Phyllis Rose on Writing About Real People in Nonfiction, Making Your Diaries Public, and More
Rumena Bužarovska Talks with the Author of The Year of Reading Proust
About fifteen years ago, a former friend lent me Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose. It documents five Victorian marriages: those of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. I remember not being able to put it down and then lending his copy to a few friends.
Feeling guilty I was lending someone else’s book, I purchased my own copy and passed that one around. I gave it to my parents, who were so enthralled by it they decided to “keep it safe” at their house, something they do not recall doing or saying. Meanwhile, I bought two more copies: a private one for me and my notes, and another for lending. I also sent it to numerous friends around the world.
One of those many friends was Steve Bradbury, a translator of poetry from Chinese into English with whom I collaborate on my work. At the time, he was re-reading Dickens. I told him that in private life, Dickens had been an asshole, then sent him Parallel Lives as proof. Steve gobbled the book up, admitted that was true about Dickens, then googled Phyllis Rose and saw they had similar fascinations: Phyllis had written a memoir called The Year of Reading Proust, while Steve had just gone through his own year of reading the French author.
Steve adores Virginia Woolf and can recite the whole second chapter of To the Lighthouse; Phyllis’s first book, published in 1978, is Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. Steve also loves the works of Alfred Stieglitz, about whom Phyllis also wrote a beautiful biography. While looking into her, Steve found out Phyllis lived in Key West, Florida, and expressed a desire to send her a card in appreciation.
I called my former agent, Alex, and asked her if she could find Phyllis’s address for us, hoping she wouldn’t find it creepy. Alex, it turns out, was just as great a fan of Phyllis’s work as I was, and she promptly sent me her details. Steve wrote; Phyllis wrote back. Both of us were giddy with the joy of true fans.
So, when Steve and I set out to do a road trip through Florida and Georgia in March 2023, he brought up the fact that Phyllis lived “nearby,” distances being relative in the USA, and that perhaps I should write her and to say I was coming to Florida, and tell her I would love to interview her. “Who knows,” Steve said, “maybe she’ll even invite you over.”
This I doubted, but I summoned up the courage and emailed her, with the subject header, “Hello from a reader.” She said she would love to meet us, but that she would be going on a trip with her family at the end of March. If we could come before her trip, “I could offer both of you a place to stay in Key West, some wine and good shrimp, and as much conversation as possible.”
A few months later, Steve and I follow the navigation app that brings us to Phyllis’s home. I call her cell phone and she swiftly opens the gate, welcoming us into a jungle of tropical flora in the middle of which stands a two-story house. She looks taller and generally bigger in the pictures I have seen of her. In reality, Phyllis is petite and wiry. Her eyes are alert and focused like the eyes of curious people. Her smile is genuine, but also nervous.
I like her immediately because she is brutally direct. In a barrage of eloquence, she tells us she had to run to a doctor’s appointment, and not to worry, it is only to hear the results from blood tests she needs before traveling. She tells us her husband Laurent (de Brunhoff, the author of the Babar the Elephant books, at the time, ninety-seven years old and ninety-eight as I write this) is at home and that she will leave him in our care, but also informs us he now has dementia and is deaf; if we want him to hear us, we have to yell in his ear, though, she adds, she would not recommend this.
Phyllis leads us up the front steps and into the house where a black long-haired lap dog greets us with a high-pitched bark. She introduces the little Havanese as “Nucky,” named after the Boardwalk Empire gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who happens to be one of my favorite TV characters.
Steve and I spend an hour or so alone with Laurent, who is difficult not to adore, and when Phyllis returns, the romance begins: we start the good conversation, the wine and the shrimp that go on for a few days. As we are leaving, Phyllis admits she has never done this before—inviting strangers into her house. “You must’ve sent me a really good email,” she laughs and this is how I know that for once, at least, my writing skills have definitely paid off.
Rumena Bužarovska: What drew me to your books was that not only could I get a sense of history through them, but also intimacy. I think intimate stories tell the social story, which is what you did in Parallel Lives. But you’re also very funny. Your short essays in Writing on Women are explosive in their wit, where I can tell that you know how to even set up a joke, like in the case with the essay on Alma Mahler.
