Erica Jong talks sex at 73

“Let’s start with the word ‘f—,’ ” was how a recent Writers Bloc event with author Erica Jong began. A word unprintable in so many publications, and yet, preceded by the word “zipless,” can be attributed only to the author who coined the term — a reference to casual, unencumbered sex — in her 1973 novel, “Fear of Flying.” 

The book’s success quickly made Jong, then only 31, the most notorious female writer in America. Her candid tale about a young woman’s quest for sex and adventure became an instant best-seller, setting off vigorous debate about the lives of sexually liberated women. It also turned Jong into a kind of feminist icon. Long before “Sex and the City” portrayed modern, independent women who were unashamed of their raging libidos, “Fear of Flying” and its young author introduced America to the reality of female lust.

More than four decades later, Jong, now 73, is still pushing cultural boundaries. (And not just because she continues to wear high heels and short, leggy dresses, as she did at the Writers Bloc event.) Her latest book, “Fear of Dying,” is being described as the “spiritual sequel” to her first, and is the last in a trilogy of age markers that also includes Jong’s midlife-crisis memoir, “Fear of Fifty.” Once again, Jong is offering her readers a rare portrait: a female sexagenarian who still wants it.  

Rest assured for those 60 and older, Jong told her L.A. audience, that sex at 70 is “changed,” but passion is still possible.

Now a grandmother, Jong remains best known for “Fear of Flying,” a cultural totem that has sold more than 27 million copies. For better or worse, it has also overshadowed much of her later literary output — which includes novels such as “Shylock’s Daughter,” about the Jews of Venice, Italy, as well as several books of poetry. The shock factor inherent to her storytelling has, perhaps unfairly, muted critical recognition of her erudition: Jong graduated from Barnard College and earned a master’s in 18th-century English literature from Columbia University; her novels are laden with literary allusions and references. 

Still, the monopoly on her legacy hasn’t stopped Jong from continuing to produce work that addresses major life passages, filtered through the prism of her own experience. She continues to expose her readers to what really goes on in a woman’s head, normalizing female desire without reducing it, revealing that desire at any age is not necessarily for sex, but connection.

Danielle Berrin: You burst onto the literary scene in 1972 with the appearance of your first book, “Fear of Flying,” when you were just 31. What were the challenges of becoming so well known — and for writing so candidly about sex — so early in your career?

Erica Jong: I was absolutely terrified. When I first got famous, I got famous for being the sex writer. I was a young poet, a graduate student at Columbia studying 18th-century English lit, and I couldn’t believe how vulgar fame in America was: Men showing up at my house wanting to f— me, women leaving their husbands, wanting to camp out at my doorstep, people thinking I was literally inseparable from my heroine. It was a shock, a huge shock. As time went on, I began to make sense of it; somewhere I wrote, “Fame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are.” I was really misinterpreted as a young woman, partly because I looked the way I looked, and partly because I wore makeup and high heels and liked men. So I wasn’t taken seriously. I was Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard, on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, and suddenly I’m treated like a prostitute. It took me a little while to absorb that and to say, “OK, so who am I?” 

DB: You’re 73 now, very distant in age from your “Fear of Flying” protagonist, Isadora Wing. What can you tell us about the fantasies of an older woman?

EJ: As women, it is sometimes very, very hard to imagine, “What will my life be like if I’m not beautiful anymore? If I can’t walk down the street and have men look at me?” One worries about that. And then you work through that, and it even becomes fun not to be so dependent on looks. Something else happens — people take you seriously. You’re not a bimbo anymore. But it’s so difficult to go through that process, especially when you’ve been a pretty young woman, and you’ve had the power a pretty young woman has. You think: What will come to replace it? Will anything ever come to replace it? But all of life is change, OK? And we change and we grow — please, God! And sometimes what we grow into is very interesting. 

DB: What do you think we most take for granted when we’re young?

EJ: Energy! Endless energy. I happen to have a lot of energy, but your energy definitely declines as you get older. If only, when you’re in your 20s and 30s, you could appreciate the energy, the life force and the passion. But even saying that, I know it’s impossible. 

DB: So much of what you write seems derived from lived experience. “Fear of Flying” was about a young woman discovering herself and her relationship to men. “Fear of Fifty” was about the shock of middle life. And now, “Fear of Dying” is about confronting mortality. What drove you to tackle the latter, about aging, illness and death?

