Love, Erica Jong Style

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Erica Jong knows something about love, especially its sexy side. Her first novel, Fear of Flying, electrified the literary community in 1971 with its frank sexuality and passion. The public was seduced: the book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and was translated into 37 languages. Many books later, and now the grandmother of three, Jong has returned to her original calling, poetry, in her compelling new volume of poems, Love Comes First. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached the author at her Manhattan home:

Fear of Flying was a international phenomenon. What was that like at age 31?
It was unimaginable what happens to you when you get known for a book that everybody reads, or that everybody has heard of. If the book is said to be sexy, the crazies come out of the woodwork. It's unbelievable. So you have to really get used to that, and you have to get used to protecting yourself, which I knew absolutely nothing about.

Protecting yourself in what way?
Protecting yourself from strangers. I mean, I was a graduate student at Columbia. I was teaching at City College. I was an academic. It never occurred to me that I had to take my name out of the phone book and hide a little bit. And then came Fear of Flying and every crazy lunatic gets your number and has some proposition to make. They want to move in with you, they want you to save their lives, they want you as a lover. I mean, mostly they want salvation and they believe that a writer can deliver it.

What were the critics like?
Some of them were vicious and horrified, and some in love with the book, like John Updike and Henry Miller. There was no gray area. They either were outraged or ecstatic. Nothing in-between, which I suppose is good. (See the top 10 John Updike novels.)

Some people thought you were condoning promiscuity.
Right. It became a cause celebre. I remember the New York Times magazine ran an article called "Who's Afraid of Erica Jong?" That was typical. Over the years it settled in and became a classic, but initially the feelings that people had were extremely violent. And living through that was an interesting experience.

There was a TV incident, too, wasn't there?
It was on a talk show. I can't remember who the host was, but he said, all you women's libbers want to pee standing up. I mean, that was the level of the discourse. People just didn't get it. They didn't understand that women's rights are human rights, that women were given really no quarter.

But why do you think so many women refuse to identify themselves as feminists?
It's a mother/daughter thing. Their mothers called themselves feminists, so the daughters, in an attempt to distinguish themselves, have to call themselves something else. I think it's mostly terminology, that any terminology associated with women sooner or later becomes degraded. An executrix is laughable, an executor is not. An aviatrix is not as strong as an aviator. It has to do with the sexism that is in our society and often is unconscious. (See pictures of the 20th century's greatest romances.)

It's rare for a writer to be so defined by one book. You've written eight novels, seven books of poetry, a significant amount of nonfiction, and yet you're so known by this one book. Is that frustrating?
Of course it's frustrating. But one realizes it's also blessing to have a book that is so widely known — even if misinterpreted — and a book that makes your name. It's rare. You have to feel that it's a blessing and a curse because it is. Whoever promised us we'd be understood anyway?

Your new book is a poetry collection. You began as a poet, didn't you?
Yes. I guess the thing that I'm most proud of is that I kept on writing poetry. I understand that poetry is sort of the source of everything I do. It's the source of my creativity. I go on using it as a way into my deeper mind. Often I find that poems predict what I'm going to do later in my own writing, and often I find that poems predict my life. So I think poetry is the most intense expression of feeling that we have. I've never given up writing it because it's essential to me. And poems don't come over time. Sometimes poems don't come to you at all. But when they come, you have to sit down and write them. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)

What can you do in poetry that you can't do in prose?
In poetry you can express almost inexpressible feelings. You can express the pain of loss, you can express love. People always turn to poetry when someone they love dies, when they fall in love. So poetry is what we reserve for the most intense human emotion.

This poetry is serious. The love that you describe here is sober; these are serious reflections on mortality.
There's an awful lot of that. I think you reach a certain age and friends begin dying around you, and it's impossible not to contemplate that. I think that's a stage of life where you have to make your peace with the fact that some of the people who have been the most important to you are going or are gone. Sometimes you look through your database and you think, half the people in here are dead. Do I take them out or not? And I think that's a profoundly human need, to make peace with mortality.

You write that love is never enough to save us. Why?
The experience of love — yes, it's mind-expanding and soul-expanding, but it cannot save us from loneliness or mortality. That's a paradox because we hope it will.

How many years have you been married to your current husband?
20 years. We got married in 1989.

And you'd been divorced three times before that.
Yes. My first marriage was really a starter marriage of one year to somebody who was quite mad. Brilliant and mad. And the marriage came apart when he had a breakdown. So it seems like not a marriage at all because we were both so young. My marriage to Allan Jong and to Jonathan Fast were more real marriages, but we outgrew each other. Ken and I have a good marriage, I think, in that we allow each other complete freedom and space. Nobody is trying to imprison the other.

See pictures of people who have been married for 50 years.

See the All-TIME top 100 novels.