Terry Castle, the author behind The Professor, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Terry's episode). Until then, get to know her a little better with this Q+A, in which she talks about her love of San Francisco and her role as She-Dweeb For The Ages.
You're a critic, essayist, professor, visual artist, and a "miniature dachshund enthusiast." What's an occupation or hobby of yours that most don't know about?
Terry Castle: Being a humungous-dachshund enthusiast. The 17 or 18-footers. (And that's just the snouts!) I have to feed them using special cranes.
No, seriously: right now it would have to be old postcard collecting of a compulsive if not monomaniacal nature. I go to all the vintage postcard and paper "ephemera" shows in the Bay Area I can. One feels like an oddball among oddballs: the main postcard-collector demographic seems to be nerdy 50 to 60-something male ex-hippies with scraggly long gray hair and ponytails. I'm almost always one of the only women there. I recently started a postcard blog -- A Postcard Almanac -- on which I post striking or unusual items from my collection and make "arty" little comments about them. It's all very precious. I don't believe anyone has ever visited my blog, but, hey, not everyone is cut out for the role of He-or-She-Dweeb For the Ages.
Who did you look up to as a queer icon, while you were growing up?
TC: Let me see: Queen Christina, the seventeenth-century cross-dressing queen of Sweden? Olive Oyl -- Popeye's sometime girlfriend? Most of my idols were predictably literary: Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Colette, Stein and Toklas. Among the guys: Thomas Mann, Henry James, and Yukio Mishima. Rimbaud and Verlaine. The usual pretentious adolescent array. But even earlier, I realize now in retrospect, I was also extremely drawn to all that weird, out-of-the-blue, seemingly accidental gay and lesbian comedy one so often encountered on American television in the late 1950s and 1960s. Gayness was never explicitly flagged -- homosexuality, after all, was hardly a topic of polite conversation. It was as if no one was looking, but of course, everyone was. Thus indelible: Ernie Kovacs as the poet 'Percy Dovetonsils.' Milton Berle in outlandish drag on The Ed Sullivan Show. Liberace. Paul Lynde camping away nonstop on Hollywood Squares. Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle. I remember watching the Merv Griffin Show every afternoon when I came home from school and one day he introduced a young comedienne who was making her television debut. Her name was Lily Tomlin. Perched on a stool mid-stage, Tomlin proceeded to deliver a deadpan monologue while also preparing -- slowly, deliberately, voluptuously -- to smoke a huge and unbelievably suggestive-looking cigar. She went through the whole Cigar Aficionado ritual: sucking on the cigar on both ends, pinching the leaves at the tip, etc. Then, without a single comment about it or what she was doing, she smoked it! It was so wildly transgressive at the time -- so disgusting, unfeminine, and dizzyingly hot -- I almost wet my pants. Later on, she and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers got me through the 1970s.
What was your coming out experience like?
TC: Too grisly to bear thinking about. I was a fire-breathing lesbian separatist in those days. Very down on patriarchy and its abominations. No girlfriends, though: I used to cut my own hair with pinking shears. Not always a deodorant-user either. Definitely wasn't making the most of my looks.
You come across as fairly self-deprecating in your essays and have described yourself (hilariously) as "an acquired taste, like angostora bitters or ouzo." What personality trait or aspect of your character annoys you the most?
TC: The part of me that is like stale Diet Coke mixed with bilge-water. That is, the part that tries to convince the other parts of me that exercising is neither healthy nor pleasurable. Or indeed, particularly lucrative. (This last bit is true.)
In your interview with The Nation, you said, "Things get funnier in retrospect, and I entertain myself with my own younger self." What's the one scene from your earlier years that amuses you most now?
