Zibby Owens: I was over-the-moon excited when Daphne Merkin and her team reached out to be on my podcast because I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time. If you don’t know her, Daphne Merkin is the author of the novel Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Best Novel on a Jewish Theme, as well as two collections of essays and the memoir This Close to Happy, which I read recently and is by my bed and is just so great. She is a former staff writer for The New Yorker. Her essays frequently appear in The New York Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, Departures, Elle, Travel & Leisure, Tablet, and many other publications. She’s taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount Manhattan College, and Hunter College. She currently teaches in Columbia University’s MFA program. She lives in New York City. Her new novel is called 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love.

Daphne Merkin: Hi.

Zibby: Hi. How are you?

Daphne: Okay. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Thank you. Love those flowers behind you. How pretty.

Daphne: Thank you. Someone sent them to me for my book.

Zibby: I hope there were twenty-two of them.

Daphne: There should’ve been.

Zibby: I’m so excited to have you on and get to talk to you.

Daphne: Thank you. I’m excited to be on, very.

Zibby: I just loved your book, oh, my gosh. Let’s start by talking about 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love. What made you write a novel for the first time in thirty years? How did that happen?

Daphne: I have been working on this novel back and forth for thirty years. My first book had been a novel called Enchantment, which is actually being reissued next week. It was an autobiographical novel. Very many people treated it as sort of a memoir, which it wasn’t. Then I thought about this book. I’ve been thinking about this novel forever because the whole issue of obsession interests me, whether it’s sexual or romantic or both. I’d always thought to myself when I read books about obsession, that the character, usually a woman — I can think of very few books, novels, in which the man is obsessed, except two. One is called Endless Love by Scott Spencer. The other is a novel by Alan Hollinghurst, a gay writer in England, called The Folding Star. Otherwise in my large reading in this subject, it’s usually the woman who’s obsessed. What I noticed is the story usually ends that the woman gets over the obsession, even like Anna Karenina, by killing herself, or in a book like 9½ Weeks, which was different than in the movie, the book, I have to say. You’re supposed to think she’s carted off to an institution.

I was always wondering, especially since a lot of women earlier in their life have an episode or two of what I would call bad taste in men where they pick wrongly, sometimes strikingly wrongly — then it’s usually that man that they have difficulty pulling away from because the connection is strong. Instead of connecting to your stronger parts, I think those kind of connections fill the weaknesses in your own — I remember going into two editors. This could never have happened today, I must say, in book publishing. Had I already written this? No. I went in and I said, “I would love to write a book about an obsession.” Actually, I said that for my first novel, Enchantment, but it ended up being about my mother. I said, I’d like to try and get a woman into it. Then how do you get out of it? Not everyone drops dead, goes under a train. To be completely honest about it, I wrote exactly 212 pages. It included the scene — your reader won’t know it, but there’s a scene toward the end of the novel where her obsession, Howard Rose, a lawyer, asks her to crawl across the floor. I got up to that, stopped dead, thought, I can’t publish this. This was well before, a hundred times before Fifty Shades of Grey, which I don’t consider a particularly, for me, effective novel anyway. I know it’s very popular.

I come from a modern orthodox Jewish background, emphasis on orthodox. I’m one of six siblings. We were completely observant, like not using lights on Shabbos, on Saturday. I kept thinking of the women in my parents’ synagogue, which had been founded by my father, called Fifth Avenue Synagogue. I kept thinking, what are they going to make of this, the daughter of the founder? Most people, anyway, conflate the narrator and the character, especially if the writing is immediate which mine tends to be. No one’s going to think, this isn’t her, this Judith Stone is not Daphne Merkin. That truly stopped me. I just thought, I’m not up for the — it was like my inner censor a hundred times over. I think some writers don’t have such an inner censor. Philip Roth certainly had very little of an inner censor. I have a large inner censor even though sometimes it doesn’t seem that way because I write a lot personally and fairly candidly. Somehow, I just stopped it. My editor loved the book. At that time, it was called The Discovery of Sex. I paid back the advance. I’m recreating it a little. When I look back, I think a lot of it, I did keep. I made many, many changes and I wrote many more scenes, but some of the basic essence of the book was there then. I always think, then, it would’ve made me a best-selling — but I wasn’t prepared to publish it. I stopped. I put it away, went on to write a lot of journalism about everything from mattresses to profiles of Madonna and Cate Blanchett and Tom Stoppard.

