On the Topic of a Cult Classic: Emily Gould Interviews Stephen Koch About Iris Owens and After Claude


There are books that I’ve read that I love and that I’m so happy to know that everyone else loves too. This makes me happy. And then there are books that I’ve read that I love that nobody else has even heard of. This makes me…sad? No. Angry? No. Righteously indignant? Yes! And also, evangelical. That’s how I used to feel anyway about the novel After Claude by Iris Owens. When NYRB Classics republished After Claude a few years back, I bought several copies at once for the express purpose of pushing them into my friends’ arms, feeling assured that they would love this book as I did. I talked about this book incessantly. I’ve mentioned it on this very website in at least four different articles (and I also mentioned it in my interview for this job, and so once my former editor-in-chief actually asked why I was always talking about it). And then, suddenly, it seemed like I didn’t need to proselytize anymore. After Claude was a certifiable cult classic and had been read and loved by many more people than I’d thought would ever read it. And I was happy!

And so, imagine my delight when I heard that Emily Books (the subscription based e-bookstore/club/amazing entity) had chosen After Claude as its October book selection. My delight, it was major. And it was further enhanced when Emily Gould (co-founder of Emily Books, along with Ruth Curry) asked if I wanted to post an interview that she’d done with Stephen Koch, a close friend of the notoriously charismatic, problematic Iris Owens. This interview has already been made available to Emily Books subscribers (which, SUBSCRIBE), but now you lucky readers get to check it out and, even if you haven’t read After Claude or have never heard of Iris Owens, you’ll be instantly drawn in to the literary world of New York in the 70s and beyond. I also spoke briefly with Emily about choosing this book, and about the complex reputation and legacy of Owens.

When did you first read After Claude? How did you originally come across it?

Ruth recommended it to me when NYRB Classics republished it a few years ago. Honestly this is the answer when you ask me why I’ve read 60% of books. The other 40% are 20% recommended to me by Bennett Madison and 20% recommended to me by Normandy Sherwood.  Whenever people on a panel at  publishing conference talk about “discoverability” my first thought is “that’s not a real problem!” and then I check myself and remember that not everyone is friends with Ruth, Bennett and Normandy.


What makes it a perfect fit for Emily Books?

Emily Books are often about or by unconventional, “difficult” women (sometimes both.)  They’re always funny, always short, often offer a peek into a subculture or a different time or a subjectivity that’s new.


Your interview with Koch is a revealing, fascinating look at a woman who not only wrote a cult classic, but is something of a cult figure herself. What were some of the most surprising things you learned from Koch?

The story of how this book came to be made my jaw drop. I’m still amazed by it. I also am still thinking about what Koch said about how his relationship with Iris crippled his career because he trusted her so completely, and then she undermined his confidence. It reminded me a lot of another Emily Book, Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez, about that author’s relationship with Susan Sontag. Charismatic, brilliant and manipulative mentors really can change lives; for better and for worse, often a mix of both.


Iris Owens is such a fascinating woman—and one who seems like such a product of her time and place—do you think it’s even possible to be a young woman writer coming up these days while also being so difficult to get along with? I think that’s one of the things I found the most interesting about the Koch interview…Owens is compelling and witty and intelligent and all these sort of attractive things, but she is simultaneously terrible to people, it seems, and kind of parasitic. Women writers these days seem to rely so much on being likable, as well as talented (although sometimes what’s worth more in terms of success is debatable)…I guess my round-about question is, could Owens have been successful today, do you think?

It depends what kind of success you’re talking about. I definitely know and know of women writers who are just as prickly, self-sabotaging, charismatic and terrifying as Koch says Owens was, and while they can be less visible, they still write and publish books.  There do also seem to be a lot of young women writers who treat the whole world like best pals, at least on social media, and who bake cookies for all their readings. And then there’s some middle ground. Of course it’s harder to get people to pay attention to your work if you can’t make yourself behave with appropriate gratitude towards the people who are doing the hard and often thankless work of publishing and promoting your books. But being a Pollyana-ish pushover isn’t great either; speaking just for myself, it’s psychologically so taxing that it’s not a sustainable m.o.  How should a person be? Not a dick and not a phony, but striking a balance between the two is very hard. I mention this in the interview but it seems clear to me that some of Iris’s problems might have been ameliorated by an SSRI, to be really brass-tacks about it.

Thanks, Emily! And, yes, medicine can help so many things.


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