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Mad Men Unbuttoned

August 23, 2010 | by

In Mad Men Unbuttoned, Natasha Vargas-Cooper sheds light on the reality that inspired everyone's favorite TV show. Drawing on references from John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Coco Chanel, and Draper Daniels (the real-life Don Draper), she illustrates the challenges of making another cultural period come to life. She recently answered my questions via e-mail from her home in L.A.

How did this book come about?

Last year I had quit my job in labor politics, left my boyfriend of five years, fled from Brooklyn and moved back in with my parents. Then my dog ran away. After a bout of some well earned wallowing, I sprang up at 4 A.M. and decided I’d rewatch the show. I popped in the DVDs, started a blog for kicks, figuring I’d be putting my degree in history to work. I got a call from HarperCollins about a month later.

Can you talk about the themes that give the book its structure?

I think the show depicts the social fissures that began to appear during the late 1950s and eventually entered the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. The show has three main prisms through which it examines these changes: advertising, domestic life, sex. (I'm specifically interested in Peggy’s sex life since she is at the mercy of all the shifts in sexual mores given her age.) So the main themesof the book are the anxieties and exuberance that come with such accelerated change.

Why are people so delightfully geeky about the details and cultural theory behind Mad Men?

We’re watching the foundation of out modern taste come together—that’s fascinating! The show lends itself to a gleeful analysis. Its use of culture is deliberate. References to pop culture or politics aren’t thrown in to be cute or suggestive, but to enhance the themes of the show or our understanding of the characters. I think the audience appreciates not being treated like a mope so they get jazzed about it.

In the chapter on the books of Mad Men, you use original artwork as stand-in covers for classic literature (see below). Did you commission these specifically?

Yes I did. I saw Christina Perry’s Mad Men posters floating around online and I instantly fell in love with them. When we were trying to get the rights to reprint the covers like Atlas Shrugged and The Group and I thought, "These aren’t really in line with the mood of the show. I’d like to have some original art work, so why not get the poster lady?"

Have you ever tried to sneak onto the set of the show? Hunt down Matt Weiner in one of the coffee shops near the studio?

Nope, I’m big on dignity.

Do you dress up or throw Mad Men parties? Read More »

Vendela Vida

August 19, 2010 | by

Vendela Vida’s new novel, The Lovers, follows a middle-aged Vermont woman, recently widowed, as she vacations in the unfamiliar territory of Turkey in an attempt to re-examine her life. Among these new surroundings, her initial numbness about her bereavement gives way to doubt over whether her marriage was even happy, and she has to face up to a pain she never anticipated. Vendela Vida recently answered my questions over lunch during her book tour’s stop-over in New York City.

What drew you to set this novel in Turkey?

It was completely an accident. I went there for a month in June of 2005 when I was trying to finish my second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and wanted to be far away from the Arctic Circle in winter—the setting of that novel—and free from the day-to-day distractions of my life in San Francisco. I found a rental house by typing “Turkey,” “rental,” “cheap,” and “beach” into a search engine. I had no intention of setting a novel there, but a year later, this house and this town I stayed in kept appearing in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of the idea of writing about Turkey, so I did.

Did the house you stayed in have any of the unusual contents of the vacation house in the book?

Yes. I usually don’t like to take details from life, but, in this case, I couldn’t resist. The owners left out things that people typically wouldn’t leave out—sex swings, pornographic photos of the wife, books on sexual positions. My husband and I would leave the house to swim, or eat, or explore, and when we returned we would want to be in a neutral, uncomplicated place to relax and absorb everything new we’d seen and experienced beyond the walls of the house, but we were continually affronted by some new and intimate discovery about the owners’ lives. I wanted to put Yvonne, the protagonist of The Lovers, in a discomfiting situation like that.

Lionel Shriver has said she writes partly as catharsis-in-advance. So she wrote about death to experience bereavement. Was this a motive for you in exploring the character of Yvonne?

I write a lot from a place of fear. My friend, the writer Amanda Davis, who was killed in a plane crash in 2003, said that every day you should write about something that scares you. I was finishing this book just after the birth of my second child and the notion that this newborn could one day be estranged and the source of pain for me was also something I feared—and so I made Yvonne’s relationship with her daughter an especially fraught and challenging one. Even the vague idea of my husband dying is something that devastates me. So I was tapping into that fear when creating Yvonne, who’s fifty-three and a widow, and trying to imagine what it would be like to lose someone after spending half your life with them.

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