Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe, her book 'Just Kids' and more

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Story by Patricia Sheridan
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/SHNS)
Sun, Apr 24, 2011
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Poet-artist-singer-writer Patti Smith opened up a chapter of her life to the world when she wrote The New York Times best seller “Just Kids,” about her relationship with artist-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He died of AIDS in 1989.

They were friends, lovers and partners before he came to terms with his sexuality. It was his wish that she write a book about their journey. Recently released in paperback, “Just Kids” is on The New York Times paperback best-seller list. Her 1975 album “Horses” is considered by some to be the start of New York punk rock.

She gave up much of her creative life to pursue marriage and parenthood with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. They had two children, who are grown now. He died of cancer in 1994. Although the 64-year-old has experienced many losses she maintains a positive outlook.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Reading your book, it becomes evident how timing played a big part.

A: Life is filled with those kinds of signposts. I believe in these things, you know, fate. Of course, fate is like a secret friend that helps push you on into life. I often think of those things. One can think of them for the good, and one can think of them for the mistakes we’ve made. I try to keep it balanced in my mind that you know that’s how we get through life. We have our free will, but a lot of fate and a little bit of luck.

Q: Do you think of yourself as lucky?

A: Yes, I actually do. I mean, even though I’ve suffered a lot of loss in my life. I’ve lost many people that I love. My brother and my husband, Robert, many, many people, but for myself, I feel very blessed -- blessed that I knew them, blessed that I have two great kids, that I’m able to do my work, that people welcome my work. So I suppose I do, I do feel lucky. I think it’s important to always look at the positive side of life’s experiences because we are going to be dealt tough ones.

Q: It also takes a certain amount of courage, and you display that throughout your life, such as when you found out you were pregnant at 19 and gave the baby up for adoption.

A: In terms of that subject, it was the ’60s and there were fewer options. Less information about birth control. One just had to do what you had to do. I mean, I don’t think of myself as brave, I just did -- you know, everyone has to do that. You know, everyone has a moment where they have to “man up,” as they say. They have to face their situation and just do the best they can. That’s all I could do. I was scarcely 20 years old. I did the best I could in that particular time.

Q: In the book you mention you pray every night. Do you still do that before you sleep?

A: I pray intermittently. I pray in the morning or as I’m walking down the street. Prayer is an open line. I just pray when I feel like it. It’s a continuing dialogue, and one prays for different reasons. Sometimes just a prayer to say, “Thank you.”

Q: Did you ever pray for inspiration?

A: No. I think that’s my own job. I mean, God gives us, nature gives us things in abundance ... just the birds in the air, the sky. The sky is like an opera. I feel like there’s a million things to be inspired by that are just given to us.

Q: Was writing “Just Kids” a comforting experience?

A: Not always. I mean, a lot of writing is manual labor. It’s writing and rewriting and trying to say exactly what you mean. So there’s a lot of responsibility in writing and a lot of epiphany, also. One is rewarded. It comes from a lot of drudgery. Sometimes when one is writing about people who are gone, who have passed away, there’s sorrow involved as well. There is comfort, for instance, in writing this book just knowing that Robert existed. But I wasn’t looking for comfort. I was really looking to give the people Robert and to try to follow the trajectory of these two young people’s lives, which was Robert and I, and give them blood and give them in such a way that the people felt they knew them. I wasn’t looking for my own gratification.

Q: There must be some satisfaction from all the critical acclaim and the accolades the book has garnered.

A: Yes, of course. I mean, first of all, it’s very exciting. It’s exciting to have recognition for the work you do. The real wonderful thing is how much the book has been welcomed by so many people. When I’m walking down the street, people come up and say how much they like the book. People feel they have a more holistic picture of Robert, and that’s satisfying.

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