Friday, October 3, 2014

Daphne Merkin

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Looking back over this interview, it could be said that we were more nosy than usual but then there is little that writer Daphne Merkin shies away from discussing. It was wonderful to listen to someone who often speaks almost as she writes, in carefully crafted sentences that say unguarded things. Her latest book, which came out in September, is “The Fame Lunches” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), billed as a collection of essays “On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes and the Importance of Handbags.” It’s a jazzy, snazzy title but each essay, though  meticulously entertaining, eventually circles down into something deeper, arriving at some exposure of our human frailty and our alone-ness in the world.

Click to order The Fame Lunches.
We don’t really know where to start – there’s nothing much left for us to reveal, I don’t think—but I’ll tell you something I’ve always wanted to ask you, which was that I once read that you bought and returned so many scarves to Takashimaya that you were banned from the store. Is that true?

No. The piece is called “My Kingdom for a Scarf”. It was about having a scarf I loved. I never really wore scarves that much and I left it in a cab and I raced through many lights trying to retrieve it. Then I wrote another piece for the Times called “Give Back the Nightie” and that was [about the fact that] I’d buy things and return them a lot because I’m always thinking they’re not worth it. But I didn’t put in the real reason that Takashimaya wrote me a letter saying that they preferred I didn’t frequent them. I went with a friend that day then I left the store and we were supposed to meet at the movies—after I left, she got arrested for shoplifting. After buying things, she shoplifted a pair of gloves. So the truth is that they very much linked me with her. And one day, years later, I did try to go in and two sales women said, “You were with the shoplifter.”

What happened to this woman you were with?

They actually put her in a cell. Her husband came and got her out and she had to do some kind of community service. I actually, weirdly enough, years earlier, wrote a piece on shoplifting—that it was the upper middle class woman’s way of getting back at the system, like “Yes, I’ve overspent on a blusher, so now I’ll take a lipstick or something.”

I’ve tried to read as much as I can of all that you have written and I do want to talk about your depression, which can be severe. Something that kept coming up in your writing is that many people seem to see depression as really a function or a manifestation of self-involvement. That seems like a different kind of stigma to the other stigma attached to depression, which was that depressed people were crazy—just quietly crazy.

I think it’s a way of diminishing it, warding it off. There’s not a real understanding of the difference between clinical depression—which is not all biological—and sadness. And depression is not schizophrenia. You can’t look at someone and say, “Well, she’s nuts. She sees green gremlins in the morning.”
Next to the front door a small cane chair belonged to Daphne's mother. In the front hall a group of work by outsider artists who are part of "Gugging" psychiatric hospital in Austria The table is from the Pace Gallery.
Bookcases in the front entrance hall are filled with novels, family photos and favorite objects.
And depression is so impenetrable.

Yes, which is what I’m trying to write about in this book that I’ve owed for about a thousand years. The word ‘depression’ is so much in the conversation now and ostensibly somewhat de-stigmatized but real depression remains stigmatized.

I’ve experienced depression and even talking about it is frightening to me—I sense the ghost of it hovering at the margins and I get scared that by talking about it, it will return.

I totally agree. And I particularly feel that when I’m writing about it. I also have this fear that I will plunge back in.

You don’t think it will be a relief to write about it?

That idea that writing is cathartic—I never find it particularly cathartic because you have to like, shape it so much.
Looking across the living room coffee table. A vase filled with colorful pink roses adds a pop of color to the glass-top table from Gerald Bland.
To bring a touch of mid-century modern into the living room, Daphne purchased this bright orange chair from 1stDibs.
Views of Daphne's living room filled with a mix of furniture and art collected over the years.
Friend and designer Eric Cohler helped Daphne pull together elements of her apartment. The club chairs are covered 'Mykonos' from Clarence House. The pillow fabric is  'Le Lac' linen from Brunschwig & Fils.
A French recamier chair is the perfect place to relax and read.
One of the things about people with depression is that there is no commonality such as there might be within an AA community.  I can be depressed and you can be depressed but we can’t comfort each other.

