What was it about New York that made you move to the city after 25 years in San Francisco?
My writing took me to NYC numerous times over the years, and I always enjoyed it: the energy, the anonymity I felt, happily lost in crowds, the density of life, the museums and so on. But as I note early in the book, visiting New York is one thing, living here is another; it was definitely an adjustment to become a New Yorker and make the decision to stay.
In your telling, New York is both a place “where one comes to reinvent himself” and one where, if you “ask first, don’t grab, be fair”, it pays you back, sooner or later. Did you imagine that the city would become such a prominent character in your life when you moved there?
Yes, I knew from the outset — long before I started writing, long before Oliver’s illness — that New York would be the main character of this book. When I moved here, I knew very few people yet I felt the city welcomed me with open arms. In a certain way, New York saved my life by allowing me start my life over at age 48. Then, when I actually was working on the book, I felt it important that the focus would not just be on Oliver, or Oliver and me, because I also had an ongoing relationship with the city itself. Hopefully, the book captures those two romances in my life — with Oliver and with New York City.
Do you remember your first trip ever to New York?
I was 12 or 13, living in a small town in Washington state, when my parents took one of my five sisters and me to New York. That trip made a huge impression. New York was everything my hometown wasn’t: diverse, densely crowded, noisy, gritty, exciting. I loved it. My parents loved New York, too, in part because they had met here in the early 1950s. My dad was a cadet at West Point, and my mom was living here after college — pursuing art – when mutual friends set them up on a blind date. They fell in love and got engaged (though they moved back to Minneapolis to marry and have a family). So, I grew up on romantic stories of New York — a romantic vision of the city that remains with me today.
It’s also, quite literally, a city that never sleeps. Did your insomnia allow you to fit in here in ways that wasn’t, perhaps, possible elsewhere?
Absolutely. I felt a kinship with the city that I had never experienced in San Francisco or elsewhere — for New York is truly alive at night, which is also to say, awake. If I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and look out the window at 3 a.m. and see a whole cast of characters on the street down below — bicyclists, skateboarders, taxi drivers at the gas station across the street — or in facing apartment buildings. Sometimes, I will take a walk; at night in New York, there are people reading books on benches under street lamps, construction workers doing street repair, restaurant workers going home. The life of an insomniac is less lonely here.
The form of Insomniac City (Bloomsbury) is like a collage – a record of passing encounters, events and people one holds dear, who make life what it is. Was it something that you had planned or did it come together organically?
No, the book’s structure was not planned in advance. I knew I wanted to write a memoir about my life in New York. I knew I wanted to incorporate my street photography. But I didn’t know how – or even if – I would write about my relationship with my late partner, Oliver Sacks. Oliver had written about the two of us, in his autobiography “On the Move,” so I didn’t feel it would be indiscreet, yet I also didn’t know how I would approach writing about him in my own way.
That said, I did have material to work with, including a 700-page journal chronicling my life in NYC, which I had started at his urging a few weeks after moving here in April 2009.
I had never re-read the journal. But very quickly after starting to dip into it, I realised that here was the key to the book – in these passages: I found scenes (between O and me, or between me and strangers, fellow New Yorkers) that could stand on their own, without exposition or set-up. They still had the immediacy of the initial conversation or encounter, and a kind of looseness to the writing that I felt captured the pace of life in NYC. Once I realised what I could do with the material, I put it together quickly, braiding the three elements – the NY story, the Oliver story, and the photographic essay. This structure was not new for me – my previous three books also rely on interweaving narratives – but it was the most intimate work I had ever done.
You write in the book that you started photography in London, after your partner Steve’s death. Would you say photography teaches one to be more vitally aware of one’s surroundings? Does it teach empathy?
It does make one more vitally aware of others and one’s surroundings — I am constantly looking for pictures on the street, even if I’m just dashing to the drugstore — yet I don’t think photography teaches one to be empathetic. However, the kind of photography I do raises questions that test one’s empathy: Is the photo exploitative in any way? Is it capturing the person in a way that might seem unkind or untrue or unflattering? (There are hundreds of pictures I’ve discarded for those reasons.). When a person agrees to let me take a picture, they implicitly place trust in me. I try to honour that.
Does this awareness or openness also render one vulnerable?
For sure, yes. When you’re as open with people as I can be, when you hear their stories, or just see a look in their eyes, you sometimes absorb their pain, their sadness, and walk away with that. It can be heartbreaking. I suppose that’s a risk that may come with these intense, random encounters.
One of the recurring characters in your book is Ali, a Pakistani man running a shop owned by an Indian. There’s a beautiful moment in the book where he says that such a thing could only be possible in New York. Under the current administration, when the outsider or the immigrant is increasingly being viewed with suspicion, do you see these bonds between neighbours and strangers going down?
