She Cared Enough to Take It As Far as She Could: The Millions Interviews Rob Garver

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

Pauline Kael was the most renowned film critic of the 20th century. It’s a strong statement, but inarguable: You may not have loved or agreed with or even respected Kael’s criticism, but you could not deny its robustness, passion, or significance. For Kael, movies were both high art and utterly relevant to our daily human existence; and movie reviews thus mattered accordingly.

What She Said, a new documentary about Kael’s work as a critic and cultural force, had its theatrical premiere at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on December 13 and will open at Film Forum in New York City on December 25. It was a pleasure to interview New York-based filmmaker Rob Garver about the film—what it is, what it isn’t, and, of course, “what she said.” 

The Millions: Let’s start with the film’s title: In The Hollywood Reporter’s review, Todd McCarthy suggests that film criticism as an “art” (versus a “craft”) is up for debate. We learn in the film that Kael had originally hoped to be a playwright, but that she was rather bad at it. She also tried again to be involved in moviemaking later in her career, when she attempted to co-produce a film with Warren Beatty (she ultimately withdrew from the project). Tell us why you think Pauline Kael was an art maker.

Rob Garver: She was an artist because she had a gift and she cared enough to take it as far as she could go. Pauline was really not a film critic; she was a writer whose subject was the movies. She gave all of herself to it—all her knowledge, experience, and talent. Not to mention humor, wisdom, honesty. Even if you felt she was wrong about a movie, she was always enlightening—or funny, or maybe rude, or all three at once. And she believed that at his best, a critic could be an artist too. She wrote about that.

TM: I couldn’t help thinking of Susan Sontag: She too is better known for her criticism, while she aspired to be a great novelist, and also attempted to make a film (which was not well received). Both women were passionate about the art of filmmaking but had almost polar opposite tastes. (They also had a common nemesis in Normal Mailer!) To your knowledge did they ever encounter each other?

RG: They were both California girls—as was Joan Didion—but I don’t know if they ever spent any real time together. I believe I did find a note from Sontag to Pauline (as I did from Didion) in Pauline’s archives at the Lilly Library. A friendly note, about one of their books.

TM: How much time did you spend researching Kael’s archives, and what were some of the most engaging or surprising things you found there?

RG: One of the first things I did was to hire a great researcher named Rich Remsberg, and together we spent two weeks in the archives. One of the great things we found were the letters from celebrities, some of which made it into the film. Some that didn’t were a series of letters from the famous producer Ray Stark—about five or six letters written over a period of about 10 years. Funny and interesting because they were initially friendly, but then, over time, become more and more frustrated, because Pauline is obviously not giving his movies the love he feels they deserve.

The best part of her archives, though, are the many letters she wrote to a couple of her close friends when she was in her early 20s—as a college student at UC-Berkeley and then in New York after college. It’s Pauline at her most vulnerable and emotionally naked, and most intellectually voracious. She was interested in everything. She was a young person who very much knew herself, but who also struggled with acceptance I think, because of her strong opinions, even at that age. She also seems to have understood how the world worked already.     

TM: You convened quite an all-star cast: Greil Marcus, Camille Paglia, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Alec Baldwin, David O. Russell, Sarah Jessica Parker as the voice of Pauline Kael, and others. Was there anyone you’d really hoped to include who refused or was otherwise unavailable? Did you consider enlisting today’s prominent critics (e.g. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, David Denby and Anthony Lane), or younger critics? Do you think the new generation of filmmakers, actors, and critics know how central Kael was to film culture during her time?

RG: I would have loved to talk to Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, but I don’t think they wanted to talk to me. I tried. Spielberg I tried, DePalma I tried. David Lynch I tried. Armond White I tried. Michael Moore I tried (he can’t stand Pauline), Manohla Dargis declined, A.O. Scott didn’t respond (but he wrote a lovely obit in The New York Times when Pauline died). Denby I didn’t approach as I already had several critics, but they were friends, and I think they had a falling out. Some people just don’t like to go on camera, and I respect that.

Not sure about current critics knowing Pauline. Some do. Eric Kohn at IndieWire teaches a class in criticism at NYU, and Pauline is part of his lesson plan. Others have told me the same thing.  But I think unless a critic is steeped in film history—and they should be—they don’t know her, or don’t know her well anyway. I think Pauline’s first five books are just fantastic, great reading for anybody, critic or not. But if you’re a critic who hasn’t read at least one or two of Pauline’s early books, I think you probably need to.

TM: In the film, Molly Haskell says about Kael, “No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline.” Kael was notorious for championing violent films like Bonnie & Clyde, Scorsese’s early film Mean Streets, the films of Brian de Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as sexually controversial films like Last Tango in Paris. She was a feminist by example—speaking her mind, pursuing her ambitions, never compromising in order to be “nice.” But I wonder how/if Kael would engage today’s feminisms and/or the #MeToo conversations. Any thoughts?

RG: You can never say for sure, but one thing about Pauline that seems to hold up pretty well: She didn’t like messages in movies, she didn’t belong to groups, and she was never called a word with an “ist” at the end. I think, yes, she was a feminist by example, but she wouldn’t like to be called one. She did it on her own, in her own way.

She also loved the bad boys—Sam Peckinpah and James Toback, the guys who often shot from the hip, even if people like Toback missed more than they hit, creatively.

As for #MeToo, it’s hard to guess. Toback made a fool of himself and got caught, and I think she would not be on his side in that case, despite her friendship with him. And Harvey Weinstein she might see as a clueless narcissist in the vein of some of our current leaders. Of course, she was a woman, and a very sensitive person, and probably one who in her personal life didn‘t take any shit from men. But I think she was more the aggressor in sex. She did not have many long romantic relationships with men, I don’t think, but most of her friends were men.

I could imagine/hear her often taking the side of the men in the #MeToo debate (she was supposedly a champion debater in high school). I can hear her telling women to wise up—that if a guy is telling you to come back to his hotel room to audition, it’s a bad idea! I can hear her saying that men are naturally predatory when it comes to women—so watch your back! I think she would probably be on the side of men more than women in some of these cases. That’s just my guess. I think she might be on Woody Allen’s side, since she knew him and he didn’t have a pattern as others did. But who knows? Mostly, she didn’t take sides in her life, publicly, on public issues. She does write about the rape in the movie Straw Dogs in an unusual way, expressing feelings of both eroticism and revulsion. That’s a great example of her honesty coming through. And I think if she wrote that review today, she might be plundered.

TM: I’ve read that your interest in making this film began with your own admiration for and enjoyment of Kael’s reviews. But the film doesn’t shy away from giving voice to her detractors, showing the ways in which her sharpness, at the height of her powers, could injure filmmakers and their careers—David Lean did not make a film for 14 years after being eviscerated by Kael both in a review and publicly at a luncheon—not to mention ruffle the feathers of mainstream moviegoers. Would you say that the central tension or conflict of Kael’s legacy is the question of motives?

RG: Not in my book. I know there are many who think she was out to “get” people, but if you read her books, which are made up of her published reviews and essays, they are almost entirely thoughtful, honest, insightful. Hardly ever personal, although she could go there. I think maybe a more central “tension” might be her “rightness” on some of the big movies of her era. Many still get upset about her review of their favorite movie from 40 or 50 years ago. That speaks to who she was, and the power of her pen. I don’t think anyone gets upset about Rex Reed’s review from 50 years ago, or even Vincent Canby’s review from 20 or 30 years ago.

TM: Her supporters describe her as courageous and generous, her enemies as cruel and narcissistic. Her own daughter, Gina James, spoke to what she believed made her mother tick: “She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.” Does the film lean one way or another on the question of Kael’s essential character?

RG: Oh I love Pauline, despite her flaws, because I’m similar to her in some ways. If I love a movie, I’m all in; if I don’t, it’s hard to accept that people don’t see what I see. I’d make a terrible critic. So I can see where she came from, and I can feel for her because I know it wasn’t easy for her. (She also said she couldn’t be friends with someone who disagreed with her on a movie.) She had to avoid people in restaurants, at parties, in the streets. A price she paid. And she was a very outgoing, generous, and magnanimous person. But, I think she believed she was right, always. She believed she knew best and that people should listen to her.

TM: Kael’s unapologetic subjectivity seems to be a point of controversy in any assessment of her criticism: She could forgive one film for the very same flaw that made her love another. She critiqued “auteurism” for its emphasis on the filmmaker’s mark, but then became enamored of de Palma and to some degree Godard. Where do you think we stand now on the spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity in film criticism? Is the “I” of the film critic anywhere near as present in today’s film criticism as it was in Kael’s work? If not, are we better for it or worse?

RG: More than critiquing auteurism in particular she critiqued “isms.” She critiqued belonging to a cabal of thought. She believed in coming to a movie—or a painting or a piece of music or a book or play—with everything you are, with all your experience, and being open to it, not simply looking at it through the lens of a theory. That’s what makes her so fun to read: her windows are open, not half-closed. And she was never “all in” for any one filmmaker. She liked some of DePalma, some of Altman, some of Scorsese. Her job was to criticize, not to be a fan.

I think film criticism is probably much more subjective overall now, partly due to Pauline’s influence, but mostly due to the digital age, where everyone can publish their opinions. Bloggers can be very personal in their “reviews,” and I think this has probably bled over to professional criticism.

TM: Bio-documentaries often explore an interesting or important figure beginning with their childhood and background. What She Said doesn’t linger much on Kael before she became a well-known critic—which is to say there doesn’t seem to be much interest in psychologizing her. Was this your preference/decision, or was it more your sense of what her preference would have been?

RG: That would have been a different movie, much more narrow, and specialized. I wanted to make a film that was an expression. Not an analysis or comparison, or an effort to figure out why she was who she was, and why she wrote those things. I mean, I do think some of that comes through, but I was more interested in showing her work, and how it became part of the culture. My film is just what the title says it is—it’s “what she said,” not “why she said.” I’d be very happy to watch that movie if someone else made it though.

I wasn’t making it for Pauline, or making as I thought she would like it. The movie is my impulses and expression. I guess I’m channeling her, but I’m doing it in a way that pleases me. I just wanted to make her come alive.

TM: Do you think or hope What She Said might bring renewed attention to some of the landmark and classic films of Kael’s time? I know for me, it made me want to rewatch Bonnie & Clyde and all of Altman’s and David Lean’s films, and to watch Christopher Strong and Casualties of War for the first time.

RG: That would be nice. There are so many remakes these days that if you’re really interested in movies, you should know where they came from. Pauline mentioned that a few times—that what seemed new to audiences didn’t seem new to her, partly because she was, one, so well read and knew the great literature before she ever started writing about movies, and, two, knew movies and had seen so much.

One of the many things I found in the research that I learned about Pauline was that she was a voracious reader who went through all the works of so many novelists and poets in her 20s—not just one book, but she would read everything by that author and then move on to another author—and it formed a bedrock for her writing about movies later on.

And it is very fun to watch a movie after reading one of her reviews. She wrote a great review of the Fellini movie Satyricon and wrote about how she thought Fellini was really the good Catholic school boy who loves sex and sin, but who feels guilty about it all at the end of the day. Funny, and she makes you see her view.

TM: This is your first feature film. Tell us a bit about your own career trajectory.

RG: Many false starts, and a lot of plugging away without results. I’ve made my own short films since I was a teenager, and have done other things to make a living—but always working on my own projects and trying to break through with one of them. Writing scripts, developing ideas. This is my first one to break through. I want to make a fiction film that I’ve been working on since before the Pauline movie, and I’m writing a second script that is an out-and-out comedy, which is what I like most.