I never forgot about the novel. I would always go back to it and try it another way. I remember I was writing about a French writer named Annie Ernaux who wrote a book called Simple Passion. I thought, I’ll try and write this in a more French tone, like cooler, dryer. I tried it a hundred ways. It never left my imagination, third person, first person. One issue I truly had was how to get her out of the relationship because I had my own enormous trouble getting out of those kinds of relationships, one I thought I would not get out of. Also, I’ll say what interested me was, how far was I going to go with the undercurrent of sadomasochism? How masochistic would I allow the woman to be? Also, in between those years, I wrote about sex to a degree. I wrote essays for The Times. I wrote, I hope you don’t know it, but I’ll say an infamous piece for The New Yorker on erotic spanking that followed me for the rest of my life. Still does. In fact, I got a very good, may I even say rave in The Times about the novel. I thought, there again is spanking. That maybe would’ve moved me, you would think, forward. Instead, I wrote two collections of essays. Then I wrote a memoir about depression, my own experience, called This Close to Happy. I had a book contract to do four books. One of them was this. I thought, I’m not paying this back again. That was one very practical reason.

Me Too had started. You would think that would’ve kept me, but being the contrarian I am, I wrote a piece for The Times about Me Too in which I argued that I thought a lot of Me Too, the tactics of Me Too, the thinking of Me Too, wasn’t nuanced enough. That was a piece I wrote. It was what we say and what we really think about Me Too. I talked about that it wasn’t useful to look at all men as predatory, all women as Victorian victims. We talk so much about agency. Where is the women’s agency? You can also say no or not all of these were instances of complete violent harassment. As you remember, as we all remember, some of these incidents began to seem so subtle and so unthreatening, like, “Your skirt is pretty,” or “Why don’t you wear that skirt again?” I thought, if we stop here, we’ll go nowhere else with any issue. You would think that Me Too would maybe have stopped me. If anything, I thought Me Too lost so much — what about female desire? We all talk about male desire and how male desire can easily get aggressive and unsolicited, but women have their own desires. They’re not pure as the driven snow.

I went back because this was about that. Maybe to appease my sense that it shouldn’t be so immediate, but I think it helped the book, I told it in flashback. The woman was already out, the character, married and expecting her second child, and looking back on this obsession she had with, I guess you could call a jerk if you want to, but all jerks have their moments. She looks back on it. I don’t want to say so much unless you think — the scenes in which she’s in it are in first person in the present. She meets this lawyer who doesn’t make such a big impression on her at a party. She’s just turning thirty, which is a big deal to her. She works as a book editor. I myself, very autobiographically, had worked as a book editor, so it was important to me. I worked in a publishing company for six years, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. I remember the publisher saying to me, “Women don’t put enough about work in their novels. A lot of women work, and you don’t see it so much.” It was important for me to give her work. The work I knew best was publishing. I have a lot of publishing scenes. She’s fairly ambitious in her work. Yet this man she meets at a party, a lawyer thirteen years older than she is, manages to reduce her almost to an abject little girl looking for affirmation. I think also what she’s looking for is not really getable in the end. Unless you go back to infanthood, you’re not going to be loved in that kind of unconditional way. You’re either lucky enough that it happened once, or it didn’t happen.

In her case of Judith Stone, she didn’t get what she needed from her background, from her parents, looks for it together with sex, which is potent. A lot of it is about the relationship. Then at the end, as I say, she decides by an assertion of will. That was an important realization to me that people don’t suddenly from one day to the next think, wait, he’s terrible for me, I need a nicer man. There’s something about that man that’s drawing them on. At some point, it’s a decision. I think what took me too long — I don’t want to sound like I’m dead now. What took me too long was I kept thinking it’ll happen, that one day I’ll see the truth and then I’ll be able to move away, but you can see the truth about a situation and still not move away. Within the first minute of meeting Howard Rose, Judith Stone knows he’s not good for her. He also makes it clear by calling her bitch when he calls her for the first time. She sees all of it, but she’s stuck on him. At the very end, she makes her way back. Then I do a tiny thing which I think was partly a testament to what I would call realism. Also, I think these things, people have long memories of their love affairs. At the end, she’s — am I giving away too much?

