I am a big fan of Bill Hayes, author of a memoir I love, Insomniac City and street photographer extraordinaire (follow him on Instagram @billhayesphotography). He was Oliver Sacks’s partner at the time of his passing and was involved in editing Oliver’s last book, Everything in Its Place, as well as a movie about his life.
Bill’s new book, How We Live Now is somewhat of a diary that tells his stories during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“Now I think about:
The last time I shook hands with a stranger.
The last time I saw people dancing.
The last time I saw people smiling.
The last time I heard kids playing.
The last time I saw traffic on Eighth Avenue.
The last time I went to the gym……
The last time I was as scared as this.
The last time I fell in love.”
In this wonderful time capsule he shares with readers so much of himself, his NYC community and photos he took during several months in 2020. I have had the pleasure of welcoming Bill to my book club, truly enjoy him and his work, and if you love New York City, you will love him and this book, too! How We Live Now, available in hard cover, recently won The New York City Book Award and will be out in paperback this January. It is a keepsake of an unimaginable time.
Q & A with Bill Hayes
Congratulations on How We Live Now – it literally had me in tears by the end – read it it one sitting and could feel your emotions through the words and the photos.
Q: Our communities are more important than we ever realized and when we lost access to interaction with them, regardless of how deep the relationships were, we were all left alone with ourselves. What did you learn about yourself during this time of isolation and what steps did you take to fight depression and loneliness?
A: Like so many, I learned I missed not only friends but people–contact, connection, spontaneous conversations, expressions on faces. In the early days, it was surreal to find oneself suddenly living in a virtual ghosttown–in Manhattan! Silent and empty. But at the same time, I also learned that my work–writing and photography–can sustain me. At least for a time. I started working on “How We Live Now” just a week or two into the lockdown in March 2020, and wrote and photographed the book over an intense 3-month period, 7 days a week. Usually, I’d write or edit in the mornings; go out and take photos on the street in the afternoon; and then edit photos at night. It was a great gift to have this creative challenge to keep me engaged and hopeful, and to keep depression and loneliness at bay. Later in the year, I also finished work on a long-delayed book, “Sweat: A History of Exercise,” which will be published in January 2022.
Q: You have such a warm and positive way about you – really the perfect city dweller. Why do some people only see the grit and grime of NYC with the homelessness and danger, and how would you recommend they change their outlook to also see all the beauty and unique qualities you notice?
A: That’s a hard one to answer. Sometimes I think some people are just not suited to live in big cities like New York–a city of extremes: danger and kindness, homelessness and great wealth, beauty and grit and grime…..One of my first thoughts for those you describe, is: Talk to a homeless person. Take a moment to see how they’re getting along. Give them a few bucks and a bottle of water. Ask after them. Wish them well. You might see them differently then….
Q: This book was a snippet in time that covers the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and I was wondering if you have continued recording the second half and the re-emergence of a different life in the Big Apple, and how this new normal has impacted you, your relationships and your career?
A: Yes, I have continued chronicling to some extent. I still keep a journal. I would have written about the pandemic and taken photos during those early days even if I had not decided to publish a book and gotten a contract. But…my pace slowed over last summer and fall and winters. I honestly did not enjoy photographing people on the street in masks, after finishing my book. I just found it depressing, and I couldn’t see their facial expressions, of course. And yet now, I find I’m out taking photos more regularly again, with people more unmmasked and faces visible. I’m enjoying street photogaphy again — in a way I hadn’t for a year.
Q: Would you consider writing a short update on each of the people you mentioned in the book so I know where/how they are today? I find myself wanting to know more… if they made it through, are they back to work, are you still in touch….and wishing you had photos of you with each one of them!
A: Probably not–although I take your question as a compliment to each of those I wrote about–that readers feel connected to them, feel affection toward them, enjoyed their company on the page. But I consider “How We Live Now” to be like a Time Capsule, one that captures the first 100 days of the pandemic. I hope that, just like opening a Time Capsule in the future, if you were to read “How We Live Now” one hundred years from now, it would still feel as fresh and “in the moment” as when I wrote it.
Q: Are the people you feature in stories and photos aware they are in your book and what are their reactions?
A: Some are, some aren’t. Some were complete strangers who I haven’t seen since–exactly, as in my street photography–though I always told people I was a writer when I spoke to them. Some remain friends, like Ali, who owns the smokeshop — he has read the book and proudly gives away copies (which I gladly give him) to his favorite customers. He was in “Insomniac City,” too. And Alex, my barber at King of Cuz–he often puts the book in customers hands when they’re getting a cut and makes them read the chapter about his shop (ch. 22) – lol!
Q: You are not originally from New York, but you have made your home here for quite a while. Do you consider yourself a true New Yorker and would you ever consider moving somewhere else?
A: I definitely consider myself a New Yorker by now I think I did early on. I think one can become a New Yorker right after moving here. The test, as I put it in “Insomniac City,” is: You know you’re a New Yorker when you are away from the City and feel like you’re missing something…..Would I ever consider myself moving elsehwhere? Sure. As much as I love New York, I also know life is short and there may be another place–or other places–I’d like to live later on. I just turned 60, so that’s not far from my mind…
Q: Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
A: I’m busy. I have a new book coming out in January, one that I’ve worked on–off and on–for years, but finished during the pandemic: “SWEAT: A History of Exercise.” A paperback of “How We Live Now” will come out at the same time. And I have completed the screenplay for a film of “Insomniac City,” which is actually in production with Hopscotch Features and with a great director signed on to direct. I’m not sure exactly when film production will start, though.
Q: How can we keep up with you and all you are doing?
A: My website is www.billhayes.com – But honestly, I’m more active on InstaGram: @billhayesphotography
About the Author
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the author of five books: Sleep Demons; Five Quarts; The Anatomist; Insomniac City; and How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Review of Books, the New York Times “T” Style Magazine, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian.
His next book, “SWEAT: A History of Exercise,” a narrative nonfiction look at exercise from antiquity to the present, will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2022.
Hayes is also a photographer, with credits including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times. His portraits of his partner, the late Oliver Sacks, appear in the volume of Dr. Sacks’s suite of final essays Gratitude. A collection of his street photography, How New York Breaks Your Heart, was recently published by Bloomsbury. His photographs have been exhibited at the Steven Kasher Gallery and at The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), New York City.
Hayes has lectured at NYU, UCSF, and University of Virginia, and has appeared at the Sydney Writers Festival, the 92nd Street Y, the Times of India (Mumbai) LitFest, and other venues. He serves as a co-editor of Dr. Sacks’ posthumously published work. Hayes, 59, lives in New York City.