- Read the latest author interviews from our monthly newsletter
(Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan)
North Melbourne Books: Susan Sontag was a towering intellectual figure of the twentieth century, her writings on the arts, literature and politics both controversial and compelling. Despite her confidence behind the pen, Sontag was also a difficult, divided character, at war with others, but mostly herself.
What made you want to write a biography of Susan Sontag?
Benjamin Moser: I like complicated figures. I like divas. They're so much more fun to write about. And it's fascinating to see how a woman as accomplished and brilliant as Sontag was as conflicted as anyone else -- in fact, in many ways, more so. There's a larger-than-life quality to her that makes her an absolutely intriguing person to read about. Because in some ways she's so recognizable. You learn so much from her. She was so utterly brilliant. She did everything, went everywhere, knew everyone -- yet at the same time she was plagued by many of the same problems that anyone else is. The tension between the public person and the private person is in some ways the theme of my book -- as it was a major theme of her own work.
NMB: Your book contains a daunting amount of research. Was the Susan Sontag you had in mind when you began the book the same as the one you finished with? What were some of the surprising discoveries about her character?
BM: This is such a great question, and what pops into my mind is the difference between the person you know at the beginning of a long marriage and the person you come to know after years of sharing the same house. Is it the same person? Yes. But do you have a deepened, more nuanced understanding of the person you married? Also yes. With Sontag, I think it's fascinating to see how she could be such a different figure for different people. When you do the amount of research I did -- I interviewed 573 people, all over the world -- you see how complex and fascinating she was, how hard she was to pin down. I'm not trying to pin her down, though: I'm just trying to explain how and why she resonated for people.
NMB: A major source of personal conflict for Sontag was her sexuality. She kept it hidden, even from those close to her, such as her sister. The book does a brilliant job of explaining the sexual liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, and the later impact of AIDS on the gay community. Sontag was at the forefront of so many revolutions, why do you think she struggled with this one?
BM: She grew up in a completely homophobic world. Actually, scratch that. I don't really like the word homophobic -- it suggests an irrational fear, whereas what a lot of anti-gay sentiment is just pure hate. She grew up in a world where gay people were completely invisible. They were not seen, they were not spoken of. And their relationships were against the law -- so I think that Sontag internalized a lot of the fear that that invisibility and persecution brought. She had lots of relationships with women, of course, but I think that she never could quite embrace that part of herself. Yet I think that by reading about her life in this context, we can all be amazed and grateful for the progress that the gay rights movement has made in so many parts of the world.
NMB: Despite Sontag's huge influence, her oeuvre is quite sparse. Her reputation rests mostly on her essay collections and some later fiction. How do you think she will best be remembered?
BM: It's not that sparse! She wrote quite a lot, when you put it all together. And that's a point I never tire of making: this book is a door into that work. It's a window. It's an invitation to get to know the work of one of the most challenging and interesting of modern thinkers. It helps that she's also about the most interesting person you'll ever encounter.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
BM: I know this sounds obnoxious, but I am reading Volume 5 of Proust, which is the ideal companion in quarantine. I'm reading Porochista Khakpour's brand new Brown Album, about Iranians in exile. I'm reading William Dalrymple's The Anarchy, about the British conquest of India. And I'm reading the newspaper with horror and alarm and hoping this will all be over soon.
Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser. Published by Allen Lane $59.99. (Paperback available from 17th November. $22.99).