The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘craft’

Helen DeWitt on The Last Samurai

June 8, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

This installment features Helen DeWitt, who discusses her debut novel, The Last Samurai, published in 2000. After seven years of writing unfinished novels, DeWitt decided to quit her job as a legal secretary and devote herself to finishing one book. “I thought, I just I have to quit until my money runs out … I’m going just to sit down and do nothing but work on this book, and I’m going to finish it in a month. Then I will have a finished book, and, see, it doesn’t matter what happens then.” Read More »

Jeffrey Eugenides on The Virgin Suicides

April 13, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

Today’s featured writer is Jeffrey Eugenides, who discusses his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, published in 1993. (An early installment appeared in the Review’s Winter 1990 issue.) “I wrote two hours every night, and on the weekends I would spend four hours,” he says. “Each book that you write, you swim a long way from the piers at a certain point—you just don’t know what’s going to happen. If I learned anything with The Virgin Suicides, I just learned if you keep going, you’ll figure out how to shape the thing.”

Be sure to watch the previous interviews in the series:

Ben Lerner on The Lichtenberg Figures

February 16, 2016 | by

My First Time” is a  video series in which we invite authors to discuss the trials of writing and publishing their first books. Consider it a chance to see how successful writers got their start, in their own words—it’s a portrait of the artist as a beginner and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

This installment stars Ben Lerner, poet and novelist. While an undergraduate at Brown—and later as an M.F.A. student—Lerner wrote the cycle of fifty-two sonnets that would become 2004’s The Lichtenberg Figures. At the time, he and roommate Cyrus Console were, says Lerner, “always writing under the sign of crisis ... now when I look back, we had a kind of really intense practice.” He discusses the process of imposing form, his thematic inspirations, and the challenges of taking one’s place in the creative universe. “With the first book, you don’t really know if you can do it. You have a kind of constant anxiety about whether or not you have something to contribute to the conversation. And that anxiety—it can ruin your life, but it’s also really generative. Like, it’s a kind of discipline.”

This series is made by the filmmakers Tom BeanCasey Brooks, and Luke Poling; we’re delighted to collaborate with them. Be sure to watch the previous interviews in the series:

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

A Miniature Fascination

May 26, 2011 | by

Huguette Clark.

When the 104-year-old copper heiress Huguette Clark died earlier this week, obituaries invariably included the word eccentric. This was surely due at least somewhat to her apparent preference for making her home in hospitals. But part of it—the bigger part, I’m guessing—was her passion for dollhouses. In her later years, Clark retreated into an expensive miniature world, surrounding herself with large amounts of the tiny.

Second childhood? God complex? Arrested development? Maybe. But Clark wasn’t alone. Miniatures have exerted a fascination over adults—and often, rich and powerful adults—since Duke Albrecht V forced large portions of a sixteenth-century court into the construction of what’s known as the “Munich Baby House.” Queen Mary’s Windsor Castle fantasia—furnished and outfitted by practically every artisan with a royal appointment—is famous; less well known is the elaborate dollhouse for which Alice Longworth Roosevelt frequently neglected guests, or the modern-art masterpiece created in the 1920s by the bohemian Stettheimer sisters. The Thorne Miniature Rooms, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, were a labor of love for Narcissa Thorne, bolstered by the Montgomery-Ward fortune. And heiress Frances Glessner Lee used her leisure to construct the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, scale dioramas of murders so accurate that they are still used today to teach burgeoning MEs. Clearly, there’s something about the world at 1:12".

The writer, illustrator, and dollhouse-lover Tasha Tudor called the root of the appeal “perfection in miniature,” and it’s not hard to imagine that women of prior generations might have enjoyed exercising power over a larger domain than was their usual wont. A dollhouse could be aspirational: Faith Bradford, the Washington librarian who created the twenty-three-room miniature mansion on display at the Smithsonian, outfitted her creation with a full staff of servants—and Victorian piles, unsurprisingly, remain better sellers than apartments.

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Rain Men

August 24, 2010 | by

The lost language of Italian parasols and the men who made them.

Photograph by Almanac Piemonteis Times.

Last month, on a visit to Piedmont in northern Italy, I chanced upon a small museum in the hill town of Gignese that is devoted to the local craft of umbrella-making. At first, I wondered how this particular region along the west shore of Lago Maggiore became associated with the production—through the past few centuries—of quality umbrellas and parasols, but the reason is not hard to find. Every year more than thirty-three inches of rain falls over the neighborhood of Turin, and more than thirty-nine around Milan. That’s at least a third more than what London gets. Meanwhile the northern Italian summers are hot and sunny. The word umbrella descends from the Latin umbraculum, which means a convenient device for providing shade.

The ancient Romans were very fond of umbrellas, and regularly exchanged them as gifts. Yet umbrellas were virtually unknown in England and America before the 1780s, and the traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one. The problem before the mid-nineteenth century was that Regency umbrellas were oily, not necessarily reliably waterproof, and tended to run—and the harder it rained, the worse it was. Oil and dye in roughly equal measure dribbled and spattered onto silk or muslin dresses. Gloves, bonnets, and satin slippers were maculated by nasty black spots. So at first umbrellas were used in England much more as shelter from the sun than the rain, and exclusively by women. It took several early Victorian decades for the English umbrella to shed its reputation for effeminacy, and more than a century and a half for it to burrow its way into the national character, and take up its dignified position in the crook of Neville Chamberlain’s elbow.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ombrellai of Piedmont were a relatively closed community of highly specialist craftsmen. They engaged child-apprentices from among the poorest families of the region. Upon signing up, the apprenticed ombrellaio received a pair of shoes, somewhere to sleep, two square meals a day, and, of course, an umbrella. He said goodbye to his family for at least a period of four or five years—effectively, for good—and as well as learning to make umbrellas, he hiked from town to town selling braces of them to wholesalers, agents, and traders for export, mostly through Genoa.

As with so many other northern Italian industries (most famously the glass factories of Venice) the relevant production techniques, recipes, and other trade secrets were jealously guarded and protected with much paranoia, even ruthlessness. To that end the ombrellai used an in-house language known as Tarùsc, which seems to have existed in one form or another among the hill-dwelling people of Piedmont and the southern cantons of Switzerland since at least pre-Roman times. And while it came to be associated almost exclusively with the ombrellai, it was also used for related purposes by smugglers, thieves, spies—indeed a comparatively large proportion of the population whose occupations were covert. Read More »

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