TM: Any theories on why this one broke through?

RG: I always felt very strongly that this could be a special movie, and I felt completely driven to make it. And I love the movie. That’s probably why it broke through. But also because Pauline is such a compelling figure: complicated, strong, powerful, flawed, but without the brazenness of so many in the movie business. She was like a buddha, in a way, in her certainty. A buddha who loved to drink and smoke and swear and live like a bohemian.

TM: Was it important for you that the film have a theatrical release, given Kael’s strong attachment to seeing movies in theaters, with audiences?

RG: Definitely! That’s what I told my sales agent when they signed on—that I wanted to get a theatrical release because my movie is primarily a “theatrical” movie, in that I tried very hard to make it visual and cinematic. Also because it’s a movie that stirs up a lot of feelings and ideas, and so when people see it in a group, there is always a lot of conversation afterward. But now we’re set to open in 30-plus cities theatrically this winter in the U.S. and Canada, and in more markets internationally. So thank fully my wish came true.

One Sentence at a Time: The Millions Interviews Sion Dayson


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

As a River, Sion Dayson’s debut novel, is set in Bannen, a small town in middle Georgia struggling to overcome the legacy of Jim Crow. The narrative begins when Greer Michaels, the town’s prodigal son, returns to care for his ailing mother with whom he has a tense and strained relationship, due to her traumatic past.

The story shifts between 1977, the year of Greer’s return, and the events leading up to his abrupt departure in 1961, at the age of 16. Through a series of flashbacks that incorporates the voices of Greer’s mother, his father, and his teenage lover, As a River unravels the source of Greer’s family’s secrets along with the tensions that simmer beneath the surface of his bifurcated hometown. Greer’s journey is echoed by the sentiments of Ceiley, the teenage daughter of his childhood neighbor, and the two form a bond as outsiders and knowledge-seekers, eager to finally comprehend the place they come from.

The river in As a River is the Sicama, better known as Snake Creek, a dividing line between East and West Bannen and a central meeting point between characters. In a conversation with Ceiley, Greer describes Snake Creek as having “its own directional pull, seemingly against the dictates of physics.” It’s the type of force that breaks across racial, class, and generational lines, and describes both the unlikely attraction between characters and the strong impulse we feel to protect ourselves and the ones we love.

Dayson spoke with The Millions from her book tour about characters, process, and the passions that drive her writing.

The Millions: As a River takes place in 1977 in Bannen, Georgia. Did you base Bannen on a real-life place? How much research went into the time and setting of the book?

Sion Dayson: Bannen, Georgia, is a fictional town that I created, for the most part, out of whole cloth. Because it was an invented place, I felt a freedom to imagine it into being.

When I began the book, I was playing around with the present time of the novel being in the ’80s. But as the multigenerational aspect of the manuscript started coming into focus, mapping out the longer timeline became more crucial, and certain real-world events in the past served as important touchstones that spurred me to shift the narrative a bit further back.

Settling on the right time period relied on a bit of alchemy between investigation and intuition. Once I circled in on the years that made the most sense for the story, I wove appropriate time markers into the text—Brown vs. Board of Education, the Freedom Rides, the most popular songs playing during the era.

As for the setting, I also wove in certain real-world elements—the flora one would find in middle Georgia, the type of soil where crops grow—but for the most part, I built the town from my mind, one sentence at a time.

TM: The novel weaves together the voices of two characters: Greer is a single black man in his 30s who returns to Bannen to care for an ailing family member. Ceiley is the teenage daughter of Esse, a single mother who grew up with Greer in his old neighborhood. Why did you think it was important to include both narrators instead of focusing on just one or the other?

SD: It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily call Greer and Ceiley narrators. There’s a third person narrator that is most often close to Greer, but it’s also close to Ceiley. Then it also flies briefly to other characters and the narrative even breaks out into certain first-person sections from secondary characters. As human beings, we live in relation to each other. One person’s story never exists in isolation. That’s probably why I have this flexible narration that accesses different people in the story, even if it focuses mostly on Greer as the protagonist.

But you’re right that I saw Greer and Ceiley as a narrative pair. Their unlikely friendship heightens each other’s stories, which have many parallels. Ceiley’s mother claims that she was miraculously conceived. And Greer’s conception was shrouded in secrecy by his mother, though for different reasons. So both characters in a way are confronting how their origin stories shaped their lives.

Greer is returning after having tried to flee his history. Ceiley is a smart, curious teen frustrated by her mother’s seemingly illogical tale. She itches to get out, and her desire to see the world is only magnified by hearing about Greer’s travels. But as the two grow closer, Greer is able to teach Ceiley a lesson that he really needed to teach himself: “You leave this town because you’re angry, leave with unsettled business—believe me, you’ll never really escape it.”

That is, of course, one of the major takeaways of the book.

TM: Silence in families and the effects of desire, especially romantic desire, seem to be key themes in the book. Did these themes come to you organically or do you find yourself drawn to them over and over again?

SD: I think writers have obsessions, and both love and desire are some of mine. I’m also struck by what happens in families, these units that are supposed to be the most primal of connections, yet can lead to such estrangement. What happens in our families is so often the root of our issues and what we have to heal. I’m interested in what people do and do not tell each other. And why.

TM: In the novel, moments of joy or connectivity in relationship are often followed by sobering truths. At a pivotal point in the narrative, Greer chooses to leave Bannen rather than confront the consequences of something he has learned as a teenager. He spends much of his adult life in Paris, London, and Ghana. Why was it important for Greer to leave? Do you think, given the narrative of the novel, that it was possible for him to choose differently?

SD: Greer is a sensitive and caring person. A good man afraid that he’s not. The information that he learns as a teenager rocks his entire foundation. And because he wants to be a good man—but what is right is not always so clear-cut—he’s too overwhelmed to stay through the pain of confronting the consequences of the revelation head-on.

Of course, whether you stay or not, what happens in life travels with you. And so, Greer doesn’t really escape. He’s haunted by the information, even as he leaves Bannen far behind. I don’t think the book would exist without his choice to flee. The crux of the book to me is Greer having to come to terms with what’s happened.

There’s that adage that there are only two plot lines: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. In a way, I feel like Greer encompasses both. The first scenes I wrote centered on Ceiley and Esse. But then Greer came back to town, and I felt a lot of energy as soon as he entered the picture. He, of course, was not a stranger, as Bannen was his hometown. But he was a stranger to Ceiley. His journey is that upon learning devastating information he leaves, only to return years later to face what he had tried to flee.

Just as I’m not someone who really regrets things—we do what we do at the time and then learn from that—the question of whether Greer might have chosen differently doesn’t particularly resonate. His story and the choices he made is what push the narrative.

TM: Ceiley and Greer are united by their love of books and literature. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass serve as connective points between characters. What are some of the works that inspired you in the writing of As a River?

SD: I think whenever a writer sits down to write, she’s approaching the page with the accumulation of all she’s read coming to bear. I also believe that’s how we move through life in general. Art affects us; each piece adds to our understanding and we absorb it into ourselves.

As a River was written over a pretty long period of time so I can’t single out particular works that inspired the book directly. It may sound sacrilegious to say, but reading doesn’t usually inspire me to write. They are two different occupations to me.

For instance, two of the writers I admire most are James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But they’re such geniuses that what I often feel after reading their work is the desire to stop writing. What is even the point when there is already such brilliance I cannot hope to aspire to?

But I needed those works to inform my own work, of course. And I needed the complex sentences and interiority of William Faulkner. I needed the deep empathy for outsiders I read in Carson McCullers. I needed Flannery O’Connor and Randall Kenan and many others, too.

TM: What books, films or authors are you interested in right now?

SD: I am eagerly awaiting The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld. The Child Finder left me breathless, and The Butterfly Girl is a follow-up. Rene is a person whom I admire not only for her gorgeous writing, but also her generous way of participating in the world. She’s a fierce social justice advocate and foster care mother, and she’s turned some of the tough experiences of her life into such beautiful, transcendent outputs. She’s a role model to me.

I’m also awaiting Jackie Shannon Hollis’s This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story. I’m 40 and it’s kind of that last intense period of pondering my life as a woman without children or if I would want to take the leap. Again, it must be me searching for models of how others have tackled the big questions of their lives.

As for films, I watch mostly series, if I watch anything at all. The last perfect series I watched was Fleabag. Nothing has been able to match it for me since. Guess it’s my obsession with love and desire again. What a rich, complicated exploration Phoebe Waller-Bridge made of that terrain!

TM: What do you hope for Greer and for Ceiley, after the narrative arc of the novel is over?

SD: Oh, well that I will never say. I very much want readers to have their own experience and opinion on that. But I do love both of these characters very much so I am obviously rooting for each of them.

TM: In a recent episode of Writer’s Bone with Daniel Ford, you mentioned that the publication of As a River took longer than you expected. What advice do you have for emerging writers, especially those who might consider themselves “late bloomers?”

SD: To keep firmly in mind that writing and publishing are two completely different animals. Do your work the best you can. Ignore other people’s timelines; the only one that matters is yours. Know that finding a home for your book might be long and circuitous—and a lot of it is down to luck, too. Keep building and nurturing your network, not because of what opportunities it might lead to, but because connection is what gives meaning to everything we do. Your champions are out there. You just might not know who they are yet. Be the champions for others, too.

It took me as long to find a publisher as it took me to write the book. While it was a difficult road while I was walking it, I am actually delighted that it’s coming out now as opposed to years ago. I feel like I have more tools today to handle the process. I’m also putting much less pressure on the book than I might have before. Because it became clear that I couldn’t depend on the book coming out, I’ve had to find purpose in other things and redefine success for myself. The fact that the novel is available for people to read now already feels like I’ve hit the lottery. Anything else is just a cherry on top.

As to being a late bloomer, you can blossom anew at any age. To bloom is beautiful, no matter at what stage it happens.

French Novelist Maylis de Kerangal Takes on the Culinary World


The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

“Little by little, his sensations become more precise; at each stage of the preparation they are mobilized as one, coalesced into a single movement, as if the boy himself were being unified; it’s synesthesia, a feast, and now he can cook by ear as well as with his nose, hands, mouth, and eyes. His body exists more and more, it becomes the measure of the world.”

                                                                        -The Cook

Novelist Maylis de Kerangal hails from Le Havre, France. Before publishing her first novel, Je Marche Sous un Ciel de Traîne, in 2000, she worked as an editor in the children and youth department at Éditions Gallimard, one of France’s leading publishers.

Naissance d’un Pont (Birth of a Bridge), de Kerangal’s eighth book, won the Prix Medicis in 2010 and the Prix Gregor Rezzori in 2014. The English translation of her book Réparer Les Vivants (The Heart)—published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and translated by Sam Taylor—was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s Ten Best Fiction Works of 2016 and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize.

Now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, thanks to the indispensable work of Sam Taylor, brings us the translation of de Kerangal’s most recent novel, Un Chemin de Tables (The Cook), which follows the path of a young Frenchman named Mauro as he rises through the ranks of the culinary world while struggling to preserve his identity and integrity as a cook with a singular vision.

Stylistically, de Kerangal’s writing is much like the haute cuisine she so expertly describes: refined, precise—yet utterly divine. Through the eyes of an unnamed female narrator—a friend and discreet admirer of Mauro’s—the novel captures the trials and rewards of a working world evolving with the times.

The Millions: Your descriptions of food, and the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business in The Cook are so specific. Do you have a love for cooking? What was your inspiration for this book?

