Forty-two years after the publication of “Fear of Flying” — the novel that John Updike said revels in “cheerful sexual frankness” — Erica Jong is publishing her latest novel, “Fear of Dying.” Jong spoke about the echoes between these books from New York City while waiting for a massage, after spending the day with her grandchildren.
Q: Why are people still so surprised that women, especially women above 60, care about sex?
A: Repression. Fear. Fear of knowing oneself. Fear of flying. I think a lot of people, when they read about a woman who acknowledges her sexuality and her feelings, get really scared. They say they want to be fearless, but in reality they’re terrified. If they acknowledge their deepest feelings, they might have to change their lives. Forty-two years ago, on any given day, I would get a letter saying: “Thank you so much. You changed my life.” And I would also get a letter saying: “You’re a slut and a trollop.” Time magazine, which declares feminism dead every 20 years, ran an article that said that if the Erica Jongs of the world have their way, all the women in the country are going to be sleeping around. People are terrified. A lot of them are in relationships that aren’t satisfying, and if you tell them they can change their life, they get really scared.
Q: “Fear of Flying” is often remembered for the “zipless” sexual encounter that its character, Isadora Wing, fantasizes about. In “Fear of Dying,” Isadora says that’s not satisfying.
A: It was always unsatisfying! “It was a platonic ideal,” I wrote in “Fear of Flying.” “And I have never had one.” Twenty-seven million copies in print — nobody read it. From the outset I said, it’s a fantasy. I think you have to connect with your fantasies as a woman to achieve orgasm because sex is in the imagination, not in the vagina. But people were so shocked by a few four-letter words, they didn’t really read it.
Q: Isadora is a secondary character in this book; a wise friend, Vanessa Wonderman, is the new protagonist. Why not write Isadora again?
A: Couldn’t do it. Isadora had too much baggage. My baggage and the world’s baggage. How could I bring back a character that people had such expectations about, and such contradictory expectations? Some people thought she was the most free person in the world; some people thought she was a slut. As I was doing the last revisions on the book, I thought: “Isadora can be the best friend of Vanessa.” So she’s a Jiminy Cricket on Vanessa’s shoulder. She’s the voice of conscience. Isadora has grown up and become wise. Vanessa is still struggling to become wise.
Q: You’re getting a lot of attention for the sex in this new book, but it’s as much about time and dying.
A: There’s never been a poet on the planet who didn’t write about love and death, sex and death. That is the subject of poetry from the most ancient times, from Sappho and Homer to the present. And I’m essentially a poet. Sadly, my best books are unknown to most of the world because “Fear of Flying” has overwhelmed everything, which is wonderful and terrible in different ways. I’ve published seven books of poetry, but who in America reads poetry?
Q: “I hate getting older,” says Vanessa Wonderman, who’s 60. “I don’t see anything good about it.” Is this how you feel?
A: I certainly did 10 years ago. But I don’t now. As women, we can’t look old. We can’t be fat. We’re supposed to look like the 14-year-old models in Vogue, who are younger and younger and skinnier and skinnier, and they are air-brushed and contoured and Photoshopped. This is what women of all ages are up against — you spend half your time doing maintenance. I’m 73, and my writing is better than it’s ever been. I’m freer, I have these beautiful grandchildren and a daughter who adores me, finally. I see that the greatest thing about getting older is how your judgment changes and how you come to understand the cycles of life. And you keep having these amazing flashes of understanding.
Q: Why do you think “Fifty Shades of Gray” has been such a phenomenon?
A: I have no idea. I think the reputation of the book sells it, rather than the book itself. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella story, with bondage. A man who’s a rich billionaire at 25 gives a young woman who’s 18 all kinds of goodies: a computer, a car. In return, she signs a contract to be submissive. She’s a virgin — very realistic for 2015. She’s able to get the Prince because she’s willing to be submissive. She being a virgin, he’s the greatest lover she ever had. It has nothing to do with anything I wrote, ever.
Carole Burns regularly writes for Book World. Her new book is “The Missing Woman and Other Stories.”
By Erica Jong
St. Martin’s. 288 pp. $26.99