EJ: Maybe the biggest push came from my parents getting older and more frail. They had been very energetic, very talented — my mother, a painter; my father, a musician — my mother lived till 101 and my father till 92. And watching them get frailer and frailer was one impetus for the book. The other was becoming a grandmother. When your parents die, you go through a huge life passage. It changes absolutely everything. It made me think about things I had not thought about. 

DB: One of your gifts as a writer is that you’re so awake to everything going on, so observant. And you’re able to excavate all this meaning from the everyday — whether it’s sex, relationships, money, parenting, God. Do you spend a lot of time just sitting and thinking? 

EJ: I’ve always been very thoughtful. When I was a kid, my siblings and my parents used to call me the absent-minded professor — I was always lost in a dream. But I just think I’m observant, and sometimes being observant has been very painful, sometimes it’s very blessed. [It’s] great to see a bee landing on a flower, to enjoy the physicality of life, but it also can be very hard to be sensitive like that. 

DB: There’s a famous passage from “Fear of Flying” in which you talk about iconic women writers — Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson — who you say were “timid in their lives, brave only in their art.” What did you mean by that and where do you see yourself by comparison? 

EJ: There have been a lot of books by women who were very unhappy in their lives; partly because they were so discriminated against, they couldn’t really be free to do what they wanted — to write, to be scientists — they were so held back in so many different ways. So I kept thinking I would like to be the one female writer who has a joy in being a woman, who celebrates the lustiness of women, the intelligence of women, the savviness of women, because there are so many women writers who killed themselves. There is a lot of joyfulness in the writings of Colette, in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems, but for the most part, women writers seem so cramped. Or maybe it’s the ones that have been celebrated, because men are the ones who keep the canon. Maybe they like the miserable women writers the most. 

DB: In “Fear of Dying,” the protagonist complains that “we need more rituals” for honoring death. Of course, she is Jewish, and the Jewish tradition has many rituals for marking death, but because this is a portrait of a secular, atheistic, New York Jewish family, those rituals are of no use to her. It made me wonder about the role Judaism has played in your life.

EJ: I’m not an observant Jew. I’m enormously proud of the history of the Jews, and as a writer I’ve explored it in many different ways. In “Shylock’s Daughter,” I wrote about the Jews of Venice. I’m proud of our survival as a people. I’m proud of our talents and intelligence. When my parents died, we gave them Jewish funerals. [My father] didn’t give us a Hebrew education; we didn’t get bat mitzvahed. I went to Sunday school for a very short time and loved the Bible stories but then stopped. And yet, there was a feeling in my family that it was a gift to be Jewish. That it was a gift to belong to this amazing tribe of people who were brilliant, artistic, curious and who survived many, many [attempted] exterminations throughout history. Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poems, “To be a Jew in the 20th century is to be offered a gift.” And I used to look at that and think, “God, the Holocaust? That’s a gift?” But I know what she meant now, that there’s a kind of pride in survival, a pride in intelligence, a pride in being a thoughtful person. 

DB: Did you feel a void when your parents died in terms of practicing rituals to mark that passage?

EJ: I did feel a void. It’s very hard to see your parents get frail, especially if you’ve always looked to them for guidance and leadership. It’s very hard to suddenly need to take care of them, and to hire caregivers, and then worry, “Are they the right caregivers?” and “Am I visiting them enough? Am I overseeing it enough?” You want them never to die, and you wish they would die, because they seem to be suffering. So you go back and forth between these contradictory feelings: “Never die, I can’t lose you,” and “Please die now, I can’t stand it anymore.”

DB: Do you think aging is harder for women because there is so much emphasis on a woman’s exterior? 

EJ: So much of our attracting people has to do with how we look. But men also hate getting older, hate any weakening. They hate their [male anatomy] not standing up. My father, who was an athlete, he hated aging, really hated it. He was always exercising. He was taking every vitamin supplement you could find. He was eating kale. He was a health food freak. And after dinner, he would get on the treadmill again and say, “I ate too much.” He did not go gently into the dying of the light. He was angry at having to die; my mother was much more accepting. 

DB: In the book, your 60-year-old protagonist is married to a man in his 80s, who also happens to be a New York billionaire. You ruminate quite a bit about what it means to have all that money, and the sort of clichés that go with it — the exhibitionism, the toys, the lavish lifestyle. Why was it important to comment on this?

