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Molly Jong-Fast

's literary pedigree lies in her name: the daughter of Fear of Flying author Erica Jong, and granddaughter of Spartacus author Howard Fast does little to hide her famous family. In fact, the 26-year-old author dissects them in minute detail in her second book, The Sex Doctors in the Basement: True Stories from a Semi-Celebrity Childhood, chronicling her mother's series of personal assistants, her schoolgirl yearning for a pony, her lifelong sweet tooth, a bizarre stay at Joan Collins's house, her friendship with Sophie Dahl, and other adventures. Jong-Fast's tones is light and breezy, occasionally too much so, and when she settles down, she's able to write movingly about topics such as her grandfather's narcissism at the end of his life with tenderness and affection. Amidst the deliberately over-the-top humorous tone, she'll drop a line like, "One of the great things about New York City is that when you lose one drug dealer you are able quite easily to find another," alluding to her druggie days (Jong-Fast has been clean since going into rehab at age 19) without giving away too much information.

Jong-Fast is an engaging mix of youthful excitment crossed with New York cynicism. She's met plenty of celebrities and knows they're not all they're hyped to be, but is fascinated by them nonetheless. She peppers her conversation with the California girl catchword "like," and signs her emails with the simple-yet-telling description "Mother of Max," and gushes about the role her young son plays in her life. On the phone, she's perky, bubbly, hyper and excited, chatting as easily about cupcakes and dessert after our official interview is over as she does about celebrity, memoir writing, and the art of spilling family secrets.

The essays in the book are so varied, from your family to therapists to food to celebrities. How did The Sex Doctors in the Basement come about?
I wrote them as a collection, I sat down and wrote them together as a book. I hate it when people publish previously published work, unless you’re Susan Sontag or Joan Didion, then it’s very cool to do that, but I decided I should write new material.

Why don’t you like authors doing that?
It’s lazy. Why not write something new? I wrote them separately all in the same time period so they would go together. It took about two years.

After you wrote your novel [Normal Girl]?
Yeah. It was a really easy book to write because I thought of everything I could write and I tried to do it exactly opposite. I said, okay, this essay is about my grandfather’s wedding to his young second wife. What would be the opposite way to tell that story that people wouldn’t expect? I wanted to tell the story in a way that you would never think to tell it from before. Instead of oh it’s so annoying, it’s tragic, I tried to make it comic.

I tried to make most things comic. There were certain things, like with my grandfather’s wife—I really wanted to examine it because I had this real nagging feeling that he was this great man who had a really empty life in a lot of ways because he had such bad, difficult relationships with his family. I was so interested in that because here was a man who had become as famous as you could be as a writer, but he still was not very happy with his life. Even as he was dying, he was obsessed with The New York Times. He didn’t get it on some profound level. I wanted to find out why it was that he could be a great man but not a good man, and that was what I was grappling with especially as a young writer starting out, wondering what I might be and what my goals are. I’m sortof obsessed with this idea that we as a culture can’t accept that celebrities want to be celebrities. It’s always oh it was an accident, a reluctant Jennifer Aniston type of thing. With my grandfather, his effort and energy went into being famous. In the end it was a want that ended up biting him in the ass. It was really interesting to analyze it too, because I was able to make peace with him in a weird way. I’m not envious of him anymore. That wasn’t my goal but it happened, it was an ancillary thing.

My parents actually really like the book. They think it’s really funny. There’s definitely shades of expose but when you’re in a family of memoirists, there’s not much that gets exposed, but there were some incredibly strained secrets that I didn’t touch.

There’s a certain level of feeling like you just don’t want to scoop your family. Had I had the kind of things with Martha Stewart my mother had…since they didn’t happen to me, I’m pretty much out on a limb.

Was that a tough line to call for you?
Not especially, you kindof know what qualifies as someone else’s secret and what qualifies as your own. If it was in the public domain, I would have, but since it wasn’t, I didn’t. As a memoirist, to do it right you have to sell out to some degree—after all, it’s writing. You have to sell out as much as humanly possible, but there’s certain people you have to protect.

As a mom, I feel that way about my little brothers. I have these little brothers who are ten years younger than I am and I feel very protective of them. I just don’t want them to make them uncomfortable.

