INTERVIEW with Ariel Levy
EMMA ROBERTS: It was interesting that you said during your conversation with Emily [Nussbaum] that The Year of Magical Thinking is the bible on grief because the last time Karah and I met up and chased after a writer at an event, it was Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion at St. John the Divine…Early that day, I had been at a photo shoot and they were like, “You’re not going to make it to your book event,” and I started crying, and I said, “I have to see Joan!” And she [Karah] was waiting for me outside, and we ran in laughing. So tonight I was at Colbert and I ran here and met Karah outside, and it was a Joan moment…
ARIEL LEVY: I just think it is the coolest, best thing in the world that you’re putting your weight behind books. It just makes me so fucking happy, I can’t even tell you.
EMMA ROBERTS: We literally love books. I think that’s been the strongest part of our friendship. We met through mutual friends, and it was one of those things where people thought maybe we wouldn’t really become that close, but we ended up becoming really close because of…
KARAH PREISS: Books.
EMMA: … a love for reading and just wanting to learn more, read more and … she [Karah] really imposed such a reading list on me.
ARIEL: It’s such a gift to writers that you guys are like, instead of using the power of social media to sell a handbag…
KARAH: Tell her.
EMMA: You tell her!
KARAH: We said we want to do what Kylie Jenner has done to lip kits …
EMMA: … for books.
KARAH: For books.
EMMA: Well I know you said The Year of Magical Thinking obviously influenced you, but before, even when you were a teenager, what were some books that you remember that you fell in love with, or even just …
ARIEL: When I was a teenager I read some weird things. When I was in my early twenties, or when I was in college, I was super into Grace Paley, who I still love.
Grace Paley, was super important to me always. I think when I was right out of college, I was reading Jeannette Winterson…I think that may have also been when I first started reading Joan Didion, actually, like Slouching Towards Bethlehem. And also Janet Malcolm, who’s now my colleague, who I worship. I think probably the first thing I read of hers would’ve been The Journalist and the Murderer. But my favorite Janet Malcolm book is Two Lives, about Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.
When I was at Wesleyan, there was no core curriculum, and I was very committed to having a canonical education, so I took a lot of Greek mythology and Victorian literature. But then when I was out of school is when I got … I was really into short stories. I was really into reading short stories.
I particularly love American short stories. I think we’re good at that. I mean, not me, but other Americans who can make things up.
EMMA: I love short stories. Would you write short stories?
ARIEL: I can’t. I can’t think of things. I can only …
EMMA: I beg to differ after reading this book, I think you can …
ARIEL: I can only think of things …I can’t make things up.
EMMA: Did it ever cross your mind to maybe rework this book into a novel and not write it as a memoir, or was it …
ARIEL: I probably should’ve so I wouldn’t have hurt people’s feelings as much, but… no, I really think of myself as a nonfiction writer. I think that’s what I do. I’d feel like I was fronting if I was just like, “It’s a novel!”
EMMA: You’d maybe slip up in press, too.
ARIEL: Yeah, I can’t … I just am not, I don’t have it. Liz Strout told me that the way she writes is like a character comes to her, and she just sees it in her head and then she starts writing from that character’s point of view. And Zadie Smith told me not that, but something enough close to that, that I’m like, there’s a thing that is being a fiction writer, and it’s not what I’ve got. I’ve got a desire to see the things in front of me and write about them, and try to convince readers that that’s the world.
EMMA: Yeah. Well, it’s a gift. You do it really well.
KARAH: Very, very well.
ARIEL: How old are you guys?
KARAH: I’m 27, and you’re [pointing to Emma] 26 …
EMMA: I’m 19…
ARIEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KARAH: I was just wondering, from when you were 20 up until now, how much have you grappled with domesticity versus … your wild life?
