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Larry Colton...hits a literary triple lutz...insightful, honest, and best of all, irreverent...
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Author Biography: Cathleen Schine is the author of five novels—Alice in Bed, To the Birdhouse, The Evolution of Jane, and the international bestsellers Rameau's Niece and The Love Letter. She divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles.
Motherless children have a hard time, but what about the rest of us? Elizabeth thought. Motherless children have a hard time, when your mother is dead. . . . She must have sung out loud because her mother, Greta, slapped her hand lightly and said," That's enough music."
Elizabeth put her arms around her mother. "Thank you for coming," Greta whispered." You're a good daughter." Tears appeared below the rims of Greta's sunglasses and ran down her cheeks.
"Mom, she'll be okay," Elizabeth said." Don't cry. You're a good daughter, too."
Then Elizabeth began to cry. And wished she had sunglasses. "It's so fucking hot in here," Greta said, patting Elizabeth's back in an almost unconscious, ritualistic gesture of comfort." Why do they have the heat on?They'll make us all sick." She turned to the doctor's receptionist." First, do no harm!" she said. The receptionist, a middle-aged black woman with long, squared-off plastic fingernails, looked up.
"Maybe you're having hot flashes," Elizabeth said. She wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand." Maybe we're all having hot flashes."
The clacking of the receptionist's manicure on the computer keys resumed.
Elizabeth listened to the pitter-patter of plastic against plastic, the rhythm of work. Order. A peaceful resolve. One foot in front of the other. One fingernail in front of the other.
She imagined her grandmother's skin. Her grandmother was so proud of her skin. It was white, as white as the shoulders of a heroine in a novel. It was soft and scented by Ponds cold cream. How many times had that cheek been presented to her to kiss? How many times had she seen it approaching, in the slow motion of a horror movie?Once, she ran away from the advancing cheek, and her grandmother cried. When Elizabeth got older, she loved to kiss her grandmother, loved the old-fashioned delicacy of her face. But as a child she'd sometimes felt suffocated by her grandmother's cheek, by her strong, grasping fingers, by the demand. Elizabeth did not like demands. Unless it was she who made them.
"Poor Grandma," she said. She shed a few tears. Then stopped herself. Then sniffed. Her mother stood up. She took several tissues from a box on the receptionist's desk." Here." "Filthy tumor," her grandmother had said when they'd found out." Why couldn't I have it on my goddamned ass?" Elizabeth blew her nose. She wiped the back of her neck with another tissue. She sat in the waiting room, sweating, a dirty tissue in each hand.
Now, Lotte, shut up, Lotte said to herself. You son of a bitch, you've had a good life. And there's life in the old mare, yet. She adjusted her hat, patted her hair. Beautiful hair with a natural wave. The haircutter came to her now. Fifteen dollars, that was all, no charge for the house call. Of course, she gave him a big tip. He was a darling, and so devoted to her. Well, that 's just the kind of person I am, she thought.
Her daughter, Greta, was talking to the doctor. Handsome?Like a matinee idol. But such a waste on such a cold, cold fish. A top man, of course, world renowned, best in his field, with that flashlight, like a miner, on his forehead. Two assistants to go through before you could speak to him, and then he was abrupt, rude, let's be frank, all they wanted was money. Butchers. Even so, this gorgeous stiff with a pole up his high-priced ass had stayed to talk to her, had laughed at her joke, had called her by her first name and told her she was as sharp as a tack.
"What about chemotherapy?"Greta was saying. Greta wore ridiculous clothes for a grown woman. She wasn't at all bad looking, and she 'd never put that weight back on, God bless her. But Greta neglected herself. Lotte wondered how she, Lotte Franke, née Levinson, practically brought up in Levinson's, her family's department store, how she, an actress-a dancer, anyway, and on Broadway, don't forget-how she had raised a daughter who could appear in public in such dreary clothes. "You're dressed for the rodeo," Lotte said in the car on the way home.
