July 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015
Photo: Oliver and the Azaleas, New York Botanical Garden, May 2015
July 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015
Photo: Oliver and the Azaleas, New York Botanical Garden, May 2015
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Stephen Metcalf, Critic-at-Large for “Slate,” about my book “Insomniac City” at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May 2017. The interview is now available as a 55-minute podcast on iTunes–click here
Many thanks to the Sydney Writers’ Festival.#SydneyWritersFestival, Bill Hayes, Insomniac City, Slate, Stephen Metcalf, Sydney Writers Festival
What a nice surprise to see “Insomniac City” on Amazon’s list of “The Best Biographies & Memoirs of the Year So Far” – Many thanks to Erin Kodicek and Omnivoracious, the Amazon Book Review:
“The late, great Oliver Sacks was so famously private, he didn’t divulge that he was gay until his memoir, On the Move, was published, shortly before his death at the age of 82. Granted, this revelation was one of the least interesting things about him. Sacks was widely beloved, which is saying something for a scarily brilliant, yet somewhat reclusive neurologist. But his childlike wonder and ability to wrap our brains around the complexities of everything from music to migraines to the cancer he succumbed to, was infectious, and the graciousness–and extraordinary gratitude–with which he accepted his terminal diagnosis earned him even further admiration. It stands to reason, then, that Sacks’s life partner must be pretty remarkable as well, and Insomniac City provides ample proof. In this affectionate and magnanimous memoir, author and photographer Bill Hayes pays tribute to their relationship, and provides a paean to one of the other loves of his life: New York City. Hayes’s contagious regard for the Big Apple makes you almost believe that getting lost on the subway is a happy accident (almost!), and his Humans of New York-esque vignettes inspire the same esteem and faith in humanity as Brandon Stanton’s blog of the same name. Add to that a couple of delightfully unlikely cameos from Björk and a black-eyed Lauren Hutton, and you won’t want to sleep until the last page of Insomniac City is turned. Somewhere, Oliver Sacks is smiling.” –Erin Kodicek
A thrill to see Insomniac City on this terrific “summer reading book list.” Many thanks to Atul Gawande, who comments: “Hayes’s loving tribute to my hero Oliver Sacks and New York has been hailed as poetic, profound, direct, and exuberant. He starts with a quote from Sacks — ‘I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life’ — and I can’t wait to dive in.”
— Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of “Being Mortal”
“O’s Brain”- Australian Book Review, June 2017
By Suzy Freeman-Greene
When Oliver Sacks began seeing Bill Hayes in 2009, he had never been in a relationship. He wasn’t out as a gay man and hadn’t had sex for thirty-five years. Sacks, the celebrated author and neurologist, was almost thirty years older than Hayes, who had moved to New York from San Francisco after the sudden death of his partner. The two visited the Museum of Natural History and went for walks in the Bronx botanical garden, where Sacks could expatiate on every species of fern. When Hayes gave Sacks a long, exploratory kiss on his seventy-sixth birthday, the older man looked utterly surprised. ‘Is that what kissing is?’ he asked. ‘Or is that something you’ve invented?’
Hayes’s luminous memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and me, is full of such startling questions. For Sacks’s mind – erudite, deeply scientific, yet with a childlike sense of wonder – must now process the mysteries of love. He caresses his lover’s biceps: ‘they’re like … beautiful tumours’. As he watches Hayes do his daily push-ups, he counts them by naming the elements: titanium, vanadium, chromium. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?’ he asks Hayes one night in bed.
This is a memoir bookended by deaths. It begins with the loss of Hayes’s partner, Steve, who died in bed of a cardiac arrest at just forty-three. It ends, as we know it will, with Sacks’s death from cancer at the age of eighty-two. The prose is poetic, deeply felt, but never mawkish or prurient. Between journal entries about his life with Sacks, (or O as he calls him), Hayes writes about the people he meets and photographs as he roams Manhattan and rides the subway: Kenneth, a young man in a business suit quietly weeping on the train; Ali, who runs the local tobacconist; Sunny, a Sri Lankan taxi driver who declares he will remain a virgin until married.
At first I was so greedy for time with O that I almost resented these tales of New York, where life, as Hayes puts it, ‘is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent’. But they grew on me. They are finely observed. In depicting a wider, grittier world, they ensure this memoir is outward-looking, never self-absorbed. Given the curiosity and generosity of spirit that characterised Sacks’s writings, this seems apt.