Phyllis Rose: I didn’t think that was especially funny. I just thought it was true (laughs).
RB: Do you ever plan to be humorous in your writing?
PR: It’s a question of tone, a tone that I admire. I don’t like heavy-handed, I don’t like preachy. Wit might not be the word that I’d apply to it, but a certain lightness and rationality.
RB: Speaking of lightness, I wanted to raise another topic of interest, TV. In Proust, you say “Don’t align yourself to a man who doesn’t like scary movies and junk TV.” You also say you’re a “narrative junkie.” Tell us about your love of television.I’m addicted to stories. I like stories, and I don’t really care in what form.
PR: I think the term “narrative junkie” is kind of self-explanatory: I’m addicted to stories. I like stories, and I don’t really care in what form. It’s become widely known that the best storytelling of our time is on television. Novels, a propulsive narrative, this is not respected. That’s the province of commercial, popular writers, and not of the literary novelist. Well, that’s fine, but I really like stories. So either I read grade B novels like thrillers, or I watch television.
Television in our time is absolutely the medium of great storytelling in the way that Shakespearean drama was in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare wasn’t “high-minded”; he was a popular entertainer and for various reasons, the drama was the leading form of narrative then, as was the novel in the nineteenth century, and I think long-form television in the twentieth century, with things like The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad—these are really, the great narratives with the great characters of our time. But I would still rather watch grade B television in my addicted state.
RB: So you watch bad television?
PR: Absolutely. For example, I have the highest respect for reality shows. That’s another really interesting narrative form because they’re taking all this garbage and they’re editing it into a story, and the fundamental question is really important in all kinds of writing and storytelling—people think there is some reality there, that there is some essential truth: there isn’t. It’s just in the telling of it, in the editing of it, in the selecting of moments. I used to watch Survivor religiously, and they would create, they had to create villains and heroes and moments of tension, if we were just watching these people through a webcam, it would be totally boring.
So it’s all about selection and editing. The editing is the writing. When I was teaching writing, that was really one of the major points that I was teaching my students. The writing is not pouring out of material. It’s the shaping it. You have to pour it out first, and then you shape it. And nothing’s going to be held against you until the very end, in the sense that you can write stupid words. You don’t have to censor yourself at every moment. You can go over it and over it and over it and that’s what writing is. And to me it’s tremendously liberating. That I can polish and polish and polish. I’m a stylist, really.
RB: How long does it take you to polish? We all write differently and maybe sharing this might help some writers in their process.
PR: For students who really don’t know what writing is and who had this romantic myth that it it’s pouring out your soul, you have to counter that with a sense of craft and shaping and structure. In terms of my books, Parallel Lives took seven or eight years to write, but that’s because I was teaching at the same time and I could only write at Christmas or Easter or in the summer. I couldn’t really write when I was working. So it took a long time.
RB: Did you to travel to Britain for archival research, or did you do it all in the States?
PR: For the Virginia Woolf book I did. I had to, because her letters were not published yet, when I wrote that book, which is in the late 1970s. That book was published in 1979 and Quentin Bell’s biography, the first great biography of Virginia Woolf, was not published by the time I was writing my book. And yes, I went to Britain and I read everything at the British Museum and the University of Sussex, and the University of Texas has a lot of Woolf’s papers. I read all that stuff.
At the Berg collection at the New York Public Library I read all her diaries and a huge amount of her correspondence. I discovered things that weren’t known then, like, Oh my God, it looks like Duncan Grant is the father of Vanessa Bell’s third child. Wow! And nobody knew that, and so I had this chill when I was discovering that.
With Parallel Lives I could not have done that kind of research, because just reading through the letters of George Eliot would take you a few months. I tried to hire research assistants to do it for me, but there was no way I could formulate what it was in the letters that was going to interest me. So nobody could do it for me.
RB: Where did you draw a line in terms of the ethics of the reading of the letters and the intimacy in them ? How would you feel about someone writing a biography of you, and having to look at all of your emails and correspondences?