Right. I wrote that. It’s very isolating. There is very little collective around depression.

If writing isn’t cathartic for you, what do you feel when you’ve completed an essay. What does it bring?

Well there’s the personal writing and then there’s the writing about other people and other things—and I kind of like that. Like I wrote for Departures not long ago about this potter called Edmund de Waal [also the author of “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”] I felt with a piece like that, some of the graduate student pleasure in the immersive writing of it.
Two vintage Israeli photos flank a painting that belonged to Daphne's mother.
Views from the living room into the dining room and front entrance hall.
A large sculpture of a doll made by Daphne's stepdaughter Dina Brod stands next to the living room bookcases.
Ceramic objects and sculptures are carefully arranged atop the living room coffee table from Gerald Bland.
Do you think you’re going to stop writing about yourself at some point?

I certainly do—which is why a book that I signed on to write 12 years ago is not finished. When I write about myself, I always think: “Is anyone interested?” I don’t think Philip Roth sits around thinking, as he writes the ninetieth version of the same story, “Is anyone interested?” You need a kind of implacable narcissism to simply write about yourself constantly. So I take off and do all these other pieces. Like I also write about fashion. I just went to a show of Raf Simons where I was really struck by the insanity of the fashion world. It’s so self-enclosed. And the fuss that was made of him—he could have been Obama.

I have a sense that you’re coming to the end of writing the more personal pieces.

Possibly … very strongly. I have a book coming out in September [“The Fame Lunches”] It’s a collection of essays. I had to read it for the second time and I left out all the pieces on therapy or depression. Any time I could read about someone else … I liked it. I felt tired of reading “me”. I was [once] very focused [on the personal] because I couldn’t get out of my family. It seemed an imprisonment of sorts.
Collections of dolls by Seattle artist Terry Turrell are arranged upon a side table. Another Terry Turrell doll sits upon a small Asian chair in the living room.
Photographs of Daphne's mother and father are arranged on a living room table.
Other things become more interesting than yourself … as you get older perhaps.

Yes, most definitely. I agree. But what made me decide to write a book about depression, which I now have much trouble writing, is that I want to write about the ways out of depression. I don’t mean this in a saint-like way but when I wrote a piece for The New Yorker on depression, I got all these moving letters. I got a letter from a woman who said she wished her sister had read the piece and had agreed to go to a hospital and would not have killed herself.

You seem quite hard on yourself when it comes to your productivity as a writer and yet you’ve written plenty and been published everywhere. I always think what writers really want is legitimacy—do you feel you have that?

I think I strove … I once said to a therapist, “What I really want is love.” First of all as a woman, you’re not going to get love from writing. I think there are brainy male writers who get …

Adulation?

Yeah, adulation. And that’s enough for them. These days I think I feel like writing is what I do because it makes me feel useful. I come from this German-Jewish background with the sort of stress on not wasting your time. Honestly, a lot of my time has been eaten up by depression.
Peeking into Daphne's office.
A photograph by Hans Egelman from the Freund Museum in London hangs above an original New Yorker cartoon.
Daphne's work desk, bulletin board, and essential iMac.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the spanking thing [a piece in The New Yorker] because quite honestly I don’t think it all that interesting but what was interesting was the reaction, the prudery. If you had published that in Europe, I don’t think there would have been the same fuss.

That reaction! There wouldn’t have been the same reaction in Europe, I agree. Tina Brown at the time said to me, “Do you want to do it under a pseudonym?” And I said, ‘Ugh, that’ll just lead to … the pseudonym is??” If I told you what the reaction was then, it would be hard to believe. I left. I went to Israel. Someone even wrote to ask if I should be allowed to have children. Men wrote absolutely crazily about it. They were either titillated to death, or titillated and horrified.

But it’s also something to do with the fact that you’re considered an intellectual.

