Monday, October 11, 2004
INTERVIEW WITH AMY SOHN
“New York women are way too hard on men,” author Amy Sohn says as we sip coffee at a caffeine stop on Smith Street in Brooklyn. “We’re too picky,” she continues. “As we get older, we begin mocking every guy. Women engage in checklist dating, looking for a man who will line up on every issue, whereas men just want women to be very attractive.” I’ve come “all the way” to an “outer borough” to interview Amy about her new book, My Old Man (available now in bookstores and online). Although the café itself is on a main drag, we both agree that its post-modern décor seems to indicate that after the sun goes down, the java makes way for more sultry and nocturnal beverages. And maybe strippers, which is kind of appropriate, given the title of Amy’s New York magazine column, Naked City. During the course of our discussion, Amy reveals that she’s gotten many letters from men and women about her column in New York and her previous column, Female Trouble, which ran in the New York Press and was the experiential basis for her first novel, Run Catch Kiss. During the dating process, she says, a lot of frustration builds for both men and women; but while men develop resentment toward the women, women, who are equally frustrated romantically, tend to turn that resentment inward and feel sad. Amy Sohn would be one of the first to admit that it is precisely this frustrating dance of dating and sex that has paid her rent ever since Female Trouble. Amy’s current column allows her to continue to plumb the very nature of human sexuality and create a context for the trends that shape the real life of sex in this city. Her first novel was wildly successful, garnering praise from the New York Times, among others. Perhaps because of the pressure that success engenders for first-time novelists, it took Amy three-and-a-half years to write My Old Man. On one level, the book’s about a rabbinical school dropout, Rachel Block, who becomes a bartender in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood and takes a romantic interest in Hank Powell, a misanthropic older filmmaker. The two spar verbally in a rapport that’s somewhere between banter and abuse, between sex and existentialism. (OK, I’ll say it: Sexistentialism.) Their relationship is as complicated and problematic as the one between Rachel and her Judaism. Jewish themes and references pepper the narrative and impact the protagonist’s outer and inner world, reflecting the intensity of her feelings about Judaism. Rachel’s distrust of institutional Judaism comes after an emotional trauma during an intense pastoral counseling session with a patient at Sloan-Kettering, in which she seems to say all the wrong things. Her inability to bring comfort to a man in dire life-and-death straits weighs on her so heavily that she is derailed from her professional rabbinical track and takes a job at a local tavern, where she advises imbibers from behind an oaken bar. One of the guys who walks into her bar invites her to a party, where she meets the curmudgeonly Powell. In my favorite jacket quote, Gary Shteyngart, author of the acclaimed The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, said that in this book, Amy “gets to the bottom of sex at its most appalling and arousing. This smart, funny work is recommended for anyone with a set of genitals and a brain.” And though, presumably, most parents possess both brains and genitals, most children of said parents don’t like to think about that too much. Rachel Block is no different—she doesn’t think of her parents as sexual beings, until she is confronted, most uncomfortably, with the flaws in her parents’ marriage. As that relationship hits the skids, Rachel begins to become more enmeshed with her lover, a relationship that occasionally results in sexual cruelty that both frightens and excites the former rabbinical student. Even the title indicates that as central as Rachel’s involvement in a May-December romance is to the book, the protagonist’s relationship with her parents, especially with her father, is also of considerable importance to both the author and her fictional creation. Although My Old Man isn’t the kind of Jewish literature you’d recommend to your mother or grandmother, The Jewish Book Council has seized on the elements that are inextricably Jewish and at the end of October is sending Amy on a tour of JCCs and Jewish book fairs all over the country (see www.amysohn.com for details). “I’m very curious to see the demographic of the audience,” she muses. “Because the protagonist takes a negative view of institutional Judaism, I’m curious to see if they’re going to be offended. A few of them have expressed concern about the subject matter of my presentation,” she explains, but notes that she always considers the demographics of her audience when selecting sections for her readings. I ask Amy what it’s like to write such explicit material knowing that her parents will read everything. “It’s a constant struggle,” she admits. “Sometimes I wish it were written in a kind of invisible ink, so everyone could read it except my parents. But you can’t select your audience. And you can’t seek out your parents’ approval in everything and still make your own decisions.” Now that she’s been married for nearly a year to a man she met through a mutual friend (“not a setup,” she clarifies) she’s really making her own decisions. Thrilled with her marriage, she still cautions the single to appreciate the finer points of being unattached. “When you’re single, you take your independence and autonomy for granted.” She also notes that in her mid-twenties, she went through an “extended period of adolescence” in the eyes of her parents. "Many kids who grew up in New York choose to stay near their parents, in a neighborhood they have affection for,” Amy says, explaining that this was the case with her, as well as with her character. “When they’re feeling beaten up by the world, it can be very nurturing to ‘date’ your parents. But then it’s harder to make the separation when you want privacy.” Amy’s scheduled to appear at Book Soup in Los Angeles on October 12, and Books Inc. (Chestnut) in San Francisco on October 13 before beginning her tour of Jewish book fairs. (Locations and times subject to change, so be sure to check Amy’s website for the latest information.) She continues to write her column for New York, and after the promotional tour is over, there are several other projects on her agenda: she’s working on a screenplay and has two books she’d like to option for film. TV, in some form, is also in the plan. (She had previously co-created, written and starred in the animated series Avenue Amy, which was produced by Curious Pictures and aired on Oxygen for two seasons.) At her recent reading at Barnes and Noble Astor Place in Manhattan, Amy proclaimed, "Being a writer is like a fusion of being a rabbi and an actress." And I think she’s right. Writing has a spirituality all its own. Add a healthy sprinkling of dramatic pathos and effective presentation, and you’ve got a pulpit rabbinate of literary sorts. As writer, you educate the human spirit through words, sometimes sparingly, sometimes in abundance, always rendered through emotion and reflecting a resonant truth.