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No 43.

Lucy Sante

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa and Lauren O'Neill-Butler

Lucy Sante’s books include Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), The Factory of Facts (1998), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007), The Other Paris (2015), Maybe the People Would Be the Times (2020), and Nineteen Reservoirs (2022). Her awards include a Whiting Writers Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, and Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships. She recently retired after twenty-three years as Visiting Professor of Writing and the History of Photography at Bard College.

We wanted to talk to Lucy about her entire life's work, her current thoughts about writing, her collages, and her gender transition last year. Rather than focus entirely on what brought this eminent critic and writer to transition, we preferred to focus on how she sees her life under this new lens and light. The interview was conducted in August 2022.

EO

I wanted to open with your article in Vanity Fair, where you write about transitioning after using the gender swap function in FaceApp and not being able to get the image out of your head, and how it had some kind of staying power. When I read that, I thought about your writing as a photography critic and specifically Andy Warhol’s passport photos where he altered his hair and his nose to represent this desired platonic idealized version of himself. What’s your reading on those images and can you tell us more about what happened for you after using that app?

LS

Andy is  the most famous enigma of modern times. I mean, did I think he wanted to be a woman? There were a lot of indications, of course, but in that time that he was living in, it was a whole different kettle of fish.

A friend of mine just wrote a book in which I figure as a character; it's a chronicle of the 1970s and ’80s, and it refers to some older and now departed people who were our mentors. I've just been vibrating ever since reading it with the sense that these women would not have understood my transition at all. It’s my friend Darryl Pinckney’s forthcoming memoir about Elizabeth Hardwick, mostly, and Barbara Epstein. They were my two major mentors—guiding lights. Barbara might have understood it, because Barbara was open to everything, but Lizzie would not have understood at all.

That piece in Vanity Fair made it sound like I was moving forward, that I was casting off all these shackles, but no. I wrote that last October. So, we're getting to about a year later and I have many more doubts than I did at the time. I mean, for me, the daunting question is always: do I deserve to be born? I know that the first thing out of Lizzie's mouth, were she to be teleported to the present day, would be something like: you weren't born with a uterus, the reproductive faculty, the first thing that made women valuable in a mercantile kind of way—the first major source of their oppression. So, if I didn't have that, then how can I call myself a woman? These are the issues that are constantly in my head.

EO

And where do they live? And how do you live with them?

LS

How do I live with them? Well, I'm tormented by them. The argument goes over and over again in my head, and then I say, “Well, look, this is something I've wanted since I was, what, seven years old? So, sixty years went by. I'm trying to write a book about it. Not that writing a book ever fully resolves anything, but I truly come face to face myself and find out what I'm really thinking in the course of writing a book. So, ask me again after I finish it.

All my life I’d been having arguments with myself that I couldn't properly solve within the jurisdiction of myself. So it's not a big surprise. My first year of transition was so amazing because self doubt kind of fled, maybe for the first time in my life. It was weird. It was like falling in love. I was so consumed by the passion of the whole thing that I forgot to be self critical, not to say self hating, and that was pretty amazing. But it all came back. Self doubt is my middle name. It always has been and always will be.

EO

Firstly, you are such a prolific writer. I’ve been thinking about your essay in Kill All Your Darlings, where you write about Bob Dylan. It’s clear that you really understand his conceptualizing and self doubt in a critical way; what it is to be so familiar yet alien to oneself at the same time. It’s also funny to witness you work through the Arthur Rimbaud problem at the end of your book, dealing with two people who represented a freedom and starpower but were so helpless in figuring out who they were to themselves. Do you ever have a struggle, as Dylan might have had, between getting it “done” and getting it “right”? Personally, for so long I was perplexed by getting it right, where it was debilitating. And now I'm much more focused on just getting it done. And those are two very different modes of being.

