This week’s story, “On the Agenda,” is about a group of old friends who meet for what they call Ladies’ Lunch. It’s a continuation of a series you’ve been writing for some years. Why did you want to pay a return visit to these friends?
For some time now, I have been writing these stories that are based on almost half a century of lunches with friends who live on the Upper West Side of New York. We have watched one another grow old. At ninety-five, I am the eldest.
Later this month, Melville House is publishing a new volume of your work, “Ladies’ Lunch: And Other Stories,” which compiles all your earlier writing about this group of friends. What was it like to go back to these stories when you were putting together the collection? Did anything surprise you?
Perhaps the surprise is how these meetings of old friends lend themselves to the writing of conversations that read like small essays about one or another of our human oddities, like our yearning for order and neatness. A longer, darker story in the collection is about the death of one of the friends.
The friends live mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They’ve grown old together and, in “On the Agenda,” are in their eighties and nineties, reflecting with a wry humor on the indignities of aging. Do these stories draw on your experience? Do you see yourself in any one character in particular, or are there facets of you in all of them?
None of my characters are myself, nor do they describe any one of the real-life friends. It must also be true that nothing which happens on the page has not happened to, or been done, or said, or felt by one or all of us.
Ilka and Lucinella, two characters who join the group of friends later, are imported from my novels. Ilka shares my Jewish Austrian origins and apologizes whenever she rehearses one of her refugee experiences.
The Ladies’ Lunch stories are constructed primarily through dialogue, as the friends talk to (and sometimes over) one another. Do you hear all the voices as you’re writing? How hard is it to catch the tone of a long-running conversation? Do you always know when the mood will switch?
There is an exercise I used to suggest to my fiction-writing students: Walk behind two people talking in the street, or sit behind a quarrelling couple on the bus, and listen. Catch the words, the tone, the music of the speaking voices.
“On the Agenda” is made up of a number of different lunches. One of the friends, Lotte, is now in a care home, and, throughout these lunches, the other women can never remember the name of the home. How significant is this non-remembering?
Memory loss is the common experience of the old. We fear it as the forerunner of profounder, final loss.
I’m touched and amused by the eagerness of younger people to assure us that they, too, forget things.
At the end of “On the Agenda,” COVID hits, and the friends start Zooming. Did you expect them to?
Technology is our enemy; our generation will never become adept. It is also the blessing that enables us to keep writing on our computers and reading on our Kindles. And we don’t have to leave home to meet each other on Zoom.
You have a launch event for “Ladies’ Lunch” in New York, on October 5th. In “On the Agenda,” one of the characters, Bridget, speaks about her anxiety ahead of a talk. She says to her friends, “You tell me why my blood pressure is way up, heart thumping, my sleep lousy with nightmares.” Do you share Bridget’s trepidation?
In the section of the story called “June: Funk,” Bridget experiences a passing anxiety such as I myself have known. But Bridget and I understand unpleasant experiences as interesting events the writer can use. The Bridget in the story writes a story titled “Funk.” ♦