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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1927–2013

April 3, 2013 | by

ruth-prawer-jhabvalaIt was announced this morning that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died today at her home in Manhattan, at the age of eighty-five. Jhabvala is best known as an award-winning screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions. Together, with the late producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory, she helped make twenty-two films. Perhaps, like me, you have watched her adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View dozens of times, which garnered her an Academy Award for screenwriting in 1986. Or perhaps you, too, lusted after a Kelly bag after watching her adaptation of Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce. Over the course of three decades, she helped project the stories of writers such as Forster, Henry James, Evan S. Connell, Jean Rhys, and others onto the screen. Often, though not always, these films captured a lost era. One where women were chaperoned to Italy, where a stolen kiss on a hilltop could cause scandal, where class was never directly discussed, and fortune was hunted like prey. And today we must mourn the loss of a kind of filmmaking that took care to not appear superficial in obsessing over the past. (Much as Merchant Ivory always got the look right, one never said that the best part of the movie was the costumes. Look, for example, at Hollywood’s latest adaptation of Anna Karenina.) As Jhabvala explained to Philip Horne around 2001: “The main purpose is that I have such a good time. I mean, think of all that marvelous material. Just think of spending all that time in The Golden Bowl and the other James and Forster books we have done. But especially Henry James because he has such marvelous characters and he has such strong dramatic scenes. You just put your hand in and pull them out.”

This is because Jhabvala read as a writer. Despite—or perhaps because of—her many successes, she called herself a novelist first and foremost. And with reason. Heat and Dust was awarded the Booker Prize in 1975. She was given a MacArthur in 1984, and her short stories were published in The New Yorker throughout her career. “I was never interested in adapting classics at all,” she told Horne. “I’d written four novels. I was never interested in film. Never. I never even thought of it. I never thought of it until Merchant and Ivory came to India and filmed one of my books—they said: ‘Why don’t you write the screenplay?’ I said I’d never written a screenplay and I hadn’t seen many films because I was in India by that time and hadn’t really had any opportunity to see new films or art films or classic films or anything. So they said, ‘Well, try. We haven’t made a feature film before.’ So that was really my introduction into film.”

Thessaly La Force is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and coauthor of My Ideal Bookshelf.

 

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Sheila Heti on How Should a Person Be?

June 18, 2012 | by

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy.

If you’ve been loving Lena Dunham’s Girls, you should most certainly pick up a copy of Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be? In it, fictional Sheila struggles to answer the titular question through conversations with her friends (including Margaux, Misha, and Sholem), blowjobs, impulsive trips to Atlantic City and ... a whole lot more. The novel is a blend of the real and the imaginary—and somehow, in the process of recording her life, real Sheila blends into fictional Sheila, creating a work of metafiction that is playful, funny, wretched, and absolutely true. Sheila and I Gchatted not long ago. Sheila is an impressive writer (see her full bio here) as well as the interviews editor at The Believer. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Let’s talk about your process. How did you take your conversations from your life and weave it into fiction?

I don’t know. I did lots of different things. But the conversations were not meant for a book. I was just taping friends. I didn’t have a plan for where I was going.

Did you think you were writing your play?

I wasn’t sure. I’d spent the previous five years working on Ticknor, and I wanted to sort of shake that off me. So all the transcribing I was doing was kind of like drinking a glass of water—it was refreshing, like a palate cleanser—a way of getting out of my imagination. Taping and transcribing was part of looking around to see what things were really like in my environment. I’d been completely in my room, in my head, not looking at anything.

That reminds me of something Tilda Swinton once said about filmmaking—it’s a social way of making art. What do you think happens when you’re working like this?

Well, the writing becomes more like life in that you don’t know where you’re going to end up, and you don’t know what’s going to end up being important. It’s like how in life you can meet somebody and not think much of them, then a few years later you’re married and in love, but the person you were really drawn to and thought, This is it!—you forget about them six months later. When I began transcribing, I was certain that I wanted to write a book with no people in it, about the workings of a supermarket.

That sounds so different than the book you ended up writing!

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Leanne Shapton

February 16, 2012 | by

It’s no secret how much I admire Leanne Shapton. The former art director of The New York Times’ Op-Ed page is also the author of several books, including Was She Pretty? and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. She’s also a contributor to The Paris Review. Open any of the last four issues to glimpse her beautiful illustrations of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich. Or buy issue 196, whose cover she painted. I visited her studio space north of Manhattan last spring. I can still remember her dog, Bunny, running to greet me. Leanne served tea and sweets, and we talked long after I turned off my tape recorder.

I wake up, walk the dog, or let the dog out. I’ll pretty much start working right off the top, depending on what I need to do, on deadlines.

