Author-poet Erica Jong reflected on “Fear of Flying,” her landmark novel that helped fuel the sexual revolution, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, marked recently with a commemorative reissue.
Let’s start with your fear of flying. Do you still have it?
I sometimes have a little fear when I get on the plane if I haven’t flown for a while, but no. I got rid of it through writing the book, I think, because I flew so many places in the wake of it. My daughter [Molly Jong-Fast] went through this thing a lot of women go through where she got scared of flying after her kids were born. Then she went to a behaviorist who helped her a lot, and now she’s flying again.
The irony must not have been lost on her.
She said that to me. She said, “I can’t believe you wrote the book and you’re not afraid of flying and I am.”
Do you or your readers still find “Fear” transgressive?
Younger people tend to have the reaction, not enough has changed. Not that they find it particularly shocking, because the zipless bleep, as I have to call it, might well be a hook-up. But they’re not saying they’re having a lot of fun. In fact, a lot of young women tell me that when they read in “Fear of Flying” about [male impotence], they say, “That’s what we’re experiencing.”
Do you have a sense from them of what’s causing that now?
I think the empowerment of women has made men very nervous. I also think the constant availability of computer sex with perfect bodies has made men feel it’s safer to go online than to risk a real person. But I’m not sure. It may well be that so many things have gone away — like courtship is gone, dating is gone. I hear a lot from young women that there’s no romance — it’s just bodies. And they want romance. For that matter, so do men.
Let’s move on to marriage, which you critiqued in “Fear,” in which you wrote: “Being unmarried in a man’s world was such a hassle that anything had to be better.” What’s your take on that now?
I’m very surprised by how many women I meet lately who are quite happy being alone. I meet women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s who are really quite happy being alone and don’t feel incomplete. I don’t see that panic of women being without a man. And maybe this is one of the gifts of feminism.
What does feminism mean now?
I think feminism means what it has always meant — women want to use all their gifts, all their talents and be judged impartially for them. I don’t think feminism has ever meant anything else. It’s been bad-mouthed in a million different ways, and many women have been fooled by that, but feminism only means that women want the right to be whole human beings. End of story.
Have you come across young women who’ve reaped some of the rewards of feminism, like better career opportunities, but say they’re not feminists?
The word has become negative because society is sexist, and so any word referring to women becomes negative, including “feminism.” The women who say they are not feminists, dig a little deeper and say, does that mean you want the church to tell you when you can use birth control or not? Hell, no. Do you want people to tell you what profession you can follow, how much you can make? Hell, no. They may not like the word “feminist,” but they are feminists, whether they like it or not.
Are you surprised by the resurgence of battles over reproductive rights and other women’s issues?
For a while, I thought they were over, but I understand that when you have a fringe group of people… like all fascistic groups, they’re going to want women home in the kitchen again. We have a very small fringe-y group of Republicans who will do anything to get power, and generally this consists of scaring people. Really, what they’re interested in is getting rid of birth control and keeping women at home.
I’ve read that “Fear of Flying” is finally being made into a movie. What’s going on with that and why now?
I can’t tell you why now. I can only tell you that I’m working with some terrific people and we’re moving along and we’re into casting now. We have had, down through 40 years, so many screenplays and so many prospective deals — I can’t count them.
Why wasn’t it made earlier?
It’s not news that we’ve come through a period in which it’s very hard to make a movie starring a woman, but I don’t want to make global pronouncements on why. It’s happening now, and that’s all I can say about it. I’m going to do what these old-timey actresses used to do with me — like June Havoc, who was a friend of mine in Connecticut and in fact found a house for me. She would say, “Darling, I can’t talk about it.”
You actually have quite a body of work behind you, but I gather “Fear” has been a mixed blessing.
Of course — when a novel sells 27 million copies, and it’s just come out in the People’s Republic of China uncensored, and it’s just come out in Korean, I’m very happy. But it has really typecast me as one kind of writer, and I’m proud of it — it’s my first novel, and I have written much better ones since — but that’s all about the zeitgeist and what people are interested in at a certain moment. The truth of the matter is we don’t have control over that, so sooner or later you decide it’s a blessing not a curse.
Tell me about your next book.
It was originally called “Fear of Dying.” It’s about women getting older, and on the way, your view of yourself and the world change as you get older. And it’s about how you continue to have hope and exuberance when you reach that point in your life when people keep dying around you.