New Yorker writer Ariel Levy's memoir The Rules Do Not Apply is about loss —of a son, a spouse, a house, and, along with them, “my ideas about the kind of life I’d imagined I was due.” The people she's become famous for profiling are “women who are too much.” Through Levy's sublime prose, detailing the intricacies of her life, including her ex-wife's alcoholism, the adventures of journalism, and the child that died on the floor of her Mongolian hotel room, she reveals herself to be one of those women. Too much. In the best possible way.
It’s quite eerie, reading back [2006's book on the sexulisation of American culture] Female Chauvinist Pigs today as a historical document. What’s changed since then, what did that period lead to? How do you feel about feminism in pop culture now?
Well I'd say our horrifying orange monster president is an interesting example, right? Here's a man who is obsessed with beauty contests – who spent years lurking around backstage at them – who has always loved rating women (including his own child) based on their compliance with his leering taste, who has been busted admitting that he feels entitled to "grab them by the pussy" because women aren't PEOPLE to him, they're THINGS to look at and rate and grope. And – surprise surprise! – he is gearing up to be a hideously anti-woman president. But then he's also gearing up to be a hideous president in every single other way imaginable....but I digress. My point is that a lot of stuff I talked about in that book – reality television, the objectification of women, a culture that has been dumbed down and fixated on consumption and zero sum games – all of those things and more have reached a lurid dystopian finale in the Trump White House.
What did you learn from the people (Jill Soloway, Edith Windsor, Caster Semenya...) you profiled?
Let's go with Edie Windsor, shall we? The thing that's so thrilling about that gal is that she is living a wildly full life in her late eighties...she makes me excited to be old. Not only has she made history, she has recently gotten married again (to a woman in her fifties, no less,) she travels, she is a vital, beautiful, blast. A couple summers ago we were both in Provincetown, and I walked her home after dinner at eleven o'clock at night and I was yawning and she was like, "let's go out dancing!"
So I learned from Edie that you can be old without being tired.
This wasn’t the book your readers might have expected to come after Female Chauvinist Pigs. After a career looking outwards, how did it feel to write about yourself?
I actually hated writing Female Chauvinist Pigs. I had no idea when I started that book that I should never write polemics (and I never will again); it's just not my natural mode as a writer. What I like to do is tell stories. So for me, writing this book felt much more authentic and pleasurable than writing the only other book I've ever written. And I tried to use the skills or techniques or whatever you want to call them I've been honing for the past twenty years in observing my own life – like I felt prepared to tell this story in a way I don't think I would have felt if I hadn't already spent a lot of time telling other people's stories, which is in many ways easier than telling your own.
Where do you write? What does it look like?
Anywhere. I'm not precious about it. On planes, in my bed, on the couch with my cats, at John's flat in South Africa, on the bus, on the train. The important thing is really just that there are enough snacks. If I have some carrots or some tangerines, I can write wherever. I'm making it sound like everything I eat has to be orange, but it doesn't. Olives are also very important to me.
What have you learned about grief? About marriage, about addiction? About love?
In terms of grief, I've learned that at first it's something you live inside of, and then eventually it's something that lives inside of you. In terms of addiction, I've learned that it's not something you can control, and in accepting that I sort of accepted (or I try to, anyway,) how much I can't control in general. In terms of marriage, I've learned that it's actually something I really believe in, or I wouldn't be about to re-enter it.
Finally, in terms of love, I think we all know how important romantic and familial love are – like there's plenty of emphasis on both of those kinds of love in our culture. But I realised during the experiences I describe in the book that the relationships I have with my closest friends, the love that's developed over two and in some cases three or even four decades with them, is absolutely vital to me. Really deep love with really good friends is, I think, some of the least complicated and most pleasurable love there is. Of course, I also got a little peek at what maternal love feels like, and that's not something I could forget, even if I wanted to (which I don't). I will feel the dark sparkle of that love in my heart until the day I die.
Feminism says: you are fully human
There’s the sense, through your almost criminally beautiful descriptions of the limits of feminism - the gift of agency, the idea anything is possible - that women have been cheated. That we can’t have it all. Is the book a warning? A hand on the shoulder to younger women, to think faster?
Here's the thing nobody can have it all. I honestly think that's what it means to be an adult: to realise that there will be something you want in the deepest part of yourself that you just won't get. It's toddlers, not feminists, who think they can have everything.
I don't think of this book as a warning, no – because for this to be a cautionary tale, I would have to be saying, "be careful, or you could end up like me." And to be perfectly honest with you, I think my life is pretty great. I love being alive. I love that I get to write for a living and that I have so much intimacy and joy in my friendships. I always wanted to see the world, and I get to do that now – all of January while my friends were freezing in New York I was literally riding horses in the sunshine in South Africa. I'm grateful for big things, like my health, and the person I'm marrying, and then for a lot of littler things, like my garden, and the public bikes they have all over New York City now. God I love those bicycles. This is embarrassing but i whistle while I ride. It's so dorky I don't know why I'm telling you.
Look: I can't have children. I tried and tried for years after I got back from Mongolia. I gave it everything I had – financially, emotionally, and physically, and then eventually I had to admit: this is not to be. I can want this with my whole heart, as badly as anyone has ever wanted anything, and I'm still not going to get it. And that's been extremely painful. But I don't think pain is something to be avoided.
I said to a very dear friend of mine who has kids a while ago, "I'm afraid I'm missing one of the fundamental experiences of life." And she said "you know what? I'm not in love with my husband and I never really have been. I'm missing one of the fundamental experiences of life, too." I thought that was really generous of her to say to me, and also awfully wise.
I don't think feminism has cheated us in any way. I knew full well that if I wanted to have kids, I ought to do it while my body was on board with the project. And it just isn't what I prioritised. I would love to be a mother and I wish I could be. But when I look at my life, it looks an awful lot like exactly the life I dreamed about when I was a little girl.
Feminism says: you are fully human. As a woman you are a full human being and should be allowed to live accordingly. But not getting every single thing you want is the human condition.
There’s an unexpected romcom-ness that surprises us at the end of the book. Please - tell me what’s going on between you and the South African doctor that treated you? Please.
Romcom-ness!?!?!? Eva Wiseman that's the meanest thing you've ever said to me in our entire relationship. But yes: it's preposterous. Nobody thinks it's more preposterous than I do. Yeah: the South African doctor and I fell in love. We're getting married.
I ended the book where I did, though, before any of that, because while technically accurate it would actually have been misleading to end with "and then we fell in love" – as if that saved the day. It definitely didn't. Falling in love didn't take away my grief about losing my son or the grief of my last marriage ending. I didn't want it to seem like "then prince charming showed up and saved me," because in reality, starting a relationship with someone seventeen years your senior who works in Mongolia and lives in South Africa and just finished raising two children when you desperately want to have a baby is not an easy thing (believe it or not.)
But then, somehow, over the course of the last four years, it eventually did get really easy. I have such a crush on that dude, I can't even tell you.