In the backseat, Elizabeth laughed." Grandma, have you ever seen a rodeo?I mean, how would you even know?" "I'm wearing jeans, for heaven's sake," Greta said." Not chaps." Lotte began to cry." I don't want a hole in my face." "Grandma, Grandma, they cover the hole," Elizabeth said. She took Greta 's shoulder." Don't they?" "Plastic surgery," Greta said." And they're blue jeans, Mother, just like everyone else on earth."
"You see?"said Elizabeth." Plastic surgery. Like a movie star." Elizabeth was a wonderful girl. Subdued, but chic. If she would just let her hair loose, instead of pulling it back like a librarian. "Beautiful, wavy. . ." Lotte said, clucking disapproval. "We did go to a rodeo once," Greta said." Remember, Mother? Lake George?It was so hot Daddy drove in his boxer shorts?" "My Morris," Lotte said with a sigh. What a nightmare that trip was. And the filth!"You've got real style," she added, turning to Elizabeth." That's genetic."
A little makeup would be nice, too, though. Spruce things up a bit. Too serious, these young people. Working so hard. They all looked haggard.
"If it's so genetic, what the hell happened to me?"said Greta. "You," Lotte said. She raised her shoulders in a shrug." For the rodeo, you're not bad." She suddenly lifted both her large, bony hands. She clasped them together as if in prayer. Her bracelets clattered." What would I do without you?"she said." Without you two? My family. My family. . ." She trailed off. Leaned her head back. She was so tired. They were going to cut up her face. She might as well take the pipe.
Her face. Her beautiful skin that everyone admired. All her life they had admired her soft, white skin. Never even a pimple. She sat up straighter, gazed down at her wedding ring, not the original simple band, but a thick tire of gold studded with diamonds. Now, stop your moping, Lotte.
Life can be delish with a sunny disposish. . . . She ran the old song through her head, tried to smile. She'd done it at the Roxy. Or was it the Orpheum?She could hear the sound of her shoes on the stage, the chalky dust that rose like little clouds and settled on the black patent leather. A sunny disposish. But she was so tired. Couldn't she just die and be done with it?It was about time, anyway. She was old. It would be so much easier. For Greta. For Elizabeth. For all of them.
"But I'm just not ready yet," she said, only half to herself.
The 405 goes north and south, the 10 goes east and west. Elizabeth chanted these words in a silent singsong.
So, I take the 10. No, no. The 405. Take it through the pass that takes you over the hill and into the Valley to the 134, which turns into the 101. . . . There was something unnerving about driving somewhere new in L. A. Everyone kept a map in the car, even people who had lived their entire lives in the place. Elizabeth had not lived her entire life in Los Angeles. She had learned to drive on the North Shore of Long Island, where she had grown up. She still felt the ocean was placed all wrong in California. Go west, someone would say, but you couldn't even follow the setting sun if the sun happened to be setting, because no one meant "west," really. They meant toward the Pacific Ocean, and the shore jutted out in peninsulas or formed bays, or did whatever else it could think of to make "west "mean something that had absolutely nothing to do with the location of the long white beach and the crashing surf. When she had first started driving in L. A. , she'd gotten herself a compass, but a compass was useless in this strange land.
"And the women!"her grandmother had said, when Elizabeth told her how strange L. A. felt." With their tztizkes hanging out!" She squinted in the glare of the beautiful sun. Yellow flowers that looked like a child 's crayon drawing lined the freeway. She got off at the correct exit. She held the directions she had downloaded from the Internet and tried to follow them.
After 1/8 of a mile, turn left. Continue for 1/3 mile. Take second right.
The instructions were overly detailed, confusing and uninteresting at the same time. That was the definition of a boring person. But Elizabeth was not bored. She was frantic. And how much was one-third of a mile added to one-eighth of a mile? She arrived in plenty of time. But she was worn out, her underarms damp, her head throbbing. And she had to pee. She didn't really understand why she was here. Why she had been summoned. She couldn't compete with women who had tztizkes hanging out.
