Lis Harris

Lis Harris is the author of three books, Holy Days: the World of a Hasidic Family, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Rules of Engagement; and Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings and the Corporate Freeze. She is a former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, where she worked for over two decades. Her writing has also appeared in publications like The New York Times, The World Policy Journal, Du and the Wilson Quarterly.

Harris is the recipient of a great many grants and awards, including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gund Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the Kaplan Fund, the Fund for the City of New York, and the Woodrow Wilson Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. She teaches writing at Columbia University.

Harris is direct but warm, shrewd but encouraging. She has a sharp tongue and a mischievous eye.

When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a little girl I didn’t want to be anything, I just wanted to play ball. I was a tomboy. I had no overarching ambitions. But I was headed toward being an artist, a painter. In my family, my brother was the writer, and I was the artistic one. Totally designated. My brother is six years older than I am and he became a correspondent, very early, for The New York Times. We are so different that I thought, “That’s what a writer is, and I’m definitely not like that.”

I could never do what my brother did for his entire life—to go out for a few hours, come back to a desk, write it, and it’s done. For me, there is a lot of dream-time involved; thinking, wandering, changing my mind. And, actually, I think I write to find out what I think. I’m not one of those people who knows in advance what I think before I write, not really. But even when I was young, I was a bookworm and avidly attentive to the stories people told about their lives.

Did you write in college?

I wrote poetry and I majored in what was called, at Bennington where I went to college, Language and Literature. I was the co-editor of the literary magazine…I mean, words were always my playground, I kept diaries and sometimes a journal . . . but I had this preconceived idea that that realm was already taken; that I was the artist.

So I minored in art. I was surrounded [in college] by people who were going to be artists, for whom this was their world. I enjoyed drawing and painting, but it wasn’t my true language. But I didn’t follow that out, or think, “Oh, I’m a writer,” because I had this fixed idea, even through college.

What did you do when you graduated from college?

There was a magazine in Switzerland, it still exists, called Du—it’s literary and a graphic designer’s dream. I decided sometime during my senior year in college that I wanted to work for Du. I kept writing them letters over many months, but they weren’t answering me. At all. I had gotten a job as a mother’s helper with a wonderful family who traveled all around Europe: England, Paris, the South of France. When they went home [to America], I stayed [in Europe] since I was waiting to hear from this magazine—though I was clearly never going to.

I had no money at all. My parents were not approving of any of this. I had a boyfriend in the States whom I didn’t want to borrow money from. Someone had given me the number of an editor of an art magazine which was then based in Zurich called Art International. I called him [the editor] from Paris. I told him I had been writing to Du and that they were not answering. He laughed and said, “Everyone wants to be there. You don’t have a chance in hell.” Parenthetically, several decades later I got a call one afternoon when I was in my office at The New Yorker from an editor at Du in Switzerland, asking me to write an article about I.B. Singer for them, which I did.

Anyway, I took a deep breath. I so wanted to stay in Europe—I wanted to be where my parents were not, where my boyfriend was not, where institutions that wanted something from me were not . . . I just wanted to be there [in Europe], figuring myself out, by myself, in a different culture. I absolutely wanted that. So I asked him if he needed any help at Art International, and he said, “I don’t think so.” So I said, and I don’t even know where I ever got the brass to do it but I did this, I said, “Well, I’m going to be passing through Zurich tomorrow, why don’t I just come talk to you?” What this meant is that I had to cash in my boat-train ticket to go back to America, buy a ticket to Zurich, stay up all night . . .

So you went to Zurich!

Everyone always says Zurich is boring . . . well, I thought it was beautiful! The office was on Schwanengasse, in the old Guild Section of Zurich. When I walked down the street to see him [the editor], I thought, “I must live here.” Because every doorway had beautiful gilded swans over it, it was just gorgeous.

