In the third of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with former New Yorker staff writer Lis Harris.
Lis Harris was at The New Yorker from 1970 to 1995. She is the author of Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family (a New York Times notable book of the year), Rules of Engagement: Four American Marriages, and Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings and the Corporate Squeeze. She has received numerous grants including ones from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Fund for the City of New York, and two from the Rockefeller Fund. She has been a recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Lila Acheson Wallace Fellowship twice. Harris teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
EB: What first drew you to writing?
LH: I actually started out as a painter, not a writer. In my family, my brother was the writer and I was the artistic one, and we all went along these lines. He was the model, and he became a correspondent for The New York Times, and it didn’t occur to me for a long, long time that there were different models for writers, that there were different ways of approaching it. Though my eighth grade teacher once wrote on one of my papers, “You will be a writer!” Anna M. Donovan, I salute you!
EB: What about writing nonfiction in particular?
LH: Perhaps [I was drawn to nonfiction] because I got to The New Yorker when I was very young, and the people who were writing there whom I admired–Joe Mitchell, Jonathan Schell, Mavis Gallant, Edmund Wilson, and my great hero, A.J. Liebling (though he had died before I arrived)–were nonfiction writers. They had a way of describing the world that was so rich, that I wanted to do that too. There are some writers who write equally well in nonfiction and fiction, but it seems to me they are very few, and I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t be one of them.
EB: What do you feel you–as a person, a woman, a writer–bring to your nonfiction?
LH: I bring my whole self to it. I’m a New Yorker; I’m very political. I have an incurable case of weltkitzel, or “world tickle,” which is the opposite of weltschmerz… As for my being a woman–most of my friends who are women had difficult times as writers because they were women–actually at [William] Shawn’s New Yorker, he liked the writing of women. He liked the subjects that women chose, because they tended to be between the cracks–not subjects you would find in Time or Newsweek or even The Atlantic. My mother was a lawyer, so I also had, in an era when that was not so common, a good professional model at home–though like so many other women then she eventually gave up her practice to embrace a fully domestic life, which she always regretted. Balancing a full professional life with parenthood is something the women of my generation have struggled with and are still struggling with.
EB: In spite of Shawn’s support, did you ever feel not taken seriously as a woman writer?
LH: It wasn’t a problem with the editors, and it wasn’t a problem with The New Yorker–it was a problem in the world. I don’t think anyone in my generation could shake that kind of experience. I had people say to me, “Oh, you’re a serious writer! But you’re so pretty!” They think they’re being charming, and you want to spit.
EB: Oof. I think women writers today still have that experience. On a more positive note, how has writing nonfiction enriched your life?
LH: It’s at the center of my life. I love my children, I love my husband, I love my friends, but my brain and my spirit are completely aligned to my writing. I get up every day to do it, even when it’s very hard. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath,” which I think is a good description of writing that is challenging.
I don’t always know what I think until I write it–I’m constantly having several different dialogues at once about what I’m thinking. I’m a secular Jew, and my first book was about a Hasidic family, which couldn’t be further from my own experience. Your mental archives contain a certain narrow notion of a place or person or subject… and then you go to the place or meet the person, and it’s revelatory what people haven’t told you that you think is very interesting. That goes for countries and their smells and sights and people and their eccentricities.
When you are writing, there is no one else writing what you are writing. Good or bad. And that’s a remarkable fact.
EB: What are some of your biggest challenges when working on nonfiction?
LH: While working on the book I’m writing now about a Palestinian and an Israeli family, I’m aware of how irritating some of the things I’m saying will be to one side or the other. I’m also aware of the many clichés that surround the subject. I try to be very, very careful, and I always worry that there might be something I’ve missed. I find it frustrating that I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t speak Hebrew, and I’ve been working on this book now for nine years, but I find that the representations in the press, they’re inadequate to the depth of the situation. I feel a huge responsibility to do justice to my subject.
EB: What is one of your favorite passages of writing by a woman writer?
LH: I am always nourished by the boldness and originality of Colette, especially her Sido memoir. But my idea of the powerful possibilities of writing comes from a secular prayer that Emily Dickinson wrote:
“In the name of the Bee
And of the Butterfly
And of the Breeze—Amen!”
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.