- Interview with Phillip Lopate
When I began the formal study of literary nonfiction at Bennington Writing Seminars, a friend called to advise me, "What you really need to be doing is studying with the guru of the modern essay." "Who might that be?" I inquired, to which she answered, in the snappish tone of one annoyed by my ignorance, "Phillip Lopate, of course." I smiled, having just met Lopate that morning. "The guru is here," I boasted. "Eee!" she squeaked. "You'll learn something now." And so I did.
As an exponent of the essay, Phillip Lopate edited The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1994), generally regarded as an indispensable resource for writers of creative nonfiction; the introduction is an essential analysis of the essay as a literary form and the representative sampling of essays is compendious and thorough. As a practicing essayist he has been praised by critics and other essayists for his "intricate essays of self-portraiture" and "true essayist's gift of living on the page," and identified as "the great investigator of normalcy" and "one of our few essential essayists." The essays that earned him such recognition are collected in Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis (1981), Against Joie de Vivre (1989), and Portrait of My Body (1996).
A graduate of both Columbia University (BA) and Union Graduate School (PhD), Lopate has been the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants. He also has served as juror for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Lopate currently holds the John Cranford Adams Chair at Hofstra University, where he is Professor of English. He also, much to my selfish delight, teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminar.
In addition to his essay collections, Lopate is the author of an account of working in a public school, Being with Children (1975), a collection of film essays, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with [End Page 125] the Movies (1998), and a collection of previously published nonfiction, Getting Personal: Selected Writings (2003); two novels, Confessions of Summer (1979) and The Rug Merchant (1987); and two books of poetry, The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976). He edited Journal of a Living Experiment: A Documentary History of the First 10 Years of Teachers and Writers Collaborative (1979) and Writing New York (1998), and for three years edited The Anchor Essay Annual (1997, 1998, and, under the title The Art of the Essay, 1999).
The interview with Phillip Lopate took place in his Brooklyn home, where we talked about the development of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (2004).
Taylor: Although you've written novels and poetry, you're best known as an essayist. Waterfront seems like a departure, a change of direction. How did you come to embark on this project?
Lopate: Years ago, I had been approached by an editor, Ann Patty, who commissioned me to write a big book about New York City. I brooded about it for months and realized that I didn't have any large idea or contribution to make. I had no "take" about the city that seemed to me to approach a thesis. So I said to her, "I'm going to have to give back this advance. Will you take a collection of my essays, Portrait of My Body, instead?" She said fine.
Taylor: Surely this is the first I've heard of a writer returning an advance.
Lopate: Ann certainly didn't forget me. Years later, she approached me about whether I wanted to do a little book about walking around the edge of Manhattan. This was part of a whole group of books that Crown was releasing. Ann had, by then, moved from Anchor to Crown. Crown signed up distinguished writers to write these belletristic guidebooks. I didn't realize then that this was part of the series, but I said that I would try it...