Interview Double Digest Part I: Andrew Solomon

I have a happy problem this week: I have so many cool interviews in to share that it doesn't feel right to make everyone wait to read only one a week, so this week and next week I am running interviews Thursday AND Friday.

Today's (like the others, of course) is really something special to me. Andrew Solomon might be best known for his book The Noonday Demon, which I think is such an incredible book that I've gone on record saying that I'm using it as a resource for my thesis--but for people who have struggled with depression, either directly or indirectly, I'm sure it's had an even greater impact. He is also the author of a novel, A Stone Boat and most recently can be read in the anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: True Tales of Love, Lust, and Friendship Between Straight Women and Gay Men (which you should check out if only for the cover art.) There is much more to his biography but I'll let you read about it here.

The Andrew Solomon Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

You note in your essay "In Praise of Women" in "Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys" that some gay men do find women distasteful or hateful, which I've noticed (although not that often.) Do you think there tends to be an overarching reason why this is, in these cases?
I think the reason there is so much prejudice in the world is that people are afraid of difference, and I think that same mentality applies among gay men who are uncomfortable with women--that they represent something foreign and alien. It's as though gay femophobia is the counterpart to straight homophobia. I live in England part of the time, and you meet these men who went to boys' schools and lived in a male world and they don't like women very much, and I think it's probably best for everyone when they are gay rather than being cold or abusive husbands to women. Also, though, some of them feel that they have disappointed women, or that women disappoint them, and neither of those sensations is conducive to great intimacy.

You sound like you have a 'type' of ideal women: who are some of the most beautiful women in the world, to you?
To me, my closest friends are the most beautiful, really--my idea of beauty involves character as well as appearance. That being said, I don't think there's anyone alive today who is more beautiful than the young Catherine DeNeuve. Cliched but true!

Whether they're relatives, celebrities, authors, what have you, who, at this moment, are some of your very favorite women?
My three closest friends--Dana Cowin, who is the editor of Food and Wine, Alexandra Munroe, who is a curator at the Guggenheim, and Sue Macartney-Snape, who is a cartoonist in London. They all have an extraordinary gift for love and I think they see my heart more clearly than anyone else in the world. My sister-in-law, Sarah Long Solomon, who is the best mother in the world. Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen--all dead but my favorite woman writers. I love the voice of the opera singer Susan Graham, who is also a friend.

What have been some of the most difficult pieces of yours to write? I was wondering whether it was hard for you to fully get across some of what you're explaining in "In Praise of Women," and then I realized that maybe it was a cakewalk compared to The Noonday Demon, but then again, that might have been easier compared to something else...
The hardest thing I ever wrote was my novel, in that it was touching on the emotional complexities of my mother's illness and death. That being said, the depression writing was awfully hard too. People kept asking if it was cathartic to write about what I'd been through--they asked that after my novel too, which was semi-autobiographical. The answer is no; it's actually very unpleasant and stressful and sad to write about agony. But it's a great feeling after you've finished to feel that you've made something that is perhaps beautiful and helpful to people out of those experiences of loss and pain. So the hardest stuff to write is the best stuff to have written. But look--for my new book I've been interviewing rape victims in Rwanda. It's not my pain, but it's someone else's and it's pretty much impossible as well.

How did you decide to structure The Noonday Demon?
I always say that it took me three years to write the table of contents and then a much shorter time to write the whole book. Structure is for me always the most complicated thing to apprehend and requires the most forethought. I structured Noonday by delineating what seemed to me to be the key aspects of depression, and then trying to meld my own ideas, received wisdom, and the experiences of individual patients. The balances were very hard to achieve, but the hardest part was figuring out which themes warranted whole chapters and which themes were subsidiary, and to which other themes they were subsidiary. I like the number 12; I always have an even number of chapters in my books, so there's a bit of lunatic Palladian structuring that goes into the process too.

What was your method for writing it? It seems like it would be very difficult to successfully braid together the research, the personal story and the interviews (yet you do).
Oh, that's the hardest bit. People get worn out by a single position or voice, so they need to be mingled and mixed; on the other hand, I don't want to feel like it's that novelistic device of interrupting one story to tell another and then skipping back to the previous one. I try to avoid narrative chaos as much as possible. But it takes an endless process of association, to work out which bits are relevant to which bits and how they supplement each other and so on. It's sort of like doing the seating for a wedding, or like doing a large puzzle that is missing some pieces and has a few pieces from some other puzzle thrown in the box.

I have been turning to the book some as a guide for how to construct a project I'm working on: how did you decide to title it an "Atlas" as opposed to an exploration, or an almanac, or something like that?
I kept being asked, as I was working on it, to describe what I was doing, and I found myself more and more saying that I was mapping the world of depression. And this is what I wanted to do, to give people a way through by explaining everything about the illness, and all the ideas in relation to one another. It felt like a topographical exercise, and an "atlas" seemed like the best description for it.

You must have received a lot of feedback from readers after the book came out sharing their stories of depression with you. Was that ever difficult to handle?
Oh, God, yes, it was and remains difficult, because people think after they've read the book that they know me and that I will understand them and that all gets baroque sometimes. And some people are crazy and overbearing and won't leave me alone and send me too much information. But it has also been thrilling some of the time. Some people have reached out to me and become friends, and some have written beautifully about their own or about my experience. And one person wrote to me and said, "I was going to kill myself, but I read your book and changed my mind." And as you can imagine, that was one of the best days of my life, the day I got that note. Writing can be lonely, and knowing that youv'e touched actual people is fantastic. But yes, sometimes I feel like the sadness of the world is on my shoulders, and it can be hard to bear. And sometimes I go to a party and someone asks what I do and I explain and they start telling me about their woes, and I think, hey, it's a party--could we just have a drink and a laugh?

