Karla Eoff

The Intellectual’s Assistant

So I get this phone call from Ellie, who’s got­ten a call from Jim, who says his friend, a writer, is look­ing for an assis­tant. Ellie asks, “Do you think you’d be inter­est­ed in work­ing for Susan Sontag?”

I’d recent­ly had a bad expe­ri­ence work­ing for a man whose idea of “assis­tant” was some­one to pick up his dry clean­ing, so my enthu­si­asm for this type of job wasn’t at its peak. But I had just moved to New York and was still try­ing to fig­ure out, at thir­ty-six, what I want­ed to be when I grew up.

Don’t know, but it should be inter­est­ing to meet her.”

I called her, or she called me, and we arranged an ear­ly-evening appoint­ment at her place on King Street. It was late fall of 1988. AIDS and Its Metaphors was about to hit the book­stores. And I was no Sontag-phile. I’d read “The Way We Live Now” in The New Yorker a cou­ple of years ear­li­er and before that, some of the sto­ries in I, etcetera. My favorite essay was “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” favorite book On Photography. But I was tired of my bor­ing, dead-end assort­ment of temp jobs. Why not check it out?

That fall evening, she answered the door—black jeans, black sweater, hair with the trade­mark sil­ver streak—and burst into a goofy smile: “Thank God.” Apparently she’d been adver­tis­ing in the New York Times clas­si­fieds, and most of the appli­cants had shown up wear­ing a suit, car­ry­ing a brief­case. She’d invit­ed an artist friend to chap­er­one our inter­view, fear­ing that I’d be anoth­er “suit.”

I wasn’t.

The artist friend was dis­missed, and we talked for an hour or two over a cou­ple of glass­es of wine. There was no inter­view. She was about to leave on a three-week book tour, and it was decid­ed that I should come back in a few days to start work, what­ev­er that meant—we hadn’t dis­cussed it. Both of us took a leap of faith—she gave me the key and secu­ri­ty code to the apart­ment, along with her ATM card and PIN. Then she left. For three weeks. Three days a week I went to her apart­ment, answered the phone, opened the mail, paid the bills, tried to dis­cern a fil­ing sys­tem for the piles of papers, perused the over­flow­ing shelves of books. And won­dered what the hell we’d got­ten our­selves into.

What I dis­cov­ered was that with Susan, you’re either on the ride or you’re not. For a few amaz­ing years, I was on it. And it was quite a ride.


She had a vora­cious appetite for, well, every­thing. In her six­ties she took up in-line skat­ing, climbed the pyra­mids in Egypt, was in and out of Sarajevo dur­ing the siege, walked the cables to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. She went out almost every night. Just keep­ing up with her was a workout.

It is impos­si­ble to pick one favorite moment from those intense, roller­coast­er years, but the best time was most cer­tain­ly while she was writ­ing The Volcano Lover. She always wrote her orig­i­nal drafts in a neat, round long­hand, which I would enter into the com­put­er and print out. (Actually, at first this was all done on a Selectric, but we did final­ly get a com­put­er.) Then we would order sand­wich­es from the Empire Diner or piz­za or Chinese for lunch, read over the morning’s work, talk about it, mark it up, and spend the after­noon at the com­put­er doing rewrites, most of which she dic­tat­ed to me. After a while this evolved into her dic­tat­ing the hand­writ­ten first draft, edit­ing as we went. It was an incred­i­bly inti­mate expe­ri­ence, being that far inside anoth­er person’s cre­ative process. And it was deeply gen­er­ous of her to allow me in.

Days, weeks, months, even­tu­al­ly a cou­ple of years passed this way. Oh, there were the chores (pay­ing bills, buy­ing her apart­ment, hav­ing book­shelves built and hir­ing painters, answer­ing or avoid­ing answer­ing cor­re­spon­dence, accept­ing and declin­ing invi­ta­tions of all sorts) and oth­er distractions—suddenly, in the mid­dle of the after­noon, Susan would insist that we dash up to Lincoln Center to catch some obscure French or Russian movie, or cab it down to Chinatown for dim sum. But the main focus was “the book.” It was the ground­ing point of our work­ing rela­tion­ship and friendship.

