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Interview: Richard E. Cytowic, 2010 Fall

In Capital Letters (ICL): What authors, poets, books, poems, do you return to again and again?

James Salter, Doris Lessing and Chekhov. I repeatedly return to Balthazar Gracian’s incomparable Art of Worldly Wisdom. Its aphorisms are too delicious not to share with friends and too penetrating not to keep from enemies.

Poets Walt Whitman, Marie Howe, and the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay (I’m a sappy Romantic). For books on writing: E. M. Forster’s endlessly fascinating Aspects of the Novel and John Gardner’s three books.

For fun I like The Economist and a good thriller, although I’ve been known to take technical tomes to the beach, such as books on consciousness or the fine microstructure of the cerebral cortex. But for a total brain–flush nothing beats Isaac Asimov. I could read the Foundation and Robot books a zillion times. It’s like literary Metamucil: when you’re through your head is cleaned out sufficiently to create something meaningful.

ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?The most surprising?The most challenging?

I concur with Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Writing is a process of discovery. I take a feeling or images, innominate but clear, and grope my way toward what I’m trying to say. To people who ask what I’m working on is “about,” I say that if I knew I’d have no interest in writing a piece about the subject. Like doing a jigsaw puzzle that has no picture on the lid, I like the dopamine rush when things fall into place and you go, yes! Least favorite are copyediting and making an index. They surely occupy lesser circles of the Inferno.

ICL: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer?

My seventh grade teacher told my mother at a PTA meeting that I should be a journalist. I had totally forgotten we were to write the final draft of a composition in class, and I had nothing prepared. I stole a line from an Archie comic book I’d recently read (yes, I was a child plagiarist) and wrote a page on  “Close All the Schools.” The next morning he read my impromptu essay aloud as an example of A+ work. He had no idea what he was talking about because I was a fraud, and I’ve been fooling people ever since.

I first got paid for writing at Duke, doing theater reviews. In medical school I was the music critic for the local paper and wrote magazine articles. When I came to Washington in 1980 the Post was not an option, so I wrote for The Washington Blade doing over-the-top restaurant reviews and a lifestyle column under the pen name of Richard Escoffier. Of the three choices I gave the editor, he picked that as “the least made up.” At GW I was chief neurology resident at the time of Reagan’s assassination attempt, and wrote the cover story for the New York Times Magazine about Press Secretary Brady being shot in the head. That was my Pulitzer nomination. I probably should have leveraged that more, but I got sidetracked with medical practice.

ICL: What did you enjoy most about science fiction writing? Why transition to memoir writing?

One workshop will remember my brain-in-a-jar story, I Morbius, butI don’t write sci-fi. I’d like to try my hand at it some time. What I like about science writing is the challenge of conveying incredibly complex material to a lay audience without simplifying or talking down. That impulse was sharpened by experience testifying as an expert witness. I would be talking to a DC jury that had less than an eighth grade education, and the attorney would say, “Tell us, doctor, how does the brain work?” After the obligatory, O shit, it was an opportune challenge that helped me think in pictures and metaphors that were accurate, readily grasped, and entertaining.

As for genres I felt it was time to switch after six science based books. I had written a MS before I came here. My agent loved it and got me thirty-nine very nice rejections. About half the editors liked my dialogue and asked if I wrote fiction. I tried, the agent said, “Not good enough,” and suggested “taking classes.” I was in Myra Sklarew’s office after the 2007 fall faculty reading asking what it took to get an MFA degree. I came to AU with Anatomy of Desire in progress, but Richard McCann nipped that novel in the bud and I’m back with non–fiction for the time being where the emotional gravity seems to be with Big Ed Died Twice, a memoir about my theatrical father.

ICL: You are not the typical graduate writing student. Any advantages and disadvantages to being in this unique position?

I’m not the typical anything. The advantage to having lived this long is that I have perspective, and life experience in areas that fortunately yield good material. Writing and medicine share the same drive to clarify and diagnose what is really going on. Each seeks truth and tries to bring order to uncertainty. What is illness if not a story with endings sometimes happy or tragic, and whose plot of twists and turns has a history, development, and dénouement?

Working towards a new degree voluntarily at my age, and at considerable expense,  makes it easy to be fully committed and go all in whether in workshops or  literature courses. The disadvantage is that I never get invited to my younger  classmates’  parties.

ICL: Are certain themes central to your work? Have they changed over the years?

Emotion, subjective experience, and illuminating that meaning lies in what people do rather than what they say or think. As for change, I think most writers have one central theme that they recapitulate and inflect over their careers.

  ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?

I’d be growing orchids in an enormous greenhouse that had temperate and cool zones, and trees for epiphytes. As it is now I have a dozen plants, and we have a Victory Garden in the front yard. I’m partial to herbs, and I’ve become demonically obsessed with radishes––I have ten varieties. When I browse nursery catalogs my other half accuses me of “seed porn.”

ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

I am completely insane. But I guess that’s fairly obvious. I did the twist on stage with Liberace in sixth grade, and I was NJ State fencing champion in Epee one year.

ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?

“Unforgettable.” Although the 1812 Overture runs a close second.

Richard E. Cytowic