yourself as actors do, of course, all the time when they’re on the stage.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How does a character come to you? Marina, for example, the actress — does a line… Do words come to you first or clothes or an image?

SUSAN SONTAG: That’s a very good question. You know, John Gielgud said– here’s an actor, not a writer– he said, “the first thing I need to know when I’m working up a character is how that person walks.” I think I need to know how that person talks. I need to hear speech rhythms. It’s the way the person talks or the way the person feels.

It is finally a set of feelings. But I start with a theme, and the theme was theater, self- reinvention, discovery of America. But I wanted to tell a novel… I wanted to write a novel, tell a story, where the main character is a striving woman. And is it a realistic book? I mean, she is no angel but I like her a lot. I admire her. And I admire her guts. I admire her courage. And I wanted to write a novel about a woman.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I could tell how much you liked her. Did you like writing the book? I remember you said about your last book that you were in a state of delirium while you wrote it. Were you in the same state with this one?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, I’ll tell you, this was a little harder to do because I wrote “the Volcano Lover,” that last novel in one go, just two and a half years, worked on it every day for two and a half years start to finish, consecutively. This one had some serious interruptions.

I was in Sarajevo the better part of three years during the siege. I was… not long after the end of the war in a serious automobile accident and then I got cancer again, and I had to break off the book for a year. So I kept thinking “I’ve lost the book, I’ve lost of the book, I’ve lost of the book” because I think you have to paint with a wet brush. And I felt Marina was maybe getting a little melancholy because I was feeling a little melancholy.

But in the end, no, I had a wonderful time, but it wasn’t quite the same euphoria. There was more of a struggle in my own life, and what interrupted the book. This book took longer to write because there were these interruptions.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to ask you about the struggle in your own life. How is your health and how is it affecting your writing now?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, I’m doing good. I feel… I’m very eager to talk about cancer, about being a cancer patient. This is the second time I’m a patient, and it’s a new primary cancer, it’s not a metastasis — not because I’m an exhibitionist but because I want to encourage people because we all know someone with cancer: A relative, friend, or many of us are going to have a bout of it at some point in our lives. I want to encourage people to get good treatment.

There’s very, very good treatment is out there. I got very good treatment, very tough treatment. It was very, very painful, actually. I mean it was… It was hard, it was hard but it gave me a very good chance to be cured, and most cancers can be cured now if people get the right kind of treatment. So I’m very eager to talk about it and break this taboo, especially with that disease, “oh, you don’t want to talk about it, it’s something scandalous.” It’s just an illness like any other, but a pretty serious one.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And of course you’ve written about that. You wrote about it when you had cancer before. And I wanted to ask you about your essays. You wrote these very serious essays and I read them before I read the novel and I was struck by the tone of the novel. It has such a light touch. It has wonderful humor in it. How do you think about your novels in relation to this very serious, intellectual activist past you’ve had?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, I guess… I guess I am serious, she said, grinning. The novels are much more representative of me than the essays. The essays I’m kind of cranking myself up and trying to say something true and eloquent and useful, but they are a bit of a straitjacket and I feel all sorts of parts of me are not in the essays that are in the novels. The novel is much closer to me and the way I am and the range that I have. That’s why I really just want to write fiction now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you actually come to a decision that you could do as much by giving pleasure to people in novels as you could as an activist or in essays?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, activism, strictly speaking, is what I do as a citizen and a human being. And that has nothing to do with being a writer. I would hope that I would have gone to Sarajevo and did whatever I did there without being a writer because I didn’t go there to be a writer. I didn’t go there to write about it. I went there to work in the city, to live and work in the city. So the activism remains, but that’s my belief in righteous action. I think people…

I believe in altruism. I think that once in a while you should do something for other people– people you’re not related to, with no interest in it for you — just do something for other human beings out of a sense of solidarity. It’s probably very arbitrary, but, you know, once in awhile that’s part of, I think, a good human life. But, yeah, I want to have more color and more emotion in my writing, and so I think I’m a little braver.

I think I’m actually a better writer than I used to be. I don’t… I think pleasure is a wonderful thing. And also novels aren’t just pleasure, I think they are an education of feeling. They extend your feeling. They make you… they should make you more compassionate, more… have more empathy with other human beings. They struggle against this dryness, this dryness that a lot of people feel.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read from the novel and explain what you’re reading?

SUSAN SONTAG: Oh, well, you know, I always envy the poets because they pack in a lot in a few lines so we prose writers go a little… I’ll read from the end. It is a monologue. It’s Edwin Booth, the great American actor, tragedian, Shakespeare actor. He’s talking here. He is, of course, you know, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Lincoln. This is after.

This is 1880s. But he’s played with my Polish actress. They’ve been playing in “Merchant of Venice.” And they are back at his rooms. And he is, of course, drunk and about to make a pass at her and complain and weep and wail about his terrible life. He did have a terrible life. He was a very tragic figure.

This is the beginning of the final part of “In America.” It’s Edwin Booth, the great American actor speaking. “You see, my dear Marina, I trust we may dispense with Madam Marina and Mr. Booth now that we’re alone and I’m exhausted and sated with applause and quite as drunk as I need to be. I must tell you that I didn’t approve when you came downstage and touched me tonight. Keep your eyes fixed on me throughout, ignoring the others in the courtroom, no objection to that. We both agree the speech is addressed to Shylock. The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. No, it doesn’t, but that’s not the point here, which is my point.

My point is Portia is trying to convince Shylock and thereby to move him. He’s not easily moved. He has too many grievances, Portia may be moved herself by the wretched fellow but Portia should never, never touch Shylock, even if she only touches his shoulder, touch his shoulder, touch any other part of him. No touching. Shylock is in pain. Booth stares into the glass of whiskey he’s holding, ‘and being in pain is very combustible.'” (Laughs )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally, you said you want to keep writing more fiction. Do you have something in the works now?

SUSAN SONTAG: Yes, I have another novel, which takes place in the 1920s, so I’m moving forward. By the one after that, I will be caught up in the 21st century. And it takes place in Japan.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Susan Sontag, congratulations again and thank you very much for being with us.

SUSAN SONTAG: Thank you very much, Elizabeth Farnsworth. Thank you.