Zibby: No, but don’t give away any more. Don’t give away the ending.

Daphne: That . It’s always interested me, this subject.

Zibby: It’s fascinating. What you’re really talking about, it’s like an addiction, really. You know it’s bad for you. It’s very clear. Nobody thinks, hey, I think I’ll try smoking cigarettes because it’s good for me. Everybody knows going into all these self-destructive behaviors that they’re not good for them. Yet they’re drawn to them anyway. The extraction is close to impossible for the same reasons they were drawn in to begin with.

Daphne: It’s interesting. Even though there are a lot of people addicted to many different substances and people, I think it’s almost incomprehensible to the people outside it, maybe less these days because there’s so much about addiction and about opioid and drug. Possibly, drug addiction is more comprehensible. I think emotional addiction is hard for people to wrap their heads around.

Zibby: I think you’re right.

Daphne: It looks controllable. Drug addiction doesn’t look so controllable.

Zibby: You know that with drug addiction, there’s a biochemical element. With this, this is more subjective and emotional, so people can write it off. Yet you’re so right. I think about my life, my girlfriends, all of us growing up have had someone, maybe not to this extent of course, but someone who we know wasn’t good for them. Somehow, that makes them more attractive, which is the worst part about it. I feel like in your book, you kept alluding to the fact that this had to do with the love that she didn’t necessarily get from her parents. You had a quote in the beginning where you said, “He was my mother, I suppose, with bits of pieces of my father thrown in, but to what extent that clarifies matter is anyone’s guess, how everything conspires to keep us in the dark about ourselves.”

Daphne: I’m glad you quoted that. I like that passage myself. Yes, she definitely has had — I’ll say to you, I also have to be a little careful here because my first novel a million years ago was about an unhappy, affluent, big, modern orthodox family. I wanted to give her, without making it extreme — she didn’t come from direct abuse, but she came from emotional neglect. Neither parent was particularly interested in her. She has a sister who she thinks is more the father’s favorite. She feels unmet by both of them. Somewhere, the past impinges on the present. I would suppose, not to sound utterly simplistic, had she had more normatively loving parents — I think she says her father doesn’t know the name of any of her class —

Zibby: — Her teachers.

Daphne: Little things. She probably wouldn’t have been vulnerable to that kind of man, less vulnerable. One of the things that draws her in so much is the attention that he pays, first of all, very close sexual attention. She’s also sexually somewhat naïve. She’s not someone who’s been hooking up from the age of fourteen. She’s relatively new-ish to sex. I think that plays a part, but I think what you read is the most — and even that doesn’t explain it.

Zibby: What you’re saying about negative attention — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. It strikes me as so similar to raising kids. When kids feel like they’re not getting your attention as a parent, they’ll act out and do whatever they can to get your attention even if it means you’re yelling at them because that’s what they need. This is, it’s almost like an adult tantrum, these toxic love relationships, not even love, sexual affairs are just a way of getting their needs met. I read your memoir. I read it when it first came out. Then I read it again before today. I feel like, obviously, there are some similarities. Not to make total jumps, but you write a lot about your parents and some of the needs that you feel like you didn’t have met and how that led to X, Y, or Z behaviors of your own.

Daphne: The more I think about it, the minute you said you have four children, I felt envious. Envious is too strong. My daughter has about twenty-one first-cousins.

Zibby: Wow. You have five brothers and sisters, right?