Still, it is O who is the star of this book, or more precisely, O’s brain. He savours words like ‘triboluminescence’; gets stoned on cannabis chocolates, then forensically describes his hallucinations; plays Schubert on the piano, though half-blind; and marvels at the ‘living geometry’ of the local skate park. As the pair listen to Bach one night, he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a planet where the sound of rain falling is like Bach?’ There are lovely anecdotes about his brushes with fame: a lunch at Bjork’s house in Reykjavík – like something from a fairy tale with its staircase made of whale rib bones – and a hilarious encounter with the model Lauren Hutton, who latches onto Sacks at a chamber orchestra concert. (‘Hey doc, you ever done Belladonna?’) O hasn’t a clue who she is.
Hayes, in turn, is teaching O new things, like how to share a life with someone and how to open a bottle of champagne (which O does wearing swimming goggles, just in case). In closely observing the world around him, he is moving through his grief over Steve’s death. The tall trees outside his apartment window fascinate him. Whipped by wind, rain, and lightning, they are ‘not fighting this storm but yielding to it’. Their species, he notes, has evolved to survive.
The last fifty or so pages of this book – so tender, intimate, restrained – are painful to read. A recurrence of a melanoma has metastasised to O’s liver. He takes the news calmly (he is not interested in ‘prolonging life just for the sake of prolonging life’). Soon after, he writes a list of eight and half reasons to remain hopeful. ‘1. An easy death (relatively). 2. Time to “complete” life’, and so on.
After surgery to cut off the blood supply to the tumours, O is in so much pain he keeps tearing off his hospital gown. Hayes calms him by reading from a book on the elements. As his condition worsens, O either rests or writes with his fountain pen and notepad. ‘The most we can do is write,’ he reflects, ‘intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time.’ He gradually lets go of everything inessential, barely eating, keeping his eyes closed when not writing.
When O’s breathing slows, in the last phase of dying, Hayes clears away the medical detritus littering his room – the oxygen tank, the pads and medications – and brings in the things O loves: his books, his ‘beloved minerals and elements’, his fountain pens, a fern, a cycad plant, and a ginkgo fossil.
Later, when the funeral directors have taken O’s body away, Hayes returns to his own apartment. He feels ‘tired, grateful, peaceful, battered, sad, wise, old’. Once more, he is grieving in New York. But he has made something beautiful and wise from his sadness. After finishing Insomniac City, I started looking at trees, really closely, and I found myself uncharacteristically chatting with a woman from Lahore on my morning bus.
Suzy Freeman-Greene is the Arts and Culture Editor of The Conversation.
Many thanks to Catherine Conroy for this very nice piece in this weekend’s Irish Times:
I am gratified by the response to my new book, INSOMNIAC CITY:
Review in The Telegraph – Calcutta: “‘Insomniac City’…is a celebration of lived experience ….”
Review by Jai Arjun Singh in Scroll.In, India: “…Given that loss and grief haunt its pages, it is a minor astonishment how uplifting Insomniac City is.”
Profile in the Windy City Times, Chicago: “By all rights, ‘Insomniac City’ should feel like a book about loss—in addition to losing two partners, Hayes also writes about the death of his beloved agent. Yet the book teems with vibrant examples of life…”
Interview in the Indian Express – Delhi: “With age comes an understanding: One has to be open to possibilities for Joy.”
Review by Sidin Vakukut, LiveMint – India: “…It is a gift to be able to write about the greatest city on the planet, the capital of the world, in prose that is so becalming. It is also a book about the truly remarkable soul that was Oliver Sacks.”
The Irish Times – Profile and Review by Catherine Conroy: “I am a fortunate man,” indeed.
Sunday Times, London: To New York, With Love – Profile and Review by Louis Wise Bill Hayes’s heartbreaking memoir is a celebration of both the city and the remarkable Dr Oliver Sacks
GOOP: “…especially for those who love love, Bill Hayes’s memoir Insomiac City will make your heart ache and break in the best way possible….”
Sydney Morning Herald: “Hayes [is] a modern anatomist of the observed world…”
Georgina Godwin interviews Bill Hayes for MONOCLE magazine/radio, London, about “a book that’s had a profound emotional impact on me and almost everyone who’s read it: ‘INSOMNIAC CITY'”
The New York Times – Book Review by Jennifer Senior
“[A] loving tribute to Sacks and to New York . . . Read just 50 pages, and you’ll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks’s logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our species . . . Frank, beautiful, bewitching–[Hayes’s photographs] unmask their subjects’ best and truest selves.”
“A wonderfully tender and touching portrait of the love and happiness two people were lucky enough to find together.”
The London Economic – Book Review by Hubert O’Hearn: “This year of 2017 is still fairly young and I know I shall fill it with many fine reading experiences. So far, though, ‘Insomniac City’ is the best.”
“Although Hayes and Sacks never married, the charming, intimate portrait that emerges [in ‘Insomniac City’] earns a place on the shelf of moving spousal tributes — a gallery that includes Calvin Trillin’s About Alice and John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, to name just two….”
