Elizabeth Wurtzel: "Nothing's Off The Record"
The provocative author of Prozac Nation talks about the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking memoir and why it's so damn hard to be a writer today.
In 1994, at the age of 26, Elizabeth Wurtzel essentially created the genre that we now call "confessional memoirs." Her memoir, Prozac Nation, was a seminal and frank account of her battle with depression during her years at Harvard. The book was lauded for its vivid prose, which exuded the raw emotional honesty of Sylvia Plath's diaries and the undulating lyricism of a Bob Dylan song. But it also showed that writing can function like a church confessional, providing a screen through which writers and their readers could whisper to each other their innermost secrets, and let one another know that they are not abnormal or alone.
When I write to Wurtzel proposing this interview (which has been edited for length), our email exchanges confirm what I've always suspected: that she is refreshingly blunt and effortlessly cool. I suggest taking her out to lunch near BuzzFeed's offices, to which she responds, "I happen to have a deep and wide aversion to streets in the 20s... I also think that nothing good happens before 5:00. You are totally welcome to come to my place for a glass of wine; Isn't that a better idea?" A few days later, she writes, with her characteristically wry humor, "I have red wine, so let me know if you prefer white (or pink). My boyfriend wants to know if this will be an article or a list. My cat wants to know if she will be an internet star."
When I ring her doorbell, she greets me wearing a leopard-print dress and thick high heels. Her loft apartment seems like an adult version of a college dorm room. There's an eclectic array of collected items: a coffee table topped with antique wooden billiard balls and an Etch-a-Sketch over recent copies of Playboy magazine, red block letters spelling out "YES" hanging over the fireplace, an abacus in the corner, Christmas lights hanging in the yard, and the faint smell of candles wafting through the apartment. We discuss her life, her work, feminism, her cat's potential stardom, the state of the world and why America and publishing are collapsing, over a box of macaroons and several bottles of wine. At various points I ask her if she'd like a particularly strong statement to be off the record. "No, no," she says each time, waving her hand dismissively. "Nothing's off the record."
Of course. It is Elizabeth Wurtzel, after all.
You mentioned that you're working on an e-book [working title Creatocracy] that's due out soon. Tell me more about it.
Elizabeth Wurtzel: Well I got very interested in the intellectual property clauses in the Constitution, especially since for the longest time it was the only one. And it's quite amazing that they thought to do that in 1789, because ninety percent of the people living here were farmers. It was a good thought because as it turns out we have Hollywood and because great literature sells here. And so I wrote it partly as a lament because this is what makes America great, and to see the internet kill it is sad. You need a good structure for your art to thrive. And if you want a clear sign that the U.S. in in decline, it's that this great model that used to work no longer works. So I would say that the day of the Great American Novel is over because we don't have the proper ways to compensate people for it. So now people who have that creative energy are going to devote it elsewhere, like a dot com-startup.
Stephen Colbert was recently interviewing the founders of Snapchat, who were in college when they launched it, and he said, "Is starting an app today's version of starting a band?" I thought it was an apt analogy.
EW: Yes, and that's what's happening now. I mean, there are no huge rock stars anymore. And you might say, "Do we really need those?" Yes, we do. That was fun. It was fun going to parties where there was cocaine on every surface. They made huge music that everybody listened to. Maybe it's just as good that everyone wants to have the same iPhone, I don't know. I have to figure that whatever is coming next is good and whatever it was ran its course. I think we argue with progress at our peril, so if this is the way it is, there surely must be a point. I always remind myself that Henry Ford said that if he'd asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Prozac Nation. How do you feel about it after all of these years?
EW: I don't really reread it and I think More, Now, Again is my best book but when I look over it for readings I'm kind of amazed it's as good as it actually is. It got some really good reviews but it also got some really bad reviews and I'm kind of surprised it got such a negative reaction because it really is a good depiction of what it's trying to depict. It's a well-written book.
How did it come to be?