LS

Yes. Dylan and Rimbaud were my two great aspirational role models when I was young, and in some ways, they still stand for that. I don't like everything Dylan has done, obviously, but I really respect him. Not just for the great songs he wrote and his great performances, but for the fact that he stood up for the folklore tradition, and that’s something I recognized intuitively—it's being open to the radio channel that comes from the past, from all the people who have come before. And for this vaguely defined tradition—which is not a tradition in any formal sense—of the compounded folkloric world, which goes back to Europe and Africa. We're still harvesting its fruits and carrying it forward, which is really impressive. Rimbaud was an extra terrestrial. He wrote this stuff when he was a young teenager, which is inexplicable. He quit in the middle of his teenage years. When I was busy admiring Rimbaud as a teenager myself, I thought, “Wait, I am not writing anything anywhere as good or I mean, not even in the same bracket as this guy.” And then ten, twenty years later . . . and now fifty years later, I still haven't written anything that's as good. So, Rimbaud is the kind of impossible ideal. I think he himself could not have explained it. It's one of the reasons he ran away. Anyway, those two remain the ancestral portraits in my portrait gallery, and I dust them off frequently and gaze upon them with a certain kind of terror.

EO

Have any of your beliefs changed?

LS

No, none of my beliefs. Those have not substantially changed since I was seventeen. I mean, they've been subjected to all kinds of nuances and reductions in my own self esteem and all kinds of things like that. But in the main, I would say that every interest I have now is an interest I had when I was seventeen. I mean, maybe further developed, you know, a few annexes built out this way or that way. But really, I've been remarkably consistent. I'm stubborn. What can I say?

LO-B

When you were seventeen? Is that when you started at Columbia University?

LS 

No, seventeen is the year I got kicked out of Jesuit High School in New York City. I had to retreat to public high school in New Jersey with my tail between my legs.

LO-B

What happened?


LS

Well, I had a full scholarship to this Jesuit High School on the Upper East Side. And I was in love with New York City. I mean, I was in love in New York City before I even started. But being there, free from my parents—I was an only child, heavily surveyed by isolated immigrant parents—it was just this experience of freedom and the experience of New York City at the same time. It took a lot of effort to get me to class, I wanted to wander around, I wanted to go to the movies, bookstores, hang out, wander through the garment district, any neighborhood would do. My very first sight of New York City was on Halloween, 1959, where I saw hundreds and hundreds of children without chaperones, running through the streets, wearing bedsheets or dimestore costumes. That was the first image of freedom I'd ever had. And going back to New York City as a fourteen year old to go to school? It was just overwhelming.

LO-B

In the essay on Rimbaud, you say you learned in bookstores, by walking around the city, sitting in cafeterias, going to the movies, reading basically anything that landed under your nose, right? Okay, so then you're kicked out, you get back to New Jersey. You're stuck there for another year? And then Columbia happens. What happened at Columbia?

LS

Well, same thing. I kind of slid out. I had really good teachers: I studied with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro. I realized pretty quickly that I didn't want to study literature, I didn't want to be an English major, and I didn't really want to be in academia at all. What I should have done was take a year off, but my parents—who both quit school in their early teens—thought I'd lose my scholarship. So they wouldn't allow it. So I ended up with a whole lot of incompletes. But went over to art history, studied with Brian O'Doherty and with Elaine Pagels, who was briefly teaching at Barnard and working on the Gnostic Gospels—that was an amazing class.

You know, I had all kinds of great educational experiences, but not enough to make me diligent. I really wanted to be downtown with the cool kids. I had zero knowledge of economics. My father worked in a factory and my mother, at that point, was working, I think, as a waitress in the executive dining room at Bell Labs. Together, they made about $10,000 a year, and kept their finances strictly away from me. I had everything paid for except room and board. And I worked for my pocket money. I thought, well, if I go into the world and become a writer, then I'll be well paid, right? [Laughs.] Even though it was much more possible to live a real life without money back then than it has been recently.

EO

When you were talking about New York at Halloween the image that immediately came to mind was how disparate New York City was in the 1960s and the ’70s, which I don't think people realize—how sparse it was. Your history makes me think of Chantal Akerman’s film News from Home. Did you know her at all?

LS

I never met her. You know, just one of those things. But I loved her work. And I related to a lot of it.


EO

How do you feel about that film as a portrait of New York? What were your cultural references, or the anthropological aspects of the city that interested you at that point?

LS

Being in Morningside Heights, we were in Harlem, essentially. So, I really thought of New York as a great Black city. I remember being interviewed by Actuel in the early 1980s, and I said that to the interviewer, who was white, and he said, “No! Paris is a great Black city.” [Laughs.] So, you know, that was a huge influence. Downtown was the edge of excitement: 1974 is the year that CBGB became CBGB, though I didn't know until the beginning of ’75. Downtown was not hippie anymore. And it wasn't exactly camp or glam. There was something new coming up and we didn't quite know what it was. It got labeled punk eventually, like a year or two later, but it was simmering under the surface.