ARIEL: A ton. A ton! … in my twenties and my early thirties, that’s all I thought about. I think I thought about all that stuff constantly, and I think that it’s very much a human conflict, the fundamental human conflict between the desire for adventure and novelty and excitement versus the desire for stability and intimacy and safety. That’s humanity … But I think it’s extra-complicated for women, because … I think that men have been able to have both without much trouble for generations. And it’s only recently that the world of adventure and being the protagonist in your own life is even available to us. So I think that this whole thing where people are like, “Can women have it all?” It’s like, well no one can have it all, but the reason we’re asking that about women is because, until recently, we didn’t get to leave the bloody house! So of course we weren’t out having adventures! Of course you didn’t grow up reading stories, other than Pippi Longstocking … it’s always a boy. You had to learn how to project yourself into the male protagonist because it would be boring to always identify with the female sidekick.
EMMA: Well, I think also it feels like it’s being asked more and more now because …the question is allowed to be asked louder, which is a good thing.
ARIEL: I think that is a good thing, and I also think it’s not untrue that being a mother is demanding in ways that are unique. Physically, for one thing. I mean, I think that pregnancy, breastfeeding, all the stuff that you have to do as a female animal as opposed to a male animal when you have an offspring, it’s a different project, and it is … just because I can’t have children doesn’t mean that you have to pick between being an adventurer and being a mother… all those women I was just talking about. Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, many of my colleagues- … they all have kids. They’ve all managed to do both. It just didn’t work out for me. And that blows! That’s a sad thing. And now I have so much extra maternal energy that I have an almost inappropriate reaction to younger women. Like, I’m like, “I want to raise you.” I have a lot of extra maternal energy.
EMMA: … you have hands that are … like when you were talking up onstage, I was like …
ARIEL: I have the hands of a Muppet, it’s true.
EMMA: No, very … comforting.
EMMA: When did you realize the title of this…
ARIEL: The initial title I had in my mind was: To the Blue Sky and Back, because it was like, “to the blue sky and back adventure,” but also the hotel in Mongolia was called the Blue Sky.
EMMA: I love any reference to Blue. Bluets by Maggie Nelson is …
ARIEL: Oh, it’s a beautiful book.
EMMA: … the Rebecca Solnit Field Guide to Getting Lost, she talks about “the blue…”
ARIEL: And Joan Didion has Blue Nights.
EMMA: Blue Nights. My eye starts twitching when I think about Blue Nights, literally.
ARIEL: But my editor convinced me, and I think she was right. She was like, “It sounds too dreamy…” Don’t call it that. It’s too dreamy.“ And I thought it was like, it should have a more aggressive title.
EMMA: I also like it because The Rules Do Not Apply to some… that is actually a positive thing sometimes, like the rules don’t apply to you, so it’s kind of … it’s a little ironic at times, obviously in this [book].
ARIEL: It’s both. That’s what I always look for with New Yorker profiles. I’m always trying to write about women who, like Edith Windsor, or Diana Nyad who swam from Cuba to Florida when she was 64 years old, just who are like … "I’m just not going to be constrained by society’s definition of women or the expectations of my gender.” So I think it’s a very positive thing. I mean, I don’t think we’d have many of the advances we’ve had. You wouldn’t have gay marriage, for example, if someone hadn’t been like, “No, that’s a bad rule. I’m not following it.” But it’s also the case that once you’re like, “I’m free to do anything I want,” you can get into the delusion that you have the power to do everything you want and that you can control things. Your life.
KARAH: Well, I was going to ask you a follow-up about visionaries being narcissists, do you think that’s …
ARIEL: No. No! I don’t think visionaries are narcissists, I think that it just happens to be the case that the Venn diagram of narcissism and the Venn diagram of visionaries intersects, and that they think the rules don’t apply. So like Donald Trump doesn’t think the rules apply to him, right? He doesn’t have to tell the truth, disclose his taxes, have a press co-, he doesn’t have to do anything a normal president has to do. That’s bad. That’s narcissism.
But it’s also true that Hillary Clinton thought the rules didn’t apply. She was like, “I’m going to be the first woman president.” So it’s both a liberating, exciting, fantastic way to look at the world, and has the potential to be a perspective where you don’t realize that there are limits to every life.