EW: Well, it started in 1986. I wrote an article for New York magazine about my experiences at Harvard and it was 20,000 words and it just didn't work. And I gave it to an agent who thought it could be a book, so she sold that to Crown and it was going to be a book about Harvard. Then it got sold to Atlantic Monthly Press; I don't remember how it got there, but it was languishing there under this compulsive womanizer. And in the meantime I wrote an article for Mademoiselle about taking Prozac to treat my depression, and a publisher at Simon & Schuster saw it and thought that would make a good book. So it went from Atlantic Monthly Press to Simon & Schuster. I was working at the New Yorker at the time as a pop music critic and I showed it to my editor there and he thought it needed a lot of work and maybe even a new publisher. So I think then I called the president; it was funny it was a Monday in August and he was supposed to be in Southampton but he wasn't so he had nothing to do that day, so he saw me and he got me out of the Simon & Schuster contract and resold the whole thing. But nobody thought it should be a memoir, so they wanted me to make it a novel, and then they thought maybe make it an information text. Eventually the editors I think realized it would work as a memoir, but the reason it's called Prozac Nation is because it doesn't sound like a memoir.
Did you ever have moments during writing it when you had self-doubt or thought you weren't a good writer?
EW: No. I always knew I was a writer. And I always thought to myself, "Well, why not me?" Someone has to be on the best-seller list, "Why not me?" Someone has to write for the New Yorker, "Why not me?" And I didn't really get much positive reinforcement as a kid so I thought, "Well let me show you what I can do." I'm never better than when I'm in a foxhole. There's so much negativity out there. People say that a woman's life ends at 40, but I've never felt that to be the case. I'm 46 now and I feel like I still have some masterpieces in me. I think you're limited by what you believe to a large extent.
I think happiness is to some extent a matter of perspective. When I look back on my life and think about the times when I was happiest they weren't necessarily when everything was going well, they were when I decided to focus on the good rather than the bad.
EW: I think that if you expect it to be a lot of work and you accept it then it's not so bad. Everything good takes a great amount of effort. Like things went wrong with Prozac Nation so much and it went through so many rejections and incarnations, but I felt so much that it needed to exist. But if I hadn't been so persistent and insistent, it wouldn't have happened. And even when it came out, I got so much shit from the New York publishing world because the book was very blatantly marketed, and it was considered vulgar for a book that had high literary aspirations to be so obviously marketed. I still can't believe how much shit I got from people for that.
Well, people act like art and money are somehow diametrically opposed and I don't think that's the case, or at least it shouldn't be.
EW: They should always go together. Because anything good should be paid for. Anything good should be paid for with lots of money. The best filter isn't BuzzFeed, or The Atlantic, or whatever. The best filter is money. That is how you say "I love you." This is America. This is a capitalist country. We say "I'm sorry" with money. We say "I love you" with money. That's how it worked and it worked really well, and that's broken down.
In 2004, having published three other great nonfiction books, you made a lot of waves in the literary community by deciding to get your JD at Yale Law School. Can you elaborate on what made you decide to do that?
EW: Well, I was always interested in law and I'd always wanted to go. And people kept telling me, "Well, you're a writer." And then 9/11 happened and I lived diagonally across the street from the World Trade Center and I was really traumatized by the experience. The ground really shook up and for a moment I was really scared that I was going to die. And I really wasn't doing much and it made me want to do the things that I had always wanted to do.
You mentioned in our email exchanges that you were happier now than you were twenty years ago. Why is that?
EW: I've calmed down. Looking back, I was engaged more in dramas than I was in relationships. I've spent a lot of my life being in it for the plot, and I don't do that anymore. I'm satisfied. I'm not competing with myself. I accomplished things I wanted to do, so everything I do now is because I want to, not because I'm trying to prove something. And I think it's a fundamental difference between men and women and feminism can't solve this. Like, there are hardly any female billionaires out there because there's a limited amount of money you can spend in your lifetime and there aren't many female CEOs because there's no pleasure in being a CEO. And women get that and women want to do interesting things. I think it shows women's good sense that we're less ambitious because a billion dollars is all ego, there's nothing you can do with it. And good for women for saying, "Who needs that?" What I wanted is an interesting life and what I've had is an interesting life.
What motivates you to write and what advice would you give to aspiring young writers, especially those who want to write personal essays?
EW: I am motivated to write because it is what I am meant to do. It is not a choice — it is what I am. I did not choose writing — it chose me. And I believe it is necessarily that way. Anyone doing this for some other reason should not be. The world does not care if you write or not, so to be successful you have to be so good that your work is better than all the other available distractions. I also tell writing students that they must be specific. If you are detailed and personal, you have a shot at revealing a universal truth. If you try to be universal, you will say nothing at all. It is all in the details, in the granular and the minor and the minute. God is in the details, the devil is in the details, it is all about toe shoes on the head of a pin. People are more alike than different, so you can't go wrong assuming that everyone will know what you mean, because they will, so the idea is to tell the story in bright, colorful pictures.