Maylis de Kerangal: I don’t have a passion for cooking in itself, although I’m interested in what cooking tells about us: about our relationship with our body, our sensuous experience, related to taste and sight, to the ideas of tradition and research. The commensality inferred by cooking attracts me, the idea of the meal as the epitome of “social representation,” and the fact that it has been ritualized. The Cook was published in a collection supervised by the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon and entitled “Raconter la Vie” (Narrative Democracy). It aims at bringing a fictional representation to areas, fields, and particular paths underrepresented in literature. This collection was writing about work, and I chose to write on the work of a cook.

Today, TV sets have become kitchens; in countless TV-reality shows, the kitchen counters are now under the spotlights and the chefs are not mysterious characters working in the shadows and hidden in their kitchens anymore, but stars that appear on the covers of glossy magazines. I wanted to go behind the scenes and discover restaurant kitchens as though they were a part of an entirely new world. I met a young cook who had already worked in numerous restaurant kitchens and was attempting to reach a kind of cooking ideal. His personality and life path really inspired me for this book. I wanted to focus, as in my other novels, on the personal investment involved in one’s work, and the impact it has on their daily lives, with the fascinating yet paradoxical idea that work is at the same time a place where one is dominated and exploited, and a way to find personal fulfillment.

TM: You published five novels in your 30s before your sixth, Birth of a Bridge, was translated into English when you were 42; and all your novels since have been translated into English.  Did this mark a change in your literary career?  If so, how?

MDK: The Cook is my third book translated into English. Un Monde à Portée de Main, my last novel about the art of paintings, illusion, and Paleolithic wall frescoes, is about to be translated as well. Of course, translations have given my books more visibility, and made my literary life denser, regulated by trips abroad, meetings and lectures at universities. But what has changed the most, in my opinion, is my own perception of translation. I used to regard it solely as a highly technical conversion. However, I have quickly become convinced that translators are authors, and that they are “super-readers,” who know the text from the inside, delve into its depths, navigate through its polysemy, but also through its “blanks” and silences. I understood that translation could give me another perspective on my writing, could shed light on other facets, other layers of my fictions. Being translated caused an upheaval in my relationship with language and with my literary work.

TM: To your knowledge, what is the typical trajectory for an author’s literary success in France? Is publishing “late,” or age in general, a part of the conversation in literary circles?

MDK: I do not believe there is a typical trajectory for success—I published my first novel rather late when I was 33, other writers publish younger, others older. This is not a question I hear much about, except the very specific question of the first novel, the first novelist, the appearance of the “young author.” Where the question of age comes in, is in the “generation effects,” the fact that the same generation is crossed by the same questions.

TM: Book-to-film adaptations are sorts of translations as well—translations which you are familiar with, as your book Mend the Living was made into a movie directed by Katell Quillévéré in 2016. What was that experience like, watching your words onscreen?

MDK: Yes, cinematographic adaptations are translations as well. But words aren’t visible on screen, and the writing is lost, the literary writing is overtaken by another language, a cinematographic writing which has its own syntax, its own vocabulary. What is visible on screen is the image of the novel, the image the director keeps in mind, and which is a landscape he remembers and is his only. What is kept in the cinematographic adaptation then has to do with a rhythm, color variations—if a sentence is dark or lighter—with a mental atmosphere, the outlines of the characters, the plot and more than anything else the aim, the purposes, the gesture of the narration—author and director must have a common aim, a “common gesture.” I was very moved by the movie because it was at the same time my novel but also something else, my story and another story. Something had been “moved,” changed. And precisely, it is this shift that is the print of adaptation. And then I thought about these hours spent writing in my attic room and upon seeing that all this work had become a movie, I felt a really strong emotion.

TM: The Cook’s French title, Un Chemin de Tables, while referring to what we call “table-runners,” literally translates to “table path.” I love that play on words—Mauro’s gastronomical life’s journey takes him from country to country, restaurant to restaurant, table to table. Was any travel involved in the research process for this book? Do global influences tend to suffuse your writing?

MDK: I like the exploration, the research process that takes place when I’m writing. For my books, I always try to go and see real places that will appear fictionally. Here, it is Paris, the southwest of France, which I’m familiar with; also Portugal and Berlin. But above all I visited Mauro in the kitchens, and in the restaurants he worked at. The end of the book depicts trips of Mauro to Thailand and Burma where he develops other skills, discovers other products that will impact his cooking. But there, he also feels the limits of an overly technical, exclusive cooking, disconnected from the countries where it is elaborated. He feels that since this prestigious cooking is globalized, it can also be smoothed, standardized, and having access to it is a social marker—due to the circulation of famous chefs in big metropoles and the fact that their names are now brands. The process of globalization—which I am contemporaneous of—worries and fascinates me. I had also written Birth of a Bridge like a “globalized novel.”

TM: I love to hear more about this process that “worries and fascinates” you, and that so clearly impacts your writing. How does your experience being a globalized writer interact with your sense of being a French writer?

MDK: In literature, the ground, the territory of this experience is language. How my own language, the one that has developed, that I have crafted in literary work, has been affected with this process of globalization, and how is it scrubbed by it? It seems to me that I do not envision my French as a conservatory, a reservation, and I consider that my own language is in a certain way an open space, which must be porous to the world around it in order to be able to describe it, to make it alive. However, I work against the very idea of ​​a globalized language, the “globish” that spreads the ideology of economic liberalism. All my writing shows it: peer into my sentences and find foreign words, specific idioms, professional lexicons, orality. It is a way for me to connect “my” French to the globalized world, to relate them. In the same movement, I seek to establish an increasingly intimate relationship with “my” French, in order to enrich it, to activate it totally, to show with ever more sensitivity its singularity. `

TM: “Mauro lived in his workplace—I realized this suddenly—this little room…had robbed him of a buffer between his workplace and his home, had stolen from him those tiny cracks, those hazy intervals, that can open up cavities of daydreams in the hardened concrete time of each day.” As a writer, do your work and your life bleed into each other? What kind of places, physical or mental, do you inhabit while writing?

MDK: I can write anywhere: in trains, coffee shops, kitchens…but mostly in a former maid’s room located 20 minutes away from my home. It is a kind of “airlock” which enables me to “take off” or, on the contrary to “land.” It is a “room of one’s own,” in a commonplace building. The walls are a stormy gray, it faces north and the lighting is matte, but the sky appears here “above the roof,” as in Verlaine’s poem. It is a workshop, a library, an ongoing construction, at the heart of a kind of ecosystem. But mentally, when I’m writing, I live in the world of fiction, of the novel. I imagine, visualize, hear it, and can perceive its vibrations. This place exists only in writing but I try to give an account of it, so that it can be corporeal. It is an avenue that runs along the sea, a volcano, a quarry, a coffee shop, a wave, a city that grows on the banks of a river, a forest. It is also a train compartment, a studio, an operating room. I cautiously separate the time of writing and the living time—full of so many other things! However sometimes the two temporalities mingle and create a continuous timeline where daydream, obsession, and prosaic reality are interwoven.

TM: Your writing style is very understated, almost a cinema-verité approach in its depiction of events that are obviously fictional, and textual. Your background is in the humanities: history, philosophy, the social sciences. Do you feel that these subjects preoccupy your fiction, and influence your writing style?

MDK: The collection Raconter la Vie (Narrative Democracy), in which this book was first published, was resolutely directed towards non-fiction. The authors are mostly researchers in social sciences. I studied humanities and I use these fields to nourish my interrogations on literature, but also to influence my outlook and my writing style. In return, fiction allows me to read reality, and shape it. The relationship with language is immediately determining and the fictional language is infinitely rich and complex. For The Cook, I used particular and professional lexical fields, whole areas of language that aren’t present in literature because they are reduced to a utilitarian use, and are not deemed able to convey beauty and sensibility. They remain exogenous to novels. As if they were in a way the offal of language, as if they weren’t worthy of being literary. I like their poetic beauty, I like to make their strangeness hearable, and I like their precision, which is always political and goes against standardization. Writing becomes then the place of detail, where the color chart of reality can unfold.

The Slow Bloom of ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

When the postwoman delivered Suite for Barbara Loden to my mailbox, I was not at home. I wasn’t even in the country. The book boarded a flight to Paris, then traveled the 400-and-some miles between Charles De Gaulle airport and Roodt-sur-Syre, Luxembourg. I first held Suite for Barbara Loden in my aunt’s living room on Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t until I was back home in New York five weeks later that I began to read this book, which has traveled with me for a while­­; and in a sense, the story it tells has been traveling for even longer.

Nearly 60 years ago, The Sunday Daily News published the story of Alma Malone, a woman from rural Appalachia condemned to life in prison as an accomplice to a robbery. She thanked the judge for the sentence, a detail that inspired Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda. In the film, Loden plays Wanda as she stumbles numbly through a series of difficult situations with what appears to be total complacency: forfeiting custody of her children to her husband, swapping nights on her sister’s couch for strangers’ beds, and, eventually, agreeing to a lover’s scheme to rob a bank.

In her 2011 novel, Suite for Barbara Loden (a brilliant blend of biographical fiction and nonfiction) Nathalie Léger examines how her own life overlaps with Loden’s and Alma’s, through the prism of the filmmaker’s first and only film. An essayistic novel on the complexities of agency versus passivity in the collective female psyche emerges; the product of Léger’s unwavering fascination with Barbara Loden and her mostly overlooked work.

Wanda was hailed as a brilliant display of avant-garde cinema in Europe, and even won the International Critic’s Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. But when the film first premiered in the United States, it was not particularly well received. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote: “Miss Loden’s film, by the time you are through with it, has, rather surprisingly, some of the look of classical moviemaking.” This isn’t ostensibly the opinion piece of a critic ripping a film to shreds–but all the same, note the condescension dripping from the words “Miss Loden,” and “surprisingly.” What laurels Loden received were given with pinches of salt.  What about Wanda captivated Barbara Loden and foreign audiences? And what captivated Nathalie Léger?

“All I had to do was write a short entry for a film encyclopedia,” Léger notes in Suite for Barbara Loden. That entry, which she was once commissioned to write by the editor, blossomed into a slim, yet exquisitely rich novel. She continues: “I try to see beneath Wanda’s lost expression, beyond her forlorn face and the nervous, distracted way she holds herself in front of other people. I’m trying to find everything that she has in common with Barbara.” The expression that inspired Léger can be seen on the book cover, drawn from a film still. Wanda’s hair is gathered in a flowery white headband, her delicate lips are parted. Most striking is her gaze: inscrutable, but the slight dip in her brow suggests fear, and anxiety.

But this is not the story of Wanda. Léger infuses the book with personal elements from her own life, namely the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her father. She writes, “[Wanda] sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.” This is, as Danielle Dutton—editor at the book’s publisher, Dorothy Project—puts it, the “obsessive and archival telling of one woman’s story through another woman’s story.” The Dorothy Project publishes fiction and non-fiction written almost entirely by female authors—similar to their U.K. counterpart, Les Fugitives, which publishes primarily award-winning francophone female writers. I view both of these small presses to be yet another link in what is an ever-expanding string of women who have ushered this story along.

Mid-way through reading, I had to put the book on hold, so that I could watch Wanda. I had to see for myself. With every frame, I thought of Barbara, playing Wanda for the camera–but also Barbara behind the camera, watching herself playing Wanda. A game of mirrors.

Suite for Barbara Loden isn’t just the story of Barbara Loden: It’s the story of Nathalie Léger, and to a certain extent, the story of women everywhere. How better to preserve oneself than to be the author of one’s own vulnerability?