Did you receive any complaints from other depressed readers who accused you of maybe having an easier time of depression since you came from a family of means? Or for the most part did other depressives recognize that the illness feels just as bad whether you live in a mansion or a shack?
I had criticism and complaints from people who felt my depression had been eased by my financial means, and also who felt it had been eased by my having a very loving family and a lot of great friends. Both accusations are valid. It's harder for people who are impoverished; and it's much harder for people who are isolated. I had to write from my own experience, but I interviewed people who have a harder time financially--in fact, my book is one of the first to deal with depression among the indigent. And I talked to people who were struggling financially even if not indigent. And I certainly talked to people who didn't have the emotional supports I did. I think that having those supports was part of why I got to the point of being able to write a book about my experiences, part of what gave me the strength to do so. My depression was horrible and at some stages I wanted to die, but if we put that aside, I've been lucky, and it's made a huge difference.

Professionally, what's been the accomplishment you're proudest of to date?
I think of writing that book, and of having the awards that came with it, and of having it go into 24 languages. I love being translated; it feels like such a welcome form of attention. But I am also fiercely proud of my novel, A Stone Boat. It's flawed; it was written during a hard time in my life; I was youngish when I did it. But I put my soul on the page when I wrote it, and it was a great struggle, and I think there is a lot of struggle and a lot of beauty there. I hope eventually to write more fiction; I'm working on a comic novel now, though very slowly.

How do you schedule your writing, especially when you're working on subjects that vary as wildly as a comic novel and traumatic children?
I always seem to have multiple projects going and people always ask how I can do them all at once, but I find that my moods shift and change and that sometimes I'm in the mood to do one project and sometimes I'm in the mood to do another. At the moment, I'm doing the novel, the book on traumatic children, a PhD in psychology at Cambridge in attachment theory, and I'm also in the late stages of planning a wedding to my partner, which will take place next week (!!) in England, where it is legal for us to marry as I am a dual national. And I'm doing this interview too. I don't work on everything every day; I go through phases of doing one thing and phases of doing another and I move back and forth. I'm sorry to sound terribly artistic and self-indulgent, but it's really all intuitive. However, there are deadlines to meet for many of these projects, and so those often end up dictating what I work on when.

What inspired you to write your upcoming book A Dozen Kinds of Love: Raising Traumatic Children?
I wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine about ten years ago about the Deaf, and when I did it I was struck by the fact that most Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and that those parents often don't understand the Deaf culture and the Deaf world and that they often spend all their time trying to make their children fit into a hearing culture, often damaging them in the process. I wrote that it was rather similar to the situation of gay kids of straight parents. It spoke to me of my experiences and of the experiences of other people I know. Then a friend of a friend had a daughter who was a dwarf, and I saw that she was going through all the same processes as she struggled to figure out how to talk about dwarfism with her daughter. And I saw that it was a larger pattern--parents who perceived themselves to be normal with these children whom they found traumatizing. And in whom, in turn, they often induced trauma. But I'd say that the real origin of the piece is a gay sensibility.

You seem like you're filled with knowledge on a wide variety of topics. Do guests vie to sit next to you at dinner parties?
What a sweet question! Some guests vie to sit by me and others, I'm sure, vie to get as far away as possible. I think there's a modern belief that wisdom comes out of depth of knowledge and that we live in a time of hyper-specialization. And I think that wisdom comes out of depth married to breadth, and that people who know a lot about only one thing are mostly dull to be with on any very regular basis. I think my best quality is curiosity--I always want to know more about everything. And that's the quality that makes for a really good dinner party guest too.

Did being declared one of the sexiest New Yorkers by New York magazine do much to raise your cachet?
It certainly helped to repair any ego damage I was suffering at the time, and whenever I feeling especially paunchy or tired, I think back on that and it cheers me right up. I don't know that it's based in any reality, but it's a lovely thing to have said about you, esp. in print.

What's the secret to throwing a successful yet entertaining fundraiser?
I don't do so many fundraisers, but I think the secret is to do fundraising selectively and for causes that you really, really believe in from the bottom of your heart, and to convey that belief. You also need to invite people who have some natural sympathy for the cause. And you need to make people understand what the consequences of their giving are. If you can ensure that the party is a good time too, then you should be all set.

You seem to have many balls in the air: which recent project have you been enjoying work on the most lately?
Well, I've enjoyed planning our wedding the most, but I've also enjoyed the work on the new book, difficult though it sometimes is, because I like intensity, and meeting a family and asking them to tell you about having a child with Down Syndrome or a child who is a criminal is a very intense mode of interaction. It can be overwhelming, and the communications can be sorrowful, but the depth of emotion makes me feel alive, and the stories I'm looking at are ultimately of resilience and are therefore beautiful and joyous even when they are harrowing.

What movie or TV show do you watch when you need a stupid laugh?
I'm not a big movie or TV person--usually I call a friend when I need a stupid laugh. But I'll admit that I do have a secret addiction to reruns. I used to watch Mary Tyler Moore with my mother when I was a kid, and watching the old episodes somehow always makes me feel that the world is safe. And I think they're really incredibly funny, funny in a sweet way that isn't so much in evidence in contemporary TV.

How does it feel to be the 183rd person interviewed for

It's an altogether delightful feeling, and I hope that when my next book comes out, I'll get to be the 1183rd person (or thereabouts)--it's one of the best literary blogs out there and I hope you stick with it! We need people like you.

More interviews here!