It turned out that Art International was this man and his wife, that was it. They were overworked, totally, and they had not much money. It was published trilingually. So, he asked me if I could take stenography in those languages, and I said, “No, I can’t take stenography in any language.” Then he asked me how fast I typed, and well, I typed with two fingers . . . Then he asked me a series of questions, the answer to which was always “No.” Finally, he sort of looked at me and he said, “Well, I guess there’s no job here for you.”

So I stood up, I know I must have been on the verge of tears—I didn’t know what I was going to do, I had no ticket to get out of there, either. Then, dear man, bless him, he must have just gotten it, or something, and taken pity on me, because he said, “Well, a third person would be good if you could review little Swiss shows, do this, do that . . .” He could only afford to pay me peanuts, but I had a job!

Crazy story! Now you were in Zurich, with a job, but with nothing else. Where did you stay? How did you find your way?

I left the office, walked out, and decided what section of town I wanted to live in. Where did I get this guileful boldness from, really?! Well, I walked around and saw a pair of blue jeans sticking out from under a car, and I thought, “Oh, blue jeans! A friendly person!” That was in a time when people didn’t much wear blue jeans in general. I pulled on the legs and out came a student who happened to live in a student building. He took my name down and I said I would be at the Y, or something like that. Five minutes later, a car comes round the corner with a bunch of guys in it, including him, and they say, “We heard about a room!” And I immediately had a room! It was like an operetta!

I had a very good time. I stayed for about a year. I made a good friend who was a mime—which made communicating across languages a lot easier. I traveled a lot around the countryside and gawked at the Alps. I didn’t do anything tremendously exciting, but I sorted things out in a private way.

What was this private sorting out about?

You know, you grow up and people have an idea of who you should be or what you should be, and you may not want to be those things. But I hadn’t at that point paused long enough to figure those things out.

I realized, first of all, that I was not going to be a painter. I was writing a lot of poetry. I realized that writing was where I belonged, that it was a centering point for me, and that I had to be doing something with words, somehow. But this thought was far from being associated with the word “career.” I never thought of graduate school, either, and I honestly think people teaching in MFA programs at that time were hacks. The general idea then was: Be in life, write about it, don’t pause.

And I broke up with my boyfriend. Well, first I went back to America to marry him. Then I realized that wasn’t a good idea . . .

So you came back to the States.

Yes. I got a job at something called The Book of Knowledge, which was a children’s encyclopedia. Because it was a children’s encyclopedia, you could only use a certain number of words, 600 or something like that. I think it was when I got to the letter ‘F’—Fra Angelico I think was my nemesis—that I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.

As it happened, I got hired by The New Yorker because my French was good. Janet Flanner was getting on and she was not always reliably reporting on things she was reading in French newspapers. And they needed someone who could follow in her footsteps and really fact-check her carefully.

Did you have The New Yorker as a dream, the way many writers today see working for The New Yorker as a kind of Holy Grail?

I wish I could say that that were true. You have to understand, I was still in a frame of mind in which though I was doing all this writing I didn’t think: “I’m a writer.” I thought: “I’m an artist”—but the idea that I could make my living out of writing seemed out of the question.

I remember someone asking me once, “What would your ideal day be like?” Well, I spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum of art copying Greek vases. I still did a lot of sketching. I thought in my ideal day I would wake up, write a lot of letters to wonderful people, take a walk, go to the museum, think about life. . . . Like Madame de Staël!

What was the living like in New York for you at the time?

It was very easy to live on a little bit of money at that time because rents were so cheap. I forgot to mention it before, but I had an interim job before The New Yorker where I would read manuscripts for a publisher. I would stagger up to my fourth floor walk-up with four or five manuscripts and somehow doing that weekly was enough to keep body and soul together. We are talking about rents that were far less than two hundred dollars.

What were you eating during your salad days?

Oh, those pathetic single person meals, I don’t like to think about them, even. A cutlet, a shard of watercress…

But I’m a cook. I attended classes at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.

When did you attend the Cordon Bleu?

It was after I quit working at The Book of Knowledge, before I started working at The New Yorker. I was taking a time-out, and I was in Paris and thought it would be interesting to go to classes at the Cordon Bleu—the same place that Julia Childs went to. I did not get a diplôme, I just sat in on classes.

