This weekâ€™s story, â€œLadiesâ€™ Lunch,â€ is about a group of women who have been meeting regularly for lunch for the last thirty or so years. When did you first think about writing about these ladies who lunch?Â
There is a group of Upper West Side friendsâ€”resemblances intentionally avoidedâ€”who meet at what we call the â€œLadiesâ€™ Lunchâ€ (and to whom I showed an early version of this story). We eat, we laugh and talk and talk. There was a rule that we obtained in the sixties, when my husband, David, and I gave dinner parties: a twenty-minute limit on publishing talk. The Ladiesâ€™ Lunch has a twenty-minute limit on the conversation about old age and its inevitable future. Another twenty minutes for Trump.
The story is, in large part, about aging. All the women are growing old together, yet one of their number, Lotte, is somehow outpacing them. Sheâ€™s increasingly frail (and far too fond of bread and butter), and her sons believe that she needs a caregiver. Lotte is fighting this. Why is she fighting so hard?
Lotte is fighting to remain her own familiar self. Her fate is one version of the inevitable.
I have recently lost an old friend. Is she Lotte? Only in the sense that Flaubert means when he famously says, â€œMadam Bovary, she is myself.â€ I had no compulsion to follow the facts, but it was â€œLotteâ€ who fed me some of the storyâ€™s best lines.
Eventually, Lotteâ€™s sons decide that sheâ€™ll have to live in an assisted-living home. Theyâ€™re trying to do their best for their mother, yet find it hard to understand her misery. Do you think thatâ€™s a form of self-protection on their part?
â€œYouâ€™re not a happy camper,â€ Bridget, one of the characters, says to Lotteâ€™s son Samson. If it is sad to observe the losses of the old, it is painful to watch their children, torn between the necessary caretaking and the complications of their own lives. And arenâ€™t their decisions likely to be always between one or more untenable solutions?
Lotteâ€™s friends want to rescue her from the home, but the logistics prove impossible (no one drives!), and it was perhaps always a quixotic mission. Lotte herself feels as though sheâ€™s already died. How did you enter Lotteâ€™s state of mind in the final part of the story?
I understand Lotteâ€™s virtual death, and her persistence in hallucinating a car that would take her back home, as an escape from an unacceptable life. When I used to visit my mother in her nursing home, an old woman would hook her arm into mine and say, â€œCan I come home with you?â€
Your fiction has often featured the same protagonist, Ilka. Sheâ€™s Ilka Weissnix in your novels â€œOther Peopleâ€™s Housesâ€ (1964) and â€œHer First Americanâ€ (1985); she becomes Ilka Weiss in your 2007 collection of stories, â€œShakespeareâ€™s Kitchen.â€ Sheâ€™s shared a fair bit of your own history. Did you ever think of making â€œLadiesâ€™ Lunchâ€ Ilkaâ€™s story, rather than Lotteâ€™s?
There was a time in the evolution of the story when Ilka was a member of the Ladiesâ€™ Lunch, but she dropped out. I know too much about Ilka; she would have become the protagonist. Writers like to explain that as a story develops it lets the writer know what it is about, and this one turned out not to be about the women. Itâ€™s about the womenâ€™s participation in their friendâ€™s situationâ€”a situation that they can too easily imagine to be in their own future.
I did write a story about two of the characters. It was called â€œHow Lotte Lost Bessieâ€ (published in Fifth Wednesday). It takes place some seven or eight years before â€œLadiesâ€™ Lunch,â€ and is about the fate of some old friendships. It starts with an epigraph from Marcel Proust that proposes that there comes a time when the dearest friends no longer have what it takes to cross the street to see one another.
Your first novel, â€œOther Peopleâ€™s Houses,â€ was based on your experience of leaving Vienna as part of the Kindertransport, in 1938, and living as a foster child in Britain during the Second World War (your parents followed you a year later and took up jobs as domestic servants, but your father was subsequently interned as a German-speaking alien, and died shortly before the war ended). Have you thought about these years at all in the light of recent political events? Would Lotte and her friends be discussing the first days of the Trump Administration at one of their lunches?
I was ten years old when my father took me to the American consulate to list our names on the American quota. The queue stretched around the block and up the stairs. This was Vienna in August, 1938. My father was dead by the time our number came up in May, 1951. It took us thirteen years to get to America.
I have not been able to learn what are the requirements and how long it takes for todayâ€™s refugees to enter the country legally.
And is it possible that in Trumpâ€™s America it is legal to enter peopleâ€™s homes and send them back where they escaped from?
The friends at the latest Ladiesâ€™ Lunch made a new rule: to discuss only the specifics of what and how they were going to protest.