Since the project’s inception, DoY has brought you interviews with all kinds of successful artists and writers. Often, the interviews reveal some pretty scary moments— whether tales of poverty or simply terror in the face of a daunting, uncertain, unprofitable artistic future. So, in honor of Halloween, we decided to put together some scary moments of yore for your shuddering amusement. With no further ado…
Astri, Evan and Lucas
Nightmare Living Situations!
Paul Elie, writer and editor
I had a very small, very dark one-bedroom on 106th Street near Amsterdam. It was skanky. The guy across the hall would bring in hookers with some regularity. The only window looked out on a junk-filled lot and had one of those trapeze gates over it. I had a futon, a computer, a couple of bookshelves, and one little lamp with a 60 watt bulb. I spent all my time in the back room writing. At the end of the night I would pull the gate closed, locking myself into my cell.
Josh Bell, poet
I lived in a garage that had been converted into an apartment. (…)That garage was basically the last stop on the sewage line, there wasn’t even supposed to be plumbing back there at all. So I’d be in bed sometimes— and this is so disgusting I don’t even want to talk about it— and air would get into the sewage line, and you could hear it; there would be this audible explosion in the bathroom. I don’t even want to tell you what it was like to walk in through that door to see what had happened…the sewage just basically backed up and shot into the bathroom.
I didn’t realize it until the spring, but my wall, where my bed was, had a beehive in it. A huge beehive. I woke up one morning being stung. There were bees in my bed. Exterminators came out and sprayed it, but the bees just kept coming back in. I had to start sleeping in the other room until it got cold again. It was horrible, really. I would go to class with all these bee stings. I looked like I’d been abused, or had abused myself. It caused really weird bee dreams.
John D’Agata, writer
To begin with, the “salad days,” as you put it, were vegetable-less. I spent the harshest of them in my car, a white Chevrolet Caprice Classic with red velour interior that I inherited from my grandfather—who happened to be Sicilian, if the car didn’t give it away. After I quit my first teaching job, I spent a year hopping from art colony to art colony around the United States. I think I did a total of seven of them in one year. But during those periods when I wasn’t at an art colony I slept in my car. That sounds awful, but I actually enjoyed it. I used to park outside Denny’s restaurants, figuring that they’d be safe because they’re open 24-hours and people were always coming and going. (…) I really only had to interact with the occasional cop who knocked on my car window to tell me to move along in the middle of the night.
David Humphrey, painter, sculptor, and critic
Across the hall was a place called Wally’s Attic, which was a gay S&M club that was the inner sanctum to a place in the neighborhood called the Mineshaft. He [Wally] managed the Mineshaft, and this [the Attic] was for his more exclusive parties, or special events. Pretty much anytime we’d come home late there’d be something interesting going on— meetings of the Golden Shower Association, military night, the Fall Poo Party. It was like some fictional idea of bohemia.
I ended up giving a deposition describing my experience there… I got a printed out version of it later and was mildly shocked by my own descriptions of daisy-chained men in cages, glory holes, and fist-fucking slings that I would see because they left their door open and were friendly neighbors. You know, on my way home with the groceries and my milk for tomorrow’s coffee!
Loneliness in Stieg Larsson Land!
Björn Yttling, musician and producer
The thing was, when you live far out like I did, out in Stieg Larsson-land, there aren’t any organized sports activities or things like that. But I did do a lot of sporty stuff. I would go skating on the lake by myself. But I did it alone, like really alone. I shoveled the snow to clear the lake by myself. All alone. There were no sports practices. And even if there were, it was hard to get places. So, there was a lot of time to sit and do music by yourself. It was a good thing you could do without neighbors or friends.
Loneliness in New York!
Jennifer Egan, writer
I remember from that period that it was so hard to make a date with people. I would ask when someone could get together and they would say in, like, three weeks. (…) I would be flipping ahead in my calendar through weeks of empty pages and I would think, “Really? Not for three weeks?!” I found myself sort of begging people to hang out with me. And, of course, New Yorkers get a whiff of that desperation and they’re out! “Don’t cling to me!” I was that clinging, drowning, frantic person.
Ellen Altfest, painter
I felt really sad that I had left college. I looked back like, “I used to have a community.” I felt like everyone knew each other in this city [New York]. You’d walk by a bar and there would be people in there laughing, and I’d think: “I don’t know anyone.”