Daphne: I am the producer of one child. Growing up, I was always seen as the aunt who played with all the kids at the beach. To this day, I find children — there are people who are different to children. They don’t fascinate them. I’m always struck on the street, how people get so — I’m not a pet type, but people will gather around a dog. Then a charming little girl goes by. No one stops. I am very intrigued. If I did life over, I might have become a child psychiatrist because I think the whole process — in fact, it might interest you, I wrote a piece for The Times that they asked me to write. It was a show I didn’t watch on TV. Maybe it was called The Morning Show. That comedian, Sarah Silverman, was interviewed. She said, in passing, she didn’t want children. She was asked why. She said she didn’t want to pass on depression. For The Times, I wrote a piece where the depression is inherited, about which I know a lot because I’ve read a lot. The truth is, nothing psychological is completely inherited.

It’s a fifty/fifty game of genetics versus environment. What you could have is the propensity to get — we notice it in children. One child is a little more cheerful. Another is gloomier or however. There could be a tendency in a child to be more unhappier. If that child gets, not ideal, but as best as circumstances allow, they may not necessarily end up deeply depressed. It’s genetics plus environment. That whole duality, nature/nurture, has been the argument of our time. Depending what decade, sometimes people will stress nature and sometimes they’ll stress nurture. We live in a decade of, strangely, a lot of emphasis on nature, meaning it’s medicate-able. I wonder about it looking on. I think it’s going to switch again. I don’t know. You as a mother would know much more. I’m always surprised how quickly children are put on attention — maybe the medication for attention strikes me as almost the least questionable, but I do wonder about very young kids being put on antidepressants. I’m sure there are reasons.

Zibby: I think you should take that envy of my kids and your longing to be a child psychiatrist and just come plop yourself in my living room for a while. You can hone your skills in two seconds. Then you can revisit that argument. Just spend a week here and see what you think.

Daphne: What’s the range of ages of your kids?

Zibby: Five and a half, seven, and then I have twins that are thirteen.

Daphne: Do they get along, mostly?

Zibby: Most of them do. There’s some combinations, not as well. Yeah, mostly they do. It could be worse. They’re basically good kids. Everyone’s got their issues.

Daphne: Are the twins identical?

Zibby: Boy, girl. No, not identical, and very, very, very different.

Daphne: I once did a lot of twin research for a book that I was going to publish.

Zibby: You didn’t?

Daphne: In the end, the writer didn’t deliver. It was an incredible book called The Silent Twins. It might interest you. It’s very pathological. It’s about two girls, black girls, identical, growing up in Wales. They have a secret language, which twins sometimes have. They don’t speak to the other people in the house, to their siblings. The mother leaves food outside their door. Eventually, so this will not be the case, they start burning down schools, buildings. There’s obviously fury in there. I’m sorry to be telling you this horrid — they end up in a psychiatric British prison, psychiatric prison called Broadmoor. I didn’t think I was so fascinated by twins, but this book is amazing. Mostly, it quotes from their diaries which are remarkable and sophisticated. They wrote two novels at a very young age. I don’t know why I remember all this from thirty years ago. One was called The Pepsi-Cola Addict. The other was called Discomania. They loved America. It was predicted that when they would get out of prison, because they were separated, one of them would die. Sorry I’m telling this. I’m almost over with this horror story. At the end of their prison sentence, they were being driven home and one of them had a heart attack.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Daphne: Sorry to tell you this grim story, but it led me to read a lot about twins.

Zibby: Wow. Okay, well…

Daphne: Erase it from your , I’m sure.

Zibby: I will. This just enforces my belief that my kids have to come to the dinner table and not eat anywhere else. I just wanted to read one quote from your memoir, if you don’t mind, This Close to Happy. I loved how you wrote about the depression that you went through in such a — let me just read it and you can comment after, not to get off your latest book which was also fantastic. I wanted to just briefly talk about, also, how you directly addressed the reader in the book because I found that so fascinating. Anyway, “However did you fill your days before this torpor came and claimed you? It is difficult to recall how you once went naturally from one activity to the next, writing and reading, indulgencing in virtual window shopping on the computer, talking to your daughter, laughing over something with a friend, warming up a cup of coffee or tea in the microwave. It wasn’t as though you were ever exactly a dervish of energy spinning from one hectically scheduled event to the next. You are a stay-at-home sort at the best of times, someone who has to assemble the internal wherewithal to go out and meet people no matter how open and receptive you seem. But before, you didn’t question the whole ongoing shebang of making plans. Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school. You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.” Oh, my gosh, that was really beautiful and just such a great encapsulation of what that feels like and also, by the way, an encapsulation of I feel like what we all sort of feel like now, which is, I never want to go have a plan again for the rest of my life. How am I ever going to go back to normal society? I just felt like it was very timely and topical, so I just wanted to read it.

