This is very nice: The latest episode of the BBC radio program “GREAT LIVES” profiles Oliver Sacks. I was honored to join the Irish neurologist & author Suzanne O’Sullivan to discuss his life and career. The biggest highlight: several very well chosen clips from the BBC archives of Oliver himself, including a wonderful bit with him reading from “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” 30 minutes long.
His love of language was a gift in itself.
By Bill Hayes
The beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was a man of many enthusiasms — for ferns, cephalopods, motorbikes, minerals, swimming, smoked salmon and Bach, to name a few — but none more so than for words.
When I say he loved words, I don’t simply mean within the context of being a writer of numerous classic books — “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” “Musicophilia.” Even if he had never written a single one, I am sure Oliver would still have been that funny fellow who took giant dictionaries to bed for light reading (aided by a magnifying glass). He delighted in etymology, synonyms and antonyms, slang, swear words, palindromes, anatomical terms, neologisms (but objected, in principle, to contractions). He could joyfully parse the difference between homonyms and homophones, not to mention homographs, in dinner table conversation. (He also relished saying those three words — that breathy “H” alliteration — in his distinctive British accent.)
“Every day a word surprises me,” he once commented, beaming, apropos of nothing other than that a word had suddenly popped into his head. Often this happened while swimming — “ideas and paragraphs” would develop as he backstroked, after which he’d rush to the dock or pool’s edge to get the words down on paper — as Dempsey Rice has captured in an enchanting forthcoming film, “The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks.” Back at home, he would often — as he had for years — write thoughts and ideas directly on the pages of books he was reading.
Through much of our six-year relationship I referred to Oliver as a “walking OED” (Oxford English Dictionary) because he could recall spellings and definitions so accurately. And yet he remained modest, never flaunting his extraordinary vocabulary and always deferring to a dictionary for confirmation if in doubt — either the OED, of which he had the full set of 20 volumes, or the far more compact and idiosyncratic Chamber’s Dictionary, a copy of which his favorite aunt had given him on his ninth birthday.
Oliver loved words so much, he often dreamed of them, and sometimes dreamed them up. One morning, six years ago, I found a phrase he’d written on the white board in the kitchen. All it said was “5 a.m. Nepholopsia.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I said while making coffee.
Oliver chuckled, then went on to describe an elaborate dream he’d had that night in which he was stuck on an alien planet where anthropomorphic clouds turned menacing and “murderously” tipped over the Land Rover he was driving — “a cloud nightmare,” he added, as if it were hardly his first. He had written the note upon waking at 5 a.m., so as not to forget it. (He reported his dreams to the Freudian psychoanalyst he saw twice a week.) “Nepholopsia,” he told me, “either means ‘seeing clouds’ or ‘being enveloped by clouds.’” His brow furrowed — wait a moment, now he wasn’t so sure. “Let’s look it up in the good book,” and together we proceeded straight to the OED (“My Bible,” as Oliver, a devout atheist, often referred to it).
There, we found variations on “nephology,” meaning the study of clouds (from the Greek root “nephos”), but no “nepholopsia.” Turns out, he’d accidentally coined the word. We laughed about this, but in fact it wasn’t the first time. Oliver made up “musicophilia,” meaning an intense love of music, which hadn’t existed before he came up with it as the title for his 2007 book. (But he was always quick to point out that “musicophobia” — a hatred of music — had long been part of the English language. He felt that musicophobia appreciated his invention: “Now it has an antonym,” he observed.)
It was this love of words — etymophilia, if you will — and of the act of writing (which he considered a form of thinking) that moved Oliver to tell me one day shortly after I’d moved to New York in the spring of 2009, “You must keep a journal!” It was not a suggestion but an instruction.
I followed his advice straightaway, writing that exchange down on a scrap of paper, which I still have to this day. I hadn’t kept a journal since I was a teenager, but I began chronicling impressions of my life in New York and — when they were just too fantastic to resist — lines spoken by Oliver himself, a near daily occurrence. He was, simply put, chronically quotable.