She found the correct gate on the third try. A uniformed man came out of a glass booth.
Elizabeth said," Elizabeth Bernard for-" "He 's expecting you," said the attendant. A concierge in a brass-buttoned blazer took her in a small elevator paneled with exotic wood to a large waiting room paneled with exotic wood.
"Eliz-" "He's expecting you," said the receptionist at the first desk. "He'll be a few minutes late," said a second receptionist. "He apologizes," said the first.
Maybe I can just have the meeting with these two, Elizabeth thought. They were both purposefully unglamorous, she noticed. She forgot about peeing. She sat in a chair and looked out the windows at a flowering tree. The waiting room was historic, she knew. The style of the studio boss who ruled here in the 1930s had been left intact. Towering silver doors etched with art deco designs. Crystal statuettes. Curving, undulating wood. Why am I here? she wondered again. I don't belong here. I belong in a cramped office correcting papers about the Lacanian implications of How to Marry a Millionaire.
The silver portals swung open.
"Come in!"said a man in a suit and tie, the first man in a suit and tie Elizabeth had seen in the week she 'd been in L. A. He was waving her in, grinning, excited. She followed Larry Volfmann down three steps into an office as soft as a thigh-carpeted, upholstered, and pillowed. Larry Volfmann is a millionaire, she thought. What would be the Lacanian implications of marrying him? "How 's your trip?You like L. A.? First time out here? Takes some getting used to. . ."
He talked so fast it was difficult for Elizabeth to convey that her parents had lived in L. A. for years, had moved there when she was in college.
". . . started out as a bunch of Indian villages, then towns, now they 're all linked together, so, you know, it feels like it has no center because it actually has no center. . ."
Elizabeth wondered again what she was doing there, summoned before this great man. She had heard that all powerful men in Hollywood were short and was a little disappointed to see he was actually of average height. He didn't have a tan, either. Or wear a baseball cap.
"Mr. Volfmann-" "Larry. . ." He handed her a bottle of water. "Larry, it 's so good to meet you. I'm a little stunned, of course-"
"Happiness," Larry said, interrupting." Passion." He waved a magazine at her. "Intoxication." The magazine was Tikkun, the issue with her article about Madame Bovary." Happiness, passion, intoxication. I like it!"He shrugged as if to say, I like happiness:sue me!"I like it," he said again, tapping the page. "Well, those are Flaubert 's words," she said. She smiled, modestly, she hoped." Not mine."
And don't think you can con me or co-opt me or impress me, either, just because I 'm a dreary academic, just because I 'm impressed that you somehow manage to read Tikkun. I don 't read Tikkun. Who has time to read anything?And you probably have even less time than I do, although I bet you don't have to run home after work and make dinner and play with Brios and Duplos and Play-Doh. Maybe an assistant read it. No. What assistant would have the balls to recommend an academic article in a down-at-the-heels Jewish monthly?This has to have come from the eccentric boss himself.
"No," Larry said." Not Flaubert's words. Emma's words." Surprised, Elizabeth examined the eccentric boss himself. He looked a little like a boxer-the dog, not the athlete. Dark eyes, a bit jowly, but fierce. High-strung. And he was right. Happiness. Passion. Intoxication. They were Madame Bovary's words, the words Emma Bovary read in books, over and over.
"The words her marriage failed to make her understand. They're Emma's soul, her quest, her destiny, her tragedy . . ." He was still waving the magazine around.
