I was delighted to be a guest on the terrific Australian journalist Richard Fidler’s podcast, “Conversations,” live from the Sydney Writers Festival: You can listen to the 45-minute broadcast here.
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:
The New Yorker: “This touching memoir of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, by a photographer and writer with whom he fell in love near the end of his life, turns a story of death into a celebration….”
Bay Area Reporter: On the paperback edition of “Insomniac City” + “How New York Breaks Your Heart”
Review in The Telegraph – Calcutta: “‘Insomniac City’…is a celebration of lived experience ….”
Profile in the Hindustan Times: “I aimed for discretion. I didn’t want it to be explicit, but I wanted it to be intimate. I think there’s a fine line between the two.”
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
Review by Phil Gambone
The Gay & Lesbian Review, January/February 2017
AT AGE 48, brokenhearted over the death of his partner, Bill Hayes moved to New York City in order to reinvent himself. “I had simply reached a point in my life where I had to get away from San Francisco—and all the memories it held—and start fresh.” During that first fresh-start summer, Hayes began seeing a few other men. Among them was Oliver Sacks, the world-famous writer and neurologist, who had earlier written to say he had enjoyed reading Hayes’ book The Anatomist (2007). Dates with O, as Hayes refers to Sacks in this engaging, poignant memoir, were completely different. Instead of movies or new restaurants or Broadway shows, they visited the Museum of Natural History, where Sacks told him the stories behind the discovery of every single element. During long walks in the botanical garden in the Bronx, he would expatiate on every species of fern.
Hayes says that Sacks, who was 28 years his senior, was the most unusual person he had ever known. “Before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” Hayes soon learned that Sacks had not only never been in a relationship but had never come out publicly as a gay man. “He’d never shared his life before.”
That changed in 2015 with the publication of Sacks’ memoir On the Move: A Life (Knopf), where the octogenarian finally revealed his homosexuality. Even so, Sacks said very little about their relationship. Thus Hayes’ book will be all the more welcomed by fans of Sacks for the intimate portrait he paints of the polymath scientist in love. “I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me,” Sacks tells Hayes a year or so into their relationship. “You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout.”
Hayes intersperses his narrative with pages from a journal that Sacks had encouraged him to keep, and with photos he took of New Yorkers he encountered on the streets. This amalgamation—memoir, journal, and photographs—makes for a rich, kaleidoscopic book, full of the vibrant energy that Hayes came to love in his newly adopted “Insomniac City.” “Sometimes it will be difficult and you’ll question why you ever moved here,” he writes in his journal. “But New York will always answer you.”
The book is as much Hayes’ love letter to New York as it is a love letter to Sacks: “Life here is a John Cage score,” he declares, “dissonance made eloquent.” That dissonant eloquence is everywhere: in a skateboard park, where a boy named Cube gives him a lesson in Skateboarding 101; in a late-night taxi where the cabbie tells him, “You’re like a psychiatrist in this job. Tourists talk”; or in the tiny apartment—“extraordinarily packed,” but with “no whiff of madness, of decrepitude”—of Ilona, a woman who has lived there for 56 years. As a thank you for Hayes’ having taken her photo, Ilona sits him down and makes a drawing of his eye. When she shows him the finished product, Hayes is astonished: “I could see my whole face in that one part of my body. I could see myself.” They toast each other with shots of vodka served in blue glasses twice the size of a thimble.
Hayes’ delight in meeting and striking up conversations with strangers is unquenchable: he talks to a 25-year-old go-go boy with a “glorious body” who tells him about his belief in polyamorous relationships and shows him the dog tags he wears around his neck with the names of the couple he’s currently seeing. “They’re sort of like my dads.” Another day he meets a taxi driver from Sri Lanka who solemnly tells him that he has never had sex. “You’re going to love it,” Hayes tells him. “It’s amazing.” Then there’s Ali, a smoke shop manager, whom Hayes hangs out with quite often. During Hurricane Sandy, Ali, looking like an oracle, keeps the shop open with a few well-placed candles. “It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here,” Hayes notes. “But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least.”
Hayes intersperses these vignettes of New York with stories about his life with Sacks. He beautifully captures the life of a man who had three passions: thinking, writing, and their relationship. Their time together was marked by quiet, everyday pleasures, like rooftop dinners overlooking a Manhattan sunset, moments “when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty.”
Hayes confesses that he often did not understand half of what Oliver said. He is candid about the differences between them: “There is so much in that head of his,” he remarks. “I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me. We are like two dogs rubbing our scents onto one another.”
Six years into their relationship, in the winter of 2015, Sacks received “some tough news”: an uveal melanoma that he had fought nine years earlier had metastasized to his liver, which was now “riddled like Swiss cheese.” He was given six to eighteen months. Sacks decided that in the time left he wanted to write, think, read, swim, see friends, travel, and “be with Billy.” Those remaining months became an intensely creative time for both men. Hayes took photographs constantly—“everyday, hundreds sometimes.” Sacks worked on new essays nonstop. When reading became too difficult, Hayes read to him. “It becomes another form of intimacy,” Sacks told him.
Sacks died that summer, leaving Hayes “heartbroken but at peace.” Later, when he considered going on without Oliver, and without the city he had come to love, it became “too painful to contemplate.” And yet Hayes knows that he will go on: “Every day we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And there is really only one answer: To be alive.” His graceful, life-affirming memoir bears witness to the notion that there are “countless degrees of aliveness,” and that it is our business to be alert to all of them every day that we are blessed to be here.