The chefs were very, very serious and the gravitas of it all was just so funny! This would have been the mid ’60’s, when the English were just discovering food. There were all these long-stemmed-rose English girls there bringing back the truth-revealed to London from Paris. They were like acolytes having a religious experience.

And you would cook a lot in New York?

The next decade became the era of the Great Dinner Party. It was a central mode of people’s social life. This was before Internet dating, so you would meet people this way. Thoughtful hostesses invited single women and men who were divorced or who weren’t yet married. . . .

It was very nice, but there was a certain degree of competitive cooking, especially among the married. I had a friend who was an editor at a magazine called Working Mother, and she and I were in a special sort of competition that we never acknowledged. One day, I had a huge dinner party and I brought out a dessert that I remember to this day: Poached peaches and homemade raspberry sorbet. The peaches were about the size of baseballs. She looked at her dessert and she said, “Lis, you win.” [Laughs.]

Tell me more about where you lived during your early years in New York.

My first apartment was on East 80th Street because I was living alone and wanted to live near the museum. That was very boring. Then I got married and moved to East 82nd Street between Park and Lex[ington]—still an uptown girl. It was sort of dreary there, but the park was there, and I didn’t know better.

But then, when I split up with my first husband, I moved to the Village. When I moved there, I wondered why I hadn’t been there my whole life. I loved the fact that the building line was so low and the sky was so big, all the small shops . . .I still feel that way. I lived down on Grove Street, a wonderful little apartment with a fireplace.

Then, when I got re-married, I moved in with my second husband on Waverly Place. The place on Waverly was a fifth floor walk-up. That was fine for a while until I got pregnant and had a difficult pregnancy. I just couldn’t handle the stairs. We moved to 9th street between 5th and 6th, to a nice old building where Marion Moore had lived.

Who did you spend your time with?

While I was at the children’s encyclopedia, I made a friend who had gone to Radcliffe and had a lot of Harvard friends and a lot of Radcliffe friends. One of the people in that circle, a man who would become my good friend, James Chace, had written a novel about his circle of friends. They seemed like a lot of people I knew slightly, or people I would want to know. I met him [James] at a party about a week after I came across his book in the Donnell Library and read it!

They were older than I was, but they were lovely and very literary and political. They became my friends. When we talked, we were interested in the same things, our range of reference was pretty much the same, but they were already writers. They were five or six years older than I was. People said to me, “You sound like you’re a writer.” And I would always say, “No, no, no, no!”

It wasn’t until I went to The New Yorker that I began to imagine I could be a writer, when I began fact-checking people who were really great, I thought, “I would like to be doing this.” I was not one of the best fact checkers, I was alright at it, but I didn’t care as much as I should. A good fact checker is like a good dog trainer: You have to really be invested in the minutiae, and not give up. I learned to do it, and being a fact checker was very good for me as a writer, because now I’m a very careful person and very beady-eyed. The beady-eyedness turned out to be quite useful.

When did you move from being a fact checker to writing for The New Yorker?

The change happened for me when I was fact checking Edmund Wilson. Wilson prided himself on his superior linguistic abilities. He got into a tussle with Vladimir Nabokov over what translation of Pushkin was better—he considered himself better [at judging] than Nabokov, who was Russian! (And in this case Wilson turned out to be right.)

But anyway, he was very sure of himself, and a sort of fearsome person. It became my unhappy duty to tell him—he was writing something about World War I—that some French soldiers’ marching song was incorrect. He said, “Nonsense, nonsense, I must be right, you must be wrong.” So I found out the music to the song. I went back to him and I sang his version of the song, which didn’t at all fit the music, and then I sang my version of the song, which worked. And he thought I was a genius!

