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The caller to the popular Bay Area talk show, Robert from Noe Valley, had just one question for Erica Jong: "I was, in 1979, living in New England with a wife and young child," said Robert. "And my wife read your book, 'Fear of Flying.' She put the book down, she looked at me and said, 'Adios.' She took off. And I've always wondered what your message was in that book."
He sort of chuckled then, as if it was a story that happened so long ago it must have happened to someone else. And then Jong, now a 64-year-old grandmother happily married to her fourth and (one presumes) final husband, chuckled too. She knows the feeling.
It has been decades since "Fear of Flying" and its lusty, conflicted protagonist, Isadora Wing, gave unmuffled voice to a generational shift in women's attitudes toward sex and marriage. But every few years, in timing that coincides with Jong's book tours, we get the opportunity to relive, or rehash, the 1973 autobiographical novel that sold millions of copies (just how many is impossible to determine) and has never been out of print. Despite the fact that Jong has published eight subsequent novels, six volumes of poetry and four books of nonfiction, including a critical appraisal of Henry Miller, everywhere she goes on this long day of appearances, people want to talk about that book.
To her credit, Jong has made peace with the idea that everything else she writes pales in the public imagination next to "Fear of Flying," which, it must be said, is still pretty entertaining. (The idea of a zipless encounter -- in which strangers collide and clothes melt away in the service of sexual ecstasy -- still has zing. Even though women no longer feel obligated to marry every man they love and men are more involved in their children's lives, sexual fantasies and marital power struggles endure.)
To Robert from Noe Valley who had called in to the Ronn Owens show on KGO-AM, Jong simply explained, "I was exploring female independence, female freedom and female fantasy. I had no idea that people would act it out by leaving their marriages."
In some corners at the time, the contempt was barely contained. Paul Theroux memorably called Isadora Wing a "mammoth pudenda," but her book -- which had received a rave from John Updike in the New Yorker and from Henry Miller in the New York Times -- flew off shelves. At least 8 million copies have been sold in the U.S., Jong says, but she and her husband, divorce lawyer Ken Burrows, have tried to track foreign sales over the years. "My books were huge bestsellers in Yugoslavia before the war," she said. "I would walk down the streets of Dubrovnik and people would yell, 'Erica Yong, I love you!' But publishers went out of business. I never received a single zloty." (Which, actually, are Polish.)
Jong's latest effort, "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life," began as a compilation of advice for fledgling writers but turned into a ribald memoir about Jong's eternal search for personal happiness and professional fulfillment. Along the way, she dispenses writerly advice and summons apt literary allusions, and confesses to a delicious catalog of shortcomings, excesses, disappointments and triumphs.
"I try to cop to all the terrible mistakes that I made in my life, and boy did I make some doozies," Jong told a group of San Francisco swells (including a society columnist, a gossip columnist, a political columnist and clothier Wilkes Bashford) at an invitation-only luncheon in a clubby Nob Hill restaurant.
Among her noteworthy missteps: She slept with Martha Stewart's husband, Andy, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. ("That was really dumb," she said. "If you are going to make an enemy, it should not be Martha.") She disastrously sued Columbia Pictures and the late producer Julia Phillips over the movie rights to "Fear." (They took the battle public: "I satirized her as a crass Hollywood coke addict and she told the world I looked like Miss Piggy," writes Jong. "None of this helped.") Jong also engaged in deeply wounding and expensive legal clashes and custody battles with her penultimate husband, Jonathan Fast, son of the historical novelist Howard Fast. And, not so very long ago, she spent a night in the Beverly Hills drunk tank.
(On the plus side, she has raised a daughter to whom she is very close and has become a grandmother to 2-year-old Max, a role she inhabits comfortably and lovingly. Her marriage to Burrows has lasted 17 years, and she describes him as her best friend and soul mate.)
