Presenter of the National Book Awards

2010 National Book Award Winner,
Nonfiction

Patti Smith

Just Kids

Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Interview by Meehan Crist


Meehan Crist: Just Kids chronicles your lifelong friendship and creative partnership with Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. What made you decide to write this book, now?

Patti Smith: Robert asked me to write our story before his death on March 9, 1989. My sorrow was such that I couldn’t immediately embark upon it, though I wrote a suite of prose poems called “The Coral Sea” for him. In time I wrote outlines and small sections, but in the wake of my attempts I suffered much loss, including the deaths of my husband and brother. As a widow with two children I could not devote myself to it and was obliged to lay it aside. In the last few years I began again. So, truthfully, I don’t feel as if I wrote it now, but finished it now.

MC: How did you prepare for writing this book? Did you go back through old letters or diaries, listen to particular songs? How did you evoke, in your mind, this period of your life in order to be able to write about it?

PS: The book encompasses our youth, which no one knew as well as us, so I relied on our shared memories and my personal archive. I first prepared by going through our story in my mind, letting it flow like a movie. I ran it over and over until I could see us and hear us speak. I wrote outlines, timelines, and I consulted my diaries, journals, and our letters. I went to Brooklyn where we met, fell in love and lived. Wherever I could find him. To Coney Island, Pearl Paint, Tompkins Square Park, and the hallways of the Chelsea Hotel. I went everywhere I could find him, though I do feel he is always with me, and if I want to find him I can look within myself.

MC: The writing in this book has been compared stylistically to some of your song lyrics. How do you see the relationship between your experience writing lyrics, or poetry, and your experience with writing Just Kids?

PS: I can’t say how the book is similar in style to my lyrics, I’ve never thought about that, but the book is directed to the reader, as a song to the listener. In both cases the task is to be as communicative as possible. I can only say I was conscious of that responsibility, just as I am when writing a song.

MC: Did you look to other books as models for Just Kids? Did other artists or art forms influence your work on this book?

PS: I had no specific model in writing Just Kids, but I wanted, though non-fiction, for it to read as a story. In writing in first person I was inspired by autobiographical literature in first person, such as The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Genet’s The Thief’s Journal.

A book is precious and every aspect is important, both in content and aesthetically. I studied how books are designed, from paper to font. In working with the book designer I chose to integrate the visual material within the text as in Nadja by Andre Breton or Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald.

MC: Is there one story in the book that seemed particularly important for you to tell?

PS: The most important task was to give Robert to the reader. His work stands on its own, but there is little accurate documentation about what he was like and how he evolved as a young man. Each facet of the story was essential in creating a holistic portrait of him, which I hope I have done.

MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?

PS: The point when I realized I was going to make it and that I would not fail to keep my promise to write it. The moment I wrote the last word will always stay with me. I had finished the book, but in rereading I noticed a redundant phrase. When I crossed out the word relationship and replaced it, I realized that the last word I wrote was love.

MC: Was there any discovery you made in the course of writing this book that provided a key to understanding Robert Mapplethorpe’s life, or your relationship to him? If so, how did this discovery help shape the book?

PS: I wasn’t trying to discover, but to articulate what I know. The story I carried in me for four decades. I wasn’t completely sure I could do it, but I discovered in the end I could. My desire was to write the truth but tell it as a story, like a modern fairy tale.

MC: As you shaped your past experiences into a nonfiction narrative, did writing this book change your sense of him, of yourself, or of your relationship?

PS: Rather, it validated it. I have recently reread the book and am happy that even with any flaws it may have, it gives an authentic sense of us and our world. Gave it form. Like a simple but precious stone I could set in someone’s hand. I know who we were and I am happy that we can be found in its pages.

MC: What do you most wish that people better understood about Robert Mapplethorpe?

PS: That he was kind, protective, mischievous, and he liked to laugh. That he always retained a confidence in his vision and had a strong work ethic. That he wasn’t possessive about his confidence and was generous in investing it in others.

MC: We live at an odd political moment for art and artists in this country, a time when arts funding—both in schools and for working artists—is dwindling, while, at the same time, graduate programs in the arts are proliferating. How do you see the role of the artist/writer changing in our society?

PS: This is truly the era that William Blake anticipated. He believed all people are capable to animate their creative force. Despite any lack of funding, our present technology has democratized creativity. I also believe that some have a higher calling and will forever give us high art, the enduring and inspirational stepping-stones to God.


Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such
as The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.