Unlikely story

By EW Staff
Updated November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

”If you get to the restaurant before me, could you get us a table in the smoking section?” says author and committed cigarette user Fran Lebowitz on the phone, her tone somewhere between commanding and inquiring. These days, she can’t be sure.

It’s been two decades since Lebowitz’s unconventionality — complete with her unwavering nighttime dress code of a man’s retro dinner jacket on her back and a Marlboro dangling from her mouth — made her the toast (or the adored mascot, at least) of New York’s urbane celebrity set. But Lebowitz hasn’t published a book in more than 10 years (1981’s Social Studies), and in the health-conscious, PC ’90s, where TV rules, a self-admittedly lazy, tobacco-loving wordsmith can feel rather out of place.

”I adore words and I live in a culture where images, especially television ones, obsess people,” declares the jeans-clad author, now happily ensconced in the small smoking section of a midtown cafe.

Lebowitz’s latest creation is a children’s book she dashed off between bouts of working on her long-awaited novel. Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (Knopf, $15) is the story of a pair of 7-year-olds who stumble across talking pandas in their posh, prewar apartment building. The kiddie prose flowed so freely for Lebowitz (”I don’t remember writing it, it was such a pleasure”) that the Author With the World’s Smallest Output (a stray essay here, a lonely article there) is working on a sequel to Pandas and — gasp! — even a third adventure.

It’s an irony that Lebowitz — whose 1978 book of essays, Metropolitan Life, contained a cantankerous critique of tots — has loosened up her writing hand by penning books for kids. ”The reputation I got from my writing, that I’m like W.C. Fields, is false. To me, the average child says more interesting things than the average adult. How many people brag about the clever thing their 38-year-old just said? Besides,” she quips, ”how can I hate kids? I’m a kid myself — a kid with her own checking account.”

As for her novel-in-progress, Lebowitz will reveal only that it involves ”many, many characters,” is largely set in New York City, and covers the period between 1971 and 1990. ”Sometimes I rewrite a sentence a thousand times. It’s not that I don’t want to go on; I simply can’t,” she says, then pauses to take a long, pleasured puff before adding with a smile, ”That’s just the kind of girl I am.”