I was amazed that someone of her stature could be so ungenerous.
  • I was amazed that someone of her stature could be so ungenerous.
  • Steven Cerio
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This was my question: How does being Southern Californian affect artists and thinkers? I set out to find people with whom I could discuss my notion that a recognizable artistic regionalism had at last emerged from Southern California. I made lists. I made phone calls. And it was perhaps the sin of pride, or of over-reaching ambition, that caused me to make my fatal mistake: I wanted to speak with someone truly famous. Someone whose words might lend glamour to my not entirely original or interesting idea.

I made more phone calls. I chatted. At last I hit upon a friend who worked often with the famous and their publicists. He had, he said, a splendid suggestion: Susan Sontag. She had been raised in Southern California. She was touring the country promoting her novel, The Volcano Lover. She would, he felt, be willing, if not eager, to talk. If I was interested, he would be happy to arrange things. After all, he was on a first-name basis with “Susan.”

“Geez,” I said, coy and overanxious. “Susan Sontag? Do you think she’d really want to talk to me?”

“Publicity,” he said, “is publicity.”

Albeit early in our story, it is already time for me to digress. And I must in order to express the enormity of what happened: I had been forewarned. Like every young and prideful person, I had been forewarned. And like every young and prideful person who has been forewarned, I disregarded sound advice. Years ago I asked someone who had worked in publishing for several decades, “Who is the most dangerous writer in New York?” Without hesitation she replied, “Susan Sontag. She is very powerful and rules with an iron fist. You don’t ever want to cross her. She can be unpleasant.”

I cannot describe the degree of nonchalance with which I heard, chuckled over, and discarded this mature and learned person’s tidbit of heartfelt, hard-earned advice. To my dreamy, Southern Californian sensibility, New York, its literary saints and ogres were, well, a continent away. (A seasoned traveler could warn you, for example, that in West Africa, poisonous spiders the size of ashtrays were a clear and present danger. However, this caution would have no practical import, no legitimacy, until you, as a nervous tourist, were lost in a three-canopy jungle somewhere in the Congo. Only then could you appreciate the spiders for their reality...and their size.)

In this spirit of informed, forewarned nonchalance I pursued my interview. My friend, Susan’s friend, gave me Susan’s publicist’s number in New York: “Call and explain who you are and what you want. Everything will be fine. You might want to ask about an article Susan wrote recently on growing up in Los Angeles. Ask for a copy.” And I called. The publicist was a cheerful, charming woman, glad to arrange an interview, and equally quick to ask favors.

“Maybe you can help me out,” she asked. “Susan’s got interviews in San Francisco and L.A., but I’m having trouble getting her into the alternative press. I’ve sent a copy of Volcano Lover to the L.A. Weekly, but so far they haven’t replied. Do you have any suggestions?”

In a frenzy of generosity, I said I did. I’d call around, send out some feelers, and get back to her. But could she, I asked, send me Susan’s Southern Californian childhood article? She said she’d never heard of it, said she didn’t think that one existed with such conviction that I would have felt foolish to have insisted otherwise.

Every time-worn element of the classical “set-up” was creaking slowly into place — the early warning, my undue enthusiasm, the feckless intermediary, and my pride, which blinded me to them all. Fate, life’s loyal usher, guided me surely along my way.

I called the publicist back, gave her a few names and suggestions, said that newsweeklies of a more political bent might be willing to interview Susan if she were to speak on some issue, feminism, say, and use it as a segue for a discussion of her book. Swell, the publicist enthused. Susan, a universal genius whose intelligence embraced every conceivable aspect of the material world, would be more than glad to discuss absolutely anything: “She has opinions on everything— politics, photography, AIDS, literature, art!”

“And what do you,” she added, “want to talk about?”

I meekly rattled off my brilliant idea about Southern California.

“That’s nice,” she said.

We must hurry now. We must gloss over weeks and days. We must stop, but only briefly, to open the package from New York that contained Susan’s book, a sheaf of highly flattering interviews, and Susan’s portrait, lovingly, tenderly photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

I kept the photograph on my desk. After long, unproductive days of too much diet ice tea and too many cigarettes, I’d stare at her and imagine another life: a brainy, East Coast, upbeat version of Sunset Boulevard: late fall, golden light slanting through the large windows of Susan’s apartment overlooking the Hudson. The two of us, Susan and I, in bulky, writerly sweaters, slouch down in her plush couch. We speak in French, of Paris, of her time there, of my time there. She plies me with claret and first editions. Moved by her generosity, I give her white forelock a good-natured tug and confess my boyish designs for a literary future. Her wise dark eyes fill. She weeps, talks of her intellectual career, sympathizes with my sincere though unformed ambitions. “Please,” she says, “let me help you. Let me encourage you. I know how difficult a life of the mind can be.”

Time passed. More phone calls were made. A date and time were set. My photographer and I were to meet Susan’s Los Angeles handler in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. I was then to go with the handler to the airport and conduct my interview in the car on the way back.

The subsequent events have colored my retrospection in such a way that certain details of my trip to Los Angeles have acquired the weight of commandment. The night before an interview with Susan Sontag:

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