I had seen Patti Smith perform in ’73 and she, to me, more than anybody seemed like a harbinger of the future. And, there was all kinds of music, all kinds—every kind of music was going on. The visual arts were kind of not so inspiring to me at the time, as it was very conceptual. But movies, on the other hand, were busting out all over.

EO

Isn’t Deep Throat having an anniversary?

LS

Yeah. I was never into porn. I would have been hard pressed to say why at the time, because I felt kind of guilty about the fact that we were all supposed to be so sexually liberated—besides the fact that I wasn't sexually liberated at all. I also was unimpressed by the sex culture, because none of it spoke to me. And it did seem exploitative, but at the same time I was against censure. It was more the downtown experimental scene that I loved—I was always interested in anything that was very low budget, anything that was recycling or making use of already existing things to make something else, as in collage, but many other things, too.

LO-B

Definitely want to talk about your collages. But I do want to hear more about your thoughts on artists and art of the time. You write really beautifully about Basquiat, can you tell us more about knowing him?

LS

When I first met him he was sleeping on dorm floors at NYU and was making art with whatever came to hand that he could find in the street—whatever he could shoplift, basically, or else get somebody like Patricia Field to buy him some paints so he could make the painted sweatshirts.

EO

What was driving Basquiat’s desire to work at that time? And what set him apart from all the other people who were “wanting to be artists,” which is something I hear people saying a lot these days. They don’t necessarily know what they want to do but they want to be famous.

LS

The thing of wanting to be an artist and not having any idea of what to do was just as widespread back then, as it is now. As to Basquiat: first of all, he was literally writing. I mean, he did write on walls, but he was not a graffiti artist, because it was about the precise contents of the phrases. And gradually, this became augmented with collage elements, colors, and then drawing gradually built up. We know that some of the drawing came from the copy of Gray's Anatomy that his mother gave him when he was bedridden after an accident. He had the means to conceive and execute whatever he wanted, although he didn't know it right away, it revealed itself in stages. It's fascinating to look at his notebooks because he had a tremendous amount of things to say, which doesn't mean he didn't take a lot of wrong turns, producing stuff that was purely adolescent at the time. You know, he was human, but he was possessed of this inner force. I remember meeting him for the first time at the Mudd Club in the fall of ’78. And the minute I looked into his eyes, I mean, I knew there was something there that I was not used to seeing in anyone. I wouldn't have said genius or whatever. But definitely, this is somebody who was possessed. I mean, in a good way. There's something extra extra about this person. I knew that immediately. Not everybody did,but I think Alexis Adler, who he shared an apartment with for a couple of years, she felt the same way. There was something very disquieting about his stare—it was cavernous, there were worlds inside there.

EO

Who were you then? How did you find yourself in these spaces? What were you looking for downtown?

LS

I was looking for inspiration and kindred spirits. I had some from school. We all moved downtown the same year, in ’78. I had been sharing an apartment with Jim Jarmusch and George Winslow. We all dug the music, and we all had ambitions. Downtown was a lot of ugly, cold, hot, sweaty, miserable little apartments that we all cherished because they were ours. They were our independence.

As for me, I was always an outsider, even inside my crowd—which started from being an only child profoundly isolated throughout my childhood. I was a romantic, I believed in love. I guess I still am, and it's been to my detriment ever since. I was tremendously shy. I was hiding behind a pillar of shyness.

EO

That’s why I’m curious: how did you find yourself in these spaces? How did you find yourself in these kinds of rooms?

LS

Well, I had these friends, who led me into these spaces. I went to the Mudd Club all the time for free, because I always went with Felice Rosser, who could get into anywhere for free. I met people because Jim met them, or Suzanne Fletcher, or any numbers who were well connected and not afraid of themselves, like I was. I was very fortunate that I had passports to these places.

LO-B

Let’s talk about writing. When did you start to feel like you were a writer?