Nathalie Léger first published Suite for Barbara Loden at 52. It is her third book, but her first to be translated into English. Authors can experience a second “bloom” when their work reaches a foreign audience, and that is certainly true of Léger and her work. An excerpt was published in The Paris Review, and the book has also been featured in The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

For this piece, I interviewed Natasha Lehrer, who initially co-translated the book for U.K. publisher Les Fugitives. She provided some insight on the subject: “No English language publisher in either the U.S. or the U.K. wanted to touch Suite for Barbara Loden. It was too odd, too difficult to classify, too non-generic. After [the] Dorothy [Project] published it in the U.S., it kind of went mad.”

The translated work is a remarkable feat of collaboration. Lehrer, a native English speaker, worked with her native French counterpart, Cécile Menon, to convert Supplément à La Vie de Barbara Loden into English. According to Lehrer, “Working together like this we created something with the language that I could never have achieved on my own.”

It was Lehrer who brought my attention to the #namethetranslator hashtag circulating on Twitter. More and more people are beginning to consider the translation of books to be art, rather than what it was long thought of: grunt-work divorced from the intricacies of the original piece. Translators and their supportive readers believe the translator should be central to the design and promotion of the edition—though there is some debate surrounding this point, resting upon the difficulty of judging whether a translation does the job well enough to be credited alongside the author. To learn more, read this article on the subject, or Katy Derbyshire’s take on why one must be forgiving of a translator’s work.

Flaws in translation are inevitable, as there are so many factors to consider, all of which are determined by the translator’s individual interpretation. Lehrer confides just how difficult the process is:
“[T]he intrinsic challenge of translation is maintaining the author’s voice and yet liberating the text from being shackled to it, letting it live and breathe freely. Léger’s style is very literary, very allusive, and very French. You don’t want to sacrifice the very quality that makes it distinctive but you have to avoid sounding arch or pompous. Every word, every comma counts. It’s like filigree work–incredibly finely detailed, but you don’t want any of the effort that went into it to show.”
For the publisher, there is no debate: the translators’ names are boldly displayed on the back cover of the novel. The Dorothy Project, along with Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, deserve credit for enabling a sort of symbolic homecoming for Barbara Loden. Her story in its many forms has traveled from the U.S. to France and back again, like a migratory bird.

Recently, it has even reappeared onscreen. If you are a fan of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you might just catch a glimpse of Suite for Barbara Loden. The second episode opens on the show’s protagonist, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne), waking up in a hangover haze (not unlike the opening scene of Loden’s film, in which Wanda emerges, bleary-eyed, from a mound of sheets on her sister’s couch). The book is a prop, strewn carelessly on the bed, face down, some of it read, if not read entirely.

The show employs the Russian Doll–a woman replicated, miniaturized, and incorporated into a larger version of herself–to symbolize the reincarnation central to its premise. Throughout the season, Nadia dies a number of times only to be resurrected again, on the night of her 36th birthday. Her path is violently circular, while Wanda’s is relatively linear. She moves ever-forwards, though with all the forethought of a somnambulist floating gently towards a cliff.

Alma is Wanda is Barbara is Nathalie is…arguably, the story that ties these women together has had a slow bloom. Through mediums, languages, spaces, it has refracted, and not unlike the Russian Doll, it has grown larger with every fold. This 2018 publication of the novel brings closure to a 50-year saga, coinciding with the height of the #MeToo movement, which has given women everywhere renewed strength through common vulnerabilities. The book lends its voice to this cause, by retracing the lives of so-called “weak” women in bold, by highlighting the strength in simply bearing, if not prevailing.

The original French title called the book a “supplément,” an addition to the life of Barbara Loden. Numerous titles were experimented with over the course of the translation process. Lehrer muses, “One of the most peculiarly interesting things about the act of translation is that often it takes moving quite far away from the original [in order to] to realize how to get close to it again.” And so the English version opts for a slight deviation for the title: “suite” evokes a string of melodies that bleed into one another, a continuum. I wonder where it will go from here.

Bringing ‘All-of-a-Kind Family’ into the World


The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor is still, five decades after its publication, one of the best-known books about American Jewish children. Published in 1951 and describing the lives of five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century, the books—with their descriptions of noisy streets, religious ritual, tasty food, friendly neighbors, and warm, loving home life—made middle-class girls all over suburbia wish they had grown up poor in the tenements of New York City. Girls who read the books don’t forget the sisters’ escapades: Charlotte and Gertie sneaking “chocolate babies” and crackers into bed and covering their sheets with crumbs; Henny dying the white dress she “borrowed” from Ella with tea, to cover a stain; Sarah stubbornly refusing to eat her soup. Publisher Lizzie Skurnick, founding editor of Skurnick Books, who in 2014 reissued the four sequels to All-of-a-Kind Family, called the series “completely singular. They’re the first series about a Jewish family ever, one that’s not only about the family, but about Jewish culture, New York, the turn of the century, vaudeville, polio, the rise of technology.”

Skurnick has called All-of- a-Kind Family the Jewish Little House on the Prairie.

Although the series is considered groundbreaking because of its focus on the lives of Eastern European Jews, little has been written about the books’ author—the dancer, actress, and writer Sydney Taylor. Fortunately, a biography, tentatively called From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman behind All-of-a-Kind Family, by Professor June Cummins with Alexandria Dunietz, is now in the works, and set to be brought out from Yale University Press in the next few years. Much of the information in this article is culled from work recently published by Cummins.

Though readers may not know much about Taylor, the story of the writing of the first All-of-a-Kind Family book is a familiar one. Many of the best children’s books begin as bedtime stories. One evening, Taylor has written, her daughter asked why all the children in the books she read were Christians. Taylor also saw that her daughter, an only child, was sometimes lonely:
When she was a little girl she would say: Mother, I hate going to bed. It’s so lonesome. Won’t you stay awhile?

I would look around the room with its solitary bed, and my mind would go back to my own childhood. Once again I would be living in the flat on New York’s Lower East Side where five little girls shared one bedroom—and never minded bedtime. Snuggled in our beds we would talk and giggle and plan tomorrow’s fun and mischief.
Later, Taylor wrote, she found that her daughter liked the stories she told at bedtime so much that she decided to write them down “especially for her … Satisfied I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.”

But one summer, the story goes, when Taylor was away, her husband unearthed the manuscript. He had seen the announcement of a contest organized by the publishing company Wilcox & Follet. He sent his wife’s manuscript in. In Sydney Taylor’s words:
No one was more surprised than I when I received a letter from Mrs. Meeks, the Children’s Book Editor of Wilcox & Follett, telling me she wanted to publish All-of-a-Kind Family. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told my husband and the whole story came out. Then Mr. Follett telephoned me to say that All-of-a-Kind Family had won the Follett [Award].
This Cinderella story of publishing, which represents the publication of the first book of the series as casual, almost accidental, has been questioned by relatives of Taylor’s, who say that the writer worked on the first novel for at least a couple of years and sent it around to publishers, in hopes that it would be accepted. The more frequently told story suggests that either Taylor or her publishers, in that decade of conformity after the Second World War and before the feminism of the 1960s, did not want to represent the author as a person with literary ambitions.

In any case, what is clear is that, at the late age of 46, after successful careers as an actress and dancer, Sydney Taylor began another, important, long and fruitful career as a writer of fiction for children.

Born Sarah Brennan on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1904, Sydney Taylor was the American daughter of immigrant Jews. The stories in the All-of-a-Kind Family series are smoothed-over, prettied-up versions of the stories she lived with her sisters, whose names, like those of the girls in the series, really were Ella, Henrietta, Charlotte, and Gertrude. 

The Sarah of All-of-a-Kind Family is the sister most readers know best, the one whose eyes we most often see through. She is the middle child, the one who tells the library lady she has lost her library book; who learns how to dust by searching the parlor for hidden buttons; who buys hot chickpeas from a Yiddish-speaking peddler; who falls ill with scarlet fever just before Passover, and later invites the library lady to come see the family Succah. This middle child is a representation of Sydney Taylor herself. In a 2014 talk about Taylor at New York City’s Tenement Museum, Professor Cummins explained that, in the diaries she began writing when she was 14, Sarah Brennan began calling herself Sydney. Professor Cummins sees this name change, this taking on of a new identity, as emblematic of life-long conflicts Taylor experienced. Disliking the way gender roles are assigned in our culture, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a male name; uncomfortable about being Jewish in a mostly-Protestant country, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a recognizably Anglo-Saxon name. Throughout her life as a writer, Taylor received fan letters that addressed her as “Mr.”

Taylor’s parents, Celia Marowitz and Morris Brennan, the Mama and Papa of the series, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1900, along with more than 2 million other Jews who escaped religious persecution and entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. Celia, born in Russia, had lived a middle-class life in the city of Bremen, but Morris was poor, from a town in Poland famous for making brushes out of pigskin and bristle. After the couple married and moved to the United States, and as Morris struggled to find work, the couple experienced a poverty deeper and more painful than Taylor suggests in the children’s books. Cummins says that this period—when Morris began work as a junk seller, when illness ran rampant through cramped tenements, and when the family lived in a four-room apartment—was particularly difficult for Taylor’s mother, because she was used to a middle-class life. (Signs of her more refined tastes can be seen in Taylor’s description of the front room Sarah dusts, with its piano and china knickknacks.)

Soon the family was no longer an “all-of-a-kind” family: Celia Brennan had three boys, one of whom died in infancy. The real Irving’s counterpart enters the world in the last chapter of the first book of the series, as the long-hoped for boy, Charlie. In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, the last book of the series, Mama tells Ella she is pregnant with a baby, whom Professor Cummins identifies as Taylor’s youngest brother, Jerry. Soon the ever-larger family’s finances became stabilized and—just like their counterparts in More All-of-a-Kind Family—they moved into a duplex, in the Bronx, with seven rooms.

Taylor and her siblings were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, experiencing, as the family does in the books, the many rituals of an observant Jewish life, their time punctuated by familiar expressions of reverence, history, and culture. Still, as they grew older, “Syd Brenner” (as she called herself) assimilated into the Protestant world. Throughout her two years of high school and after, Taylor went to parties on Friday nights, worked on Saturdays, ate in non-kosher restaurants, and forgot some of the Jewish holidays. She worked for a while in an office, and during that time, because she was blonde and her co-workers did not realize that she was Jewish, experienced anti-Semitism, often in the form of cruel jokes.

Still, she lived in a mostly Jewish world. After leaving high school in 1916, she took classes in drama and began attending meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League. This was a heavily Jewish organization, the youth affiliate of the Socialist party. The group, which held social get-togethers as well as organizational meetings, believed strongly in democracy, but also worked for a classless society. They argued for the elimination of ethnic and religious discrimination.

At a YPSL meeting, Syd Brenner met Ralph Taylor, and in 1925 they married. That same year Taylor began working as an actress with the Lenox Hill Players. In the last of the All of Kind Family series, the oldest sister Ella joins a vaudeville act, performs on stage, and experiences the difficulties and pleasures of that hard work. Much of this last novel of the series is drawn from Taylor’s experiences with the Lenox Hill Players. In the book Taylor expresses some of the conflict she felt between this not-completely-satisfying career and her desire for a more conventional life with Ralph Taylor.

Still, even after she left the world of acting, Syd Taylor worked. From 1930 till 1935 she performed as a professional dancer in Martha Graham’s first dance troupe. Many of the women with whom she performed went on to become famous in the dance world: Choreographer Anna Sokolow later staged works for the New York City Opera, the Jullliard School, and, at Jerome Robbins’s urging, for the Inbal Dancers in Israel. Sophie Maslow, who danced alongside Taylor, later created the company New Dance Group, dedicated to using dance to making social and political statements. Like Taylor, many of these dancers were the children of poor Russian Jewish immigrant families.