BrainPickings – Book Review by Maria Popova
“‘Insomniac City’ is an ineffably splendid read in its entirety, a mighty packet of pure aliveness…Unbearably beautiful…”
Newsweek Magazine – Best New Books – by Chelsea Hassler
“Buy a box of tissues and pray for snow: This is the perfect weekend February read…”
An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Review by Erin Kodicek, The Amazon Book Review “Sacks was widely beloved…It stands to reason, then, that Sacks’s life partner must be pretty remarkable as well, and ‘Insomniac City’ provides ample proof. In this affectionate and magnanimous memoir, author and photographer Bill Hayes pays tribute to their relationship, and provides a paean to one of the other loves of his life: New York City….Somewhere, Oliver Sacks is smiling.”
San Francisco Chronicle – Book Review by Steve Silberman
“Like Patti Smith’s haunting ‘M Train,’ Hayes’ book weaves seemingly disparate threads of memory into a kind of sanctuary — a secret place where one can shake off the treasured relics of past lives and prepare to be reborn anew…”
The Bay Area Reporter – Book review by Tim Pfaff
“‘Insomniac City’ is as eloquent in its silences and visuals as it is in its telling of the secrets of the heart….”
Lambda Literary – Book Review by Steve Susoyev – “This is a book to be savored…”
Buzzfeed News – “What It Was Like to Love Oliver Sacks” – Excerpt from INSOMNIAC CITY
“‘I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness,’ O says….”
Counterpunch – Book Review by Charles R. Larson
“The beauty of Hayes’ narrative resides in his observations of the people he meets, mostly on the city’s streets. The story includes his poignant encounters and conversations with taxi drivers, skateboarders, homeless people, the elderly, shop owners, and others. He has a sharp ability to draw out of these people memorable accounts of their lives and work….”
Bowery Boys Bookshelf – “A Strange Tale of Love and a Tribute to Off-Beat New York”
Kirkus Reviews – An interview with author Bill Hayes – by Alex Layman
“One thing I hoped to capture in the book was the two worlds I occupied in New York: One world was confined to the apartment where Oliver and I lived, a cocoon of creativity and discussion, with a quirky, almost 19th century neurologist,” he says. “And then there was my life on the streets of New York….”
WHYY radio’s Marty Moss-Coane interviews the author of INSOMNIA CITY, a book about falling in love with Oliver Sacks and New York City.
Shelf Awareness – An interview with author Bill Hayes – by Dave Wheeler – “I always knew that New York would be the main character of this book, because it saved my life in a certain way,” Hayes says.
Interview with the Garrison Institute by Jenara Nerenberg: ” I like the idea of people taking their time with the book and letting it stretch out their experience of time and memory….”
Available at independent and online booksellers in the U.S. now.
Order a copy now:Barnes & Noble Amazon IndieBound
“Insomniac City” Recalls Life with Oliver Sacks
By Jennifer Senior, The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2017
If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to get high with Oliver Sacks — and really, who hasn’t? — the answer is: It was fun. He was charming, formal, yet still a helpless gigglepuss; his sensorium was as giddy and overactive as you’d expect.
“I just had an astounding alteration of perception!” he once blurted to his partner, Bill Hayes, shortly after they’d gotten stoned. “I opened my eyes, and in place of my body all I could see was my feet — my comically large, flat human feet.”
Compared with Sacks’s experiences as a young neurology resident, when he indulged in far more potent substances (he once got into a lively discussion with a spider about Bertrand Russell and Frege’s Theorem), this little episode may seem tame. But it’s exciting to think that the doctor’s brainstem, even in his 80s, was still throwing off sparks.
Sacks made it his life’s work to convey what it was like to inhabit exceptional, radically different kinds of minds, whether it was that of a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome (one of the case studies in “An Anthropologist on Mars”) or that of the music teacher who was the title case study in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Yet it wasn’t until the publication of his 2015 autobiography, “On the Move,” that Sacks wrote freely about himself. Only then did he reveal that he’d fallen in love with Hayes, a writer 30 years his junior, after three and a half decades of celibacy.
Hayes has now written a memoir of his own, “Insomniac City.” It’s a loving tribute to Sacks and to New York. He provides tender insights into living with both. But Sacks was by far the more eccentric of his two loves.
If there weren’t enough dirty dishes to fill his dishwasher, the doctor would start loading it with clean ones, just to keep them company. He insisted on wearing swim goggles the first time he opened a bottle of Champagne. He called Hayes’s iPhone a “communicator”; he had no clue who Michael Jackson was; he carried the periodic table in his wallet, where his driver’s license should have been.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” he asked Hayes one night. Shared consciousness: perhaps the ultimate fantasy of a man who tried to capture the perceptions and experiences of others.