I was talking to Sheila Heti about how and where we work. Sometimes I feel I get a lot done waiting for something else, with my shoes and coat on, with the car running. I don’t have a set routine. I can work for hours at a time, but I get a lot of stuff done in these weird starts and stops, which makes it a little bit harder to track. I have so many backs of envelopes with notes written on them in my pockets or stuffed into the side door of a car. I also use my Blackberry to write myself notes. Last night, I wrote myself an e-mail that said, “Tough girls with dark pink skin, England air, etc.” Now it’s sort of coming back to me, but when I woke up and read it, I was like, “What? What did I drink?” Lots happens in these little spaces between work and eating and sleeping. Sheila said she had this image of me standing up—you know how you stand up and eat when you’re really hungry? Well I stand up and work. It’s not a Hemingway thing, it’s more like I have to get this done, because the elevator is coming up. Some thing happens then. And that’s when I work.

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The Secret Bookstore

July 12, 2011 | by

Watch this beautiful video about Brazenhead Books, a secret bookstore that’s been tucked away in Michael Seidenberg’s apartment on the Upper East Side ever since the rent for his original retail space in Brooklyn was quadrupled. (Jonathan Lethem used to work there.) “This would have not been my ideal,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought I want to have a bookshop in a location no one knows about.” But Brazen says it’s a continuation of being the kind of bookseller he wants to be—not on the street, not at book fairs, but inside, the shelves lined with first editions, knickknacks, and, one hopes, a cat. “I don’t know if it’s my familiarity with failure,” he adds. “I find ways to survive without it making enough money to be what you would call a successful business. If it’s all about money, there’s just better things to sell.” And how do those of us who’ve never been find him? He’s in the phone book, he says with a smile. Hiding in plain sight.

There's No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books from Etsy on Vimeo.

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Jennifer Egan Fever

July 12, 2011 | by

Photograph by Pieter M van Hattem/Vistalux.

Did you know that Jennifer Egan was robbed by a motorcyclist in Spain at the age of twenty-two? That when she was little, she wanted to be a doctor, but then she tried to be an archeologist? That she’s written exactly one celebrity profile and it’s of Calvin Klein? And that she received a gratuitous amount of CK1, which she wore until it ran out? That her first apartment in New York City was on West 69th Street but she has also lived on East 7th Street (between First Avenue and Avenue A) and West 28th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), but now she lives in Fort Greene? That she wrote her first (and unpublished) novel while studying abroad at Cambridge? That she was a reader for The Paris Review? That she writes her first drafts by longhand? And her second?

I have Jennifer Egan fever. I caught it at the beginning of last year, when I read “Ask Me if I Care,” a short story of hers that The New Yorker had excerpted from her then-forthcoming novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I read the other two stories The New Yorker had published on my iPhone while getting a pedicure. It’s a banal admission only worth recalling because I remember sitting in the salon’s lounge long after the polish had dried and it was time to leave—I had to read it all, right then and there. After that, I read every single story she published, every novel she had written, every interview I could get my hands on. (I knew the obsession was bad when I started picking through the Amazon reviews.)

Egan’s prose is stunning, funny, sexy—cool. Her stories reference Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. She can write about an attractive kleptomaniac on a first date, a topic that seems dangerously cliché, and yet, by the end of opening paragraph, you’re hooked. She’s transparent about her writing process; honest about what she borrows and what she invents. It’s not that she “beat” Jonathan Franzen, though I see why some feel the need to pit the two authors against one another. And it’s not that she’s perfect—I have yet to encounter someone who liked The Keep—but maybe that’s also part of the appeal.

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Making ‘Of Lamb’

July 6, 2011 | by

In 1796, at the age of thirty-two, Mary Lamb had an attack of madness and killed her mother and wounded her father with a knife. She was institutionalized for three years until the death of her father, when, at the behest of her younger brother, Charles, she was brought to live with him. Charles Lamb was a clerk at the East India Company and a well-regarded essayist, and he remained Mary’s caretaker and companion for the rest of their lives. The Lamb siblings were part of a literary circle that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Wordsworths, William Hazlitt, and Mary Shelley, and they are the subject of the biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil.

Their story is also at the heart of a strange new illustrated poem that was published as a book by McSweeney’s this month. Of Lamb is a collaborative project between poet Matthea Harvey and artist Amy Jean Porter. Harvey was fascinated by the process of erasures after seeing Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Jen Bervin’s Nets and decided to do one herself with the first book she could find for three dollars. “I picked up A Portrait of Charles Lamb completely randomly,” Harvey told me. “When I discovered that Mary and Lamb were on each page, a story in poems started to emerge.” There are echoes of Sarah Josepha Hale’s famous nineteenth-century rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which tells the story of a young girl named Mary Sawyer who brings her pet lamb to school. But there are also weirder, more fascinating moments, too: “Nerves his family / Trouble his home / Dark spirits his company.”

Below are a few slides of Harvey’s erasures and the illustrations by Porter. Porter says she was “thinking of an illustrative tradition of a nineteenth-century British variety—Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, Eleanor Vere Boyle” but also cites brass chandeliers, water towers, and artists such as Balthus and Gabriel Orozco as inspiration. Click to enlarge.

Join Harvey and Porter tomorrow, on July 7, at P.P.O.W. Gallery at 7:00 P.M. at 535 West 22nd Street, in New York, for a reading from Of Lamb.

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