Daphne: I think this period has brought out, in many of us, a certain sense of futility. How do you plan? How do you arrange life if there’s a lurking virus about which in the end not a ton is known yet? One minute, it’s going to go forever. The next, it’s going to return if you had it. You won’t have it if you had it. You’ll have it again. I think it produces not that level of stasis, but a certain frozen in place. How do you plan? I imagine with young children it becomes enormously difficult. Aren’t they there all the time?

Zibby: Yes. They’re here all the time. I’m divorced, actually, and remarried. Now for instance, they’re over at their dad’s house. Aside from that, yeah, we’re here. The planning is the worst for school starting in the fall because that’s all I’m obsessing about in my head. What are we going to do? Is it going to open? Is it not? You can go down these rabbit holes.

Daphne: At this moment, are they ostensibly going to open, or they don’t know?

Zibby: My four kids go to three different schools. One of them is for sure going to open, they’re saying. Two are yes, but might be virtual. We’ll know more next week or the week after. It’s just never clear. No matter what they think they know, the government could just change it. Yes, this period of time has required literally every tool in my emotional toolbox that I’ve ever sought there before ever. It’s all been required to come flying out at the same time.

Daphne: I am not, at this moment, in a relationship. It must take a toll on couples, even good, excellent couples. This is a lot of coupledom.

Zibby: Actually, a friend came over who lives out of town. He was saying that his mother’s fiancé, essentially, had to go to the hospital for COVID, but they had been locked in the apartment together for three months. For the first week, his mother was like, this is great, I finally have a break. Then after the weeks went by, she felt terrible about it. The beginning was like, ah, okay. That sounds terrible to say.

Daphne: No, it doesn’t. It sounds very comprehensible humanly.

Zibby: How have you been surviving this time?

Daphne: It’s funny. I just wrote a piece for online Vogue. My piece was about what has been helping me. I say what helped me like it would be over. Read. What kind of books did I read? I spent the first paragraph saying, in fact, the first month — I’m a voracious reader. That is my favorite. I also always read to think, oh, this sentence is — to continue learning, even though that sounds odd at this advanced point, about how I want to write. The first month, I could not read. I was anxious, distracted. At best, I kept thinking, this is the moment I should be rereading Anna Karenina or getting through Proust. I’m supposed to be this serious, somewhat intellectual reader. Instead, I would get into bed and the best I could do would be a magazine. I’d flip through, especially Allure, decide I need to get another cosmetic. I also wrote a piece in that period for, The New York Review of Books has an online. I wrote two pieces about the return of phone calls. Suddenly, I was talking much more on the phone. I wrote an actually quite funny piece about beauty anxieties during COVID, about your hair, your nails.

I met a friend in the park. We would have regular meetings. She’s a writer. She’s not someone I think of as particularly interested in her presentation. Suddenly, we stood there and she pulled up her mask and put on lip gloss. I said to her, “Who’s the lip gloss for? The mask?” I wrote about that. I wrote about, I taught a class at Columbia’s MFA program in writing, how half the time I would put on a sweatshirt over a nightgown. They’d see a sweatshirt. Never stick on, certainly, an ounce of makeup. One day, I thought, I’m putting on a little makeup for myself. I was hastily doing something for five minutes. My daughter lives at home. I came out of the bathroom and she said, “You put on perfume?” I said yes. She said, “Who did you put it on for?” I said, “Myself.” Obviously, no one was going to — I talk about a lot of things. There was even a so-called black market in getting services, women who came to people’s houses. Someone told me they knew of a plastic surgeon who was doing — I couldn’t believe someone would have not just Botox, but actual plastic surgery in this period. I thought, that makes sense. No one sees you anyway. You can recuperate.

Zibby: This woman who I know who’s a mom at one of my kid’s schools said that because she wasn’t getting Botox, her iPhone wasn’t even recognizing her to unlock it because she looked so different. I thought that was so funny.