In 1935, after giving birth to her only child, Jo, Taylor decided to stay home. When Jo was 7, Taylor began working as a dance and drama teacher at the Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) Camp in Port Jervis, New York, where she was known as Aunt Syd. Her sisters worked there, too: Ella as costume designer, Henny as dining room supervisor. Book lovers like their fictional counterparts, Syd, Ella, Henny, Charlotte, and Gertrude also established the Camp Cejwin library, which some claim is the first camp library ever created. By this time Ralph (who, as Uncle Ralph, also helped out at Camp Cejwin) had become president of Caswell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, and the Taylors’ political views had softened. Still, Professor Cummins says, a photograph of Eugene Debs hung on the wall of their home.

Time rolled along, but Taylor had not completely forgotten the answer she always gave when people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite her interest in the stage, in politics, and in dance, she had always responded that she wanted to become a writer.

In Lower East Side Memories, her history of what she calls “an American Jewish sacred place,” Dr. Hasia Diner describes how influential All-of-a-Kind Family was in presenting a romanticized version of the neighborhood to the rest of the world. She explains how, in Milwaukee and San Antonio and Chicago, little Jewish girls, who had never seen representations of their ethnicity in books before, read All-of-a-Kind Family and felt that they were coming home. She suggests that the setting of the book was particularly powerful because so much of European Jewish life had recently been lost in the war. Also, as second-generation immigrants, Taylor’s generation had moved far away from the busy area, out of the city, to places of “lawns and wide-open spaces.” Taylor reminded her peers of a place like the places where they grew up, where the streets were mean but the people were sweet. In her descriptions of the outdoor marketplace in the heart of the city, Taylor “took readers on a sensory journey to a realm of distinctive sounds, smells, tastes, and sights.” On Taylor’s Lower East Side, Diner tells us, no one needed to be embarrassed of their Jewishness, and American patriotism existed side by side with Jewish life.

It was partly the editing of the book that made that combination of Jewishness and Americanness clear. Cummins describes how the children’s books editor Esther Meeks “politely but firmly insisted on several significant changes” to the manuscript Ralph Taylor had sent in to the contest. Meeks encouraged Taylor to emphasize the relationship between Charlie and Kathy, two of the few Christian characters in the first book. Meeks strongly suggested that Taylor add a chapter in which the family celebrates the Fourth of July, writing, “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.” Cummins also points out that Taylor “never once” mentions that Mama and Papa were born outside of the United States. Though other characters have Yiddish accents, Sydney Taylor’s Mama and Papa do not.

The book that came of these edits, out of her daughter’s questions, out of her yearning memory of the place and time of her childhood, was the best that Sydney Taylor ever wrote. She followed it with the four sequels and five other children’s books, the last two published after her death in 1978 at age 73. After her death, her husband Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award. It is presented every year to the author of an outstanding book for children and teens, that authentically portrays the Jewish experience.

In 1981, Sydney Taylor’s sisters came together at Camp Cejwin to watch campers perform a play version of All-of-a-Kind Family. The elderly sisters—Ella, Henny, Charlotte and Gertie—sat in the front row together and watched children perform a story of their lives.

A Book for the Moment: On Helen Weinzweig’s ‘Basic Black with Pearls’


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

In our current moment, a chorus of “nasty women” has flooded social media with grievances.

Unfortunately, these grievances recur with grim regularity. But even before modes of communication expanded and modernized, storytelling was the constant, the vehicle to voice oppression. Fiction has always been a means for coding muzzled, transgressive complaints.

Codes play both a literal and metaphoric role in Basic Black with Pearls, a brilliant midcentury novel by Canadian Helen Weinzweig. The book has just been reissued by New York Review Books, with an illuminating afterword by Sarah Weinman.

Born in 1915, Helen Weinzweig emigrated from Poland to Canada at age 9. She was raised in poverty by a single mother in Toronto. As a child she spent two years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium—where books became her best companions—and at age 17 was reunited with her estranged father in Milan. Their meeting resulted in something close to a kidnapping, in which he didn’t allow her to leave for months, a trauma reflected in a strange interlude in Basic Black. She never saw her father again.

In 1940, Weinzweig married the most prominent Canadian composer of his day and spent her married life in service to his career. “At first Helen stuck to traditional roles of muse, helpmeet, mother of sons, housewife,” writes Sarah Weinman. Helen’s husband “was the creative force, the one whose art needed the space for nurturing. (‘Both John and I lived his career,’ she once said.)” Weinzweig published her first novel at age 58. Given her mastery of the form, it is tempting to speculate that in a different era, she might have been able to take her writing seriously at an earlier age.

Basic Black concerns a “traditional” Toronto woman, Shirley, married with two children, whose clandestine liaisons with a man code-named Coenraad take place around the world. Coenraad works for an American spy agency and divulges where Shirley can find him (Kyoto, Tikal, Montreal, Scandinavia, for example)—through a series of clues in National Geographic magazines that only Shirley can decipher.

The novel opens with Shirley’s first decoding failure. She has flown to Guatemala for an assignation, and Coenraad has not materialized. “Night comes as a surprise in the tropics,” she begins. “There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” She returns reluctantly to Toronto, her hometown, where she relives her stark childhood: “The city is mined, for me, with the explosive devices of memory.”

Shirley continues her quest for Coenraad in Toronto, testing the limits of her intuition. She recounts their trysts with specificity and longing, Coenraad’s elusiveness a persistent trope:
When he was in danger, he told himself, if I get out of this alive, I will never let her [Shirley] go. But of course he did. Over and over. Still, I have become accustomed to waiting. It’s not so bad: I always have something to look forward to.
On one level, Basic Black is an exploration of relationships and their failures. Shirley’s early love for a boy named Max, for example, is broken up by his mother. Later, Shirley hears he has been injured diving and is confined to a wheelchair:
[If Max’s mother] had left us alone then Maximilian need not have broken his back and I need not have married a man who reminded me of him. Zbigniew. The fault is not his. …Zbigniew has done nothing wrong. He never breathes in my face. The fault is not his that I cannot look into his unclouded eyes, that I cannot meet the gaze that once commanded a squadron…Any agitation on my part brings to the bedroom two men in white.
Shirley considers Coenraad the perfect lover, but their relationship is not without its ups and downs:
I am forced to contrast our meetings in cold climates with those of warm zones. In countries around the equator our love is at its hottest. …Everything we eat is spiced with aphrodisiacs. We have never had a harsh word in São Paulo or Rangoon or Palermo. Nor do we speak about matters that might cast a shadow across our sun: about hungry men, dying women, disfigured children; about arrests at night and executions at dawn. …In the colder regions something goes wrong…we quarrel easily. …In Stockholm, he was so easily irked and I so quickly wounded, that he sent me to Edinburgh ahead of schedule.
Coenraad’s views on the relationship are more muted:
Coenraad said, Lucky for me I didn’t know you years ago. And I, weak-kneed and seated replied, Oh but I wish we had! My life would have been fulfilled! Exactly, he replied, you would have been fulfilled, but I would never have amounted to anything.
Shirley examines her encounters with Coenraad from multiple angles, as if she were selecting choice fruit from a market. She places her meetings with him within a broader canvas. Hearing Greek music, she wonders:
Did Theseus abandon Ariadne because he no longer loved her; or, as one legend claimed, because his ship was blown out to sea?

On another level, Basic Black is a tour of loneliness with strong feminist overtones. She considers what happens to women who are prevented from reaching their educational and professional potential, who are forced by societal norms or economic necessity into loveless marriages and involuntary child rearing. The harsh loneliness in Basic Black resonates with Stoner’s isolation in the eponymous novel by John Williams, and with the brutal singlehood of Anita Brookner’s heroines, who lack the chance at love for which Shirley grasps.  Shirley finds herself surrounded by loneliness:
I began to notice that there were others like myself, as one with crutches is aware of those similarly crippled. I passed an old woman in a tweedless coat and galoshes with metal buckles; I passed a Chinese boy in a quilted black silk jacket; I passed a curly-haired teenager who, despite the cold, revealed nipples under a sheer blouse, I passed a man who must have just come off the boat. …There were more. We solitaries came towards one another, passed…
Basic Black also interrogates broader issues such as war, cultural displacement, fantasy versus reality, sanity versus insanity, light versus shadow. Weinzweig brings the full range of artistic tools to her writing, deploying a rich set of metaphors that resonate on multiple planes. Through metaphor she reflects the joys and heartache of human interaction, the impossibility of absorbing life’s challenges:
Music, it is said, is the perfect art. It, too, is an abstraction, at the very least, of vibrations, of wavelengths, of such and such frequencies, of so many overtones, of semitones and quarter tones; yet none of these components, as with fragrance for a wasp, accounted for the rising tension I felt as I listened to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies…

…the music is sad, life is sad, the plight of all lovers is sad, but here we are, in the dance, the music urges us on, faster, faster, yet there is no hurry, we can dance our lives away.
In addition to these broad themes, Weinzweig layers her personal history beneath the narrative. She explores the world of her childhood—left behind—“In Yiddish a man who kills your feelings is the same as a murderer.” She considers the world of her adult, married life: “I have deduced from Coenraad’s indifference to certain domestic gestures that I have made from time to time that it goes against the grain of romantic love to bring to it the trappings of marriage. When we are together no stockings hang, no shirts drip; no water boils, no bread is buttered.” Finally, she explores the world she would have her heroine, and perhaps herself, inhabit: “After a while I felt I was walking in forbidden territory; I had a sense of danger that comes when one asks why is there no one here but me?”

Basic Black with Pearls unfolds with the deliberate elegance of a budding flower. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say that Weinzweig so fully immerses the reader in Shirley’s mind that it is too late by the end to question the veracity of what has come before. With this expert sleight of hand, Weinzweig delivers a masterpiece of compressed/repressed emotion. Her economy of expression is breathtaking. In less than one hundred and sixty pages, Weinzweig covers the world, while simultaneously remaining laser-focused on who and what Shirley is. Shirley, too, has a code name with Coenraad, which is Lola Montez. But as it turns out, she is far more complex and nuanced than her alter ego.

With its quiet, luminous intensity, its relentless questioning of how a woman should be, Basic Black with Pearls is a book for this moment.

Post-40 Bloomers: Marcie Rendon Creates Mirrors for Native People


The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

What is now recognized as the “first Thanksgiving” took place nearly 400 years ago, in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrim settlers sat down together for a three-day feast. The Thanksgiving meal is still central to the occasion today, but we also connect it to a range of other associations—from football to potentially challenging conversations with family to the encroachment of Black Friday. There’s no doubt the holiday has changed. Yet, for some, the image of Native people has not.

When Marcie Rendon was a child, the only representations she saw of her community were set in a distant past that had no bearing on her present reality. Her debut novel Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award, tackles that issue head-on by introducing readers to a young Native woman who is very much an inhabitant of the 20th century.

Renee “Cash” Blackbear is a 19-year-old farm laborer and pool shark who finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery. Having entered the foster system as a child, Cash has a long history with the local sheriff, who is happy to have her help investigating the death of an unfamiliar Native man. Désirée Zamorano wrote in the LA Review of Books: “Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative. The first is that of a dead Indian found stabbed in his chest without money or ID; the second is that of Cash’s life, and how she came to be a cue-stick-slinging farm hand, playing pool and sleeping with her married lover.”