My New York journal grew and grew as the years passed but I never reread it — not until I decided to write a memoir about my life in New York and with Oliver. I thought reading it would jog my memory. Instead, I found something truly surprising: Parts of the book had already been written — scenes and long stretches of dialogue between Oliver and me — as if they’d quietly been waiting for me to hear them again.
Although Oliver did not live to see me complete that book, “Insomniac City,” I am sure he would not have been surprised that it had its genesis in a journal. After all, many of his own essays, articles and book ideas originated in one of his handwritten journals.
Now, three years after Oliver’s death on Aug. 30, 2015, so many of his words are still with me, still make me smile, still move me. Not long after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, for instance, he looked up from his desk one night and said something seemingly out of the blue that I will never forget: “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
While he happened to say this to me, I sensed that he also meant it for others, for anyone anywhere who loves words as much as Oliver Sacks did.
Bill Hayes is the author of “Insomniac City,” a memoir that recounts his life in New York City and his relationship with Oliver Sacks.
I am happy to report that my first book, “Sleep Demons” (2001), long out of print, is now available in a new edition, with a new preface and cover, from the University of Chicago Press. Of the updated edition, P.D. Smith writes in The Guardian: “Part memoir, part scientific history, this is an intimate and beautifully written book that brings the research alive in a heartfelt and deeply personal narrative.”
And, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings notes: “Insomniacs everywhere: This gem by Bill Hayes is for you.” Full article here.
Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press and to my editor, Nancy Miller.
Author and photographer Bill Hayes is originally from Spokane, Washington, a city not usually associated with strolling, or with producing flaneurs. But Hayes does love walking and he does love taking pictures.
As the Paris Review says, the flaneur is not just a stroller, but a “passionate wanderer emblematic of 19th-century French literary culture.”
“Strictly speaking, I don’t consider myself a flaneur,” Hayes said. “In fact, I’m afraid I wasn’t even aware of the French tradition of flanerie. I had, of course, read Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ [Sontag has a chapter on flanerie and street photography in the book] and although I do love much of Sontag’s nonfiction, that particular book never made a huge impact on me. I think I found it a little too self-consciously contrary — especially her words on [Diane] Arbus!”
I ask Hayes how he would describe his style of photography.
“Well, certainly street photography is a good description. But I never set out to ‘be’ something, or act in some ‘way,’ particularly with a camera,” he said. “Instead, my taking up a camera and exploring New York came from a combination of natural curiosity, intense loneliness (my longtime partner in San Francisco had died unexpectedly and suddenly not too long before I moved to NYC and I didn’t know many people here) and simple joy in what I was discovering and seeing. And a desire to create pictures (which were at first simply for myself), something which I had wanted to do for a long, long time.”
Of the 150 images in the book, some fifteen were taken in Brooklyn. Among the most memorable: two cooks on a break behind a deli in Brooklyn Heights, a Crown Heights couple bundled up and holding hands on a blustery winter’s day and two moving men playing cards in the back of their van in Greenpoint. Hayes possesses the rare gift of making the quotidian look singular.
I begin the interview by asking him if he was intimidated by all the New York street photographers who have preceded him. The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Brooklyn Eagle: With so many iconic New York City street photographers – Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Sid Grossman, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin – having already photographed so encyclopedically, were you worried that there was nothing new to capture?
Bill Hayes: (Laughing) No, I wasn’t worried because this is my experience of New York, my New York. I wasn’t trying to imitate someone else but just to photograph the city the way I saw it and the way I was exploring it. And the truth is that, at the outset when I moved here, I didn’t have in mind that I would do a book and have a show. I was doing a fair amount of picture-taking and in the process falling in love with New York City.
Eagle: And you moved here from San Francisco?