LS

At Columbia, by 1976, I was writing all kinds of stuff. I was very excited about my direction. I had found a kind of fiction/poetry hybrid that suited me. I thought it could be expanded in various directions. And then I realized nobody cared. I just collapsed internally after I left school and was confronted by reality. And then I didn't write anything for years. I didn't know what to do with it. There were writers downtown; many of them were journalists, along with a few people writing impenetrable experimental stuff. Nobody was writing the kinds of things that I was interested in. What I wanted to do was the kind of writing that existed as writing—that didn’t exist as an adjunct to publicity.

LO-B

Something I find threaded throughout all your writing is this desire to resist historical amnesia. You talk about it in Low Life, which was written thirty-one years ago, and I feel like we've been seeing that effort from you ever since. Can we talk about that? It’s not easy to do. I can think of other writers who complain about it happening but not really doing the work to try to stop it. I also want to be careful to define historical amnesia against nostalgia here.

LS

Yes, I think it's very important. I didn't really know this was going to be my mission. Well, just to finish answering the previous question: I started writing seriously when I went to work at the New York Review of Books. I spent a year in the mailroom and then I became Barbara Epstein's assistant. And that's where I learned how the doughnuts got made, basically. And I told myself, I could do that, too. So I wrote a piece on spec, and they published it. Basically, my whole career comes from that one act. Now I've been writing for them for over forty years. Most of my early work was commissioned by former colleagues from there who became editors in other places.

EO

Who was doing serious work?

LS

New York City seemed to me, rightly or wrongly, to be the American capital of seriousness, you know. I tried San Francisco twice, in ‘79 and ‘82, and had the feeling that if I stayed there too long I would be frittering away my life. I came back from that second trip, in the summer of ’82, to find workers knocking the rust off the fire escape on my building, and I knew immediately it had been sold. That was the very beginning of the land rush. That's what suddenly made me aware of the urgency of remembering what this was all about. I could see the whole process: it had been bought, it was going to be flipped and flipped again. It was going to be flipped 1,000 times and the values would go up and up, and soon they were going to knock down half of the buildings and put up luxury housing, etc. And everybody was going to forget that this was a working class neighborhood.

One of the reasons that I wanted to be a writer, as opposed to a visual artist, is that as a writer, you don't need any equipment. All you need to get is a golf pencil from a bank lobby and some discarded newspaper, and you're on your way. And I didn't want to have anything. That’s why I never really took up a musical instrument when all my friends were doing so. I felt that equipment would be an intermediary between me and what I want to produce.

So there are those two things. In regards to my building being sold: I mean, I don't think it took prophetic abilities to see gentrification coming along as a consequence. I was aware, well before this point, that we were living in circumstances that would be unrepeatable. We were living the way people in the nineteenth century lived—we had no money and our clothes, our furniture, everything but our food was secondhand. I was keenly aware that we were surrounded by the wreckage of past time, that New York City was a regurgitation of past civilization. You'd find stuff on the sidewalk that belonged to dead people–suddenly you'd have a whole life circa 1910 in front of you. As for the buildings, with a few exceptions on Park Avenue and Sixth Avenue, New York City in 1980 was a whole lot like New York City in 1930. It was great to go into a new neighborhood and check out the stationery store and go into the back and see what kind of backstock they had, how many decades you could go back. Record stores, too. We were coexisting with the past.

Library books had a card in the back that might, depending on how small your library was, tell you the names of the people who took out the book in 1946 and 1952. I wished each apartment had one of those. My building on 12th Street, built in 1902, had been the home of one of the Triangle Shirtwaist victims in 1911. I had a keen sense of being there with the past, of living under the same circumstances, more or less. It was sort of like the idea of going into the forest and leaving only footprints. You're in the world, surrounded, as if by a forest, by time. That's really what a city gives you: the spectacle of time. Of course, you want to make your mark, but you don't want to vandalize. You want to leave things as they are and appreciate them.

And so the selling of the building represented a breaking of that contract. The city was now going to be invaded by people who just wanted to make money, accumulate power, and be fashionable, and have empty souls.

LO-B

American psychos.

LS

Yeah, yeah.

LO-B

There’s some wonderful rage buttressing all of your writing about New York City. I think it fuels the desire to correct the historical amnesia.

LS

New York City gave us everything we needed to grow, which means being able to live for cheap, get materials for cheap, socialize for cheap, absorb culture of all sorts for cheap, while working some shit jobs, preferably part time, so you have maximum time for yourself, and your friends live on the next street, or around the corner. All of this is gone.