Daphne: Very funny.

Zibby: Actually, this morning on Instagram, another author, her name’s Maya Shanbhag Lang who wrote a great book called What We Carry which is so good by the way, she posted a picture of herself wearing this nice outfit and looking at herself in the mirror. She said, “Not for Zoom, not for anyone else, just for me.” That’s just what you’re saying. Anyway, I feel like I could talk to you forever, but I want to get your advice to aspiring authors.

Daphne: I’ve thought a lot about it because I’ve taught it for a long time at the 92nd Street Y. The one thing I have found with young writers more than in my ancient day is there’s such an obsession, I think partly because of social media, partly because attitudes to fame and celebrity have somewhat changed, to get it out there in two minutes. Actually, good writing requires a lot of rewriting. In fact, I have on my bulletin board, together with the oddest — with a photo of Virginia Woolf, a photo of my daughter when she was young. I don’t know why I have a photograph called Extasy Girl, not a photograph, a postcard someone me. I have no idea what it’s doing up there. I have a line by a writer who — I’m not a thriller reader or mystery reader so much, but I put it up. It’s Elmore Leonard, famous. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He’s talking about, he likes very simple, Hemmingway-esque phrases. I myself like — what I always say to my class is, mix it up. Have one sentence be short. There’s a rhythm. No one wants to read, I saw him. He looked good. He bought an apple. Then I bought an apple. Divvy it up.

Not to sound completely truistic or simplistic, I do not know a good writer of fiction or nonfiction who doesn’t read a ton. I don’t think you can write well without reading. It seems like it would be a natural order, but I think there are people who write who don’t read so much. I was also in book publishing, as I mentioned, for six years. In the end, as we all know and everyone says, there are only so many stories to tell in the world. It could be loss. It could be heartbreak. It could be illness. It could be losing a child, many things. In the end, even though it sounds simplistic, it is all in the way you tell it. For that, I would say that one should also — this is what I do. I’m not such a big reader by nature of what’s called commercial fiction, which is often not particularly well-written. Sometimes, there can be commercial — in publishing, it’s very divided into commercial fiction and literary fiction. Of course, the real division is fiction that sells and fiction that doesn’t sell. Commercial fiction sells because it’s — I had hoped with my novel, I hope I’m right, please tell me, that my novel fell somewhere between — I wanted it to be a real read, but I also wanted to comment on the text in a more meta sense, not a term I love so much. I think dialogue is hard to do well. There, it helps to read how other people do it.

I think if you don’t give a certain amount of time to it, I won’t say daily because I know writers, including myself, who don’t write every single day — I should. I write very much to deadline and books. That’s the difficulty of writing also. Not everything is a deadline. Unless you have journalism, you’re imposing your own deadline. In that way, it’s very self-activating. If you don’t feel like writing and you feel like looking at what’s going on on shuttered-down Madison Avenue, you can leave it. On some level, I think the difference between people who become successful writers or writers who write isn’t always talent. Talent is part of it. Really, a big part of it is discipline. I think that stops people. I think also, one more thing to say, in the end, you have to write because you want to and need to. As we all know, very few books make a lot of money. If I told you how few, you’d be amazed. I once spoke about writing and Jewish audiences. I said Jews borrow books, they don’t buy books. In that piece, I believe it said — I think it’s true. I should’ve checked it. It’s hard to believe this. You’re a big reader. You must know readers. One percent of Americans read one book a year. Meaning, many, many people don’t read. In some ways, the writers I know, which is sad but true, feel they’re sort of doing something that went out of fashion. There is social media.

Zibby: I think it’s coming back. I like to believe that.

Daphne: I’m so glad. I think so too. That may be one thing COVID has helped with. How much TV, even if it’s great, can people watch? Reading talks to something else, talks to your interior self.

Zibby: Books are us.

Daphne: Agree.

Zibby: Thank you so much for this. I’d love to meet you in person or take you to lunch sometime or something. That would be really fun if we’re ever out in the world again.

Daphne: I’d love it. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

Zibby: Me too. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Daphne: Bye.