EMMA: I love the Lamar Van Dyke quote, you quote her in saying, where she’s like, “We weren’t all looking at our screens, we were actually doing stuff …”
I love that because I feel like, as much as I’m a part of social media and I like social media, and even starting this book club, social media is a huge part of it and we get that, but there is a love-hate relationship with it of when to step away and when …
ARIEL: When to be in the world and when to be …
EMMA: Exactly. So I was just wondering what your relationship is with social media and with your phone in general, and especially being a journalist…
ARIEL: Well I use the recorder like you guys do a lot, so it’s become important, like I always have it.
EMMA: So what is your relationship with social media?
ARIEL: Really, really glad you guys are helping me with it, because … I don’t quite get it.
EMMA: Honestly, I feel like I was so ahead of everything being a millennial, and now everyone who was a toddler is now a teenager, and so they know more than me, and now I’m the person that doesn’t know anything. My sister’s 16, so I’m like … so now I’m the idiot. I was the genius, now I’m the idiot. You know how it goes.
ARIEL: I know exactly. I read you say how you always like the book itself.
EMMA: People make fun of me on trips because I’ll bring a tote bag to the beach of all these books, and they’re like, “Put it on your iPad!” and I’m like, “No, I want to see what I’m reading, I want to look at my … I want to see it all, and I want to have my notes.” Also, how many times have I gotten on a plane with one of my stupid friends whose iPad’s dead, and I’m like, “Hm! I guess you’re going to be bored the whole flight.”
That’s a diss, by the way. That’s my version of a diss. “Your iPad died, loser, you don’t have a hard copy.”
ARIEL: That’s tough stuff. You pack a punch.
EMMA: Anyway. Karah?
KARAH: … in the book, there’s a line, I think basically where you had decided to have a child, and you said, “I decided that I no longer wanted to be ruled by wanderlust” and I don’t know if this is because I’m neurotic, but I wonder, had you not been ruled by other things … and I know maybe you were taking creative license … but had you not been ruled by other things before that, and what are you ruled by now? As you’ve said, you know you’re not going to have a child. What are the things that rule your life?
ARIEL: The upside of having my whole life fall apart at such a speed that I was like, "The fuck is going to happen next? Is my apartment going to crumble?” I was just like, “This is getting ridiculous!” You know? The upside of that is that it left me like, “All right, I guess I’m just going to surrender to what happens.” And because of that, I was able to be like, “I guess I’m going to keep emailing with this dude who is a doctor in Mongolia who lives in South Africa,” and then eventually like, “All right. I guess we’re in love!” Like, “All right, I guess I’m going to spend half my time riding horses in the mountains in South Africa.” I didn’t see that coming.
So now it’s like, I would say I’m a lot more open to whatever’s coming my way, but also the thing that I was always ruled by was writing. That was always the A #1 priority and it still … it’s writing and … the nice thing about my relationship with the person I’m about to marry is that he’s got a lot of wanderlust too. It’s not for nothing that we met in Mongolia, and we’re back and forth between New York and South Africa and wherever, and it’s like we can take this home that is each other on the road.
My dream as a kid was always to be in a gypsy caravan, and I think you [looking at Emma] know where I got that idea.
EMMA: “Emma Rose”
KARAH: I just want to say to people, I want to say to girls [grabbing The Rules Do Not Apply], I want to just be like, “Just go read this in the fucking corner and come back and talk to me.”
ARIEL: Well I wish you would do that.
EMMA: Well we’re going to.
KARAH: We’re going to do that.
EMMA: I just want to show you something really quick. So last night I was deep … I was watching interview after interview with you and reading all your articles just so I was prepared … … and then I was like Who did say you can have it all?“
ARIEL: Well, who did?
EMMA: [Showing Ariel phone screen] "You are not connected to the internet.” That’s what came up! I typed it in, I said, “Who said you can have it all?” and my browser, it said, “You are not connected to the internet!” I was like … yeah, I was like, "That’s the answer. You are not connected to internet.”
ARIEL: Well there it is.