Writer David Leavitt published his first short story in the New Yorker in 1981 and graduated from Yale two years later. He met his partner Mark Mitchell in 1992 and a year after that they moved to Italy, somewhat by accident. They returned to the States in 2000 when Leavitt joined the Creative Writing faculty at the University of Florida. Leavitt’s fiction includes The Lost Language of the Cranes, The Indian Clerk, and the forthcoming The Two Hotel Francforts. We spoke one week prior to his 50th birthday in June, 2011, and shortly before Leavitt and Mitchell purchased a residence in Buenos Aires.
This has been a year of staying home a lot. It’s been a year of, I wouldn’t exactly say agoraphobia, but if I measure it against the other years of my life it’s probably the year I’ve done the least amount of travelling. It’s been the year I’ve been the least social. It’s the year I’ve been the most kind of interior, up to a point where I was beginning to feel like I was a shut-in. And I wonder if that was all part of a kind of a preparation for sort of a rebirth at 50. Because now, you know, I’m not dreading it. I’m kind of looking forward to it. But that’s only been the last couple weeks [laughs].
I’m not doing anything for my birthday, per se, but I have made plans that are related. I’m going to Italy very shortly after my birthday, but that’s not really related to the birthday. I’m going there for a writer’s conference. I used to live in Italy for a long time. I was in Italy for about nine years, so that is actually the opposite of something I would do for my birthday.
What I’m doing—and my partner is also turning 50 this year—is that we are going to Buenos Aires in July, possibly to buy, to look for and buy a small apartment there. And that is definitely a 50th birthday thing.
We lived for a long time in Italy, and then came back to the States when I took this teaching job. And ever since then we’ve been sort of stable, American, you know, middle class homeowners. Working, retirement accounts, all that sort of responsible stuff. But we’ve always missed living abroad. And I think we’ve also missed living in cities. I mean, Gainesville’s a small city, but it’s not a big city. And I think we also just a little bit miss the sense of adventure that we had when we lived in Italy. So we’re kind of going on this crazy adventure. Whether we actually buy a place, I don’t know, but it’s a different world. It’s not Europe. It’s someplace new.
It’s something we’ve been talking about for years, but we’ve never done it for a whole variety of reasons. We’ve sort of allowed this sense of caution to sort of interfere.
As my psychiatrist said to me yesterday when I was trying to explain to him why I consider this a dramatic birthday, he said, very helpfully [laughs], “Well, when you turn 40 you figure there’s a good chance you’ve only led half your life. By the time you’re 50, that’s not true anymore.” And I felt like saying, “Thank you for the comforting thought [laughs].” But, you know, he’s probably close to 60, so I think he was speaking the truth.
When I hear one of my students say, “Oh God, I’m turning 30,” I just sort of laugh. But, you know, when I turned 30 it seemed like a dramatic event to me. And there’s that perpetual thing, that the older you get everyone else seems younger. You know, people are turning 40. You say, “Oh, you’re just a baby.”
But most of my friends who are older than I am, I think actually their lives have become considerably more interesting after turning 50, and they have done sort of unexpected, adventurous things and made changes in their lives that were for the good. And so I guess this idea that somehow you’re supposed to start slowing down seems to be something that most people I know haven’t accepted.
I remember my mother when she was in her early 50s said she was in the happiest time of her life. So I’m perfectly willing to be positive about that. I think the hard part is that there’s definitely no way you can say you’re young. When you’re in your 40s you can sort of say you’re still an early middle age. The closer you get to 50 the harder it is to say, but by the time you get to 50 then forget it. It’s over. You can’t say it at all. And that requires, I think, a certain amount of reconsideration.
I remember on my 40th birthday, and I was in Italy at that point, I was talking to my veterinarian there—not my veterinarian; my dog’s veterinarian—who was two days older than I was. And she’s a very shrewd woman, and she said, in Italian—I’ll say it in English, but it sounded better in Italian—she said, “You know, I feel great now, but now begins the descent [laughs].” And there was that sort of awareness that this was sort of it. I mean, you know, now’s when the decline begins. And I was very conscious of that, and I think to some extent it’s true.