When I was in high school, I was just two blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in those days, it wasn't even a suggested contribution, you could just walk in, and there was never anybody there. And again, you had this feeling of, well, I don't own it, but I have a privileged relationship, because there's nobody in these four rooms except a guard. So what is mine?

EO

Are we living in the myth of what New York once was? I also wanted to ask you about the Palladium and Francesco Clemente’s murals there, which you wrote about, and the collision of art and capitalism.

LS

Yeah, to a certain extent, I guess we are living in the myth of what New York once was. We're so far away from just that time in my life, let alone the 1950s or the 1920s, that people only have an approximate idea of it. The Palladium: I thought it was a hateful place. I went there maybe two or three times. It was just instantly alienating. But it had all this brilliant art: the Clemente, Basquiat, and Keith Haring murals. But it was huge and daunting. I wrote that piece, as it so often happens, as an assignment. But I like assignments because you never know what's going to happen.

That period of the Palladium was both a last gasp and a harbinger. It was the last one in that series of clubs that began with the Mudd Club in ’78. And then, after the Palladium, you got even more alienating clubs, like the Limelight or the Tunnel. But for me, it was the end of a certain era. And it was the harbinger of, you know, massive overkill, massive capital. And then it became an NYU dorm.

LO-B

In the afterword to Low Life you write that New York City is always fated to remain your home. Do you still feel that way?

LS

It feels a little latter-day to still be saying that after I've been living upstate for 22 years. But do I even have a home? I think of my poor forlorn native city in Belgium, which I visited a few months ago. It was where all my male ancestors lived for at least 800 years, and probably a lot more. And then there's this place where I live. I've been in this house for 14 years, which is longer than anywhere else I've lived in my life. And I love my house, but I don't have much connection to the community. I hardly know anybody in Kingston proper. So, where is my home? New York City had been the one place that made me feel that it was my home. People often ask me, “Are you thinking of moving back to New York City?” And I just can't. It's just too different an animal from the place I knew and loved.

EO

You moved upstate because of your job at Bard. I’m wondering if there are noticeable differences in academia for you, from then to now?

LS

For one thing, I wouldn't be hired now. In the twentieth century people were still being hired for academic or para-academic jobs, based on “life experience.” That does not happen anymore. But at Bard, the head of the photography department, Stephen Shore, quit high school to go chronicle the Factory. When I was hired there, the old dean told me, “You can teach anything you want. If you want you can teach a course in French, you can teach cartoons, anything you want.” That also does not fly today—you have to make your plans three years in advance, even at Bard. I do believe in Bard. I love its prisons program, its early high school programs in inner cities, its program in Palestine and the former one in Russia. It's an amazing place, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But there was a whole bohemian academic style that has just disappeared off the face of the earth. Because everybody has been reduced to competing against one another. Everybody's very lucky to have a job. Whereas, when I first taught at Columbia’s School of the Arts, I thought I’d just work here until the next time I had money, and sure enough I did it for three years and then quit because I was doing okay. Today a job in the Columbia Writing Division is a major thing, but it wasn't to me in the 1990s. It's now all about professionalism and specialization. I'm a generalist.

EO & LO-B

Same.

LO-B

We have to talk about the consequences of that shift, because I’m definitely feeling them right now as a lowly adjunct. But I also do want to keep it focused and ask: did living in Kingston, and in the Hudson Valley generally, lead to Nineteen Reservoirs? How did the book come about?

LS

It was first written as a four-part series for a San Francisco–based online publication called Places Journal. A friend, Frances Richard, who I coincidentally met when I was teaching at Columbia, became an editor there and asked me to write something for them. And I thought that architecture, infrastructure, and ecology were not my topics. But then I remembered being haunted by the image of the reservoirs, from living in Delaware County in the ‘90s, when there were still survivors around and it was still a live issue. I was haunted by the idea of the erased villages. I do like to write something about every place that I've called home. This was my way of approaching this region of upstate New York.

LO-B

I’ve been lucky to spend some time near the Ashokan reservoir and I agree haunted is a good word for it. It’s often so desolate there.

LS

I feel that way even more so about the Pepacton. At the Ashokan, there’s at least some kind of interplay, where they allow people to fish and boat. I was interviewed there by someone yesterday and she said, “Why don't we try fishing?” And she brought poles but the drought is already so bad, so no question of fishing. Not a good thing for the middle of August.

