Solitude vs. Sociability: David Means and Candace Bushnell
on Being Alone and Making Connections
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, acclaimed fiction writer David Means and Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell share their experiences with solitude and sociability in quarantine. Means, author of the recent short story collection Instructions for a Funeral, talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how writers use solitude to their advantage. Bushnell discusses the crucial role social life and friendship plays in Sex and the City and in the lives of New Yorkers. She also speaks about her new novel Rules for Being a Girl.
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Selected readings for the episode:
I See the World by Jamaica Kincaid, Paris Review Daily · On Isolation and Literature, The Millions · William Carlos Williams · Katie Cotugno · Anna Karenina · Edith Wharton · Jane Austen · Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa · Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid · Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay · We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ·
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
With David Means
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s not just stay-at-home orders that are making us think about solitude and isolation during the pandemic. When William Carlos Williams was a doctor, he wrote really well about and had firsthand knowledge of death. And given that, at this point, more than 61,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, I think people are thinking about death and the solitude of death more than usual.
David Means: I was thinking quarantine is a different kind of solitude. It’s not the same as the kind of solitude that you go out and seek and find, and then you’re going to counterpoint that solitude with going out to dinner, or maybe in a week you’re going to have a wedding. This is a totally different kind of solitude that we’re in right now. I live sort of in one of the red hot centers here, not too far from New York. I like to think that it’s reminding us of death in a good way and reminding us that we have a narrative, that we’re living a story that’s going to end and as soon as you’re aware that your life is going to end, you start to think of your life in narrative terms. What have I done? Who have I talked to? Who haven’t I talked to? How long am I going to live? Am I going to live? This is reawakening some internal narrative that we all have. Death isn’t a thing. It’s a force that reminds us how to be alive.
Whitney Terrell: You talked about this in the very beginning of Instructions for a Funeral, where you talk about the void of eternity. It seems to me, in that essay “Confessions” that opens the book, you’re talking about how the need to push back against that, or at least an awareness of that void that awaits all of us, is a reason that you want to write stories in the first place. Could you talk a little bit about that?
DM: There has to be this sense when you’re writing a story that you’re trying to catch something that, if you don’t catch it, it won’t be caught. If you don’t tell the story, it’ll disappear into the void where all the other stories go that aren’t told. So, for me, I feel like I have to feel this certain desperation. I got to capture that story. And if I don’t do it, it’s never going to get told. That ties in with the awareness of the fact that all stories terminate; all stories end.
VVG: What you were saying before about being alive and this reminding us of death, I was thinking about an essay that Jamaica Kincaid published in the Paris Review daily yesterday. I just want to read this little snippet of it, because what you said reminded me so strongly of the line that struck me the most as I read it: “I am alive in the time of the dead, the time of the dead being the time in which to be alive is a form of being dead, we are dead right now for we cannot be all our ways that are ways of being alive that is familiar.”
This is her pandemic take and I was like, Oh, God.
VVG: Speaking of the dead, when we research our guests, we like to look at their Instagram accounts, and yours tells me that you’ve been hanging out at a cemetery. And that is the cemetery with Edward Hopper’s grave, and he is, of course, almost synonymous with that vein of American art that contemplates solitude and aloneness. And it’s not just in that painting. It’s really in I think everything he did. And I’m assuming you’re a Hopper fan.
DM: I am. I hike up to this Oak Hill Cemetery. One thing I want to add is my next door neighbor that’s not too far from me now, maybe 50 yards away, he’s a nurse at the emergency room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the city. So he goes in and out and deals with this incredible trauma. I talk to him a little bit. But I hike up to this Oak Hill Cemetery not too far from my house. Edward Hopper’s buried there, Carson McCullers is there, C. Wright Mills is there. When I’m up there, there’s a really nice little spot, it’s sort of a little memorial to Civil War soldiers. And I just sit there with a book. No one’s up there. No one wants to be near a cemetery. It’s actually on this beautiful hill that looks over the Hudson, and it’s right above the hospital. So down below is the hospital world, all the ambulances are coming in and out. When I go up there, I walk and think, and I was thinking how visiting the dead is not a morbid thing. Thinking about the dead is not a morbid thing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not like I’m some kind of horrifically morbid person. And when I go up there, I finally feel like myself. I haven’t felt like myself much. Do you know what I mean? That feeling when you go out and you’re somewhere away from home and you put on a certain coat and you put on a certain hat and you feel like you’re actually an interesting person or something. And when I’m up there, I feel like I feel like, okay, I’m okay.
WT: Speaking of solitude, and artists who are interested in solitude, like you, you have this amazing story in your collection that posits this connection between Raymond Carver and Kurt Cobain, who were associated with solitude and loneliness.