So, he asked me if I liked being a fact checker and I said, “Not awfully much. But I like being here at The New Yorker.” He asked me if I wrote. I said I did. He asked if he could see what I did, so I showed him a few things. And he said, “I think you’re a writer. Wouldn’t you prefer writing here?” I said, “Yes!” He said, “This is what you should do: Start writing a lot for other periodicals and magazines, anything, and this will annoy Mr. Shawn [William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker] He will call you in and ask you why you are doing that and ask you why you are not writing for us.” And that is exactly what happened.

Where did you first publish?

I began writing for the then-not-so-humble Village Voice and the Times.

How did you first get work published in The Voice or The Times?

The same way anybody I ever knew got anything done: I knew somebody who knew an editor, I called the editor, I told them I was a beginning writer but I had some things to show them . . . and they were open! At that point, publishing was much more open.

Now it seems like there are a lot more brick walls.

It’s true. There are too many writers and too many pieces and everything has gotten smaller, and too many editors don’t want things from the outside because they already have their staff. Back then, it was just a more fluid situation.

There was a wonderful editor at The Village Voice named Ross Wetzsteon. He was very open. A friend of mine who was an established writer told me to call him and use her name. And he was very enthusiastic. I started writing for The Voice without having anything to show, except for poems and a few essays, but they didn’t care. And then when I started writing for The Times, I showed them my Voice pieces. That’s how it happened.

Do you recall what it was like to see your first writing in print?

Heaven! It was heaven. How can cold print on paper be so exciting? But it was. And then, when I started appearing in The New Yorker, that was even more exciting because magazine paper is even more wonderful than newsprint!

What kind of things did you write for The New Yorker at first?

I had the choice of doing “Talk of the Town” stories or “Briefly Noted,” those short little book reviews. In those days, those little reviews were actual reviews, not just puff pieces like they are now. It was hard. The job was to read and review four books a week. But I learned to do it. I was writing all the time. People say, “I can only work at McDowell, or on the fjords . . .” Well, I can work anywhere! I can work on the subway . . . I just learned to shut everything out.

The reviews were short, but the more I did that, the more I saw that I wanted to expand and do more. It took me a while [to be able to do that], because Mr. Shawn had a rather archaic view of the world. He thought you were born into the world a writer, or born into the world an editor, or whatever. Like the Great Chain of Being. He didn’t at first know if I could actually write for the magazine . . .

If you were actually born into the right category?

Yes, that’s right! Many of my colleagues later on in my career wanted to teach, and he was very hostile to that. He thought teaching was bad for writers because the bad words and sentences of the students would get into your brain and push out your good words. I’m not kidding. He really had that idea of it!

When you finally did start writing for The New Yorker, what was the experience like?

The particular amalgam of The New Yorker of that time—less so now—about writing about living, moving people, and having a whole world that they live in come alive, doing the research but having it be novelistic . . . to me, that was just thrilling. The New Yorker turned out to be the ideal home for me, because what they liked is what I liked to write, exactly what I wanted to do.

And I had such a great mentorship there. Not only Edmund Wilson, who really did take me under his wing—he didn’t do that with the men, let me say. One thing that Wilson and I had in common was puppets.

Puppets?

Yes. When I was younger, I would make puppets of people I knew, and I would bring them out and have a conversation with the puppet. Well, Wilson also was hugely interested in puppeteering.

Really?!

Yes. I made one of him with his little rep necktie and his hair and his suit and his pink cheeks. Of course he loved it. Actually, I made two: One for him and one for myself. I was quite fond of the Bunny puppet—that’s what his friends called him, Bunny. I had the puppet around for years, then it fell apart.

Back to mentorship at The New Yorker.

I got to know Joseph Mitchell very well. He was a great talker. . . all these people talked about their work, and what was interesting about their work. It was not a mentorship like you have in MFA programs, where we are actually talking a lot about writing on a sentence level. It was about the spirit of the work, and the dedication to work, and the enlivening aspect of it, and the difficulty of work. All these things became very clear to me very early on through people whom I respected hugely, and who were very generous about talking.

Not that there weren’t a lot of narcissistic drunks around too, there were, as in any writing place of that period. I got there in the late ’60’s and started writing in the early ’70’s, and the place was awash in alcohol from a certain point of view, which did a lot of people in.

