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The Artful Work Dodger Gives Up the Chase : For years, author Fran Lebowitz's romance with the media blocked her creativity. But realizing that not writing was too much work, she dove back in with a children's book.

November 15, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to sunny Southern California.

Which happens to be unbelievably drab, drizzly and all-around icky this afternoon.

"For this I didn't have to get on a plane and not smoke for 6 1/2 hours."

Fran Lebowitz is bemoaning her climatic fate in high style, specifically, a corner room in the Regent Beverly Wilshire. She is making up for lost smoking time and doing what she does best, which is talk, a much underrated career choice.

It certainly beat writing after Lebowitz's phenomenal literary success in the early '80s turned her into the much-quoted, not-writing Dorothy Parker of New York. Indeed, Lebowitz's overnight change of fortune, triggered by one killer-great New York Times review, ignited such Angst for her that it helped spark a notorious decade-long bout with writer's block.

"Actually, it has been miscalled a writer's block," she says in a rasp thick with cigarettes. "A writer's block is obviously a temporary situation. It's a week, a month. This was like a writer's blockade. This was on the same schedule as the Vietnam War."

Peace has been declared. It's D-day in Lebowitz's much-beleaguered literary career. Alfred A. Knopf has just published her first children's book, "Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas," a tart little volume illustrated by architect Michael Graves that includes such Lebowitz-oid characters as Don't Panda to Public Taste.

The book turns on Don't Panda and Pandamonium, a coupla pandas hiding in a New York apartment building and yearning to breathe free--in dog costumes in Paris, that is, because "in Paris dogs can go anywhere, even inside restaurants, where they have chocolate eclairs." The requisite children's-book children set out to help them. Lebowitz, who says she has always wanted to write a children's book, still reads them. "I'm a promiscuous reader," she says.

Perhaps more significant, Lebowitz, 44, has returned--intermittently--to her sweeping novel of manners, "Exterior Signs of Wealth," begun and abandoned on the heels of her two volumes of humorous essays, "Metropolitan Life" (1978, Dutton) and "Social Studies" (1981, Random House). She's been writing it in the shadow of Graves' Princeton, N.J., home--in another home owned by Graves, actually--which gave her a clear shot at nagging him to draw her pandas.

"At first I thought, 'Michael doesn't have time to do this.' Unluckily for him, I lived right in front of him, and I would do things like call him and say, 'Are you drawing? I see the light on in the kitchen. You're eating. Draw.'

"It was the one time in my life I was ever in the position of being the one who was done. Never before in my life could I say this, so it was kind of entertaining."

Lebowitz was a 27-year-old high-school dropout from Morristown, N.J., when John Leonard crowned her debut volume, "Metropolitan Life," "a hilarious shock" in the pages of the New York Times. The review was virtually a string of quotes from her book, setting the stage for her highly quotable life. The ensuing romance with the media was flattering at first, but eventually hearing her own distinctively dry wit resonate on and on proved highly problematic.

"I stopped writing these essays because I kept hearing that voice not only in my writing but talking all the time, and having it quoted back to me and seeing it all the time."

And being in the eye of the media was destructive because "it is the diametric opposite of writing. That kind of attention on an actor is fine. It's almost the same thing as acting. But it's the absolute opposite of writing.

"Writing is to be alone.

"Writing is to be silent.

"Writing is to be contemplative.

"Writing is all those things that are the opposite of what the media is."

Given the choice, Lebowitz went with the media. But it wasn't necessarily a good swap. Ultimately, all that wit incited some backlash in the press, which Lebowitz writes off to the hazards of plying the humor trade as a woman.

"The kind of humor that is most acceptable in this country, particularly for women, is self-deprecating humor. Some people respond inadequately to me because they are brought up to be offended by (the opposite) stance in a woman.

"Women are first of all not supposed to be funny . . . because humor is perceived as aggression, no matter what kind of humor it is. Women are not meant to be aggressive in any way, but particularly in a way that is almost wholly cerebral. "Men make the jokes. Men make the laws. Men make the money. And then women write about other women badly because of it."

All of that segued nicely with Lebowitz's much-heralded talent for sloth. "I'm like the laziest person who ever lived. It's amazing to me I even sit up."

So for years, Lebowitz made a life out of reading by day, hitting New York's A-list parties by night, riding the college lecture circuit and not writing. She also spent some time fending off Hollywood. She would say no. They would think she meant yes.

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