Last flashback: Tama Janowitz on the line from New York. Her collection Slaves of New York was published in 1986. The movie came out in 1989 and was generally panned, as was Janowitz's next book, A Cannibal in Manhattan, the subject of which she hints at towards the end of the interview. I don't know how critics rate Slaves of New York nowadays but you can find traces of its DNA in everything from Sex And The City to Girls.New York, New York, city of dreams. Where the streets are paved with gold and the Velvet Underground were invented. Where King Kong climbed the Empire State and where the editor of Vanity Fair gets a $20,000 clothing allowance. Where Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe worked and died. Where Def Jam was born. Where the stars go for lunch. Where art dealers live like rock stars. How are things in New York, Tama?
She had the most wonderful voice. Think Janice in Friends.
Wow! No kidding?
Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York chronicles the city's urban sprawl in 22 short stories. It's her second publication (the first was the lauded but less sensational novel American Dad) and the subject and timing has captured the popular imagination. At its weakest the collection is a thin pastiche of Damon Runyon; at its best it's an amphetamine-paced chronicle of the art world that Robert Hughes loves to hate.
"I just went to New York and hung out and went home and wrote about it," Tama drawls. "I didn't see anybody else writing about this world. It was at a time when the art scene was like the rock n' roll scene. I didn't know anybody, but I could go to a gallery opening and someone would give me a glass of wine and somebody else would say, 'Do you like the paintings?' and 'There's a party on later tonight...' I mean I wasn't writing non-fiction, but I was trying to record some of the situations and problems that were occurring at that particular time and place.''
The stories first appeared in various publications, including the New Yorker. And one day Andy Warhol was leafing through a copy of the New Yorker and...
"Warhol first bought five of the stories from me to make into a movie, so I did a screenplay for him. After his death it turned out that Merchant lvory had been reading my work and they'd been interested in it for some time, so after Warhol's death they found out that my stories were available and they brought them from the [Warhol] Foundation."
Which is how the movie of Slaves Of New York came to be. Janowitz wrote the screenplay, Bernadette Peters played the central character / narrator Eleanor, and the film was produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory.
Merchant and Ivory are the hard-nosed and starry-eyed guys who brought you Heat And Dust, Maurice and A Room With A View. They're the sort of films in which Julian Sands and Anthony Andrews ride bicycles around English colonial settlements and Helena Bonham-Carter frets over her virginity. Was Janowitz concerned that the makers of such films would miss the In Your Face style of modern New York?
"No. Merchant Ivory have been making films for 20 years, many of which have been set in social settings, and I thought in any event that if they could get down the Boston of Henry James and Edwardian England, then certainly that had to be more difficult than modern New York, which was standing right there in front of us. So I never had any qualms -- their work has always been about social mores and behaviour and rules at society and etiquette, and that was what I was interested in too."
On paper the Slaves Of New York are willing victims of the inner-city in-crowd, the Manhattan art-world madness that packs galleries and covers canvasses with some of history's most meagre scrawl. The art scene in New York has always been hyped but the 80s have seen it attain new levels of raging bullshit. Publicity-hungry painters like Jean Michel-Basquiat and Julian Schnabel make Madonna look like a hermit. The movie makes this point not without sympathy, but when it screened in New York the reaction was not good. The Emperor was naked, and in Cinemascope.
"They hated it," Janowitz says, her voice starting to whine. "They hated the whole thing. They said it was undermining the fabric of American society, and that Tri-Star was an evil company for making the film, and that Bernadette Peters was too old. Just one thing after the other. They went crazy.
"I don't think they liked New York being made fun of. They were angry that I got a lot of attention and they were angry that Merchant Ivory were doing something other than Henry James or E.M. Forster."
You'd think that New York could handle a media version of itself.
'They're like sharks here, they gang up on things. It was like the Ayatollah saying, 'Kill Salman Rushdie.'
"I'm not sure that the movie was sympathetic, or that the book was. To me, this is the way the city is. I don't think the people in it are all bad, or all good; I don't think they're all creative geniuses, or they're all hustling, ambitious people -- this is the way people are acting at this particular time at this particular place on the planet.'
New York definitely has its own folklore.
"Well, they come here from all over the place, from Holland and Germany and New Zealand, and they all think that they're gonna make it somehow. There are an awful lot of people here vying for attention -- and there are not many people willing to give any attention."
Which is something you capture -- the spectacle of intelligent people spending their lives trying to shout each other down.
"There are people living on the streets here -- I can't imagine Calcutta being much worse. These men are living in the park, sitting on lawn chairs with furniture, everything. People come from all over and they get stuck here, like on flypaper."
The premise of the title story is that apartments are so hard to get in the city that you end up being a slave to the leaseholder -- is that still the case?
"There are more apartments around now. Do you have a lot of apartments in New Zealand?"
Some. New Zealand's a place with not many people in it.
"That must be nice. My father wanted to emigrate there. You probably have good fishing."
Yes. Do you like fishing?
"No. But if I moved to New Zealand... I could take it up."
You had a cameo role in the film. Did you enjoy it?
"I didn't care for that too much. I couldn't remember my lines. It took me like three days to memorise them and it was agony. You have to say them over and over again and you have to get your face to make the same expression. But what the hell do you look like it you say 'Hi there, how are you?' I don't know how your face is meant to look to match that expression. I mean how do you look when you say something like 'Well I'm used to Roger cooking for me, would I have to cook for Bruce?' Am I smiling at that point or what? I dunno."
Playwriting, not prose, was Janowitz's main interest after leaving college. She is currently working on a new play for a Louisville theatre company ("Right now there are 12 players, but some may die") and reading the work of other playwrights to get ideas.
"I'm reading Joe Orton and some Pinter and Sam Shepherd and Beckett. And I like George Orwell and Nabokov and Saul Bellow. It depends on what style I need. I read Marquez for his style. I read a lot of true crime books. And I like to read News Of The World."
News Of The World -- that's the classy one, isn't it?
"It's a little different over here. It has a lot at stories about Siamese twins and women impregnated by aliens."
Is that a source of ideas?
"It makes you kind of ashamed, because if those things aren't true then somebody out there has a fantastic imagination. If they are true then all the better. If they are true, then why bother to write anything at all?"