EO

It was really interesting to read in your book about how water alienated those native lands. What were the unintended consequences of New York City's need for water? And have these towns ever recovered? What damage was done?

LS

First of all, you have to remember that these villages that were destroyed were holdovers from an earlier time. The people who lived in those villages had little communication with the outside world. They were not consumers. There was one public telephone for the village. They may not have read newspapers, and they may not have spent much money at all because they traded with their friends and neighbors—there was a network of relations. Everybody was somebody's fourth cousin. In any case, even at the time of the Ashokan’s construction, since the river trade had already died around the beginning of the twentieth century, the major economic engine in Ulster County, even in 1910, was tourism.

There were no unintended consequences because New York City did not give a flying fuck. It did not do something and then stand back horrified at the fallout of its actions. It just erased specifics from life and left a lot of people unmoored. It broke up family relations and destroyed ways of life that had been in place for a century or more. It's all small tragedies, with nothing that you could place under some abstract heading.

LO-B

Both in Low Life and in Nineteen Reservoirs you seem to characterize the city as eating everything up and regurgitating its dead. You talk about the city as a creature, a mentality, a disease, a threat, a cheap stage set, an accident corridor…

LS

It's true, New York City does seem to be some kind of hive mind, some kind of creature that is not exactly the sum of its constituent parts, but something else. It almost seems to have its own will, irrespective of the will of anyone who lives there...

LO-B

Totally. I love that throughline in your work. So, I read somewhere that you write very fast. Is that correct?

LS

It takes me forever to deliberate, to gather material, to suffer existential crises. In all cases, between my signing the contract and my finishing the book, it can take anywhere from five to seven years. But the writing itself, in my three big books, took nine months.

LO-B

Wow. Do you attribute that pace to working with magazine deadlines?

LS

Yeah, it's something to do with it. It's also about building momentum. Because whether or not I have undiagnosed ADHD, it's very hard for me to concentrate, because I'm always thinking about something, and I always have fifty things going on. Even as I'm writing a book, I'm also writing other pieces because I have to make a living.

I've carried a certain kind of working class mentality into writing. My father's doggedness leaked into me and my approach to churning out the words. But with a book, it's very important to build up the momentum, because the first paragraph will take a month, the second paragraph a week, third paragraph three days, etc. And then you get to a certain point where you're going up the roller coaster, and then you get to the peak. And then the second half of the book you write in two weeks, seemingly. Because at that point you can't stop, you're barely eating…

EO

Nineteen Reservoirs is your first book to come out, you know, after transitioning…

LS

Of course it was all written before my transition.

EO

Right. I'm curious what it’s like having press around this book.

LS

It feels like it's getting disproportionate amounts of attention. And I know that has to do with my transition.

EO

I’m curious to hear more about the material consequences, not in a negative sense, of transitioning, in terms of how your work is received.

LS

I've done a lot of Zooms, and I've been photographed more in the past year than in the entirety of my previous life. And, a lot of it is because I’m a freak-show attraction. I'm aware of that. And what can I say? Goes with the territory. I knew what I was signing up for.

I realized early on in my transition what I'd be losing forever. The only thing I cherished about being a guy was invisibility, I could go anywhere and just not be noticed. I was just a white guy, a bald white guy. And, who pays attention to a bald white guy?

EO:

And what was that like?

LS

It suited me to not be seen in order that I might see. But then we're still in the very early days. My egg broke a year and a half ago. It's all still very new and subject to daily changes. There are  constant revisions of attitude. It’s not all beer and skittles. I'm more isolated than I have ever been in my life–and I've been isolated for most of my life.

Even though all my friends were cool with the transition and everyone was on my side, I still feel—and they will all deny it if I put it to them—like a scrim has come down between me and my friends. Because I don't think gender dysphoria can be understood by anyone who doesn't feel it themselves. My personal tragedy is that I lost my relationship of fourteen years, which I had been sure would see both of us into old age. We're still friends; we didn't have a fight. The house is still full of her possessions, as she doesn't have enough room in her apartment. But I'm bereft. There's no question about it. And I feel like I'm beyond the reach of love. And love has always meant the most to me of anything in my life—more than art.

