Benjamin Moser
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Benjamin Moser: “What is too much experience?”

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Short Profile

Name: Benjamin Moser
DOB: 14 September 1976
Place of birth: Houston, Texas, United States
Occupation: Author

Benjamin Moser's latest book, Sontag: Her Life and Work, is out now via Harper Collins.

Mr. Moser, you grew up in the bookstore your mother ran in Texas. Did that predispose you to a future career as a Pulitzer Prize winning writer?

I think that if your father is a dentist, there's a higher chance that you're going to become a dentist... I grew up around people who are interested in books — but I didn't always want to be a writer. I always loved books, but that didn't necessarily mean that I was going to do that. If you come from a book-selling background, you work with books, but you don't really see how they get written. I think that process is something that happened when I was a little bit older, in my early twenties, when I discovered two writers that really made me want to write: Clarice Lispector and V. S. Naipaul.

What was it about reading them that inspired you to become a writer yourself?

Both gave me an idea of the nobility of the writer, the possibilities that a writer had for expression and for a role in society. I discovered Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector in my Portuguese class in college and I was totally ravished by her. I still never really got over her, and it’s been 25 years! Her writing has an incredibly powerful and aesthetic influence on me. And V. S. Naipaul had an idea of the elevation of the writer as well as the duty of the writer to society and to self that I hadn't really encountered before, to that degree. Both of them are extremely intimidating writers, which I think can be dangerous if you start out in your early twenties.

“When you start out as a writer, you think that certain things are going to be really hard, but those are the things that often turn out to be not that hard.”

Because you’d think, “I could never write something this good?”

Exactly. But then you find your own path: that's part of the process of beginning to write, just trying to figure out what's your voice? And what do you have to contribute?

So where did you start?

Well, V.S. Naipaul’s style is so clear and so perfect that I thought this is a place to start as a writer, just trying to write a few clear sentences. Of course, once you start writing you realize how very difficult that is. It's much harder to write clearly and cleanly than to write complicated and fancy, right? Especially when you come out of an academic background like I did, you’re used to writing about things that are often deliberately complicated.

Or even pretentious...

(Laughs) Right. Thomas Mann has a famous quote, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” And it only becomes harder as you get better at it. When you start out as a writer, you think that certain things are going to be really hard, but those are the things that often turn out to be not that hard.

What are some of the things you expected to be harder than they actually were?

Well, I can give you one example from the practical side of things: financially. That's the thing that everybody warns you about. I mean, I don't think you get rich as writer — I certainly haven't — but it turns out there’s actually quite a lot you can do as a writer to earn a living. It might not all be writing, but you can do journalism, you can do interviews, you can do teaching… You don't have to be poor as a writer. It's this kind of practical stuff that people should emphasize in a world where there's a lot of emphasis placed on “professionalism.” I think that’s very dangerous. Most artists have not really been professional in that way, they do things because they want to, not because they have to.

When you started writing your first book, the biography of Clarice Lispector, there was actually very little interest from publishers, right?

Absolutely. I mean, when I discovered Clarice she was totally unknown in my language, and in fact, in any language outside of her own, where she is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. And I thought, “You know what? I am convinced that if I show this person to people, there are enough people like me out there who do care about art, books, theater, music and painting, and those people are going to love this!” So I spent many years on that book with no publisher, with no contract, just writing it whenever I could, traveling to Brazil whenever I could, sleeping on people's sofas, just doing it as cheaply as I could and as well as I could. And to my astonishment, it worked, and people loved it. And everybody who read the biography, then wanted to read her work — the same thing happened when I wrote about Susan Sontag.

“It's one of the things that I think demands a certain maturity of a biographer, just be able to not over-identify.”

It seems like that also became a deeply emotional project for you.

Absolutely. You get very much involved with the person, it is like a marriage in a way: you don't know the person very well when you get married, compared to how well you know the person 20 years later. For instance, it took seven years to write Sontag: Her Life and Work, but it felt like the amount of time I needed — or that she needed. There's an astonishing amount of detail and presence that comes out, it starts to haunt you. Every day you're with that person. I'm not trying to say it's haunting like a ghost, but she is talking to you through her writing, through her books, through her letters. It's a journey. It's a wonderful way to get to know not only a body of work, but a person.

How do you experience your subject’s journey as you write about it?

Well, in a biography, you know what's going to happen. And as a writer, you are on that person's side, and as a result there’s things that are difficult to write about. In the case of Susan Sontag, it was the broken relationships. You know that if she starts dating somebody, it's going to end badly because you can see into the future, and so you're always thinking, “Oh, no, don't do that, God, that woman is horrible to you!” That's really frustrating, because you see people making mistakes and becoming unhappy, and you can't do anything about it. But because you care about the person, you want it to end up better and you know it's not going to. That's very hard.

Does your subjectivity influence how you write about these people?

Well, it's very easy to judge other people's parents, partners, children — people do this all the time! It's very human. And sometimes we're right, and sometimes we're not right, but regardless, these relationships are different to the people who are actually in them. It doesn't really matter what I think about it, it matters what she thinks about it. It's one of the things that I think demands a certain maturity of a biographer, just be able to not over-identify. You have to realize that these are different people, and what they want is not the same thing that you want.

But at the same time, you also don’t want to deny your own subjectivity.

Right. People do that often in biographies and in historical works. But as a biographer, I'm not trying to disguise my self in my books. I mean, I have opinions that are my opinions and I don’t try to pretend they’re not there. Because that’d be very dishonest. But I also don't want to impose my opinions on other people's lives. I think I do try to put my own voice in there, especially as a critic. So when I'm reading Sontag’s works, for instance, I'm not quoting 50 other people's opinions of her works. I’m telling you what I think about her work.

After all, people read all 800 pages of a biography because they are seduced not only by the subject, but by the author and the writing style itself.

In a sense it’s like with paintings: if you look at a painting of a horse, it's not necessarily because you love horses, it's probably because you're interested in the painter or the style. So it ultimately always comes down to the sensibility of the author of the book. Sometimes people don't like my sensibility, and that's okay. I think that if you're trying to appeal to everybody, you usually end up appealing to nobody.

“I’m certainly a monk and always have to be in order to write books like these. There’s no other way to do it!”

As a writer writing about writers, have you found a running theme in the life stories you’ve researched?

Actually, one of the really interesting things is learning that everybody fucks it up in a certain way! Everybody goes too far. Every writer is somebody who is, by definition, somebody with appetite. Writers are very greedy in a way, writers want a lot of experience, they want to live very intensely. Writers, artists in general, are people for whom the volume is always a little bit too loud. Clarice Lispector said that being an artist is so hard and so crazy, that you have to have a certain degree of middle-class comfort. And I think that's very, very true! With Sontag, you see how her desire for more experience, more books, more films, more dance, for more opera, more sex, would knock her off her writing. I'm always thinking about this: What is too much? What is too much experience and what's too little experience? Because you don’t want to read a writer that has no experience.

Have you found an answer to that?

I don't know if anybody really found the right answer. Because on the other hand, writers are people who also like being by themselves often, locking themselves into a room, working on something for years — writers are often monks. I'm certainly a monk and always have to be in order to write books like these. There's no other way to do it! But that’s the contribution I can make: trying to be somebody who's a little bit more calm. I sort of want to be boring a little bit; I want to be tedious and write something that demands something of the reader. The ongoing work of 20 years of my life, maybe it's not going to change the world... But it's something that I think is worthwhile.