I still see Ali all the time — he’s just down the street, and I often stop by just to say hello — and I do think it’s more important than ever to get to know one’s neighbours. Under the current administration in the US, not only people’s rights, but also people’s lives, are threatened in a way that I have not seen or experienced before in my 56 years. This is a very troubling time. But I am not without hope, especially about the impact that organising, resistance and activism can have.
Insomniac City is bookended by loss. It reminded me of the writing of Joan Didion. You mention in the book that Didion was part of your essential reading. What does her work mean to you?
I was 16 when I first encountered Didion in 1977 with her newly published novel, A Book of Common Prayer. I spotted it at the small bookshop in my hometown. I remember opening it to the first page, reading the first sentence: “I will be her witness.” I was captivated. Two years later, she published a very different book, The White Album: a masterpiece of personal essays and first-person journalism. I went on to read her earlier books and every new book as it came out. It is Didion’s voice, her literary voice — whether in fiction, essays, or narrative nonfiction — that resonates so strongly: the directness, the cool tone, and especially the sparseness of the writing combined with the seemingly unsparing view of herself. I say ‘seemingly’ because, as I have learned with my own work, there’s far more craft involved in this kind of writing that the reader may comprehend.
Could you tell us about the early years of your acquaintance with Dr Sacks, from the time when you were in San Francisco?
My publisher had sent him a copy of The Anatomist, hoping he might provide a ‘blurb.’ He didn’t — as he later explained, he had gotten ‘distracted and forgot.’ But after he had read the book, he wrote a very cordial letter to me to say how much he’d enjoyed it — just, one writer to another. He explained in the letter that his parents had both been doctors, and he’d grown up in a household with the classic 19th-century text Gray’s Anatomy, the subject of my book. From there, we corresponded occasionally about books and writing and interests — an old-fashioned way of getting acquainted.
Which was the first book by Dr Sacks that you had read?
In college, I read “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” but I have to admit: it didn’t make the impact on me that it has made on so many others around the world. (I can’t tell you how often people have said to me that they ‘became a doctor,’ or, a research scientist, or neurologist, or social worker, etc., because of that book.) Later, I read Oliver’s incredible profiles in The New Yorker — his profile of Temple Grandin, who is autistic, blew me away, both for the humanity of the piece and the first-rate writing. And, shortly before first receiving the first letter from Oliver, I read his beautiful memoir, Uncle Tungsten; I remember thinking at the time it was a classic of the form.
Your relationship with Dr Sacks came quite late in his life, and, for you, after a long relationship. Did that make it difficult for both of you to open up to each other?
On the contrary: Oliver and I were both old enough, or at least had each been through enough, to intuit that something special — magical — was happening between us, and that we had to go with it. Why not? Life can be way too short, unpredictable, even cruel. With age, comes an understanding: one has to be open to possibilities for joy.
How much of your relationship was a reinvention for both of you?
The whole period during which we were together — short in some ways, just six years — was one of reinvention for both of us: I, starting my life over here, becoming a New Yorker, becoming a photographer, falling in love again after a painful loss; and for Oliver, experiencing romance and a domestic relationship for the first time in his life at age 75, and also, gradually —piece by piece by piece — opening himself up to his readers, to the world, through a number of remarkably candid personal essays, culminating in his final pieces for The New York Times. Looking back, I see how we encouraged and complemented one another over this period.
You write how Dr Sacks would gift you an element on your birthday. If you were to choose an element for him, irrespective of the one corresponding with his age, which would that be?
Mercury, #80 on the periodic table — in part because a scientist-friend gave him a substantial bottle of mercury for that birthday (packed in a special container so that none of the toxic substance would leak). He adored this gift — everything about it: the packaging, the surprising weight of the mercury in the bottle, the way the silver viscous fluid looked. I think of mercury, equally, because Oliver himself was mercurial — his energy, his moods, his intellect, his prodigious creativity — all constantly shifting, questing, moving. He abhorred being bored.
What do you miss about him the most?
His companionship, his company: We led a quiet life but it was very full. There was no technology in the apartment (no computer, no email, no cell phones), but our days and nights were filled with writing, conversation, music, reading, enjoying meals, walks in our neighborhood, swimming, exercise, occasional visitors — and lots of laughter, lots of conversation and laughter. I miss that the most.
You mention that “but” was one of Dr Sacks’s favourite words. What would yours be?
My favorite word, the one I over-use more than any other, is “beautiful.” That’s what I see, or what I seek, whether in my writing or my photography: beauty. But here’s the thing: in New York, as in other big cities especially, beauty may come in unbeautiful ways.
What are you working on at present?
I have just finalised my next book, which will be published by Bloomsbury in February of next year: a collection of my New York street photography, in both black-and-white and color. I’ve written a little bit of text for the opening and closing of the book, but it is primarily a narrative told through pictures — about 140 in all. How New York Breaks Your Heart is the title.
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