This is Rendon’s first novel, and her children’s book, Pow Wow Summer, was reprinted in 2014. She is a recipient of the Loft’s Inroads Writers of Color Award for Native Americans. Rendon generously agreed to talk with Bloom about Murder on the Red River and her writing process.

Ericka Taylor: Are you a reader/fan of the murder mystery genre? Who are some of your influences in this genre?

Marcie Rendon: Yes, I read murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and action thrillers—what I call airport novels. I have been a longtime reader of Stephen King. In my opinion he is the ‘best’ storyteller. The other authors I gravitate to are John Sanford, Lee Child, and the Kellermans. After reading one book of Henning Mankell’s in his Wallander series, I went online and ordered them all and binge read them all. I love King as a storyteller: the first time I visited Maine I “remembered” being there and had to remind myself I only thought that because of reading King. Sanford’s books are easy to read, even while taking you on a roller coaster ride of murder and chaos. I think (though I don’t know because I’ve never talked to him) his writing is so good because he is a journalist. There isn’t a lot of “extra”—which I find time consuming and annoying—in his writing. I want the story.

ET: Murder on the Red River is not a typical murder mystery in that Cash has access to clues and investigative tools unavailable to (or, at least not often used by) traditional law enforcement. She doesn’t only use her dreams and visions to guide her, but also eavesdrops on suspicious conversations and tails potential suspects. How did you decide when to apply the various skills Cash has at her disposal?

MR: My writing process is character driven not “format” or “outline” driven so the story evolved as the character evolved. The skills Cash used were determined by the situation she found herself in.

ET: What was most clear to you about the character Cash, then, when you started the novel? What traits and experiences evolved as you wrote? Did you “discover” things about her as you wrote? If so, anything surprising?

MR: Cash, the character that appeared was, and continues to be, very compelling and insistent on where the story is going. There is the tough bar girl but underneath all that is the vulnerable young woman who survived a lot growing up. She is very smart, both intellectually and with common sense. When I re-read parts of the book I notice how detached she is from much of the heartbreak in her life. In today’s world she would be diagnosed with PTSD.

ET: Place is prominent in the novel, and you really ground the reader in both the history and geography of the region. The only chapter headings in the book refer to the setting, based first in Fargo on the North Dakota side of the Red River and then in Moorhead on the Minnesota side. The Red Lake Reservation is also a key location. Could you tell us about your decision to make place central to the book and what you were hoping it would evoke?

MR: I grew up on the edges of the White Earth Reservation, in and around the Red River Valley, so it is country and landscape that is home to me and is familiar to me. As Native people we have never left our homeland, we are home—so place is our experience on this continent. We know who we are, and where we are from. We are not newcomers to the idea that the Earth is a living entity. It makes sense that in my writing the land is as much a character as the human characters. Prior to European contact, the state lines we know as they exist in the United States did not exist in Native worldview. I believe the same is true for many farmers. They farm the land and have a relationship with the land and the weather and changing seasons. The place settings of North Dakota side and Minnesota side of the Red River were included to help the reader understand the current demarcation between the two states, the two cities of Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River as the dividing line.

ET: Are there also metaphorical/thematic ideas embodied in that dividing line?

MR: As always, one can conjecture the divisions and boundaries that exist because of gender, class, and race. There are lines that we can use to divide us or there are rivers and fields of life that sustain us all. I think as humans we need to decide which is important to us—the divisions or the sustenance.

ET: When you set out to create this mystery, did you already know whodunit, or was that something you discovered through the writing process?

MR: I knew at the beginning that it was a non-Native person who did the killing. I learned as I wrote the number of men involved in the situation and their reason for doing so.

ET: Can you say more about that, i.e. the murderer was a “type” of person before an actual person with motives—what was your interest in establishing that from the outset?

MR: This story called for this “type” of person to have done the dirty deed. In another story, it could easily be the other way around; or another type of person completely; i.e. a woman killing a man. This story just happened to call for this particular situation. I have a short story that will be published in an upcoming Sisters In Crime anthology here in Minnesota. The murderer in that story is a young, pre-teen, Native girl. I guess for me it all depends on where the muse takes me or asks to be taken.

ET: Cash suffered the horror of being raised in foster care with white families who saw her not as a child, but as free labor. How much did exploring that phenomenon, which shifted a bit with the 1978 passing of the Indian Child Welfare Law, shape the timeframe (1970s) in which you set the story?

MR: Cash is the one who set the time and place for the story to occur. I, as a Native writer, was not exploring the phenomenon of foster care when I was writing. I was just writing a story, what to my mind was a murder mystery. It was during the editing process when my editor started asking questions about the foster care story in the background that I also realized, yes, that story was there. It is a story that is so much a fabric of the existence of Native people during that time in history that I wasn’t even aware it was something I was writing about. This was “normal” during that time.

ET: Would you say that the editorial process made you more “audience aware”? And if so, how else did that awareness shape the editing/revision process.

MR: In the editing process I became more cognizant of cultural differences, knowledge bases, and perceptions. Years ago I wrote a play about Sacajawea. During the research necessary for the writing of that play I realized that Sacajawea never had her story told. The story that is told is Lewis and Clark’s story—and as white men who had a written language, everything that has been written about Sacajawea has been written from their white, male perception, not from the mind and heart of a 12 year old girl-child, stolen, raped, beaten and then used as bait to cross the continent. We would know a totally different version of her story if She had had a written language, a way to record Her story. All that to say . . . as my wonderful editor Lee Byrd worked with me, she was able to direct me to places where I was writing from a Native-centric worldview that not all non-Native people have been exposed to, and there were places to expand a bit so the non-Native reader would have a better understanding of the overall story.

ET: Do you generally think about or concern yourself with who you’re writing for?

MR: My primary goal as an Ojibwe woman writer is to create mirrors for my people. My hope is that I am writing stories that everyone can enjoy.

ET: Although Cash is a work of fiction, she, like her creator, has an interest in poetry. Are there any other similarities that you and Cash share?

MR: I used to shoot pool, love shooting pool. And as mentioned previously, I grew up in the Red River Valley.

ET: Is it as uncommon as it seems in the novel for a woman to be so good at and involved in pool culture where you grew up?

MR: I think in the Native community there are fewer gender stereotypes. Women shoot pool, play baseball or softball. There are a good handful of Native American boxers. In this story Cash is the pool shark. If Cash spent more time on any of the nearby reservations I am sure she would encounter other Native women who would give her a run for her money at the tables.

ET: You’ve talked about the importance of making sure Native youth see current Native images, rather than only seeing reflections of themselves that exist in the past. How much does that desire shape your writing projects? Were you exposed to literary images of present-day Native Americans in your youth?

MR: As a child, it was next to impossible to find a book that featured Native people who were not the stereotypical Indians on the Plains, riding horseback and wearing a headdress. And that is who was featured in movies and on TV. With the exception of learning false stories about Pocahontas and Sacajawea in Social Studies classes Native women weren’t mentioned at all. So one of my primary goals in all my writing is to create mirrors for Native people to see themselves.

ET: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a poet, playwright, and author of children’s books. Do you feel more drawn to one form over another?

MR: I do write a lot of poetry and someday will find a publisher for a book of poems. To date most are in various anthologies featuring Native women poets. I do wish I had more time to devote to writing plays. To see characters brought to life on stage is very fulfilling. But I love to write—I love the stringing of words together to create image, story, and life.

ET: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have an established routine where you write at a certain time every day or is it more catch as catch can? Do you prefer to write by hand or on a computer?

MR: In this day and age, I only write at the computer. I am contemplating, but haven’t tried it yet, dictating into the computer to see if that would be a faster process than my fingers. When I am deep, mentally deep, into a story, I aim for somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words a day. I often will stop writing mid-sentence. In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he talks about an author who wrote for exactly 30 minutes every day and then stopped—even if in the middle of a sentence. This works for me. I can pick up the idea where I left off. And I write on that story, book, article until I’m finished, or feel like I’m finished with it. I know authors who have a favorite time of the day to write. I think because I have spent so much time as a freelancer, doing work on deadlines, I no longer have a “favorite” time to write. I do need quiet. No TV, no radio, no lawnmower next door. And I absolutely love the opportunity to leave my home for two to three weeks, go to an apartment or cabin away from everyone I know and everything that can pull at my attention; and then I can really crank out the work.

ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40. You’ve said you especially encourage other Native writers and writers of color to follow their passions when they emerge and not wait as long as you did to become a writer. You, for example, initially thought you were going to be a therapist. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey and what compelled you to pursue writing?

MR: I have been writing since I learned how to write. But no one ever told me that I could make a living as a writer, or that writing was a legitimate career choice. At the time when I was going to college we were told to get degrees in law, medicine, social work or teaching so that we could “go back home and work for our people.” So I got a degree in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and American Indian Studies and worked for years in Native prison programs and worked as a therapist. And I would write short stories, poems, etc., and stuff them in a drawer. I reached a point where I said to myself, “What I really want to do is write” and I set out to do that. After a year of writing I thought, “I have three children, I better make some money at this.” And that is when I set out to get paid to do writing. I have supported my family since 1991 on my writing. This has included children’s books, writing-work for hire, newspaper journalism, plays, poems, some teaching of writing. Basically, any or all writing that would pay the bills.

We need to tell our stories—because if we don’t tell our stories our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to read stories written by others about us—and the nuances of who we really are as a people will be lost in the translation.

What I would say to folks over 40 – It is never too late, never. If you have a story inside you burning to be written, write it! And then submit, and submit and submit. Don’t obsess about rejection or perfection—just write and submit. To quote my dear friend and author Aurora Levins Morales, “…my mother encouraged me, advising me to not be perfectionist, and go ahead and write a B book instead of an A+.” Take those risks, never tell yourself no, or that it is too late, just get at it.

ET: Given your own journey, are you involved in mentoring young writers at all?

MR: I teach poetry in the county jails in the metro area here in the Twin Cities. About four to six times a year, a writing partner and myself go into the county jails for two weeks, every evening and teach poetry and help the women create a book of their work. That is the most direct, hands on mentoring I do. The other is mostly encouraging folks to write and to seek publication. I always share writing opportunities and information about them with other aspiring Native writers and women writers.

ET: What writing are you working on now?

MR: I am working on the second Cash book, a teen book, and hopefully will get to finish my play about a serial killer very soon.

We Are All The Same; Our Fates Are Not: On Matthew Weiner’s ‘Heather, the Totality’


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

The buzz around Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, began nearly a year ago, with the news of its acquisition by Little, Brown.  Such is the advantage of debuting as a novelist after having created, helmed, and written many episodes for the cultural phenomenon that is Mad Men.  What we learned last year was that the novel’s inception traced back to a note in Weiner’s notebook about an unsettling interaction he’d observed while walking in Manhattan: “It was a little story where I was like, ‘I wonder what that is; maybe I’ll use it sometime.’”  The “little story” involves Mark and Karen Breakstone, an affluent couple living on the Upper East Side; their daughter, Heather, as she grows into adolescence; and Bobby, a young man from a poor area of New Jersey, recently released from prison.

It’s interesting to consider that, apart from TV, Weiner has written mostly poetry and plays; and to note Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judith Clain’s comment that “He’s really literary.”  I myself have written and spoken about Mad Men’s “novelistic” qualities—how we follow a large cast of characters over time, witnessing both the external (cultural) transformations and internal (psychic and emotional) ones that make for a satisfying dramatic experience.  And yet, with Heather, we see Weiner exercising alternative creative muscles: he crafts story and character using primarily a narrative tool unavailable to or little used by the TV writer, poet, or playwright; and that is interiority.

