Janet Malcolm & Ileene Smith

Authors and Editors in Conversation

Ileene Smith: The title essay of your recently published volume—Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers—is an ingenious portrait of the artist David Salle that is taught in journalism schools. At what point did you decide to construct the piece as a series of “false starts”?

Janet Malcolm: In most of what I write, it takes me a long time to find the opening that will propel the piece forward. False starts are openings that don’t go anywhere. While struggling to find the right start for my piece about David Salle, it occurred to me that the record of the struggle might form a kind of parallel to Salle’s paintings, which are a meld of images that don’t seem to go together but in some mysterious way do. So I began writing false false starts and added them to the rather large number of true ones I had already written.

Ileene Smith: Salle’s comments about the distinction between collages made by artists and those made by amateurs inspires you to show him three collages that you have been working on for pleasure. Did your exchange with Salle over your own art move you in the direction of becoming a professional artist?


Janet Malcolm: Yes, it did. When Salle finally conquered his disinclination to hurt my feelings and say anything critical about my collages, what he said made a deep impression on me and was enormously helpful. Perhaps the most helpful thing he said was that there wasn’t enough black in my collages. He said this was something any first-year art school student would know. Since I had never gone to art school, I didn’t know this. Schwitters, Picasso, Braque and other artists whose collages I had been imitating knew it. Once Salle alerted me to the importance of black in collages, my imitations started to look convincing.

Ileene Smith: There’s a strong retrospective aspect to this collection which includes several essays on photography, a subject you’ve been writing about since your first book, Diana & Nikon. In what way is writing about photographers different from writing about writers, or murder trials, for that matter?

Janet Malcolm: Writing about photographers is no different from writing about writers or murder trials. My pieces about photographers began with as many false starts as my pieces on other subjects. Writing is writing.


Ileene Smith: “A House of One’s Own,” explores the visual and literary creativity of Bloomsbury. How has making art in the studio influenced your thinking about the challenges of writing?

Janet Malcolm: One of the things I learned when I began making collages to sell rather than just to amuse my family was that there was hard work involved. So I no longer think—as I used to—that making visual art is easier than writing, and that artists have an easier time of it than writers do. Serious work in all fields is hard.

Ileene Smith: There’s a terrific piece on J.D. Salinger in the collection. Did you cross paths with him in your early days at The New Yorker?

Janet Malcolm: I did meet Salinger a few times in those days. He was a most brilliant and warm and charming man. He once came to a family dinner at my parents’ house, and we found ourselves behaving as if we were characters in one of his Glass family stories. Perhaps this kind of response to his persona was one of the things that drove him to his later reclusiveness.

Janet Malcolm is the acclaimed author of many books, including In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial; Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (for which she received the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography); and Burdock, a volume of her photographs of a “rank weed.” Malcolm writes frequently for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Ileene Smith is a Vice President and Executive Editor at FSG.