Books & Manuscripts

An Interview With Octavian Forum Speaker Erica Jong

By Sotheby's

T he Octavian Forum, coming to Sotheby’s on 17 October, will be a one-day gathering of luminaries. Like Erica Jong, author of "Fear of Flying" and a generation-defining literary voice. We caught up with Erica about what inspires her, what concerns her, and why she is participating in the event.

Why will you be participating at the Forum?   
I am humbled that I was invited to speak amongst such inspirational and influential people. How could I pass up the opportunity? 

Who or what inspires you most?  
There are too many greats to name them all but writers who inspire me include: Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Clarice Lispector, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Mark Twain...The list goes on and on. To me, good literature is marked not only by its longevity or readership but by its influence.  

Who was your childhood hero?  
I was madly in love with Nancy Drew. When I was 8 or 9 in Fire Island, I would “wagon" at the Ferry taking peoples’ bags at a quarter a piece so I could save my money to buy Nancy Drew books. I would walk barefoot down to the general store, buy the latest Nancy Drew and an ice-cream cone then run home to read the book.   

After Nancy Drew I fell in love with The Little Princess by Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett — a Victorian story about a girl whose rich father dies of cholera in India and she is banished to the attic of her school where she makes friends with a monkey climbing over the rooftops of London. She has no firewood and must burn paper in the fire to warm up her room. She goes from being a princess to an outcast orphan. I was the middle sister of three in quite a prosperous home, raised by my parents and grandparents — but of course I felt like an orphan.    

Later on, I fell in love with Little Women (of course), and The Secret Garden. When I turned 12 or 13 I began reading Dostoyevsky and thought I was so smart but didn’t recognize pathos or murder or adultery. Then I got into Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw. And Oscar Wilde — my great love in my teenage years. I decided I was a satirist and I adored Swift. I wanted to be an Irish writer, not English.   


After that, I fell in love with Edna Saint Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker — the women writers of my mother’s youth. For some weird reason, I never got into Austen. I have read her in adulthood trying to figure out why she didn’t speak to me. Maybe because at that stage, I was not interested in getting married. I thought marriage was a trap and I wanted to be independent and a feminist from an early age. When I read Austen I wondered why all these women cared about was getting married to obnoxious men — I couldn’t identify. I identified much more with the women poets of the 1920’s like Millay, Akhmatova: “Give me liberty or give me death was my call.” No stultifying marriage for me. I wanted to be George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde.  

Later I wanted to be Yeats, Nabokov. In fact, my first novel (never published) was a Nabokovian pastiche — 'THE MAN WHO MURDERED POETS.' A fantasy about a man who wanted to kill the greatest poet of his age so as to absorb his magical poetic powers. I gave it to my first editor — Aaron Asher at Holt — who had published two volumes of my poetry and he said: “Go down the street and offer it to Farrar Strauss & Giroux, they’ll publish it. It’s certainly well written and publishable but I want you to go home and write a novel in the voice of your poems. That is something new. Imitating Nabakov is not.” I now bless him for having the guts to tell me that. I immediately shelved the manuscript and spent my 20s writing poetry and fiction and essays and everything else. I always wanted to be a woman of letters, which now makes me laugh. Who wants a woman of letters? No one!   

I still love Oscar Wilde, I still love Swift. I still love Anna Akhmatova and still love Millay’s Shakespearean sonnets. I still read Dorothy Parker with pleasure and have read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Chekhov more than I can say. Every time I read them I discover a different writer because as you grow older the great writers seem to grow older with you. Yeats has penetrated my soul. I know lines of his by heart. 

What are you reading/watching/looking at at the moment?  
I read constantly and have a tower of books at my bedside. I read both fiction and non-fiction, poetry old and new — I tend to watch movies that will inspire the work I am doing in one way or another.   

I just watched The Dallas Buyers Club because the director was recommended to me as someone who might direct a movie of one of my books.  


Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the state of world?   
Both. I am naturally an optimist. I love people and am fascinated by them. I have a wonderful life and am blessed with good health, a satisfying career and a loving family. That being said — I am severely troubled by the political state of our country. I am afraid for my grandchildren about the state of our environment. I worry constantly over the news cycle and what disaster will come next. I think that Trumpski, as I call him, wants us to worry about him. He is greedy for attention and constantly interrupting our weekends and our vacation time — his favorite thing to do. He seems to have an addiction to disrupting the lives of people who would never vote for him. He is one sick cookie. 

If you could snap your fingers and change the world in one way — small or large — what would you do?  
I would change the outcome of the election – and we would have the first woman President of the United States.  

What keeps you up at night?  
A good book. Inspiration and the drive to write. Jet-lag. Coffee. Any combination of those. 


Come join Erica and a host of other thought leaders at the Octavian Forum.


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