And that it was in The New Yorker.
Books and more books. Designer Eric Cohler extended a wall to add more shelves but alas, the job is never finished.
Dolls and objects share space with books in Daphne's office.
A group of succulent plants are arranged upon the office windowsill.
So I suppose we should talk a bit about your house and design. You have a real eye.

I did some of it with Eric Cohler and I did some of it on my own because it got too expensive. I never think there’s any great genius to decorators with infinite money. As I get older, aesthetics matter a lot. I know tons about outsider art—not sort of the way it has become elasticized here—but the way it truly started with people suffering from psychiatric illness who made art.

It seems fitting that you’re interested in outsider art. Can you say more on how you are drawn to it?

I think the subject that interests me a lot is what damage produces. I’m interested in people with an unconventional way of looking at things …  it interests me as a way of broadening. I was brought up in such a closed-in way because we were completely Orthodox. My father was remote … one of my sisters now wonders if he had some kind of autism. He was emotionally cut off as can be. Neither of my parents was very parental.
The bedroom hallway.
Daphne's bedroom is filled with more art and books, many found at flea markets and art fairs. The tufted headboard is out of a lilac-colored wool.
More bookcases line a wall of Daphne's bedroom.
Close-ups of the bedroom bookcases, including family photos, ceramic animals and other mementos.
Looking across Daphne's bedroom to the only TV we spotted in the apartment.
Flowering plants line the windowsill of Daphne's bedroom.
It’s interesting that you can be brought up with cold, unhappy parents but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a cold, unhappy parent yourself. You seem to have a very warm relationship with your daughter.

That’s true. We just went to Rhinebeck to visit my ex-husband and I spent a lot of time with my daughter just walking … and I was thinking how much I enjoy being with her. I think I am a very different kind of mother by intention and by nature. Because I grew up in such an autocratic family, I may have done too little, as my mother would have called it “laying down the law.” She always said she was “laying down the law.” My strength as a mother was that I was a very playful mother. I’ll still go into my fake British accent and I like those kinds of games.

It must have been very hard to shed that way of living, the conformity and the Orthodox upbringing.

 Very hard to shed. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for pieces of it. But the problem with Orthodoxy is that you can’t pick and choose. You can’t have the Sabbath one weekend and then go away the next weekend. My mother, who came from this very esteemed intellectual Jewish family, observed completely but I thought it brought her very little solace when she was dying. I said to her, “What did you keep it for?” and she to me, “The order.”
Looking across the dining room. Paintings by British artist Lisa Stokes hang on the far wall.
Silver candlesticks by an Israeli artist flank a vase of yellow roses.
More bookcases (and a bamboo ladder to reach them) line the dining room wall.
A painting by Dale Thompson and other works by outsider artists, including Gustavo Lopez  Armentia hang on the north wall of the dining room.
Dining room chairs covered in napkins from William Wayne & Co. stand atop a rug from Stephanie Odegard.
You grew up with money. What are you feelings about money?

My parents were incredibly philanthropic but I didn’t know we had money. New York has become so money-fixated. I hate it. But there are a million things I would like to do that I can’t do because of money.

But you get paid to write—which is quite rare these days!

You know what, I’m glad you said that. I feel like for a writer, I don’t make little money but quite truthfully it is little money for New York city. Like Elle pays me $4 a word, so I certainly write for Elle. Other places pay me $3. I wrote this piece about money, which ended “It’s only money. It’s only everything.” People are unbelievably private in the end about money. A shrink once said to me it’s easier to get someone to admit that she’s had incest with her father than getting her to admit that he supports her.
Daphne's inviting and colorful kitchen. No minimalism here.
And fun … what do you do for having fun?

Um … do you know what to say you do for having fun? In its official sense it’s overrated. But if I’m having these moments where I’m truly laughing, then I want it to go on. I like being absorbed. If I’m writing a piece and I feel absorbed and I don’t notice the time … that’s a variant of fun.

So if you didn’t live in New York where would you like to live?

Cornwall, in England. I adore it! I’ve been there twice. I go looking for Virgina Woolf’s lighthouse.