That story and your post about Hopper made me think about the role that solitude has played in American art, generally, I thought of Grant Wood or Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and in writing there’s Thoreau, Annie Dillard, or Ralph Ellison, because I think of
DM: I do. I mean, I remember sitting in the backyard in a lawn chair, staring up at the sky and feeling like I was in the very center of this immense country. And of course, I wasn’t, but I felt that way. And I feel that way when I’m out west, too, that I’m in the middle of something really big. I think it has to do a little bit with this sense of isolation that you get in the United States, that you’re a part of some destiny. It probably ties in with the Constitution or something. You’re part of this vast experiment that’s going on. I feel like when you’re alone in America, you’re alone in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s really true, but I feel like you are because you’re alone with a certain history. You’re alone with Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks. I just have the sense that being alone here in this vast continent is a little bit different than being alone in Italy or on the southern shore of Spain.
With Candace Bushnell
VVG: When we said you were going to be on the show, several of our readers wrote in or talked to me and said they really wanted to know what Carrie Bradshaw would do during quarantine. And so I wonder what you can tell us about how she would handle it.
Candace Bushnell: You know, here’s the reality. I don’t know what Carrie Bradshaw would do during quarantine. I know what Candace Bushnell would do. But what’s interesting is there’s so many of these parody things on Instagram and online and every day I see somebody is writing what Carrie Bradshaw is doing in quarantine and of course they’re all written by 20-somethings. It’s like guys, Carrie Bradshaw is in her mid-50s at least. Okay? She’s probably trying to figure out how to Zoom.
VVG: I can’t imagine maintaining my current sweatpants aesthetic in New York City, which is, of course, I think the place that’s most strongly associated with you and with your work because of Sex and the City and all of the books that have followed. It’s often like a character in itself. I lived in New York between 2006 and 2009. I lived in a tiny place with two roommates in Morningside Heights. I was paying kind of through the nose to live in a basement and I justified it to myself, that I got to go out and experience one of the best cities in the world. And now that’s not possible. So what do you think it’s like for New Yorkers to be quarantined to that very particular structure of the city with those comparatively small and expensive living spaces and locked away from what New York is known best for: its large, vibrant communal spaces and social life.
CB: I haven’t been in the city because I actually went on a trip. And then I came back, I came out here and then it was starting to hit here. So my friends and I decided that we were already going to start social distancing. So I’ve actually been doing this for eight weeks.
VVG: Oh, wow. Okay, so you were ahead.
CB: Yes, we went to Thailand. There was so much news about it, so we were super aware, we’d already been wearing masks for two weeks when I got back. Like we knew, kind of what was coming. My friend is there. I think it’s really hard. I mean, the reality is, I would say, probably 50 percent of the people I know who live in the city full-time have gotten the virus. I mean, I can name 30 people. So, it’s scary to be there. But I also think you know, it’s about community, too. And New York has always been a place of neighborhoods and communities. When I lived downtown, on 9th Street, I mean, the stores that have been there have been there for 30 years. I have moved in and out of that area a couple of times, and all the stores are the same, the people are the same. So there is that real sense of community in New York, which I think is good.
WT: I mean, that’s one of the reasons that we wanted to talk to you for this particular episode, which is about sort of solitude and sociability. And these two poles in the way people are dealing with the pandemic, but also in American art. There’s a lot of romance in your work, obviously, but also you write a lot about friendship, and the sociability of friendship. I really love that section in
CB: Yes. To me, the reason for that is because New York is a place that people traditionally leave their small towns to go to the big city and one of the reasons why they leave their small towns is they feel like they don’t fit in. They feel like they’re a little bit different, they have something different to offer. You know, they have a different perspective, they have a different sexuality, and then they come to New York. And that’s really where you find that experience of like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not alone in the world. And here are other people who are like me.’ And those bonds, those friendship bonds are really what get people through living in New York. In a lot of ways, those friendship bonds are more important than family bonds, because a lot of people have the experience of, ‘Oh, I’m the one person in my family who’s different, and nobody else in my family understands what I do.’ So that makes these friendships that much more important and stronger because they really are about these people understanding each other.
WT: Your new book is set at a high school and navigates that world in a very interesting and complicated way. I wonder if you could talk about how you ended up deciding to write it and how you ended up writing with another writer, speaking of being sociable.
CB: Well, that really came about because I did The Carrie Diaries and Summer in the City for my editor, Alessandra Balzer, who I love, and I love working with her. So I had a contract for another book. And it was like one of those things where I had the contract for, I don’t know, it was like going on three years, and then people are like, ‘We need our book!’ It really came about brainstorming and batting around ideas. I’d read a lot of her authors and Katie Cotugno is one, and I love Katie’s books. So we would talk and then Alessandra got the idea, maybe you guys can write this book together. And it went really well, and it was fun. We met up a couple times to talk and go over things. It’s a lot like TV writing where you have an outline, and then you split it up, somebody does this and somebody does that part. It’s always great to get other people’s perspective on things when you’re writing. Because usually when you’re writing, you’ve got to basically be the editor and you’re going to second guess yourself. So there’s something good about working with someone else where you can bounce ideas.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Jared McCormack, Bethany Graham, Montana Patrick, Summer Collins and Eva June Narber. Photo of David Means by Geneve Patterson-Means. Photo of Candace Bushnell by Anna Maguire.