EJ: We live in a society that has become incredibly unequal. When I grew up, there were actors and musicians who lived on my block on the Upper West Side, and now all those apartments cost $20 million. So the world has changed, and there’s a level of money that’s almost laughable. And all the billionaires want to be artists. And they envy artists, but they have no idea what it’s like to live from check to check and never know if you can pay your health insurance. 

DB: But there are writers in history, wealthy people who turned out to be great writers, like Nobokov or Tolstoy.

EJ: Nobokov became a writer after his family lost all their money in the revolution. He grew up wealthy, but he describes in [his memoir] “Speak, Memory,” having to write on a plank in the bathtub because he couldn’t afford more than a one-bedroom apartment. His whole writing career was after the revolution, when he was broke.

DB: Do you think some level of deprivation is required to develop the depth of an artist? 

EJ: No. Tolstoy was rich and he was very observant. I don’t think it’s about that; I think it’s about a different capacity, a different talent. I’ve known many, many, many rich people and they’re not happier for all their money. And yet, people who are struggling to pay their bills believe that if they had money, everything would be OK, and that is not the case. I wanted to write about that — that it’s nice to have money, it’s nice to have a beautiful house in the country, and in the city, to be able to get on a plane and go somewhere, but in my experience, the very rich are not happier. They’re not so worried about paying the bills — but they’re not happier. And they fight like cats and dogs over the money with their siblings and parents. 

DB: In the past, you’ve written about women on a quest for sex, even though most of the time the sex turns out to be unsatisfying. What your heroines are really questing for, it seems, is fantasy.

EJ: I think fantasy is the ultimate erogenous zone. If you’re not capable of fantasy, I don’t think you can have a good orgasm. People who are lusty are people who have a rich fantasy life, men and women both. 

DB: There is a scene in the book where Vanessa and Isadora are talking about ideas for fantasy stories and one of them says, “One gets sick of whatever one is known for.” Do you ever get sick of writing?  

EJ: I don’t get tired of writing, but I hate my public image sometimes. For many years, I was the sex writer, the happy hooker of literature, and that was so misguided. Because so much of the sex I write about is satire. And so much of the sex in my books is satire of the world we live in, and the madness people have about sex. I think sex is a very powerful drive, yes, but I’ve been so misinterpreted as a sex writer because I’m a woman; and because I write honestly and intimately, and people aren’t used to that. 

DB: How do you see yourself as a writer? 

EJ: I think there’s a similarity between my writing and Philip [Roth’s] writing. I think there’s a family resemblance with Woody Allen — a lot of humor, a lot of satire, observation of the society we live in. There is Yiddishkayt in my writing, a way of looking at the world, a gallows humor, which is Jewish, laughing at the grave, you know? Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s archetypal Jewish humor. And I feel a great kinship with that, which is why I sent Woody the book, and he blurbed it. I was very touched by that. I think I am a Jewish writer; I have a tremendous pride and identification in being Jewish. I think we’re an amazing people.

DB: In her review of your books, Sandra Tsing Loh wrote in The Atlantic: “That Jong’s novel [“Fear of Flying”] was never mentioned while I was studying literature in graduate school baffles me.” I wonder if you feel you’ve gotten your critical due?

EJ: No, not at all. I mean, the prejudice is enormous. I am not in the Library of America like Philip Roth. And you can be sure that great poobahs like Harold Bloom would not approve of me as part of the canon. But I should celebrate that. Because the canon is what gets buried, it’s not alive. It’s what you have to read in school; it’s not what you want to read. 

DB: So, at this stage of your life, then, how do you measure your success?

EJ: What I’ve come to believe is that I’m a communicator. And I’m here to inspire my readers, to give confidence to women, to try to make women know that they can do more than society says they can do. I want to give service. I want to improve the lot of women. I want to make people believe in themselves more. I want to nurture younger women writers, because the older writers who nurtured me when I was a young writer were men. So I want to give back. I’ve established a writing program at Barnard College, the Erica Mann Jong Writing [Fellows Fund], and every year I support writing fellows, and they’re fantastic women. And it gives me such pleasure — tzedakah, giving back — in the area that means the most to me. And that’s another thing: [Generosity] grows as you get older. You worry less about yourself and more about giving back. And that’s a wonderful thing about growing older.