What’s more, Weiner uses this tool with such balletic intentionality—the effect of which is as unsettling as it is compelling—that my consciousness of him as “award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner” fell away quickly as I read.  Heather, the Totality—a slim volume that moves swiftly through time and incisively into the minds of its four principle characters—totally absorbed me.

I suspect however that mine may not be the unanimous or even prevailing experience; it would not surprise me, in fact, if responses to Weiner’s debut were somewhat polarized.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am no book reviewer.  Which is to say, I like what I like when I like it.  I also change my mind and cannot imagine otherwise/would be terrible at the job of making definitive pronouncements about the quality of a work and imposing those pronouncements authoritatively upon The Culture.  When recently I was asked to judge a literary award, I accepted on the basis that there would be four others (and thus I could judge unapologetically as myself—as we all would, I presumed).  During the process, a friendly conflict arose among us: the basic question of what makes for “excellent prose”—what makes a sentence arresting (or even competent), how does the writer wield language for optimal effect.  Some of us were drawn to and praised terse, plain prose. Others found this prose flat and amateur.

It is a large nose which cannot be hidden.  In addition, his teeth are bad.  Are these good sentences?  Bad ones? I think they are rather virtuosic—teeming with tension and narrative presence via an exterior glimpse.  They plod along and surprise us, despite ourselves.  (Why would a nose need to be hidden?  If it cannot be hidden, the wearer of it must be at some disadvantage, a particular vulnerability.  “In addition” puts a nail in some sort of coffin; what sort of death are we talking about? What permanent status of badness, of denial or dissatisfaction?) Both sentences beg the question, “From whose perspective?”, which is the real mastery here: the reader is inside the layered perspectives of character, narrator, and author all at the same time.

These are not sentences our committee judged, nor those of Matthew Weiner; but rather they belong to the late James Salter, to whom Weiner presented the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.  Weiner said of Salter, “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.”  I am struck by how aptly these words apply to Heather, and by the ways in which the prose styles of both authors—with their plain, seemingly flat surfaces—both efface and suggest so much.  And as is the case with both Salter’s and the prose our committee judged, Weiner’s ostensibly homely sentences may excite both passionate fans and ardent detractors.

This intentional flattening is evident also in Heather’s structure: narrative shifts from character to character, along with movements forward and backward in time, occur in a seemingly lateral manner: transitions are not marked or flagged other than by a new paragraph.  In addition, paragraphs are uniformly half-a-page to a page in length, mostly expository.  The “camera” pans smoothly, along the perimeters of a quadrilateral story frame and dipping into each of its four character’s viewpoints.
Before they left [Mark and Heather] quickly made a beaded necklace for Karen so she would not feel left out. Mark and Karen got drunk and did it [had sex] again that night while Heather slept in the next room and it was somehow less, but followed by a whispered conversation about how long they’d been together and what a miracle Heather was.  The last day the three of them sat far from the breakfast buffet, overlooking the man-made lagoon, so conspicuously happy that a passing woman insisted she take a picture for them.

While the Breakstone family was on vacation, Bobby was laid off from the lumberyard.  He was told he would get his job back and they had let everyone go for a few weeks only to rehire them to avoid some labor laws and he was happy to spend some of the money he’d been earning or maybe go somewhere.  But his Mother had broken up with her latest and Bobby agreed to give her a loan so she could feed her habit, knowing full well he would never see the money again. It didn’t matter because where would he go anyway and wandering around Harrison and Newark would be fine in the spring before it got sticky.
Here the narration contrasts The Breakstones as a unit with lone Bobby; more typical in the novel are longer sections narrated through the eyes/emotions of Mark, Karen, and Heather individually, as in Bobby’s second passage above.  But in this brief example we see Weiner’s method of flat surfaces—dispassionate clauses belying emotionally loaded statements, and strung together by conjunctions. Weiner also achieves interesting prose textures by dipping into characters’ voices—melding and layering third-person and first-person narration: what a miracle Heather was; where would he go anyway.

In the language of writing classes, Weiner is constantly “showing” us his characters’ deepest disturbances, but in the guise of “telling” us what’s happening externally or what characters are feeling in the most simplified terms.  Shades of Ernest Hemingway, yes; but it’s the four-perspective, merry-go-round effect that not only reminds us, but creates an actual experience, of just how distant we are from each other when we are ostensibly very much “together.”  These slides from perspective to perspective demand the reader to keep moving, to participate actively in both pivots and permeability.  One can imagine an editor asking the author to go easier on the reader, provide signals or chapter breaks that allow for full stops and restarts. I like to imagine Weiner refusing absolutely.

The Matthew Weiner of Mad Men makes himself known in Heather via sharp and complex character insights. Weiner’s eye for fine, particular details transforms the Type that each character initially incarnates into a real human being.  Mark Breakstone is an above average corporate banker, disappointing (insufficiently athletic) son of a high school football coach, lean bodied and chubby faced, with a dead sister (an anorexic who starved herself) haunting the edges of his existential solidity.  His ambition is to make “at least enough [money] for a country place and one of those awards people got for being generous.”  Mark wins over Karen—a good catch who “had no idea how beautiful she was”—on their first date by saying, earnestly, “People don’t get me sometimes.”  In addition to beautiful, Karen is professionally capable: “Deeply behind the scenes, she booked travel and appearances for authors and editors and after once covering for her boss with a perfectly purchased apology of handmade chocolate and ash-striped cheese, she began to design themed gift baskets so specific and exquisite that many urged her to start her own business.”  Karen has limited enthusiasm for her work however, and,
Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother she was pleasantly excited.
Karen likes that Mark makes big money.  She also does like Mark.  Weiner is careful, with both Mark and Karen, to hew the line of messy motives when it comes to love and money: we understand that they both have and have not built every aspect of their lives, and their marriage, on the assurance of wealth.  As with all the characters in Mad Men, it is tempting but not-so-easy to either judge or dismiss them.

Bobby—who in the second half of the novel joins the construction crew that renovates the Breakstones’ apartment building—comes from poverty, neglect, and addiction.  Bobby’s character manifests a precarious if familiar cocktail of intelligence, inflated self-perception, and pent-up physical intensity.  In the case of this outsider figure, Weiner presents the facts of his transgressive behaviors matter-of-factly, but also details Bobby in a way that destabilizes both the reader’s, and the other characters’, inclination to dehumanize him: “It was the first time Bobby was in jail and he kept to himself and even got some antibiotics for where the ashtray cut his head, which was already infected.”  At a moment toward the end of the novel, when the reader has likely written Bobby off as villainous and unhinged, obsessed with possessing/vanquishing teenage Heather, we get:
He could never go back to school but was good at saving money and he could get Heather a house, no a home.  She was born rich, so her parents would never want to see her go without and so they would help them out, and happily, because Bobby would be working his hardest and everyone respected that.
Weiner does risk failing to transcend Type with each character—Bobby’s down-and-out backstory, Karen’s Manhattan-mom vanities, Mark’s wounded masculinity, Heather’s millennial do-gooder perfection—and at times he falls a hair short.  There are moments when the authorial voice limits characters to their prescribed corners of this squared universe.  But what saves these moments from addling the novel as a whole is the way in which Weiner’s flattened structure and style begin to pay off thematically: if characters themselves feel intermittently flat, the depiction (I believe) is part of the larger intention, i.e. to expose our shared, primal tendencies to self-preserve, oversimplify, take the shortcut, project and misunderstand, possess others for our own needs and purposes.  We recognize the essential democratizing force of the novel’s form when it comes to “the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone.”

Tensions mount as Mark’s paternal-protector instincts morph perilously into energized irrationality; Bobby and Heather misread each other in perfectly, dangerously inverse fashion; Karen’s self-absorbed (arguably “feminist”) concerns about Mark shoot so far off the mark, she misses the signs that lead them all to climactic disaster.  Our path to this climax exposes perhaps a bit of Weiner’s TV-writing impatience. We sense for example there is more to Mark’s inner makings and outward journey that would knock him so far and so fast from civilized man to all-instinct brute; and I craved this deeper, slower development.  The nature and degree of disconnection between Mark and Karen too—as parents of such a beloved child, potentially in danger in these final pages—strains credibility.  In its swiftness and manipulation of key moments of character intersection, the ending’s big events, their chilling finality, fall just shy (an itchy, so close kind of shy) of a satisfying inevitability.

But the facts of the ending—each character’s fate—resonate resoundingly and along multiple vectors of complexity.  In Heather we see clearly, disturbingly, how universally fluid and messy is human development and moral character, across social class and background.  Weiner’s scalpel-like access to each character’s interiority reveals their civilized and uncivilized selves, trading and warring from moment to moment: here, Bobby both fantasizes and enacts violence, there he dreams reasonably of the placid, domestic future anyone deserves; similarly—too similarly—Mark and Karen each oscillate between reaching for some version of noble love on the one hand and indulging the persistent underside of possession and self-compensation on the other.  Heather’s equalizing form speaks volumes toward its moral center—we are all essentially the same; our fates are not—thus the novel’s success lies in its deceptive orderliness. The story disturbs, sentence by sentence, with incisive intention.  Based on Weiner’s existing fan-base, one can anticipate its likely audience, i.e. those who would seem to share more in common with the Breakstones than with Bobby.  In this sense the novel transcends the status of a mere sleek, domestic thriller, and contributes meaningfully, unexpectedly, to resistance.

Reading My Mother’s Mind: On Packing Up a Personal Library


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest?

Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother.

It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time.

Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency.

So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means.

Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her 10-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket.

Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age, mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me.

Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey’s Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind.

In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses.

For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked.

But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage?

In his recent family memoir, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky.

The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx’s handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Friedrich Engels, an early 16th-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes.

The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism.

Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls:
What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled:
From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos.
And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well.

I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design, and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items.

And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops.

And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them.

In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds.

But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them.

So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from U-Haul, and dropped them off at her local library, five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover.

I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love;” a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was.

My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of 20,000 books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s.

But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access.

My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, my mother’s library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain.

And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers.

Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Doing What Is Right: The Millions Interviews Jade Wu


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

I am the parent of an avid Marvel fan, and this has led me to serendipitous comic and TV discoveries—which is how I stumbled upon the world of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. With Luke Cage it was more than just a matter of being in the room when the show was on; I transitioned to interested viewer and took notice of the various ways in which the show was pushing the envelope and tweaking expectations. A big part of that was the thrill of the character Connie Lin. In the portrayal of Connie and Jin Lin, a married couple who own Genghis Connie’s, a Chinese restaurant in Harlem, it was a delight to see Asian-American characters normalized—”SO refreshing to see an Asian character in a Marvel show that isn’t a ninja or a gangster or has a thick accent,” as a fan pointed out on Twitter.  The Luke Cage-Connie Lin bond in particular stands out, and actress Jade Wu earned a whole new batch of fans with that role.