Timothy Donnelly, poet
When I woke from that dream, I was lying in bed in my little dorm-like apartment in New Jersey and beside me on the twin mattress I saw an indentation as though someone were sitting there on the bed beside me. But there was no one there. (…) I was perfectly awake at this point. I looked at the indentation, the room felt a little darker than it should, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I saw the indentation gradually flatten up as though the weight of what sat there had been lifted from the bed, and I felt something leave the room. Felt this change in energy. I know that’s how they talk about it and it sounds like crap—but it was like that. It was like an inaudible hum had stopped and into my head popped this sentence: “They can’t hurt you, but they can change the way you feel.”
Tom McCarthy, writer and conceptual artist
I was working with this chef who was totally psychotic. He was like something out of William Burroughs. You know, he’d hold the cleaver in his hand, scream, and throw it at the wall just after the waiters had walked out, missing them by inches. He’d read Nietzsche, but he’d read Nietzsche in the same way that Hitler had read Nietzsche, misread Nietzsche. He’d say, “Nietzsche says there are Übermenschen and there are scum. We must be the Übermenschen! The waiters, they are scum! They are nothing!”
Daniel Mendelsohn, writer
It became unbearable because he [his Opera impresario boss] was kind of a violent personality—not physically violent, but, you know, the office was this [gestures a small space] big and there was a walled-off inner sanctum. He smoked cigars, I remember. He was this tiny guy with this blond hair, smoking the cigar, and would sit there shrieking at recalcitrant sopranos in Switzerland while jabbing his cigar into the air. I mean, the things he said over the phone…I would be sitting at my typewriter— this was all pre-computer— in the outer office weeping, literally weeping with terror.
Tim Davis, photographer
I’ll never forget answering an ad in the New York Times to be a photo assistant. The photographer’s name was only, Hashi, one word. He did high-end ads. His specialty was liquid coming out of bottles. Very technical. He had an army of assistants, and he was very successful. I got there at 8.30 in the morning and left at 10 at night the first day. And the next day, I walked in, and he goes right up to me, and he says [in a flamboyant, foreign accent], “If you want to work for Hashi,” in the third person!, “if you want to work for Hashi, you have to do this…if you want to work for Hashi, you have to do that…” I just stood up and said, “You know what? I don’t want to work for Hashi.” And I walked out.
Fear of Mice (And Brooms)!
Donald Margulies, playwright
I became hysterical when Mickey Mouse’s brooms started dancing in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia, and my mother had to whisk me out of the movie theater.
Terrifying take-no-prisoners attitude!
Thomas Roma, photographer
I am not going to give one inch to the “you need to support yourself” argument. I had a student at the School of Visual Arts once. He came to class one week and didn’t have any work because his camera was stolen. I understood that. But the next week he came back and still didn’t have any work because he said he didn’t have enough money to buy a camera. I said, “I’m going to throw you out of the class.” I made him come up to the front of the class and I asked him to stick out his arm. He did. I grabbed his hand and said, “What is that?” He had a Tag Heuer watch. I said, “Sell that watch and buy a camera.” He said, “I can’t sell that watch, my grandmother gave it to me.” So I said, “Sell your grandmother into slavery and buy a camera.” I threw him out of the class.
Julia Alvarez, writer
I ended up going to the University of Arkansas. I had met one of the faculty writers at Bread Loaf, and he had talked it up. Well, once I got there, he started hitting on me. I didn’t know what to do. Those were the years before sexual harassment policies were in place. I couldn’t even talk it over with another woman, because I was the only female in the MFA program. So, finally, I went to the head of the department and I complained. He said, “Oh you’re a big girl. You can take care of yourself.” I tried being a big girl–just the phrase, now I realize, was condescending. But since I wouldn’t sleep with the professor, my poems weren’t getting workshopped. Sometimes he’d get drunk and appear at night, knocking on my door. So I decided to leave. I was crushed.
Anne Kauffman, playwright
I went through a horrible depression during my last year – a true crisis of confidence that threw me for a loop for probably two and a half years beyond grad school. And I think it was because I was truly challenged, truly, truly challenged, and questioning everything. Including myself. Because in school the process was pure; it was unmitigated work. It was intense but crucial if I was going to break through my own limitations.
