Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of journalistic non-fiction books, including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Her latest book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything [Twelve, $26.00] publishes this month.
What is the first book you remember reading?
It was an adventure-at-sea book by Howard Pease, and I must have been eight or nine. The good guys are trying to ship supplies past the Japanese to occupied China. There are storms and traitors sneaking around on board – or something like that. What a relief from the sappy “girls’” books I was accustomed to! In fact, I suspect that the absence of girls and women in Pease’s world was part of the attraction: Without female characters, the entire issue of sexism, of the inherent inferiority of females, was abolished or at least pushed so far to the side as to be unnoticeable, and I was free to identify with the boys. I still tend to favor male-centered outdoor adventures – like, for example, Wade Davis’s Into the Silence, about British Mt. Everest expeditions in the 1920s – but of course now we have Katniss.
What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
I didn’t want to be an author, I wanted to be a scientist. Not that I didn’t love literature, but I couldn’t distinguish it from reading, and reading was already my default activity, almost like breathing. I read all the time, even propping up a book to read while I was washing dishes or setting my hair, which was still obligatory in those ancient days. Science and math were different because you have to approach them with at least a pencil in hand. You have to participate; you have to agonize over problem sets. So I went into science, ending up with a Ph.D. in cell biology, but along the way I found out that experimental science involves many hours and days and nights of laboratory work, which is a lot like washing dishes, only a little more challenging. I was too impatient, and maybe a little too sloppy, for it. I finally decided that someone else would have to do the lab work and gather up the results. All I wanted to do was read about what they’d discovered.
What is your most prized possession?
You think I’m going to say my books, right? No, in my living space, books are clutter. I trip on them when I step in the door; they fill all available shelves and then start growing up from the floor like stalagmites; they have established beachhead on the kitchen counter and in the passenger seat of my care. I don’t buy them very often any more. They just come to me, generally unbidden, from friends or eager publicists. I know that the last thing a book wants is to just sit around unread, serving as an element of interior decorating. So when I have people over, all they have to do is glance at my books and I implore them to take a few home with them. If I am really ambitious, I pack books into boxes and donate them to prisons.
What's the best thing about being a writer?
The best thing is that you get to work at home wearing anything you want – in my case a cross between gym clothes and pajamas. But the worst things should also be mentioned: One, there is less and less pay, meaning you should probably have a day job. Two, this is a totally bipolar lifestyle. I routinely oscillate between exultation and despair. Maybe at the end of the day I feel pretty good about what I’ve written, but the next morning I see that it’s crap. Then I start again – make a new outline, do some more research, try to rethink the whole question. When I’ve taught writing – essay writing at a J-school – I’ve always told my students that if they want to be writers, they should be prepared to suffer.
What is the first book you truly loved?
Probably something by Joseph Conrad, which may, in my case, may have been an outgrowth of Howard Pease’s sea stories. Or Crime and Punishment, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Anything to levitate me out of my otherwise banal adolescent existence. Don’t expect me to live hour after hour in the “real” world. I have to have escape hatches into other minds and worlds. This one is never enough.