Like many people, I discovered Terry Castle through her essay on Susan Sontag. Published in the London Review of Books in 2005, just a couple of months after Sontag’s death, it was an account of the two women’s ‘on-again, off-again, semi-friendship’. In a series of hilarious scenes, Castle makes good on her claim that Sontag was a ‘great comic character’. After skewering her subject, however, she comes full circle: Sontag, she admits at the end, had an enormous – unparalleled – influence on her, long before the two even met. In its messy, conflicted way, it’s one of the finest tributes to anyone that I’ve read.
The essay is a fitting introduction to Castle’s writing. Many of her trademarks are there: the lists and overflowing cultural references, where Dame Edna and Debussy sit side by side; the fondness for italicising and capitalising phrases. Most striking of all is her voice. Self-deprecating, warm but not necessarily nice, at times gleefully excessive, it’s not the kind of thing one expects from an academic at Stanford (or, as Castle has described herself, ‘Spoiled Avocado Professor of English at Silicon Valley University’). It owes as much to stand-up comedy or Dorothy Parker as it does to literary criticism.
Born in California in 1953, to British parents, Castle has been teaching at Stanford for three decades. Her academic work has focused on the eighteenth-century novel and lesbian literature, in books such as The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), The Female Thermometer (1995) and The Literature of Lesbianism (2003), a monumental anthology that she edited. In these works, and in her reviews for mainstream publications, she has produced shrewd, original criticism of great clarity. This can be unexpectedly controversial: when the LRB put one of her essays on the cover with the headline ‘Was Jane Austen gay?’, the fallout continued on the letters page for months.
Over the past two decades, Castle’s work has taken a more personal turn. She has written a series of autobiographical essays incorporating a number of her fascinations – Agnes Martin, the saxophonist Art Pepper, the First World War. These were brought together in The Professor (2010), alongside the title essay which described Castle’s affair with an older academic when she was a graduate student. Since then, she has written about gay marriage, outsider art and meeting Hillary Clinton; her current project is a critical edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.
This interview took place by email, over the course of a year. But when I was in San Francisco last September, I visited Castle at her home, a purple Victorian building that she described as ‘the unintentional Prince Tribute House’. We sat and talked in her living room, the walls covered with artworks – including collages by Castle herself – and the shelves stacked to the ceiling with books, as her two dogs came and went.