BH: Well, I moved here in 2009 from San Francisco, where I had lived for 25 years, but I’m originally from Spokane. I was raised in Spokane and went to college in the Bay Area. So before I moved here, all my life had been spent on the West Coast.
Eagle: Who were the photographers who influenced you?
BH: I wouldn’t say “influenced,” I would say “inspired” me. The top three would definitely be Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Peter Hujar.
Eagle: So that’s your holy trinity?
BH: Yes. And Arbus I discovered very early. As I mentioned, I grew up in Spokane. There was only one nice bookstore. And when I was about 14 or 15 I discovered the classic ‘Aperture Monograph.’ And it made a huge impact for its view of New York City, for its subject matter. Also for the really straight-forward, clean way she takes portraits — very straight on. That definitely had a lasting impact on me.
Eagle: And what about Winogrand?
BH: It wasn’t until later that I got to know Winogrand’s work. When I moved to San Francisco, one of my first jobs was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And the same year I started there, Sandra Philips was appointed curator of photography. Now I was just this low-level person working in the communications office, but I wrote the press release for her appointment and we got to know each other. And she used to let me tag along while she was assembling and putting together shows. Every lunch break, I’d be following her around, from gallery to gallery. And during my time there she did a seminal Winogrand show. So I learned a lot about Winogrand and fell in love with his work. Different from Arbus … I loved the speed of his work and the joy he took in photographing New York City. Now my New York City work is very different from his; I’m doing portraits and his work was much more “invisible” street photography.
Eagle: Now during all this time were you yourself photographing?
BH: No, and I think that’s important for you to understand. I was not photographing. I didn’t pick up a camera and start photographing until 2007. But in all those years I was absorbing and paying attention and I loved photography. I was always going to gallery and museum photography shows and I began to imagine the kind of photography I wanted to do. So when the time finally came I was just ready.
Eagle: can you talk a bit about Peter Hujar, the third photographer who inspired you?
BH: Hujar came later, around the time when [Robert] Mapplethorpe sort of exploded. I was very interested in Mapplethorpe’s work for sure but I was more drawn to Hujar, whose work I find more restrained, of course [compared to Mapplethorpe], and more elegant. He did do street photography but it is his portraits I really love. I think what I’m trying to do with my photograph is to bring that same Hujar elegance, that same sort of hushed quality, to my street photography.
Eagle: So at what point did you begin photographing?
BH: When I moved to New York City in 2009 is when I seriously began photographing. I had bought a camera in 2007 in San Francisco and did a little bit there, but San Francisco doesn’t have the kind of street life that we have here. But when I moved here I almost immediately went out and started taking the kind of photographs that I still take today and that are in “How New York Breaks Your Heart.”
Eagle: Were you still an avid photography exhibition-goer? Did you see shows at Museum of Modern Art, at the Metropolitan, the Whitney Museum of American Art?
BH: Yes, always, often with my late partner Oliver Sacks. He was knowledgeable about a lot of things and not surprisingly he was extremely knowledgeable about the history of photography. As a boy he had loved chemistry, so much so that he wanted to be a chemist. And he had his own darkroom at home and he loved the chemistry of photography. So he knew a lot about that side of photography. And we went to see everything from 19 century photography exhibitions to contemporary shows at galleries.
Eagle: How did you and Oliver first meet?
BH: We met when Oliver wrote me a letter. I was still living in San Francisco at the time (2008) and out of the blue I got a letter in the mail with the return address “Oliver Sacks.” Of course I knew his work, but nothing more. He had read my most recent book “The Anatomist,” a nonfiction narrative account of the story behind the 19th-century classic text “Gray’s Anatomy.” He simply wrote to say how much he’d enjoyed it. I wrote back and then a correspondence ensued. We met in person once before I actually moved to New York, but we didn’t become involved and fall in love until after I moved here. We would go often on Friday or Saturday nights to the Met to see exhibits. [Note: Oliver Sacks died in August of 2015.]
