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.”
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