Could we talk a little bit about your education? You went to school in Paris at the age of seventeen. What motivated you to go overseas at such a young age? I didn’t go to high school, period, which is one of my formative influences in a sense. I knew from two years of junior high school that I was categorically a loser. I was small and skinny and poorly dressed and too dumb to hide that I was pretty smart at academic subjects and didn’t fit in. I feel like high school is mostly a kind of behavior modification center and I didn’t really want four more years of punishment. My parents were going through this epic divorce that lasted most of my adolescence. It was the seventies and nobody else was paying attention, so I went to an alternative junior high school for ninth and tenth grades and took the GED at fifteen and started junior college as an unaffiliated freshman at sixteen. Walking down the hall one day, there was one of those posters—you know, “Go to school in Paris”—with a card you send away. So I sent it away.
I’d been yearning to get out of suburbia. I knew that the world was bigger, more interesting, more complex than that version. And Paris as a social place was not particularly great, but Paris as a physical place was incredibly delightful and stimulating and rewarding at seventeen. People under eighteen could get into any museum for free, so I could just walk into the Louvre and look at one painting or one room. The place was a great adventure. There was this sense that I was in this city where doors were being flung open.
What happened when you came back to California? I really went through college as though there were some sort of award for speed. I finished up at San Francisco State University in a year and graduated right after I turned twenty.
So suddenly I was a college graduate and I was about to find out that, contrary to the beliefs of my parents’ generation, a humanities BA in the 1980s was worth nothing. I had decided to become a writer when I was six, so I didn’t have some of the complicated career decisions most people do. I realized that I’d learned how to read, which was really important, but I hadn’t learned how to write. There was some sense that the world and I weren’t ready for each other yet. So I had a wonderful year off when I went to a lot of punk shows and had a pretty good time and filled out my one and only graduate school application, which was to the graduate school of journalism at U.C. Berkeley, where I was pretty sure they’d teach me to write and to do something professional for a living. Happily, creative writing programs didn’t yet teach nonfiction, and I think I got a lot of practical and ethical things out of journalism I wouldn’t have gotten from a creative writing program.
What did you learn from journalism school? Was there anything you had to unlearn? I could never attain that perfectly flat voice that I think is as affected a style as any but that’s supposed to be the style of objectivity. But I understood what it was and when to restrain opining and expressing and florid touches and individual style. Basically I think it gave me a good sense of when that’s relevant and when it gets in the way and undermines what you’re trying to do. There was one news professor that I really drove nuts, because of my inability and/or refusal to write in that tone that I think is both Hemingwayesque and ultimately masculine in ways that are dubious. I did much better with professors like Ben Bagdikian, who said that there’s no such thing as objectivity but there is fairness.
How did you become interested in writing about the visual arts? One of the great things about the graduate program was that I got a work-study job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art doing serious research.