In terms of things that have happened to you, does it come naturally?
I don’t care. Now I’ve gotten to the point where people can write anything about me and I’m okay. I used to get really upset if I got a bad review, now I truly believe that nothing bothers me, it’s dead inside, I’m not dead, that’s a joke. Now I think I’ve gotten to a point where nothing bothers me, it’s totally strange.

Does having an outlet for your side of things help you deal with your own issues?
At best it shouldn’t. You’re writing purely for the reader and not for yourself at all. I think it’s really bad when people work out their problems in their writing because it’s a different kind of thing. It wouldn’t work for me; it wouldn’t be fair. It’s a great honor if someone picks up my book, it’s a bigger honor if someone reads it so I don’t want to abuse that by making it too much about me and not enough about them. It’s like the person who talks and talks about themselves when you see them and you’re like alright thank you, but what about me? It’s a huge privilege if someone wants to read my book, and I don’t want to abuse that by holding them hostage to my own neuroses.

Did your family read the book before it was published?
My dad saw it when it was done, and my aunt too, when it was published. In a lot of ways it’s her story, with her father. My mother accidentally read it, because I sent it to my stepfather to look over for legal reasons and she read it and that was totally fine. She’s a typical Jewish mother, she was like, it’s so good, I love you, and she thought it was funny. It seems like I reveal lots of family secrets, but this is nothing. I could’ve hung them out to dry, but I chose not to. I really tried to take the high road as much as possible for me. I think I tried to be as generous as I could towards my family, as I would have wanted people to be towards me.

In your book, you assign many of the people fake names, such as Adolf Hitler for one of your female therapists, or Tippi Hedren, Wynona Ryder, Ricky Martin, Mandy Moore, and Monica Lewinsky for your mom’s succession of personal assistants. Why did you choose to name them in such a fashion?
I couldn’t believe someone never had done it before. I’d never seen anyone do it before, so after I was finished congratulating myself for having an idea that wasn’t a total knockoff of someone else’s, I did it because you never do that. You describe celebrities in disguise, and it’s part of this idea of turning everything around, to disguise the normal people as celebrities.

Have you heard from any of the people you discuss in the book, especially those such as that therapist, who don’t come off very well?
The therapist is dead, otherwise she would’ve killed me. She was all sorts of famous people’s therapist. She was a terrible therapist. To say she’s a terrible therapist is a compliment. She was a criminal as far as I’m concerned, just an unbelievable lunatic. There are a lot of famous people out there who are really impressionable. A lot of famous actors are not rocket scientists—I hope I’m not breaking anyone’s heart by saying that.

I’m continually amazed that we want our celebrities to be nice people. We want them to like us, which is totally bizarre. We also want them to be nice, normal people that we would want to hang out with. I saw it with this therapist; the I would see in this office, I’d think you guys are going to this person?

I felt like if there’s anything that I really wanted to do for myself or for other people, it was take away some of the shame that people feel about things. There’s so much shame in the world and it’s such a useless emotion. As a culture we produce so much of the teenage angst novel/movie thing but we never show the other side of it, because the other side is boring. So I wanted it to be funny and screwy the way life is but also to be about how it is really.

Was there a lot of legal red tape to deal with? Where there any major stories that got cut from the book?
Too much got cut. I think it’s a less good book than before the legal department got to it. There was a really funny bit about loving to lie. That introduction isn’t so good without that. I’m gonna try to get them to cut the “why I wrote this book” part from the paperback.

It used to be really good because it was all about how I love to lie. For real, I love to lie. I am a sociopath because I am a liar. It was meant to be funny but it was also meant to be a discussion on what is false and what is real and they made me cut it all because of the lawyers. I don’t like it anymore. I used to like it better, it was funnier.

Growing up, did you feel like you had a lot to live up to? Was there a point where you realized that your life was markedly different from your peers because of your mom’s fame/profession?
With writers, you think they’re famous and then no one knows who you are. They’re famous within their own community but with normal people no one knows who they are.

I’d think, my mom’s such a bigshot and I’d go out into the world and no one would know. In New York, we have our own weird celebrities who don’t exist anywhere else, celebrities that people in Flint, Michigan wouldn’t recognize, like Amy Sacco. There are a lot of people like that, like Lizzie Grubman, she used to be a New York celebrity.

Are New Yorkers more jaded about celebrities because we see them all the time?
My husband I were at a party and Suzanne Vega was there. Everyone knows she’s Suzanne Vega, and she’s just standing there. That is such a New York kind of thing. Anywhere else in the world people would go up to her, but no one said anything to her. She just stood there by the dip and then she went home. She’s such a great singer and nobody wanted to look like an idiot. There’s something great about looking like an idiot, speaking from experience. Being really warts and all.