And while it was in process, what an expe­ri­ence. It’s where I learned that I adore get­ting inside oth­er people’s words, help­ing a writer achieve the best pos­si­ble result. Finding repeat­ed words (the lit­tle bas­tards) and look­ing for new words to replace them, which with Susan meant either spelunk­ing through a the­saurus or explor­ing her list of words she was keen to use.

Then the book was fin­ished, or at least a com­plet­ed man­u­script was turned in—as I was to learn, for Susan, the book is nev­er fin­ished. We spent a week holed up in her apart­ment comb­ing through the gal­leys and then anoth­er with the page proofs, tweak­ing and mas­sag­ing the text. When I say “holed up,” I mean that I didn’t leave her apart­ment for a week. Susan said we’d “tak­en to the mat­tress­es, like the Mafia.” Peter, an old friend of Susan’s who often did research for us, and who is an astute read­er, was part of this process. We bunked on futons on her liv­ing-room floor, and almost every night we would be awak­ened at some point dur­ing our four or five hours of sleep by the sound of Susan rustling around at the oth­er end of the apart­ment, like some over­size squir­rel. Every evening, Robert, anoth­er friend and a world-class edi­tor, came by to give his input. It was odd­ly exhil­a­rat­ing and com­plete­ly exhausting.

And then came pub­li­ca­tion, and a list of small cor­rec­tions for future edi­tions, and notes for trans­la­tors in all the Romance lan­guages. Then the inter­views and pub­lic appear­ances and book release par­ty, and the book tour, and, and, and…

The book was a suc­cess, Susan’s first suc­cess­ful nov­el after all those years of essays.

And then…I dis­cov­ered that I was not ful­filled with what was left for me to do when we weren’t work­ing on her writ­ing. Our rela­tion­ship changed. She was still hap­py to have me around, we still had fun, went to muse­ums and the­ater and dance and opera and, of course, Chinatown, took care of day-to-day busi­ness, but I was antsy. By this time I had begun to real­ize that being Susan’s assis­tant dur­ing fal­low times wasn’t going to do it for me. There was a brief peri­od of research for and draft­ing the ear­ly chap­ters of her next nov­el, In America. But we both knew it was time for me to move on, though I knew it would have to be my move and it wouldn’t be easy. It would mean that I would no longer be in her life in the same way—which might mean not being in her life at all. We had become depen­dent on each oth­er, and I was aware that leav­ing her employ would to her feel like an aban­don­ment. I daw­dled for a while, too long if truth be told, hop­ing that some of the old mag­ic would come back. We were grumpy with each oth­er, both of us rest­less, know­ing this couldn’t go on. And then I became resent­ful, main­ly angry with myself for not being able to cut the cord. Which I final­ly did.

We grew dis­tant for a few years, saw each oth­er only occa­sion­al­ly and always at my ini­ti­a­tion. My life was no longer the Susan Sontag Show. I missed it, but main­ly I missed her and real­ized it would be up to me to reestab­lish the friend­ship. It was work, but it was worth it.

Then, out of the blue, she invit­ed me to a reception—but for what, I can’t remem­ber. We recon­nect­ed and she asked me to be in on the final round with the man­u­script of In America, the tak­ing-to-the-mat­tress­es phase, with­out the sleep­over. I was back in, in a way. It was very dif­fer­ent, but it was pure pleasure.

Somehow we man­aged to forge a new rela­tion­ship. I know she was proud of the copy edi­tor I became and pleased about her part in mak­ing that hap­pen, and I nev­er stopped telling her how grate­ful I was to her for help­ing me, no mat­ter how inad­ver­tent­ly, to find the work that I love. For intro­duc­ing me to a world I nev­er knew I could be a part of. For expand­ing my hori­zons, broad­en­ing my life. We stayed friends until she died. I was lucky enough to be able to spend a month with her while she was in the hos­pi­tal in Seattle—a dif­fi­cult but ulti­mate­ly beau­ti­ful time. I read Saramago’s The Double to her, sat up nights rem­i­nisc­ing. Found a new, more com­pas­sion­ate way to know Susan.

As I’ve said many times, I miss hav­ing Susan around to tor­ment and delight me. And I always will.

© 2011 Karla Eoff