Did you face any particular challenges as a woman in this environment?

No. [William] Shawn loved the work of women. Not because they were women, but women often came up with subjects that were very off the grid, and somewhat eccentric. You definitely wouldn’t be hearing about them in Newsweek or Time. Like me and my Hasidic family story, for instance. Those guys wouldn’t be doing that.

I had to be in bed for two-and-a-half months for my first child, I had a very rough pregnancy. When I came back to the office, and tried to open the door to my office— the offices at The New Yorker were skinny, showily dowdy spaces, only big enough for a desk and a chair and maybe a bookcase—I was having a tough time opening the door. Well, Mr. Shawn had ordered a cot for me to rest on that was in a room that definitely didn’t have space for it.

It was a very unusual, writer-centered place. Eccentric things were allowed to happen there, and the magazine wasn’t grudge oriented. For example, there was one writer whom Mr. Shawn fired, but he just didn’t leave his office. He refused to go, and no one wanted to call him on it. And later on he became one of Mr. Shawn’s favorite writers at the magazine.

You started writing your first book, Holy Days, as a piece for The New Yorker. Tell me about that.

I grew up in a very secular home and I saw the Hasidim walking around New York and I thought: “Who are these people?” When I first brought the idea to Mr. Shawn he shot it down, and I was totally shocked—he hardly ever turned stories down from staff writers. What you have to know is that he was a very assimilated Jew, and even though there were a lot of Jews around The New Yorker, it was a very WASPy place in tone, and the kind of Jews who were there were like me—secular. I think it was almost like I was bringing the shtetl world to his doorstep like a wet dog, and he didn’t want to be associated with that.

So, I went away, but I absolutely didn’t forget about it. Especially since the offices of The New Yorker were right by the New York Public Library, where the Lubavitchers—whom I eventually wrote about—had these big vans on Fridays where they would ask people, “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” and try to lure people in. They never asked me! They would ask my friends who were Irish, but they would never ask me! It was whipping me up in some way.

The first time I had said that I wanted to write about the Hasidic world, and maybe that was too broad. So the second time I went in, a year later, I told Mr. Shawn that I wanted to write about a Hasidic family as a window into that world. But again he said no! I was shocked, because I really wanted to do it. So I asked him why. And he got up, and looked out the window, and sighed, and finally said, “Alright, do it.” I think, rather than explain why he didn’t want me to do it, or have to think about why, he just basically said, “Go ahead and do it.”

It took me five years to write. I had a young baby and a toddler at that time, and I was going a little nuts. I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough work, or taking care of the children enough—and that was true.

Was it difficult to transition from writing articles to writing a book-length project?

It wasn’t a book when it started. It wasn’t a book for a long, long time. An editor came to me, actually, and he said he wanted the book of what I was writing. But I said no. I had my children, my job at The New Yorker, and I felt that if I had one more deadline, I would jump out the window. So I said no. But he kept offering me more money. As soon as I got home, my agent called me and said, “This is great, stick with your story!” I said, “It’s not a story!” But, as he pointed out, if I got enough money I could hire help [for the kids]. That is what I did. But the money ran out, and I still wasn’t finished, and I was going even more crazy.

But I was happy I did it. What I was saying before about seeing your name in print? Seeing your name on the binding of a book is yet more thrilling.

Did your work habits change when you were working on the book?

My space requirements burgeoned. I was so used to working in any old place. But the research I was doing for this book led to piles of papers. I began to be a person who needed a work space, which I had heretofore not been.

Most of my friends work at writer’s colonies. I am not like that. I want my kitchen, my familiar things. I get too distracted. I once went to a wonderful writers’ colony in the Adirondacks, Blue Mountain. It was so beautiful, I spent my entire time paddling in a canoe, looking at the deer park . . . [Laughs] I’m not that kind of person, I like my routines. I don’t want to be distracted by beauty. Not for me.