Adam Haslett, writer
Well there was depression, anxiety, horrible stomach problems, horrible back problems, loneliness, horniness, dread, fear, and recurring radical doubt as to the worth of my endeavors, but other than that it was all quite effortless. At my nadir, I was reduced to lying beneath a glass coffee table and reading books placed faced down on top of it, which made page turning a bit of a production. Relief consisted of aquatic aerobatics classes attended by the aged and nearly dead.
My malady? Life, really. Old-fashioned neurasthenia. The impossibility of everything. That, and the effort to write.
Anne Bogart, theater director and visionary
To this day when things are not going well in rehearsal I feel that I should be fired and a real genuine professional theater director should be hired in my place. I imagine that everyone involved is wishing for someone with a more definite sense of direction. This feels lousy.
Tom Purcell, writer
At one point, I was an on-foot messenger for a law firm, and I was doing that in the daytime and doing shows every night. I was sick all of the time. Literally all the time. I was sleeping in a converted bedroom that was really just an unheated porch. I had pneumonia twice in one winter.
Sarah Ruhl, playwright
My friends with real jobs used to take me out to eat occasionally and I would want to weep with gratitude. I remember a fellow playwright who had a job then taking me out for Easter dinner and eating a roast chicken and wanting to cry with happiness.
Wells Tower, writer
I made my own hummus— that was a great money saver. You make it out by the pound. It was interesting feeling so besieged financially. (…) Those were real flood-relief quantities of hummus. Seems like I had the whole town mapped in terms of where you could get a good deal on cheese or bok choy or coffee. I had an entire values circuit in lower Manhattan. It would take me three hours to go shopping because it felt worth it to walk fourteen blocks to save fifty cents on a bag of oats.
Lisa Sanditz, painter
I mostly worked at night. I worked on a wall in the middle of that huge room that we shared. It was me, my roommate, our boyfriends, her gigantic dog… The dog was an enormous Husky-wolf-Greyhound mix. Once, I had a couple of paintings I was working on up on the wall and one leaning against the wall on the floor. The dog came over and peed on it. I wanted to be so mad, but then I was like: “This is so great. I’m mark-making, you’re mark-making…we’re in this together!”
On the Terror of Writing!
Adam Haslett, writer
Two nautical analogies. You’re shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean surrounded by flotsam and jetsam. The clouds part and a voice says: “With your bare hands, as you tread water, take these broken pieces and build a new ship. And by the way, make it a beautiful one while you’re at it. Delivery expected in, say, five years.” That was one experience of writing Union Atlantic.
The other: “Imagine your mind as a Roman Galley, commanded by a brutal and impatient captain and powered by a deck of slaves chained to their oars. You are the captain and the slaves.” You might call it a master-slave dialectic.
Which is to say that I believe writing is, as James Baldwin described it, a process of “delicate, arduous, disciplined self-exposure.” To write anything worthwhile you must confront shame, i.e., the judgments of others and your judgments of yourself (or silence the shame with substances and blow on through it). There’s blood on the floor.
And, finally, the ultimate horror:
The Demise of Writers!
Gary Shteyngart, writer
I would say that writers are the most desperate people I have ever seen in terms of their utter lack of self-esteem. Their incredible alcoholism. Their way of life. Also, this feeling that they are no longer culturally relevant. I was watching Mad Men and there was some executive who flies in from somewhere and says, “Wow, we just saw James Michener by the pool!” Just the idea that writers were celebrities. That people, even some random executive from nowhere, would seek them out and know who they were.
The demise of writers as cultural figures has happened so quickly, I think it is still a shock. It is interesting to look at younger people from generations ahead of mine, because they never counted on that to begin with. But my peers, the people in their late 30’s now, to us literature still mattered when we were in our 20’s. We would discuss the new Martin Amis book with a comrade who was not a writer himself. Recently, I was at a dinner with a lot of very young people who just graduated from college and a friend said, “Oh, Gary is a novelist,” and they all looked at me like, what the hell is that? Like in a zoo! And then my friend said, “And he is also a contributing editor to Travel and Leisure,” and they said, “Oooo! Travel and Leisure! That must be awesome, dude!”