Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.
Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.
Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.
During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.
Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.
One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.