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Legendary Author Erica Jong On Ageing Gracefully

Photo: Gregory Pace/REX
American poet, novelist and controversial voice of second-wave feminism, Erica Jong has a new area of interest: ageing. Her recent book Fear of Dying charts the sexual adventures of Vanessa Wonderman – a woman in her 60s who (with the help of a new facelift) pretends to be ten years younger as she scours the internet looking for men.

The novel and its title refer back to Jong’s seminal book Fear of Flying, which – when it came out in 1973 – challenged the way that female desire was traditionally portrayed. Not dissimilar to Fear of Dying, the plot follows protagonist Isadora Wing after she abandoned her psychoanalyst husband to go on a journey of sexual discovery around Europe. It's basically Eat, Pray, Love but with more one night stands and what Jong describes as “Jewish neuroticism”.

Jong's characters are figments of her self – something she's acknowledged in interviews before. However, while Vanessa seems trapped in a destructive cycle of narcissism and fear of – yep – dying, Jong tells us that she's never felt better than she does now at 73 years old. With that in mind, we asked the unapologetically outspoken author for some sage advice on sex, loss and growing more self-confident with age.

Sometimes you’re swearing on the radio, sometimes you’re making bestseller lists. Would you say you were growing older gracefully or ungracefully?
Well, if you can’t say 'vagina' on Woman’s Hour, where can you say it? I’d say I’m ageing very gracefully. I’m happy and happier with every passing year and I feel more empowered in my writing and even more empowered when I have to do a book tour because it reminds me that I don’t suffer fools gladly. I have absolutely no problem saying to people, 'That’s a stupid question, move on!' If I get asked by an interviewer, ‘What do you regret in your life?’ I say, ‘I don’t regret anything.' I mean, what kind of question is that? It’s very popular here in the UK.

We’re a miserable bunch…
There’s Schadenfreude in this part of the world. It's like you’re supposed to regret things. I don’t regret anything. Everything in my life taught me something that was valuable. There’s a sense of power in that. Gloria Steinem said that women are the only group that grow more radical with age, and it’s totally true.
You have said that “age is the last taboo”? Can you expand on that?
We become ourselves more when we get older, we know who we are and we like who we are. I remember when there was a whole rush of books about menopause... My book Fear of Fifty didn’t even mention menopause, you may have noticed. Because it’s not a disease. Childbirth is not a disease and menopause is not a disease! In fact, when women stop trying to please men, they totally come into their own. I think pleasing men is hormonal.

Can you give an example?
We come to a point in our lives where we’re not worrying about getting those eggs fertilised – and that is total, absolute liberation. I see members of my daughter’s generation – she’s 37 – freezing their eggs, and saying, 'If I want to have a baby I’m going to have a baby,' which I think is great. It’s very hard to raise a child alone, but these women have a strong desire to have a child and they’re doing it. More power to them. The important thing about getting older is that we are more unapologetic about who we are.

Tell me about the title of your most recent book... Fear of Dying... is that a real fear for you?
The original title of the book was Happily Married Woman. At a certain point in the process of writing, I put a subtitle: 'Happily Married Woman OR Fear of Dying'. Because Happily Married Woman was ironic, and I began to see as the plot unfolded, that Vanessa was really responding to a sense of mortality. So I made that the subtitle. When people started reading the manuscript, like a cousin of mine, they would say, ‘Erica! Fear of Dying has to be the title’. I said ‘It’s vulgar and obvious’. And my cousin said, ‘Readers are vulgar and obvious!’
I think we do have a fear of dying and I think there is a taboo of talking about death. My Italian publisher changed the title to Happily Married Woman Meets Happily Married Man and when I asked why, she said, 'Italians, the minute you mention death, they start grabbing their testicles.' They don’t want to talk about it. Which is odd to me. Because love and death are the only subjects of poetry. And I started as a poet. I am aware of that. Embracing love and death is what the poet does, because those are the two most important things in life. End of story. We love and we lose people. It’s the essence of being a human being.

Has losing people changed your outlook on life?
Well, we all lose people. I didn’t think my parents would ever die. My mother was 101 when she died. My father was 93. My beloved grandfather was 98. When you have a family that live that long you think they’re never going to go. When they do, it’s an emotional cataclysm.
There's not much visibility when it comes to older people’s sex lives in TV, books and film. Do you think that's a problem?
Throughout our lives, from infancy to old age, we need touch. Infants who are not touched grow up unable to make connections with other people, that has been proven many times. When older women are not touched it seems tragic to me... and, actually, most of the older women I know have some kind of love, touch or intimacy in their lives. It’s a lie that women shouldn’t be touched when they’re older. But it’s another powerful aspect of sexist propaganda – that you’re only fuckable if you’re under 25 and pathologically underweight. It’s absolutely not true that men only want women who are young and skin and bones, or that women only want women who are young and skin and bones. It’s not true. But it makes women feel very bad about themselves.

What’s the sexiest age?
Oh God. I’ve always felt sexy. As a teenager I felt sexy, at 40 I felt sexy, and I still feel sexy.

Fear of Dying is out now. It is available in hardback here.