All of this attention is external. I mean, I've been through cycles of public attention before, so it doesn't mean that much to me. You show up, you do it. These days some dumb bookstore appearance generates an incredible volume of emails and plans and questions. And then the thing itself takes an hour. And once it's over, you never hear from those people ever again. I'm used to that. But  frankly, it's great having been interviewed by you two, because you're asking me the questions that I often wish people would ask me.

LO-B

You had mentioned you’re working on your trans memoir?

LS

Yes. I was hired to write a biography of Lou Reed, and quickly realized, even though it was a gigantic amount of money, that I did not want to write a biography of Lou Reed. And it wasn't really so much about Lou Reed. It was about the fact that I didn't want to ever write anyone's biography. Transitioning came to my rescue—I was able to do a hostage negotiation. They traded the Lou Reed biography for the trans memoir and a book about the Velvet Underground in their time—which is an opportunity to write about New York City in the ’60s. I’ve been very lucky. I've never looked for work. It hasn't always been as remunerative as I wished, but I've always had the opportunity.

EO

Being in your late 60s, what do you want for yourself now?

LS

One thing that cannot be denied is the fact that just a couple of years ago, I was semi-consciously preparing for death. I sold my papers to the New York Public Library, letting intimate parts of myself leave my hands. It was a sign that I was ready for the glue factory. Transitioning, by contrast, was a vote for life.

How did I get the courage to vote for life? I'm 68. How many more years can I expect–ten, fifteen? I’ll have to make something of them. I can transition, but I have to see what happens, engage with it, and take the good along with the bad. I used to think I wanted to be famous, but I don't anymore. Being famous is a trap. And I would never get there anyway, except by accident. But I remember how desperate I was in the early to mid ’80s, when all these people I knew became world famous. I thought, okay, they won the sweepstakes and I didn't. I guess I’ll  just be a plodder for the rest of my life. But if I had been elevated to that position at that point in my life, it would have destroyed me. I'm happy it didn't happen.

My first responsibility is to my work. Everything I write is a new departure. Even if nobody else sees it that way, I have to see it that way.

EO

It's interesting to think about how one can be a participant and a witness to one’s life; to learn from yourself. And it’s especially interesting that you decided to choose life. I also think it’s important that you’ve mentioned how there is no singular experience. How have you comforted yourself throughout this process? Did you have any expectations?

LS

I didn't know what to expect. And I almost felt like I was riding a wave–like it was being done to me rather than being the product of my own agency—which is not true, of course. It was an eruption from my subconscious that took me over. I did not want to conceptualize it, as I generally don't. When someone asks me what a book is really about, that's a question I can only answer after I’ve finished. I can't do that while I'm working on it, or even before I've started. Transitioning is the same way. I just went through the steps as they were happening.

As far as what I expected, and how it's different: I didn’t think that I was entering this new world of love, that I was transformed, that I was no longer the creature I had been, shunned by all. On the contrary, I'm more shunned than I was before. But my conversations with myself are usually four or five sided donnybrooks because there are at least that many people in my head. And for every action, there's certain to be a reaction, and then a counter-reaction, then a counter-counter-reaction, and so on. It's very loud inside my head. So, all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, which is the only way I can write, and it's the only way to live. I cannot think of a program and then adhere to it. All I can do is take those little steps.

LO-B

That's beautiful. Tell us about your collages. Is it similar to writing in any way?

LS

Collage is something I've done episodically since I was in my early teens. I was really focused on it for a few years not long ago. Then transitioning came in and suddenly, I had this whole other big project to be working on. Between transitioning, managing my life, and writing, it didn't leave any room for doing collage. So I haven't gone near my collage table in a year and a half. I know I will again, but by then I’ll be making collages that will look different from the ones I had been making.

Collage-making is a lot like writing, in that it tells me what I'm thinking, and as with writing, which is generated by the words, collages are generated by my image stock. Long after I acquired these images they will produce meaning, an entirely unanticipated meaning.

EO

Oh, but how do you apply that line of thinking to your writing?

LS

I often write things and then realize what they're about much later. A part of my trans memoir that I'm writing right now concerns a poem I wrote when I was twenty-four. It was made into a song and recorded by my friends in 1980. And the whole bloody thing is about transitioning. I had no idea of that, then or later, but it could not be more explicit. I try to keep on good terms with my unconscious because you never know what it's gonna serve forth.