Prodigal Prodigy: PW Talks With Peter von Ziegesar
By Liz Axelrod
Jul 12, 2013
PEN Short Fiction Award-winner von Ziegesar’s memoir, The Looking Glass Brother, considers the trials and tribulations he faced revisiting his turbulent childhood while starting his own family and caring for his homeless younger stepbrother—who also happens to be named Peter.
What was your motivation in writing this memoir?
My father died just as I was starting to write this book, and I think the book reflects my going back over my long relationship with and recollections of him, and trying to somehow make sense of them. My father didn’t have much use for Little Peter, so from the beginning I had a special empathy with my stepbrother. The story of the relationship between me and my stepbrother, and me and my father seemed a good medium to work through those shifts and contradictions. Oddly enough, I am a third generation memoirist: both my father and his father wrote memoirs about their own unhappy and neglected childhoods. A good deal of the book is about not wanting to, or not being able to, just let go of either my father or Little Peter.
Your wife played a major role in allowing you both to write the book and also to continually come to Little Peter’s aid. How much support did she give you in the writing process?
My wife, Hali, often says she wishes she could remove herself completely from the book. Nevertheless I am proud of my portrait of her, and I don’t think she is displeased with it. I think she recognizes the necessity of her being a part of the world I portray in the memoir. It’s a matter of her natural modesty and wanting to maintain a fence of privacy. She always supported my personal drive to write this book, read three different drafts, and made invaluable and detailed comments.
In the book you hint at her frustrations when you, your filmmaker friend Jim Syme, and Little Peter are trying to make a movie of his life. Did anything ever come of the movie?
Yes, Hali started to think of the times when I got together with Jim and Little Peter as just overgrown boys’ excuse to have a party. It didn’t help that she and I had three children in diapers at home then! At some point Jim and I edited a short film from what we’d shot and showed it around. We received some encouragement from HBO and other people, but they all said basically the same thing, “Show it to us when it is finished.” That was about the end of it. If someone wanted to start a documentary film about Little Peter’s life right now, they would have a rich backlog of material to draw on, though. As for me, I found it quite valuable to look at some of the video now and then as I was writing the book to refresh my memory.
You mention some interesting early assignments, particularly the Keith Haring piece and the interview with William S. Burroughs. Were you satisfied with the articles and are they available anywhere?
Yes, I still like both of them quite a bit. I was a big fan of Edie, the book about Edie Sedgwick that George Plimpton edited together very cinematically out of snippets of interviews; the Haring piece was consciously modeled on that. And I still think of my meeting with Burroughs as one of the high points of my life. Both pieces are up on my book website.
Where is Little Peter now? Have you offered any additional help for him to move toward a more stable life?
I saw Little Peter this March in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was sleeping in a dry riverbed just south of the main plaza. I think his life is basically stable now. He has grown more mellow and thoughtful as he has reached his mid-to-late 40s. It’s been six years since he was arrested for anything serious, for example. The last time I heard from him he was riding across country from Denver to Idaho on a $20 bike. That was just a few days ago. He was happy and perhaps a little lit up.