– Phil Gambone, Dec. 31, 2016
INSOMNIAC CITY – early reviews; book available 2/14/17.
“Hayes’ tender encapsulations of his lover are gold on the page … this book is Hayes’ letter of love for Sacks and New York City….” – Forthcoming issue, January 5, 2017
“A photographer and distinguished nonfiction writer’s account about starting over at midlife in New York City and falling in love with famed neurologist Oliver Sacks.
“Looking for a fresh start after the sudden death of his long-term partner, Hayes (The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, 2007, etc.) moved to Manhattan from San Francisco in 2009. He immediately felt at home in New York largely because the “city that never sle[pt]” was as much an insomniac as he was. The author quickly made friends with Sacks, with whom he had begun corresponding about The Anatomist. Not knowing whether Sacks was hetero- or homosexual, Hayes found himself “sort of smitten” with the eminent neurologist from the start. Shy and formal, Sacks was as ebulliently “boyish” as he was quirky and brilliant. As their relationship deepened, Hayes was also drawn into the magical restlessness that was New York. He took pictures, many of which he intersperses through the narrative, of everything from trees in winter and his beloved Oliver to young lovers and ex-cons. Hayes also diligently recorded his impressions—alongside conversations had and overheard—in personal journals, and he interweaves these observations throughout the book with anecdotes about his relationship with Sacks, who died of cancer in 2015. The author’s vignette-style recollections are especially endearing for the sensitive way they portray a 70-something Sacks coming into awareness of—and claiming—his own homosexuality as he fell in love with Hayes. But perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way it weds one man’s openness to experience with what ultimately, and quite unexpectedly, became his two greatest passions: a closeted neurologist nearing the end of his life and a city in an endless state of flux and evolution.
“A unique and exuberant celebration of life and love.” – December 15, 2016
Writer and photographer Bill Hayes first met the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks in 2008, when Sacks contacted him to say how much he enjoyed Hayes’s The Anatomist. They corresponded, found shared interests and met once for lunch. “He was brilliant, sweet, modest, handsome, and prone to sudden ebullient outbursts of boyish enthusiasm…. I was sort of smitten, I had to admit.”
Hayes was grieving his partner of more than 16 years, who one night suddenly went into cardiac arrest and died. In 2009, Hayes moved from San Francisco to Manhattan for a change of scene. Although he had not moved for Sacks, he was now his neighbor, and they began spending time together. Sacks at 77 was a deeply intellectual, unworldly man who had never come out as gay, had never been in a relationship and hadn’t had sex in 35 years. “He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” Sacks told him to keep a journal, and Hayes’s brief impressionistic entries are woven throughout Insomniac City, which seems written in heightened states of feeling that infuse every detail with meaning and transient beauty.
One of the remarkable elements of this memoir is its portrait of emotional openness. Hayes seems to be one of those people whose appreciation of daily life and capacity for love only expand with age and the awareness of death. His compassionate curiosity extends to everyone and everything around him. He loves the city in all its noise and grime, the late-night laughter rising to his first apartment from a café below, the shifting weather, the subway trains and the public dramas. “Life here is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent.” He meets all kinds of New Yorkers in the streets and on the subway, talks with them, photographs them (his photos bookend numerous prose segments throughout), builds acquaintanceships and friendships. At the same time, he credits the trees outside the window of his first apartment with helping him understand how to manage his grief and live a full life day by day. His relationship with Sacks is filled with domestic detail and tenderness–walks and baths, cooking, conversations, books and music–through to Sacks’s final illness and his death in 2015. Thankfully, Hayes has no pat answers for anything in life, but many reasons why it continues to be worth living. –Sara Catterall, “Shelf Awareness,” January 2017
PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY, 8-15-16:
“Bill Hayes’s tender memoir is a love letter—to New York City and to renowned science writer Oliver Sacks. Devastated by the sudden death of a longtime partner, Hayes (The Anatomist) relocated from San Francisco to Manhattan, where he became enamored with the strange rituals and brusque charm of the locals. At roughly the same time, he entered a relationship with Sacks, whose magisterial prose and celebrity concealed the fact that he’d been celibate for 35 years and never had a serious romantic attachment. Hayes explores his fascination with his new home and growing intimacy with the unworldly, brilliant man three decades his senior who was experiencing true love for the first time. In a mélange of journal entries, photos, scenes, and meditations, Hayes reconstructs his immersion in New York and the flowering of his involvement with Sacks, a romance cut short by the fatal return of Sacks’s cancer. Hayes’s stylistic approach provides immediacy to his recollections, imbuing conversations with cab drivers and the clerk at the local bodega with significance that resonates past the superficial mundanity. Sacks wrote until the very end, and his public examination of his impending death and sexual orientation help to make Hayes’s understated descriptions of their life together remarkably poignant. Readers will find themselves wishing the two men had more time, but as Hayes makes clear, they wasted none of the time they had.” (Feb. 14, 2017 – BLOOMSBURY)
“Some dream of going to the Olympics. I’d long dreamed of going to Olympia….”
My first piece for the New York Times Travel section, on the ancient Greek athletic games at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea & Isthmia, appearing in print on Sunday, July 24, and online now. I hope you enjoy my road trip. – bh