PR: It’s a difficult question, but first of all let me address the ethical part of it and not how I personally feel about it, because I’m not sure how I personally feel about it. But the best thing that’s ever been written about this is by Janet Malcolm and it’s The Journalist and the Murderer. She’s quite clear: biography is theft. It’s invasion of privacy. There’s just no two ways about it.
And the only thing you can do about it is not write about living people. When you’re dead, you no longer have any privacy to invade. If you’ve left your letters, they’re going to become public property. They all have the possibility of burning them. That Ruskin left his account of his wedding night for his lawyer is simply amazing to me. O tempora o mores!
Now people, if they could, would destroy these emails because everybody knows that anything you write can be used against you, but one of the things I love about the Victorians was that they were naïve. They really did not know how biographical information would come to be used. Biography was largely hagiography and until the Lytton Strachey generation and the Virginia Woolf generation biography was not as critical as it has become.
So that brings us to the personal thing. When I was young I kept diaries, to prove to myself that I was alive. I have those diaries. They’re now fifty years old. I gave them to the Schesinger Library for the history of women in America at Harvard.
And then I took them back! I hadn’t signed the deed of gift, so they said, Oh, seven years have gone by, would you sign it, and I said you know what? I’m not sure I want those diaries to be public, so I took them back, and now I don’t know what to do with them, because I don’t know if I want my son, particularly, to read what I thought about his father in the early days of our marriage. Everything that I thought went into Parallel Lives in a very sublimated way.
RB: Often fiction writers do that. It has never occurred to me that you could also do that in a biography.
PR: Well every marriage in Parallel Lives, except for the Carlyles, I can match with people I knew. But the overall tone of the book, or the attitude towards marriage, of course, derives from my own personal experiences discovering that this person I thought was an autonomous me, once I got married, no longer was. You can’t think of yourself in terms of just yourself; you’re a part of a couple.
The narrative at that time in the 1960s was still the classic Victorian narrative of marriage, where you get married and that’s the end of the story. You just have to get married: that’s the story. And nobody was telling this story of marriages, which to me was so much more interesting.
RB: You talk about motherhood in a very natural way, saying that you wanted to pass life from one generation to another. I like how you use the word “claim.”
PR: I felt it did. But other people didn’t! One of the reasons why my first marriage was such a torment was that he would say, You don’t really want to be a mother. For example, the baby would pull my hair and my husband would yell at me for saying ouch. He was always saying that I was a bad mother.
And of course, my son does think I was a bad mother. Well, not a bad mother, he’s really too advanced for that, but in his heart of hearts he thinks I should have spent his childhood playing with him. I think that is a bourgeois fantasy that’s very common now in upper middle-class America; but I was working. If I hadn’t been working, I probably would have been doing drugs or something. I would never have been able to have taken care of a child full time. It’s so boring. But the current standard of child-rearing in America, anyway, would overwhelm me.The overall tone of the book, or the attitude towards marriage, of course, derives from my own personal experiences discovering that this person I thought was an autonomous me, once I got married, no longer was.
RB: Can you describe what you mean by the current standard?
PR: The child is the most important thing in the family. The child is not a bi-product of these adult lives. The adult lives become adjuncts and servants to the child now. People are constantly arranging after-school dates, there’s always some kind of nonsense, really, that is considered central to the beautiful thing that childhood is. I never thought childhood was a beautiful thing. I thought it was very boring. I couldn’t wait to get out of it and to be able to live my own life. That’s off topic.
RB: In your Proust book you talk about which decade is the best, and some great advice your mom gave you.
PR: The fifties. Yes, because youth is boring and anxiety-ridden. I remember specifically when I was a teenager, maybe, thinking, I have nothing to talk about. I can’t wait to have things in my head that I want to talk about. And guess what? Gradually that happened. But I felt this emptiness. I didn’t understand how people just opened their mouths and had thoughts come out. Because there was nothing inside my head.
I think the twenties are the most difficult decade, followed by the thirties. Then it starts easing up in the forties, and it gets really good in the fifties, very good in the sixties, pretty good all the way through the seventies and then you start feeling diminishment of various sorts. Having turned eighty I can testify to that.
RB: You look like you’re in great shape, though.
PR: Yes, but I get tired and don’t read the way I used to. You get tired. They always say, nature is kind that way. But when it’s time to go, if you’ve lived long enough you’re probably ready.
