Kurt Vonnegut called your father the "Great Gatsby of my generation," but the average American had no idea who he was. What's it like—17 years after his death—to see him on the New York Times bestseller list?
On the one hand, it's heartbreaking, but it almost seems as though it couldn't have been any other way. I hesitate to say he was ahead of his time, but on his best days, he was writing forward to the world. He knew that honesty would always interest some people in every generation: He thought people were going to come to bad ends. He thought he was going to come to a bad end. But I don't think he saw the public as stupid or as needing to have books sanitized for them. He thought if his books got out there, like they are right now—there's a pile of them in my supermarket, and there's a pile of them in every bookstore in every airport...they're everywhere—if that kind of spotlight had been turned on him, his feeling, even then, was that people would have gotten an awful lot out of them. That's happening now. All these people are hearing his voice, and that's a great thing, because he certainly thought that the ride to the bad end was worthy of attention.
Biographer Blake Bailey described him as "bemused, stoical, a little sad, perhaps, but willing to find the humor that was somewhere...", and he was the model for Elaine's misanthropic father in Seinfeld. But was there another side to him?
Even though he could be sarcastic and biting and cutting, he hated to hurt people's feelings. He was passionate. He was very funny, and he sang, and he was warm, and he was loving. Anything you'd read, he'd read. And when he read something, he never forgot it.
Did it make you uncomfortable to have familial dysfunction brought to light in Revolutionary Road, which detailed, to some extent, the unraveling of your family?
Well, it was only semi-autobiographical...my father finished the book after he had come back from Paris. And he knew just how much living abroad made you feel alive, and what use that was to a person. So he was picturing the story from the other side. It's almost like he wished April and Frank could have had what he and my mother actually had.
So I read the book when I was 17, and it really, really depressed me. When I read it again I was a junior in college, and I was just purely thrilled that he'd written such a thing, that my own father had accomplished that. It didn't matter a bit to me that it wasn't well known. I knew that it was indisputably good, and it made me kind of a cocky pain in the neck when I didn't have any reason to be. No one had any reason to think I knew anything, but I thought I did because my father was Richard Yates, and he'd written that book. Then again, when my husband decided to marry me, his brother read Revolutionary Road and told him, "Are you sure you want to get into this?"
Really? I guess you don't give the book to people you know...
I do, sparingly. If I think that they have something on the ball, and they are readers, I'll try it out on them. In fact an acquaintance asked me about it, and I kept saying, "Oh you won't like it, because I kept thinking she was some sort of romance reader, but she was just completely taken with it. She told me, "I feel like those people are alive. I feel like I know them." That was a perfect reaction.