At the same time there have been certain things that have been very, very positive. I mean, I feel like I’m a lot less worried about things like personal ambition, fame. I’m much less restless. I’m much happier staying at home. I don’t feel the sense that I have to be out all the time. I don’t really care as much what other people think about me as I used to. And the other thing is, even though I don’t have children, I have students who are like children to me. And as I get older and the age difference between me and my students increases, I find that I’m able to take this great sense of sort of paternalistic pride in my students. And that sense of sort of feeling like a father is very rewarding. In some ways it’s the best of both worlds because I get to have that feeling, but they aren’t financially dependent on me [laughs].
I look at my program, the program in which I teach, the creative writing program here at the University of Florida, and I happen to be the youngest member of the faculty. Now that’s sort of a fluke, that we don’t have any younger faculty, but if I look at, say, the English Department as a whole, I’m probably right smack dab in the middle. However, I’m also aware, in a way that is quite amusing to me, of how long it is until I can retire [laughs]. And that is something that ten years ago wouldn’t have even been on my mind. But now I sort of think to myself, “Hmm, nine years.” You know, I’m starting to kind of anticipate that and wonder about it because I have colleagues who have this sort of “I shall work until I drop” attitude. I don’t. I will retire the minute I can [laughs]. First opportunity, I will. And that is another sort of positive is to be able to look forward to that [laughs].
I mean, if I retire, I’m only retiring from teaching. I was a working writer for a long time before I became a professor. And I think it’s actually really important, if you’re a writer, not to allow a university affiliation to become your identity. I think it can actually be quite disastrous. But that’s getting into a different topic.
I think there are a number of reasons why Buenos Aires appealed to me. I mean, probably principally that it’s really inexpensive compared to anywhere else, but also I’ve always had sort of an affinity for the Spanish-speaking world. I lived in Barcelona for a while. A lot of my favorite writers are Argentinian. I’m a huge Borges fan. So it’s not just sort of choosing some place at random. There are reasons for it. And, of course, nothing is certain. I may get there and hate it. But, you know, we lived in Italy for so long. We were very Europe-centric and so the rest of the world I don’t know very well. I mean, I’ve been to India once, which was a really amazing experience, but Asia, as well, is completely unknown to me. And one thing that I really would like to do now is travel more to places I’ve never been.
My neighbor is a great world traveler, and on her 70th birthday she went on a 70-day trip, by herself. And she went to Mongolia and Bhutan and just all sorts of crazy places. And I actually think there’s something a little bit restless and sort of sad, because I keep saying that there’s not really any reason she’s going to these places except to go. But then again, it’s pretty admirable. And better that she should be doing that than sitting around watching television.
I have a very hard time traveling if I don’t have a reason. And I think that’s part of the reason why I like the idea of having a second home somewhere, because it makes sense to me to want to kind of alternate a little bit between two kinds of lives. A lot of the people I know who have done that seem to love it. One of my colleagues who is in her late 50s, she and her husband had moved here from New York. They lived in the East Village. They sold their apartment. They bought a house here. They have a very nice life here, and then they just bought a place in Brooklyn because they miss New York. So now when she’s not here she’s in Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s not necessarily where I would choose, but I understand that for her it’s a great thing. Because she can be up in the city, she can have an urban life, and then when she comes back she’s happy to be here because she knows she has that other side of her life. And I think what’s particularly important for her as a writer is that she has a place to go in which she’s not a professor.
I have recently, over the last couple of years, been in touch with a lot of the people in my graduating class from high school and a lot of people from my graduating class from college, because of the respective 25th and 30th reunions. And I went to my 25th college reunion, which was great fun. I did not go to the 30th reunion, but they set up sort of an online community for people I went to high school with, and it was very gratifying to reconnect with these people and sort of compare notes.