RB: You also talk about sleeping in Proust, how restorative it is and how much you enjoy it.
PR: I enjoy it even more now than I did when I was writing the book. “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” Do you know that? That’s Macbeth. So beautiful.
RB: You end a lot of chapters in Proust with dreams. You say, “all students of human nature take interest in dreams.” And you end this chapter with a dream that you explain to us. What a great way to end a book! And if you talk about dreams in reality, it can be very boring. But here, it works.
PR: That’s absolutely true. Here it’s a question of math and quantity.
RB: There’s this dream you recall about being in a brothel and having to make love to a woman. It’s not a sexual dream, but a dream about liking Jim Harrison’s book and wanting to write like a man.
PR: You know that made its way back to Jim Harrison? Do you know who he is? He’s the author of Legends of the Fall. He’s very, very good. And he’s very good at revenge. His stories are very tough. But this got back to him and he was tickled. In the sense that he was flattered.
RB: Let’s get back to your diaries. How open were you in them? Did you unabashedly write everything, or did you have in mind that someone might read them?
PR: When I read them now, the reason I’m embarrassed about them is their literary quality. They are playing to an audience in a way. It’s not that I censor myself, but I shape myself in a way that all writing involves. I don’t really like the person that I see in the diaries and I’m not sure that’s what I want to leave behind. Judy Blume, for example, had diaries like that, and she destroyed them. She didn’t think the world needed to know what she thought about her husband. I admire that so much, but I’m trying to work out my courage to do that.
RB: To destroy them?
PR: Yes. And I had a friend read them, Judith Thurman. She writes for the New Yorker and she wrote a biography of Colette and Isak Dinesen. So she read them and I was really hoping she would say something definitive, but she didn’t. She’s too nice.
RB: I would tell you not to destroy them.
PR: But I am a scholar and a biographer, and to me, personal materials like that are kind of sacred and that goes against my grain, very much, to destroy them. So there’s that on the one side, and there’s this “ugh, this is crap” on the other. If I thought they were like Boswell’s Life of Johnson I would definitely save them.
RB: Is the writing of diaries practice?
PR: God, yes. I think it’s the mark of the writer. You haven’t lived something until you’ve written it down. It’s an instinctive urge. Also, I think—I hope this doesn’t step on any of your toes—but I do think writing every day is really important. It’s a habit, and once you’ve lost it, it’s very hard to get it back. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what you write.
Actually, there’s a big interest now in lists. In the Schlesinger Library where I left all my papers, they did a whole show on lists. I think aside from pictures of Laurent, the most popular Instagram post I ever did was a list of things to do on my desk.I thought that anybody who talked to a writer would understand that it was material to the writer. That you don’t tell your story to a writer.
RB: You told me it was difficult for you not only to write, but to also receive the reception of The Year of Reading Proust, because this memoir is not just you, but also involves other people’s lives. What were the challenges of writing in this genre?
PR: When I wrote this I was incredibly naïve about these issues. I thought that anybody who talked to a writer would understand that it was material to the writer. That you don’t tell your story to a writer. So, the main problem was my brother-in-law, Thierry, the monk, who was miserable about this. I had to negotiate with him before the book was published. It’s complicated.
I wrote this whole book under the working assumption that nobody would read it. I think I feel that way about all my books. It’s funny that with a diary, I’m always aware of a reader, but with a book, I have to pretend that nobody’s going to read it. So it was shocking to me to hear people quote things from my books. But Thierry said to me “I’ve gone through such lengths to keep my story private, and to be betrayed by somebody in my own family is so upsetting….” For a year or more I walked around with this knot in my stomach.
Then it turns out, if you mention somebody, it’s always going to be the wrong way. So I describe my friend Cathy—I don’t know if I use her name—who’s a café society person and everybody loves her. She’s incredibly popular, very smart and witty, and she likes to shop. She was horrified. Is that all I am? Then, there’s my friend Wendy, to whom the book is dedicated, who was a very dear friend of mine for many years, but I don’t write about her at all in the book. She was furious, because she was left out. Am I of no interest whatsoever? So, you just cannot get it right.