For Hayes, being the partner of a man in his 70s (and then 80s) meant patiently tolerating the foibles of an aging body. Sacks had a bad back (sciatica) and a bum knee (replaced); he was blind in one eye from his first bout with cancer, and his vision was badly compromised in the other. (New object I learned about from reading this book: a monocular.) And he was terribly hard of hearing.
“I like to get kind of verbal in bed sometimes,” Hayes writes, “but I am finding this does not work well when you’re having sex with someone who’s practically deaf.”
Sacks would often — and earnestly — ask Hayes what he had just shouted in the heat of passion.
“Oliver!” he’d reply. “Don’t make me repeat it!”
They called it deaf sex.
“Insomniac City” is written in fragments and vignettes, mostly chronologically, often in the form of actual journal entries, though it includes some of the author’s poetry and photographs, too. (Hayes has written three previous books, including “The Anatomist,” a history of Gray’s Anatomy.) Read just 50 pages, and you’ll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks’s logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our species — Sacks in his case studies, and Hayes in his character sketches of the people he meets in the street.
Hayes is a true flâneur, a man who actively engages the city with all of his senses. Partly it’s because he’s insatiably curious and has bottomless faith in people’s decency. Partly it’s because he cannot sleep. Whatever the reason, he fills “Insomniac City” with musings about his afternoon and evening peregrinations, in which he chats up shopkeepers, addicts, models, homeless men and poor kids in skateboard parks. There’s a sweet interlude with a go-go boy who’s almost legally blind, and another with a 95-year-old woman who once drew a picture of Tennessee Williams’s eye. Nothing delights him more than the subway, which he cannot take “without marveling at the lottery logic that brings together a random sampling of humanity for one minute or two, testing us for kindness and compatibility.”
I adore this observation. Yet readers should be warned: Hayes’s writing can also be terribly precious. “The words go from his mouth to my ears and are carried off by the wind,” he’ll write, and your heart will sink. Then he’ll jolt you with something wonderful: “It is hard to describe how tired I am. Noises hurt a little.” Then he’ll betray you once more — “I take a shower with the sun, a bird and a squirrel watching me” — and you will start to wonder how many of these tiny tea sets you’ll have to tiptoe around. But then he’ll stun you again.
And so it goes. Around and around.
Hayes’s poetry is pedestrian, but his street photographs are not. They are frank, beautiful, bewitching — they unmask their subjects’ best and truest selves. And his account of Sacks’s final months will no doubt inspire many readers. It turns out that the man we knew in public, who faced terminal cancer with great calm and not a drop of self-pity — “ I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” he wrote in “My Own Life” — was just as collected in private. He read his own CT scan. He declared he didn’t want any life-prolonging therapies that would cause him too much discomfort. He retained his sense of humor.
Just after surgery, when he was rebuked by a nurse for tearing off his hospital gown (it made him uncomfortable), he cried out, “If one can’t be naked in a hospital, where can one be naked?!”
It’s best to read the final scene between Hayes and Sacks somewhere private. Though strangely, it was a much earlier scene between these two gentle men that moved me most, because it seemed, somehow, to represent the essence of love. Hayes is helping Sacks get ready for bed. He pulls off his socks, fills his water bottle, prepares his sleeping pills and finds him something to read.
“What else can I do for you?” Hayes asks.
“Exist.”Bill Hayes, Insomniac City, memoirs, New York Times Book Review, Oliver Sacks
Nice news from Amazon: INSOMNIAC CITY is featured as one of their “best books” for the month of February. In its review, the Amazon book review editor Erin Kodicek writes:
“The late, great Oliver Sacks was so famously private, he didn’t divulge that he was gay until his memoir, On the Move, was published, shortly before his death at the age of 82. Granted, this revelation was one of the least interesting things about him. Sacks was widely beloved, which is saying something for a scarily brilliant, yet somewhat reclusive neurologist. But his childlike wonder and ability to wrap our brains around the complexities of everything from music to migraines to the cancer he succumbed to, was infectious, and the graciousness–and extraordinary gratitude–with which he accepted his terminal diagnosis earned him even further admiration. It stands to reason, then, that Sacks’s life partner must be pretty remarkable as well, and Insomniac City provides ample proof. In this affectionate and magnanimous memoir, author and photographer Bill Hayes pays tribute to their relationship, and provides a paean to one of the other loves of his life: New York City. Hayes’s contagious regard for the Big Apple makes you almost believe that getting lost on the subway is a happy accident (almost!), and his Humans of New York-esque vignettes inspire the same esteem and faith in humanity as Brandon Stanton’s blog of the same name. Add to that a couple of delightfully unlikely cameos from Björk and a black-eyed Lauren Hutton, and you won’t want to sleep until the last page of Insomniac City is turned. Somewhere, Oliver Sacks is smiling.” –Erin Kodicek, The Amazon Book Review