TC: Insane hitchhiking trip I went on when I was 18 from Tacoma, WA to Victoria, B.C. and back -- undertaken at the prompting of the dreamy hippy-girl with whom I was idiotically infatuated in my college years. Said gal was a nature-worshipper and thought such an adventure would be some totally Zen, Basho-like spiritual journey on the "Narrow Road to the Deep North." We'd obviously been reading too many Kenneth Rexroth haiku translations. I had never hitchhiked before or even camped out. The trip lasted four interminable days, during which we were lost 90% of the time; slept in dank forests in pouring rain (it was February and our sleeping bags, heavy enough already, became completely waterlogged); and ran out of both food and money. By the time we reached Victoria, we were so exhausted and near-hypothermic that we went into a museum -- it was heated and didn't charge admission -- primarily so we could check our filthy towering backpacks at the coat check, drink from the water fountains, and rest on various benches until the guides shooed us on. Craziest of all: the number of scary car rides we accepted along the way in battered pickup trucks driven by various rustic-yokel-Tony Perkins-Bates Hotel types. One of them had freaky glowing eyes and said he made his living making 'tombstones for girls' somewhere deep in the forest. Besotted though I was with my friend, I spent most of the trip trying to hide -- not always successfully -- my apprehension, despair, moments of gibbering panic, etc.
You're a long-time San Francisco resident. What's your favorite spot in the city and what keeps you here?
TC: The privilege of living in San Francisco is one of life's blessings. I've got many favorite places, but the Mission (near where I live) exerts a continuing visual, indeed almost spiritual, fascination. I have nothing but immense respect for the fantastic SF writer Rebecca Solnit -- and all she has done to protect the Mission from yuppie gentrification over the past 20 years, but I have to confess I find the present-day combination (on Valencia, say) of burrito restaurants, 'curated' urban salvage shops, art galleries, old church buildings, alternative-press bookstores, and seedy-but-hip coffee places enormously appealing.
I realize my pleasure has a lot to do with having the disposable income to enjoy the Mission's charms -- the weird juxtaposition of decidedly downmarket with upscale treats. I'm particularly partial to the street art -- the graffiti, stickers, signage, posters, murals, etc. The Shepard Fairey thing. Every few months, I walk over to Clarion Alley -- off Mission near 16th -- to check out any new works painted on the walls and fences there. Reminds me a little bit of East Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'm also a huge supporter of Creativity Explored -- a non-profit gallery on 16th between Dolores and Guerrero that features astonishing artwork by adults with developmental disabilities -- and the tiny store next door, Needles and Pens, an eccentric little place that sells zines, indie crafts, and various raw-looking pieces of art by nose-ringed Mission artists.
You've admitted to being prone to schoolgirl intellectual crushes and have written about the "hotitude" of Daniel Craig. Who are you crushing on at the moment? And how do you personally measure "hotitude?"
TC: I'm sure this sounds horribly snobbish, but for me, finding someone crush-worthy has to do almost entirely with how intelligent they are. Braininess counts far more for me than that collagen-induced 'hotness' supposedly represented by supermodels, Real Housewives, and the air-brushed starlets, male and female, one sees in People magazine and the National Enquirer. I'd much rather go on a date with Fran Lebowitz, say, than Britney or Nicole or whatever their names are. That said, I confess there's one group of people exempt from the cruel proviso expressed above: namely, gorgeous lady-basketball players.
I read that you collect some peculiar objects, such as mug shots and printers' blocks. What are some of the other wonderfully bizarre items you collect and what draws you to them?
TC: Alas, nothing as magnificently pointless as something a friend of mine used to collect: what she called 'deformed' Peanut M & Ms. The kind with two peanuts conjoined, as it were, like Siamese twins, in one shell. She had hundreds of them in little rows on a window sill. By contrast, all the grimy old postcards, printers' blocks, mug shots, etc., I've collected over the years seem wholesome if not downright educational. Of course, there's my collection of British Army cap badges, recovered over the past century from the old World War I battlefields in France and Belgium. Historic, perhaps, but maybe a bit on the morbid side?
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be and why?
TC: Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday -- the breezy, enchanting absurdity never gets stale. It's a day at the beach. (Literally.) I love the soundtrack too.
If your life was adapted to film, who would play you?
TC: I'd like to think Cate Blanchett, but I'm afraid Janet Reno would be more like it.
If you could visit any other time period and place in history, which would it be and what would you do there?
TC: It would be fun to go back to 1913 and the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- you know, the one that started the riot, with Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes. Everybody screaming and crawling around and moaning like wild animals. The power of art: to unleash fantabulous chaos and delight.
Look for Terry Castle's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!