I think there’s something very consoling about observing the maps of other people’s lives, particularly people the same age, because even if everybody’s map is completely different, everybody has a map and so it’s that comfort of being in the company. You’re talking to people who are at the same, as they say in Italy, season of life. It’s really people my own age who I feel the most comfortable with, because they’re at the same season of life, so they get it.
I do still have friends, and I would say this is especially true with some of my gay friends—and I’m gay so I don’t mean to say this in any way as a sort of anti-gay thing, and it’s probably no exclusive—who are terrified of getting older, and are kind of clinging rather desperately. They’re having a really hard time with it, and I think, especially if you’re single, it’s a lot harder. You know the old jokes you hear in movies, like the one line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “She has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago now.” I see people like that and I think, “There but for the grace of God go I [laughs].”
If you had a choice between trying to pretend you were younger than you are and pretending that you’re older than you are, neither alternative is attractive, but I’d much rather act like I was older than act like I was younger.
My sense is that if people are in long-term, stable relationships, if their partners are more or less the same age, it is a big help. I think likewise to be in a relationship with someone much younger would be very, very difficult. And I think to be single might also be quite difficult, unless you are perfectly happy being single.
I have friends, not just gay friends but straight friends too, who really are, by nature, just pretty happy living alone. I know people who are happier single, who don’t really like living with other people, but they are few and far between.
I think the great difficulty, particularly for gay men, is that it’s such a youth-oriented culture.
And it’s sort of like it is for straight women. I mean, men tend to want young. And so it’s very, very hard, I think, because a 50-year-old man, gay or straight, is going to be looking for, usually, not always, a younger woman or a younger man. But Mark and I have been together close to 20 years and we’re six months apart in age, and so it’s very hard for me to imagine any other kind of relationship than a relationship with someone who is my co-equal.
I have a good friend, who is probably five years older than me, whose long-time partner died. This was maybe five years ago. And he was so habituated to being married that he wanted another relationship, like immediately. It was sort of like what Joyce Carol Oates has written about, you know, the fact that she got married so quickly after her husband died. And he was actually the rarity in that he did not want someone younger. He wanted someone his own age. And what he discovered was, when he started going with Match.com, was the number of men in their 50s looking for men in their 50s was like almost zero. And this was, I think, incredibly sort of disillusioning to him.
I’m not that adventurous a person. I really felt like my 40s were devoted to trying to create a sense of stability. And that is the opposite of adventure. I really felt that what I wanted was a stable, reliable life. And I really devoted my 40s, I think, to creating that stable, reliable life. That is to say, I got a job, I bought a house. You know, a lot of very practical, sensible stuff. Having done that, I’m very glad I did it. I don’t regret it at all. And I’m very grateful to have those things. However, I’m also kind of feeling a little bit like I’ve become a little bit of a stick in the mud [laughs].
The film director John Schlesinger, who I was friends with, he said to me once in sort of his inimitable British way, “Shrouds don’t have pockets, dear.” And I think that you do reach a point where you’ve been a good boy, in effect, or you’ve done what you’re supposed to do: you’ve saved money, you’ve got the retirement account, you’ve done all those responsible things. And then you sort of think to yourself, “Well, what am I saving all this money for?” I think especially after the big sort of mortgage crash there was this feeling like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to risk anything.” But if you’re lucky enough, as we are, not to be sort of underwater with a mortgage, then you begin to think, “Well, what’s the point of all this security? What’s the point of this retirement account? What am I supposed to do?”
One of my colleagues in the English department here, you know, it just seems so depressing to me. He owned a beautiful old house in the same neighborhood where I live, and he sold it and moved to this sort of retirement community. There’s a place here called Oak Hammock, which is one of these sort of assisted living facilities, but it’s got like all the stages. You know, you start off in a house and then you go to an apartment and then you wind up in the nursing home. And people move there when they’re actually pretty young. And I would just as soon cash in my chips as do that [laughs].