Where does our celebrity obsession from?
I think that it’s a culture where there’s not a lot of social mobility even though we think there’s a lot of social mobility. I believe there’s less social mobility in America than there is in England. In America, people are frustrated when they can’t rise up in social class. The American dream is a fantasy on some level, and we love our celebrities because we feel they’re successful in a way that we might not be able to be. These are the people that are really there’s a thing in American culture where there’s a sense in which the life down the street is better than our own—my life may be good but the person in 10C is having a better life than I am now.

We love it when celebrities fail. We’re so loyal to them, but then we turn on them like Michael Jackson and we’re all over it. In a way we’re a culture that’s really dependent on entertainment. We love TV, or books, not quite as much. We’re into being amused and celebrities fill that void. The truth is a lot of celebrities aren’t very nice people or are very ambitious. People who get really famous get really driven and are not the kind of people you’d want to have as friends, but no one can ever accept that. We want our celebrities to be these great people and it’s such a strange desire; it’s not like we have to hang out with them.

Where do you fall in that?
I love celebrities. I read all the celebrity magazines, Star and Us and In Touch. I love the celebrity culture. I don’t think celebrities are nice people necessarily. For a couple years I thought that all celebrities were drug addicts or really had such incredibly low morality as to the point of being almost prostitutes. I think there are some normal celebrities but quite a large percentage of celebrities abnormal. I’m quite happy to be reading about the celebrity culture as much as is humanly possible, but there’s a lot where we don’t get the whole story in the guise of getting the whole story. Where they do an expose, but you’re really not getting the whole story, you’re getting what the publicist was feeding the magazine, but otherwise it’s wonderful.

How would you define semi-celebrity?
Basically I believe that no matter how successful I ever get, I will never be more famous than Carrot Top. I’m very happy than that. Were I more famous than Carrot Top, I’d probably become an appalling person to be around (as I probably am sometimes already).

Is it ever possible for a semi-celebrity to make the leap into full celebrity, and if so, how?
I think that Rebecca Miller has done it almost, she’s sortof famous. There are people like Moon Zappa, they’re sortof famous. There are exceptions to this rule, but I don’t think there’s any way to be really famous unless you’re a movie star.

I think the whole idea of who’s famous is funny. I met Tom Wolfe, and someone will be like, Tom who? Tom who exactly.

Is it strange to be a younger mom at 26?
I wrote a piece about this for the New York Times because it’s really strange and people are weird about it and in my piece I talked about how my friend was like “You’re gonna have an abortion, right?” I was like “What? Are you nuts? I’m 25, I’m gonna have the baby. I’m getting married.” People said, “you’re way too young to have a child,” but actually I’m so happy that I have a little guy.

My mother was all seventies. She was in labor for 72 hours, breastfed, did yoga, ate mashed beets. I’m very not into that but what’s interesting about my son is that a lot of the other moms at the playground are pregnant with their second child now and I just think what a fucking nightmare to be running after a toddler while pregnant. What’s really cool is that I can wait a couple years and that is awesome. I feel really lucky about that, it’s great to not have to be on the baby clock and to be able to hang out with my guy and have fun and not worry that I’m gonna lose my window. You’ll see when you enter this universe of obstetricians and insurance and sonograms that it ends up being this whole thing.

Do you see being a mom as your primary identity now?
I do other things because I think I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t be very good for my kid if I didn’t. My mother-in-law is an awesome mom. She was a stay-at-home mom when her kids were young, and then she became a local politician, whereas I could never do that. I’d be too much of a pain in the ass for him. I have to do other things. So far, it knocks writing out the ballgame, it’s not even comparable. People say “my book is my baby.” That’s bullshit. Your book is great, but whatever, he’s like everything.

If I had to choose between writing and having him, I would totally choose him. I would die for him a minute. If you said to me, he needs your heart, I’d be like, sure, fine, absolutely. You go from thinking this is weird, I think I’m gonna throw up and to knowing you would die for your child. It’s an incredibly strange feeling. I never wanted to have kids. I hated other people’s children. I would never have gotten pregnant had it not happened by accident.


The Sex Doctors in the Basement is out now. Visit Molly's website for more information.