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Recounting the Life of Susan Sontag

Houston-native Benjamin Moser’s latest work wins a Pulitzer Prize.

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Ben Moser (photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

A routine Netflix binge-watching session while quarantined had rendered author Benjamin Moser bored. He picked up his phone that he’d left unchecked during his binge and saw that it was filled with text messages and an unsettling number of missed calls. The look on Moser’s face caused his partner to fear the worst. Wondering what could possibly warrant this unprecedented amount of outreach, Moser opened his text messages with apprehension. The out Houston native was met with an outpouring of congratulations from friends and family, notifying him that he won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his latest work, Sontag: Her Life and Work. It’s an honor that he is still digesting today.

Sontag: Her Life and Work is now available for purchase at harpercollins.com.

The 43-year-old St. John’s alum, who currently resides “out in the woods” in France, explains his attraction to the subject matter of his award-winning publication on lesbian novelist, essayist, and filmmaker Susan Sontag. “I am riveted by the great female intellectuals and thought there was so much not being said about them—not being understood,” he explains. “Since I live in Europe, I’m very attracted to America and eager to maintain my connection. Who is the great female intellectual in America? Susan Sontag.”

Having caught the attention of readers with his profile on another fierce woman, Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Moser was tapped by Sontag’s team to pen the biography. “I was asked, in fact, to write the Sontag book by Sontag’s son, her publisher, and her agent,” the enthusiastic writer recalls. “They wanted someone who could handle the big life of Sontag.” The multilingual Moser jumped at the opportunity to shine a light on someone he admired. “I’ve lived abroad for a while, I speak different languages, and can understand the world Sontag lived in. I didn’t consider myself a biographer, but a writer. It’s a completely logical follow-up to my book on Clarisse. They are very complementary figures.”

Moser’s work, released this past September, encapsulates the worldly, complex, and important life of Sontag. “It was a seven-year process that took me from Honolulu to Bosnia, Sweden, Naples, and London,” the friendly author explains. “Sontag’s life was so wide-ranging. There’s no American writer whose life was as vast.” Moser counted a total of 573 interviews that went into his research, including a coveted sit-down with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who spoke fondly of her relationship with Sontag. “Annie isn’t someone waiting around for my call. She’s a busy person. Sitting across from her was amazing and really cool. You could feel how much she loved Susan.”

Keeping Sontag’s name alive and in the forefront of culture is important to Moser. “When I was growing up, there were no gay role models. There were people who you found out were gay, but that’s about it. You didn’t really see them in the culture. I think the same is true for women,” Moser says. “You can’t forget that Susan Sontag was the ultimate lesbian role model. There were almost no visible lesbians in America. I can’t tell you how many lesbians have told me that just knowing Sontag existed gave them a sense of hope they didn’t have. Like, ‘You can be a lesbian and be that cool? That’s awesome!’”

Despite his successes, Moser was genuinely surprised to receive a Pulitzer Prize. “I never thought I would experience it,” he laughs. “If I have a great meal at a restaurant, it may be unique and exciting, but I’ve had other great meals. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me.” He laughs recalling the night he learned he won. “My partner was worried, because of the look in my eyes. I just said, ‘I won the Pulitzer Prize.’ It was so hard to say, and still feels like a joke when I say it to people.” Moser’s Texas roots show as he jokes that he must have misunderstood and was actually awarded the “Wurlitzer Prize,” referencing the hit song by fellow Texan Waylon Jennings.

The biography is a testament to not only Moser’s abilities as a writer, but to his subject at hand. “She is a key to culture,” he says admiringly of Sontag. “If you want to know why our world is the way it is in some major ways—whether [it involves] politics, culture, sexuality, illness, film, dance, painting, literature, or anything at all that influences our world in these much deeper ways—Susan Sontag is a fascinating place to start. She’s such a diva. I could never take my eyes off of her.”

For more information on Benjamin Moser, visit benmoser.com.

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Zachary McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.

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