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Interview: Laura Jacobs (for Newsday)

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TALKING WITH LAURA JACOBS / Finding the Light Touch

By Emily Gordon

It was time to get out of the audience. After years of writing about other people’s art, longtime critic and Vanity Fair contributing editor Laura Jacobs has taken the stage with a stylish, gutsy first novel. Women About Town (Viking, $23.95) tells the stories of two New York women who share Jacobs’ sensibilities and some of her history: Iris, 40, a high-end lamp-shade designer who’s divorced, and Lana, 34, a freelance arts critic balancing work, precarious friendships and a relationship that may or may not be going anywhere.

Jacobs alternates between Iris and Lana as they, in different ways, take the city by storm and negotiate their social and internal worlds. This gives readers, as Jacobs notes, two chances to identify with a heroine. “I took a certain side of myself for Lana, and then another side of myself for Iris,” she says, pouring Prosecco in her Manhattan apartment, a feast of beautiful objects and equally beautiful cats (three spotted ocicats, bred to look like little ocelots). “And I put them both in the Petri dish and let them both grow.”

Jacobs, who embodies both Midwestern openness and New York elan, grew up in a northwest suburb of Chicago. After college, she got a job as an editor at Stagebill magazine, the performing-arts publication. Using Stagebill — where she eventually became editor in chief — as a base, she wrote freelance dance criticism in several cities until she moved to New York.

But Jacobs was destined to add more to her repertoire. She wrote two fashion pieces for a British paper that caught the eye of The New Republic and Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. Soon she was writing about fashion for both magazines; she’s since composed the text for books about Geoffrey Beene and Barbie. She reflects, “Vanity Fair pushed me to do these big, overarching profiles” — of great designers like Norman Norell and Mainbocher as well as stars from Cate Blanchett to Emily Post — “and really, you have to have a sense of story to do a life, and I think that’s where I got the idea I could tell a story.”

Along the way, Jacobs married Vanity Fair media columnist James Wolcott. He was the first reader of “Women About Town”: About five years ago, she says, “I used to sit down after work at the computer with a martini while Jim was watching ‘Crossfire’ and all that, and do what I would call a cocktail-hour poem. And then one day I just thought, this isn’t working for me. I think I’ll try to write a scene … And I took it in to Jim after I’d finished and I said, ‘What do you think of this?’ He read it and he loved it … And so I just kept doing it whenever the spirit moved me, and I felt like I had found a new kind of air to fly in.”

“Women About Town” is about, among other things, the often fraught romance of female friendship. Indeed, it deliberately keeps Iris’ and Lana’s relationships with men in the background: “It was a conscious decision I made from the start. I thought, there are enough novels out there about women hunting down men, pursuing, pursuing. And my experience of New York City is that — well, yes, if you’re single here, you do want to meet a man and fall in love, but that is just one small section of the pie. You have so much else going on in your day to stay the course in New York City … And I really think that relationships between women are so complex, and interesting, and fascinating. So much great art is about women, and I think there’s a reason for that.”

She tends to stick with the classics in her own fiction reading, though “the one writer I read a lot when I was writing the book was Nancy Mitford, because I just love that light touch - and I really wanted to stay light, which is not to say I didn’t want moments of depth or deep feeling, but I wanted to get at them in a different way. There’s so much that we keep below the surface in our lives — we aren’t always spewing out emotions and feelings, but we still feel deeply. I wanted that. I wanted to create something that was a pleasure to read.”

Is another novel in the works? “I have started another one, because it’s so much fun! I love criticism, I love writing dance criticism, and I love the historical research for the pieces I do for Vanity Fair, but there is nothing as liberating as fiction. I never knew that.”

She finds another form of freedom in bird-watching, which she’s been doing for about eight years; she’s one of the tenders at the Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary and leads bird walks there. She keeps lists of the birds she spots: “The more you know … the higher your standard for what you need to know is, and you want to identify everything. And I think there’s a corollary [to] that in writing. You want to be able to write exactly what that emotion feels like, more and more specific, but in a fresh way, where it’s not belabored. That’s what it’s all about, in any pursuit — about concentration, energy, freshness.”

Published June 30, 2002

Note: Jacobs’s second novel is The Bird Catcher.

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