What did change after the first book was that I had started thinking of subjects with a deeper and larger scope. Though I enjoyed writing articles, I saw that I did not always want to be writing short, perky things. Short articles have their virtues, but sometimes can’t encompass enough with complex subjects especially. It is the large swell I’m interested in, not the short lapping waves.

You are now working on a rather epic project about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Tell me about that.

This is even harder [than my first book]. There were difficulties, there always are, with my second and third books too, but nothing I’ve done compares to what I am doing now, because I have never touched a subject that is so contentious. There isn’t anything you can say, even ‘and’ and ‘the,’ that people won’t jump on and disagree with from one side or the other. I’m very aware of that, and also there is the aspect of, “you’re a foreigner, you’re writing about someone else’s culture”—which was true of the Hassidic world too, but the stakes were not as high as they are here.

There is also the danger element. And I don’t speak Arabic and I don’t speak Hebrew. A lot of people would consider that a total impediment, but I didn’t, partly because of my training at The New Yorker, where we often took on difficult and complex subjects with the confidence that, with lots of hard work, we could probably encompass them. I still feel that way.

Was it difficult balancing children and being a writer?

By the time I had children, I was really writing all the time. In fact, I was so loving writing and not wanting to stop for a minute that when I went to the hospital [when I was in labor] with my first child, I was in the middle of doing a review for The New Yorker, and I actually brought the review to the hospital! I knew I wouldn’t be working while I was in labor. But I thought, “I’ll have the baby, and then I’ll go back to writing.” First of all, I didn’t know that I would be awash in hormones and would have zero interest whatsoever in anything around me except the baby. And secondly, you’re doing something! You’re busy, you’re really busy!

But I did figure out a way to do things. Because The New Yorker was so generous with long deadlines, and things were fine as long as you got your work in. So I was very lucky. I would pick up my kids at school and do all that and I never stopped working. But I didn’t do as much work as some of my colleagues, because I didn’t have a nanny.

I was of the mindset that I never wanted to stop working, but I wasn’t not going to have children, either. I was lucky. Being a writer is one of the luckiest professions you can have that way.

As long as you produce something, you’re not out of the game.

Yes, exactly. I heard so many stories from people I knew who were just going nuts. Like lawyers—forget it. You’re either in the loop or you’re out of it.

But at The New Yorker in that era, it was definitely the women who were shooting out of the office at 2:15 to pick up the kids. The men weren’t. They were staying until 5 or 5:30, when they would go over to the Algonquin for a drink.

Any challenges you’ve faced?

Every book that I’ve written—you never know if you’re getting things right.

Writers suffer from self-doubt. On one hand, I’m a confident thinker—I have no lack of confidence in my ability to think about things. But faced with that empty page, it’s like starting all over again. How many decades have I done this? Still, it’s like I’ve never done it. Once you start rolling, of course, it gets familiar. But there is the terror of the beginning that, at least for me, never goes away. The more complex the subject, the more the doubts are there.

Any advice for young writers just starting out?

I would definitely say to make sure that, whatever the market is, whatever the market wants, apart from that, if you are going to be with a subject for long, make it something that you feel has the scope and breadth that’s worthy of your attention. I do hear from an awful lot of young people—because they need to make money—who are working on things that they’re not that interested in, really. I don’t know how they do that.

Everyone needs to make money and keep body and soul together, and maybe you can have two things: One serious thing and one less serious thing. But I do know people who are lending themselves to books [they aren’t passionate about] that will take a lot of time and a lot of energy—and I don’t think that is good for your spirit. I don’t think that is good for your mind.

I really think you should find a way, even if you have a day job where you don’t write—which, for a lot of people, is going to be the case—to really care a lot about a subject and to want to live with it for any length of time it requires. That is different from “write about what you know;” it’s “write about what seems richly engaging.” Because there are so many trivial subjects that are going to take a long time, but you’re not going to want to stay with them.

I think my advice is not just to young writers, but also to older writers: To make sure you have younger writers in your sights and to make sure that if you can help them along, truly, do that.

Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo courtesy of the artist

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