I don’t want to suggest that I think there’s anything wrong with assisted living. I wish my father had been in assisted living when he died at the age of 85. But this place I’m mentioning, Oak Hammock, has an affiliation with the University, and one of the sort of perks of living there is you can take courses free. So I had a woman in one of my classes who was very healthy, probably about 60, and had lived in California and had retired and had done all this research, and based on her research had concluded that this was a good place for her to retire because of, you know, quality of life versus cost of living. And that was the thing that astonished me, was that she had arranged everything for what was probably the next… I mean, she still had another 25 years. She was very healthy. That seemed to me crazy. I could not figure out why this woman had made the decision she had. I think she was restless. But, you know, I understand all that very, very well.
I suppose that’s the interesting part for me is that the 40s were devoted to kind of stability, and now that I’m turning 50 it’s like, “Well, I haven’t been saving all this money so that I can move to Oak Hammock, you know, where my death will be pre-ordained and all the stages and everything will be taken care of.” That’s not how I’ve ever wanted to live my life.
The thing about this trip to Buenos Aires is that it may just end up being a vacation. And that’s fine. But if it leads to something more than that, great. But that’s the other thing is I feel like I’m much more realistic. I don’t think I’m as likely as I used to be to kind of put all my eggs in one basket. And I certainly don’t think that I’m as inclined as I might have been once to make reckless decisions. I think that I maybe, maybe, I hope, have found the balance between prudence and a positive kind of risk-taking.
In some ways I think one of the luckiest things that happened to me was that when we lived in Italy we got into a major financial mess because we fixed up an old house in the country and it was a classic sort of money pit situation. And we ended up in pretty bad debt and it was a very scary, destabilizing experience. But it had two ironic positives: one was that we ended up having to sell all our stock just before the dot com crash [laughs], and the other thing was, having learned the dangers of living beyond our means, we decided, and it’s a decision we’ve kept to, we were always going to live below our means. And I think even this Argentina scheme is partially in keeping with that. It’s the fun and adventure of owning property abroad, but in a place where you can do so without taking a tremendous financial risk.
There was a point a few years ago where we were talking about buying an apartment in Paris, and in retrospect we were so relieved that we didn’t because, among other things, if we’d had a mortgage in euros… at that point the euro was a dollar twenty and now it’s a dollar forty. I mean, that would’ve been a mistake. And I have learned that it’s very hard to enjoy something when you know you can’t afford it [laughs]. So I think that balance is exactly it. It’s like you’re still young enough to be able to enjoy the idea of doing something a little bit wild, but you’re old enough that you’re able to balance that with a certain amount of reasonable, sensible judgment and decision-making. I hope [laughs]. Who knows? I mean, the other thing I have learned is not to be sure about anything.
You know, when Chekhov was publishing his stories, critics always complained about the fact that the stories usually ended with the characters saying, “What do I know? I don’t understand anything.” But that was why Chekhov was the first great modernist writer, is that he was willing to admit uncertainty.
We just planned this trip in the last, like, week. And we were planning to go to Italy, which we’re still going to Italy, but Italy always feels like going backwards to me. And so in some ways to make the decision to go a new place has been a real boost, because it’s sort of symbolic of moving forward as opposed to moving backwards. And the problem with moving backwards is it’s always a little bit of a mixed bag to go someplace that you haven’t been for a while, and sort of remember, for better or worse, what you were like then.
But I’ll tell you one thing: I have never fantasized or dreamed of a fountain of youth. I would never want to be younger again. Because when I look back on when I was younger, I think to myself, “Well, you know, there was this advantage and that advantage, but I was so much more naïve.” The growth, the learning, I couldn’t go through that again [laughs]. I would not want to give up everything I’ve learned just in order to be young. And then if you sort of start playing, you know, literary games you think, “Well, what if you could be 30 but with all the knowledge that you have at 50?” I think that would be, in some ways, the worst scenario of all, because you’d be living in a world of people who were so much more naïve. So, you know, I’m ready to sort of lunge forward.