Eagle: When you were shooting the photos for this book, did you literally carry your camera with you every time you leave your apartment. And do you always leave the apartment with a plan, an itinerary?
BH: No, it’s much more random. Sometimes I would leave the apartment and not even be sure in which direction I was going to set out. But my approach to the material is still the same as the very first day I started photographing: I always ask permission. I always say, “May I take your picture?” So my photos became on-the-spot portraits. Even my earliest pictures have that same straight-on portraiture feeling. And, at first, I only took the photographs for myself and for Oliver.
Eagle: What made you decide to go public?
BH: A couple of things: More and more of my friends and my family saw them and liked them and that gave me confidence I suppose. But really the turning point was writing my memoir “Insomniac City,” which came out last year. The book has an unconventional structure; it’s composed of essays, vignettes, letters, journal entries and street photographs. And it felt very natural; photography seemed like another way to tell stories. The photographs in the book come and go, like people one encounters on the street. So I wove into [“Insomniac City”] about 40 photographs; they don’t come with stories, they just appear. And the reaction to them really surprised me: people really liked them! And that convinced me to do a complete book of photographs and “How New York Breaks Your Heart” seemed like a good title.
Eagle: An excellent title for an exceptional collection of images. Here’s to your taking many more!
BH: Thank you, Peter.
Big thanks to Interview Magazine and writer Ngozi Nwadiogbu for this very nice piece on my new book (click on photo):
Bill Hayes: How New York Breaks Your Heart
February 15th – March 17th, 2018
Opening Reception: Thursday February 15th, 2018, 6-8 p.m.
Steven Kasher Gallery presents the first ever exhibition of photography by Bill Hayes. A love letter to New York City, the exhibition How New York Breaks Your Heart features 24 black-and-white and color photographs. Hayes photographs ordinary New Yorkers at their most expressive and at their most fleeting, bringing the texture of the city to life. The exhibition launches the publication of a book of the same name, published by Bloomsbury, which features 150 photographs from the series woven through with Hayes’s lyric reflections.
Hayes cites Garry Winogrand, Peter Hujar and Diane Arbus as his artistic influences. Much like Arbus, Hayes photographs people on the streets of New York at close range with a straight on composition. But as the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, “[Hayes’s] photos are reminiscent of Diane Arbus’ street portraits, the difference being that Arbus was drawn to the strangeness in people while Hayes is drawn to their warmth and beauty.” Former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins says, “It’s in these ocular embraces that we feel the humanity and the beautiful eccentricity of individuals being revealed. Hayes gives us glimpses into the souls of the city’s characters in these arresting on-the-spot portraits.”
Street photography purists seek invisibility and don’t engage with their subjects beforehand. On the contrary, Hayes always ask his subjects if he can take their picture, creating a momentary intimacy. “I want to create portraits, but taken on the spot, on the fly, with no set-up or props, and only using natural light.”
Bill Hayes is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction and the author of four books, Sleep Demons (2001), Five Quarts (2005), The Anatomist (2009) and the critically acclaimed memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver Sacks, and Me (2017).
Bill Hayes: How New York Breaks Your Heart will be on view February 15th-March 17th, 2018. Opening Reception: February 15, 6-8 PM.
Steven Kasher Gallery is located at 515 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10001. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM to 6 PM. For inquiries, please contact Cassandra Johnson, 212-966-3978, [email protected]
“How New York Breaks Your Heart. . . immortalizes ordinary people in the city that never sleeps.” – The New York Times
“A photographic love letter to New York City and its people that is sparse in text but loaded with images and feeling. . . . Hayes succinctly and sensitively traces what he has identified as the stages of falling in love with New York and getting one’s heart broken by it. . . [An] affecting portrait of the city’s vibrant people, and the social and solitary effect of living among them.” – Publishers Weekly
Available for preorder. On sale February 13, 2018.
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
“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.