The new book jacket features a sultry black-and-white photo, taken in her sexual prime; the back cover is a recent color shot, post-face-lift. Still youthful, and blond, Jong no longer wears miniskirts and no longer bats her lashes at men, "because it wouldn't be appropriate!" On her wedding finger, she wears a massive square-cut emerald bordered in diamonds that belonged to her late mother-in-law. On her arm, she carries a very expensive silver leather Chloe "Paddington" bag, which comes with its own full-size padlock. Her daughter, for whom she buys "obscenely expensive pocketbooks," insisted Jong had to have it for her book tour.
At lunch, she addressed the issue of her struggle to overcome not just the disapproval of her family, but also their aversion to being written about at all.
"When I teach writing, I always tell my students the greatest problem for any writer is the grandmother and the mother who sit on your shoulder and say, 'Write nice things! Don't embarrass the family.' If you are Jewish, they say, 'Don't make the Jews look bad.' If they are Catholic, they say, 'Don't criticize the pope. Catholics have been persecuted through history, don't make it worse!' "
Her family's reaction to her work has always been mixed. Her father, who died in 2004, was proud of his high-achieving middle child and would rearrange shelves in bookstores to feature Jong's work. "My mother used to say that I had written her obituary in my novels and that I should stick to poetry," she said. Her sisters, she said, present her with her toughest challenge in the quest for emotionally honest writing. "My sisters are not happy with me. They don't like the fact that I am more famous than them, even though neither of them is a writer. In 'Seducing the Demon,' I practically deleted every mention of them. And I have had many editors say to me over the years, 'You have got to write about your sisters.' I can't deal with it."
Her daughter, she said, handles the idea that her mother has been called "a dirty book writer" by refusing to read her at all. "It seems to me that your children are not your target audience," said Jong. "Your kids want you to be Mommy. They don't really want you as a cultural commentator."
Molly Jong-Fast, now 27, perhaps inevitably has also become a memoirist whose serpent's tooth her mother has no choice but to gracefully accept. It's amusing to compare their published accounts of the same incidents. Jong extols a mysterious married Italian man with whom she carries on a long-term, seasonal affair in Venice. The wife is entirely absent in her telling. Jong-Fast, in her 2005 memoir "The Sex Doctors in the Basement," writes that the man's wife -- "the fat duchess . . . was able to get Mom to help her sons publish their novels . . . one might even say the fat duchess got the most out of the relationship." Take that, Mom.
"You can't prevent your kids from telling their side of the story," writes Jong.
Jong-Fast has portrayed herself as a very witty, very overweight, very spoiled child with a life-threatening cocaine addiction that she overcame in rehab.
Jong told the San Francisco lunch crowd a story meant to illustrate her 94-year-old mother's unthinking cruelty. (Her mother asked Molly how she got so fat; Molly was pregnant.) But in telling the anecdote, Jong also revealed that she has resorted to bribing Molly to visit her grandmother. "I say to her, you know, Grandma really loves you, she can't help herself . . . Honey, I am going to write you a check for $12,000 if you go visit Grandma." (That, added Jong, is the amount the IRS allows to be given without tax penalty to the recipient.)
"Seducing the Demon" has received mostly kind reviews, with the occasional snippy request that she shut up about her sexual past already. (Not likely.) "When somebody writes an attack on me," she said during a breakfast interview, "I have a pang for a moment, and then I think, OK, this review is more about her than me." Jong was impressed by Carolyn See's recent review in the Washington Post because it was smart and perceptive. See knocked Jong for failing to address "the question of the embarrassment her explicit, autobiographical, sexual writings must have caused her family, her husbands, even her friends."
Jong acknowledged See's point: "She is pointing to certain places in my book where I fudged stuff and . . . I am open to that."
At some point, she hopes to publish a fourth novel starring an older, wiser and possibly less libidinous Isadora Wing. Her current publisher, Joel Fotinos at Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, has told her he would like to publish her next book of poems and wants to release uniform editions of all her books.
"He told me he thinks I've been badly published over the years and he wants to change that," said Jong. "So I fell in love with Joel totally." Jong, who acted out and chronicled her sexual yearnings in a way that made it OK for millions of women to own their sexual realities and fantasies, smiled and sighed without a smidgen of irony: "To have my books published in uniform editions . . . That was all I ever wanted."
Copyright ©1997-2009 Erica Mann Jong