Fame and success may seem like overnight miracles, but perseverance and grit are always at the foundation. Wu has been working in the industry for a long time. Her journey reflects the challenges of being an Asian-American actor—finding any role at all, battling stereotypes, and elevating given roles with nuance and depth. Creative professionals always struggle with finding an audience, but the layers of challenges for people-of-color (POC) actors can be monumental. So it’s particularly exciting to see Wu finding more roles in which her ethnic identity is only one aspect of her character. Her presence on both stage and television raises cautious optimism in those of us looking for more diverse representation across the board.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jade Wu via email and learn more about her personal journey, as well as her insights on the entertainment industry today.  Wu’s optimism and enthusiasm for what lies ahead, backed by her willingness to shape the conversation, heartens those of us wondering about the direction of creative spaces.  Her journey is a demonstration of how to be clear-eyed toward the road travelled, while focused on moving forward.
The Millions: Is there variation in opportunity trends across television, film, and theater? I’m talking specifically about opportunities for people of non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Jade Wu: The paradigm has definitely shifted since I entered the industry over 45 years ago. I believe I was the first Asian American to be accepted into a U.S. graduate theatre program, my alma mater being UC San Diego and having theatre icons Alan Schneider, Eric Christmas, and Arthur Wagner as my mentors. I had the training and the student loans but no work. People of color barely existed in the theatre, television, and film landscape. If characters popped onto the screen, they were relegated to heavily accented, broken-English speaking, stereotypical roles as slaves, laundrymen, maids, prostitutes, geishas, or gang members.

When television and film burst into everyone’s lives in digital format, production became more cost-effective. People of color had an opportunity to tell stories that no one had heard before.

Independent platforms like Sundance nurtured untold stories—simple, poignant and real. Playwrights started writing heritage stories, introducing the world to cultural differences. Then, the stories grew more personal, which put struggles and challenges as universal experiences, despite cultural background. People of color became human, like everyone else.

Today, the younger generation of actors and artists have roads paved for them to follow and ride. Most recently, I was mindblown by my friend Justin Chon’s 2017 Sundance Award-winning film, Gook, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn and released nationwide. Justin’s passion for storytelling and filmmaking shines in a raw, real and visceral way that audiences can’t help but be emotionally moved. And, that’s true artistic brilliance. Back in the day, we didn’t have the luxury of such creative freedom. We were too busy scrambling to land any role that dropped in the industry breakdowns.

Refreshingly today, television continues to expand its casting diversity. On network television this year, for the first time in my career, I play a recurring non-Asian named character, Judge Cara Bergen, on CBS’s primetime episodic Bull. The character does not have an accent and is in a power position. Progress. The episode has re-aired three more times in the same season, an anomaly in primetime network television.

There are some projects that warrant accents, but that should only be used to enhance the story that may require cultural flavor or nuance. Stereotyping is not good storytelling. Good stories are about human flaws, triumphs, struggles, uncontrollable consequences, people. And, sometimes those people have accents.

In theatre, we are beginning to see a shift, but the move is slower. The writing is much more challenging, in my opinion. The characters require deeper development. I just workshopped a play that I truly adore, The Betterment Society, written by Mashuq Deen, at the well-reputed Page 73/Yale Summer Residency for Playwrights. All female roles, two are older and living away from society atop a mountain. I have an Appalachian accent. I love it. When we had our reading at workshop’s end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. That is good writing.

I feel so grateful to live in the creative world today, to experience its growth and be a part of the opportunities ahead. I may never be cast as Blanche Dubois in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the door is open for me get an audition for those roles these days, because I’ve decades of dues-paying under my belt. I never would have had that opportunity 45 years ago.

TM: It was a pleasure to see the way Luke Cage celebrated Harlem. The cast’s diversity felt integral to the story-telling. Do you find this noteworthy?

JW: Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s creator and showrunner, was intent on Harlem’s world—which is rich in history, gentrification and evolution—to revolve around truth, despite this series swimming in a fantastic superhero universe. Harlem is diverse, so Luke Cage had to live in that world. Because Cheo’s background is also heavily seasoned as an iconic journalist in the Hip Hop arena, all the episodes’ theme songs were written and performed for the show, and the episode’s music score title was also the title of the episode. Diverse casting was also paramount. [This is] brilliant and revolutionary for an episodic series. Cheo is a genius.

When I auditioned for the show, I was in Washington, DC, acting in the U.S. premiere of Lucy Kirkland’s West End hit, Chimerica. So, I couldn’t physically show up for the audition and submitted a 53-second self-tape that was sent to L.A. Without a callback and physically sight unseen, I booked the role of Connie Lin. This was a role that could have easily shaped into a stereotype, but I was adamant not to have an accent, and the costume designer, Stephanie Maslansky, dressed me in elite designer dresses, a definite anti-stereotype shift. Connie is powerful, vulnerable, yet real and, most importantly, Luke Cage’s friend—another anti-stereotype of black people and Asians bonding, a truthful reflection of the real world. I could not be more proud and pleased that Cheo chose this direction for the character.

TM: We have had the conversation about whitewashing—i.e. white actors being cast to play characters of color—for a while now, and it’s good to see it get more air-play. Do you think the debate has had any significant impact?

JW: After Ed Skrein’s Twitter announcement about dropping out of the role of Maj. Ben Daimio in Hellboy (a character written specifically as Asian), because it’s the “right thing to do,” I would say the airplay has finally hit its mark and is exactly the wake-up call for studio decision-makers.

I find the whole notion of whitewashing abhorrent. The repertory of high caliber, uber-talented Asian and Asian-American actors can fill an Olympic-sized pool. I never understood the whitewashing concept, which stems from fear—too much of a financial risk for a multi-million dollar project to bank its success on an unknown, unrecognizable actor. I fully embrace financial responsibility, but studios need to be reminded that A-listers were not always A-listers. They started as unknowns and were molded into blockbuster commodities.

With Skrein’s move, we will see a noticeable tectonic shift in studio casting decisions. To drop out of a major studio project with so much income and notoriety attached is a courageous and honorable move. Bravo to him. I’d rather divert from past studio whitewashing faux pas, which all resulted in box office disasters, and move forward, embrace this new direction and authority in integrity and continue to support “doing what is right.”

TM: How often have you had to struggle with the dilemma of being offered a stereotypical role?

JW: In the span of my career, I’ve taken the stereotypical roles because that’s all that was offered. I have no regrets. Without that experience, I would not have grown as an artist. Humility is a key ingredient to success. Many young actors are so entitled. I think struggle is necessary to appreciate opportunity. What I don’t relish are times when I have to confront a struggle that I never expected to happen in 2017.

My agent sent me out for a commercial audition a few months ago. A cattle call, meaning there were dozens of people, the usual suspects in the green room awaiting their turn. When I was called into the room, the dialogue was hand-written on a large foam core poster board mounted on an easel. The casting assistant’s first question to me was, “Can you read English?” For a minute, I was caught off guard. Instead of visibly reacting, I steadied myself and in a composed response said, “Yes. Can you?” Then, I walked out without auditioning. In that moment, I had to adhere to integrity.

Another audition, over a decade ago, was less insulting and somewhat comprehensible. It was for a recurring role on the soap One Life to Live. The character’s name was Judith Pinkham. I knew that I certainly didn’t look like a Pinkham, so realistically I also knew that I would not be cast. When the casting director asked me to repeat the audition scene, but in an accent, I nodded. I understood what “accent” meant. I did the scene in a Southern accent. I already knew that I wouldn’t be cast, so I had nothing to lose, except I probably should not have been so haughty about it. That afternoon, my agent called to tell me I booked the role and ABC was changing the name of the character to Judith Chen. Progress.

Though changes have happened, the struggle to play against stereotype continues, but the battle these days is less scarring.

TM: You are also a playwright. Tell us about your development as a writer. How do you see your dual roles as writer and actor work in expanding diverse representation?

JW: I’ve been writing since I could read. In my first year of college, I failed English Composition 101. The professor didn’t like my use of words that required dictionary referencing. In other words, my words had too many syllables and she tired of having to look up the definitions, so my writing in her opinion was atrocious and lacked fluidity and structure, which I’m sure it did then. Despite her degrading reaction to my writing, I continued to write. I have an affinity for the bizarre, theatre of the absurd, the avant-garde art movement, being influenced by the plays from Eugène Ionesco and Jean Giraudoux. When I watched 1920’s films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un Chien Andalou, I was hooked on expressionist art and the surreal.

I’ve since grown out of that genre, but some of my writing still injects some of the surreal world, which isn’t so far-fetched because much of nonfiction tends to be more incredible than fiction.

The only writing in my repertoire that includes me as a character or multiple characters is my solo docu-theatre piece, which is still a work-in-progress. The premise is a montage of women whom I’ve had the fortune of knowing and whose lives have the common thread of violent struggles either in war, domestic relationship, or in the one’s own mind. It’s the most difficult piece I’ve ever tackled.

In terms of dual role-playing as writer and actor, I shy away from acting in what I write. However, since acting has been my financial mainstay, I’ve had to hone my writing, directing, and producing skills to maintain a part of the industry’s creative pulse. Reinvention is an understatement for an artist. We have to go with the flow without losing integrity, personal and creative.

I have written screenplays, television series, made documentary films. I have grown into a Jill-of-all-Trades, which is something that I believe boosts credibility and reputation in this industry. It’s almost a requirement these days to create work as much as act in others’ work.

TM: Tell us about one of your favorite experiences as an actor. Does any one play or show stand out as having been a remarkable learning experience?

JW: The most memorable theatre experience was playing one of only four female roles, the farmer’s wife, in The Public Theatre’s Central Park production of Mother Courage and Her Children (adapted by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe, scored by Jeanine Tesori, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline).

I nearly wasn’t in contention for the role because my mother had had a near fatal fall and emergency surgery for a fractured femur. I had to pass on two audition calls, but The Public Theatre was intent on having me audition for George. When my mother was out of ICU and in rehab, I took a dawn train from MD to NYC, auditioned, and went back immediately after.

Being so exhausted, I never imagined my audition would ever be rehearsed and good enough, but I delivered as best I could. This was a lifetime opportunity to play one of the most coveted roles in the theatre world at the time. A few days later, my agent called. I booked the role. When rehearsals began, I savored every second of watching and learning from Meryl. Her dedication, generosity, and passion for acting were beyond imagination. I learned more in a few months of breathing the same air as she than I had in all of graduate school and my career.

It’s custom to give your cast mates an opening gift or card to launch the spirit of a successful run of a play. What could I possibly give Meryl Streep? I wrote a poem about her struggles, discoveries, and process for each scene in the play, printed it on parchment paper and had it leather bound. With 33 actors in the cast, I was sure my gift would get buried. Then, in act two, as we both sat on the picnic table backstage of the open stage, awaiting our entrances, a raccoon slithered past us. We screeched and laughed aloud. She embraced me, a tear in her eye, and said, “You are a writer. Thank you.” I told her I wasn’t a writer. She said, “You are. Don’t stop writing.” We made our entrances and never made mention of that moment again. I continue to be fueled by her support and will always write, until I can’t.

TM: What insights would you like to share with other artists, Asian Americans in particular? What are the to-do things you’d recommend?

JW: In film and theatre, the biggest support comes from butts in seats. Buy tickets. See shows. As many as you can. For film, the first week of box office determines the life or death of movie. For theatre, it’s the same. Make friends. Network. Seek mentors. Social media has become the fog horn for announcing and supporting work. Use it. Spread the word. Get butts in seats.

As for television, and now this new media distribution stream, again, advice is to spread the word on social media. Entertainment industry marketers follow these posts. It’s the best focus group study for major projects. It’s intimate and public simultaneously, and free.

Start creating your own projects, writing your own stories. With so many distribution channels, the market is hungry for content. Build your team of collaborators with whom you can work well and seamlessly. Join organizations that nurture those skills, i.e. Asian American Film Lab, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Asian CineVision (ACV), all Asian American film festivals, etc., and apply for grants to get your  work into the creative, recognizable pool. Swim with those with whom you can learn different strokes.

Photos via ZSC Entertainment.