Elizabeth smiled. A man of business, as Larry Volfmann so clearly was, was discussing her humble article. As she smiled, her pleasure at being noticed by him transformed almost effortlessly into a warm sense of personal superiority. Okay. I get it, she thought. You're smart, you're serious. You went to college. You're sensitive. You studied literature. But somehow, life took a funny turn and here you are, a man with a literary mind stuck doing action movies at Pole Star Pictures. The head of Pole Star Pictures, who earns more in one week than I earn in a year, but you haven't given up your soul. . . . She continued to smile at him and nodded to convey thoughtful attention the way she had learned to do with ardent students. He tilted his head, as if he'd been petted. She wondered if he was muscular like Fritz, the boxer dog who lived on the third floor in her building in New York. He was a little bowlegged, she had noticed. Like Fritz. And, to be fair, he might make a lot of money and be driven in a limousine, but he was right.
Emma Bovary was so fucking compelling. It didn 't matter how obvious one's response was, how banal, how romantic, how innocent. All of that just somehow made Madame Bovary-so compelling in her own romantic, innocent banality-all the more compelling.
"'The Way Madame Bovary Lives Now:Tragedy, Farce, and Cliché in the Age of Ikea, '"he read." We 'll have to change the title, of course."
She stared at him, speechless, until he began to laugh and she realized he was making a joke. "It's tough," he said." I mean, it will be tough to make it fresh. Because, you know, every movie is really Madame Bovary, right? Madame Bovary 'R'Us!"He laughed. He was having fun. The phone rang.
"What?"he answered, tough and rude, just like an executive ought to be." If you could remove your tongue from my ass and say whatever it is you want to say . . . Uh huh. . . Right. Do it!I like it!" He slammed the phone down, put both elbows on the desk and his chin in his hands, and stared expectantly at Elizabeth. "So. . . sort of like Clueless meets American Beauty?" she said.
After all, he was offering her cash money, and quite a bit of it. "Don't patronize me, Professor Smarty-Pants," he said." I don't know if you can write a script even half as good as either of those. I don't know if you can write a script at all, do I? I 'm going out on a limb for you-"
"No, I just meant-"
"I know what you meant, I know what you meant," he said, leaning across the desk at her, almost lying on it. He moved one hand, as if waving away smoke." History. Ancient. Gone. . . . I'm not looking to you to marry two pictures we already saw. No marriages, honey. I want. . . adultery!"
"I want new!I want to stray, roam, betray the conventions. And find me . . ." He paused. Slowly, seriously, he said," Find me Emma Bovary." Elizabeth felt the cold beads of water on the Evian bottle. When students assaulted her with their enthusiasm, she learned to watch them and nod while trying to decipher their barrage of critical theory and undergraduate sentimentality. But this growling man was not a student. His enthusiasm was not youthful. Critical theory was not a phase he would eventually have to grow out of. And she was not his teacher.
Elizabeth took her wet hand from the Evian bottle and put it on her forehead. I really want to do this, she thought, surprised. And she suddenly very much wanted to please Mr. Larry Volfmann, too.
"Familiar but fresh," he said. "Fresh." "But familiar." "But . . ." She hesitated. "Fresh?" "No. I mean, yes. But . . ." Volfmann glared at her." But what?" "But I'm an academic." "You'll get over it. Look," he said, pushing Tikkun at her," I have a feeling about this. Trust me." And I don't even have tenure, she thought.
"I've always dreamed of doing this project, but how the hell do you update Madame Bovary when every picture with an unhappy young wife is Madame Bovary?" "I don't know," Elizabeth said.
"Then, I'm in the gym," he said, paying no attention," and I'm reading, and . . . here it is!"He smacked the magazine." Concept. Clarity. Class." He smiled at her, his boxer jowls lifting." You've got the common touch."
I certainly do not, Elizabeth wanted to cry out, offended. "In spite of yourself," he added. "Oh. Thank you," she said.
Larry Volfmann leaned back, his hands behind his head. He spun around, 360 degrees, in his leather chair. "You on?" he said.
"Well, but, I don't really have any experience . . ." Shut up, asshole, she told herself. Way to talk yourself out of a shower of fucking riches.
"No. But you've got . . ." He thought for a moment. " Seychel," he said." You know what that means?" She nodded. But he continued anyway. "Common sense. I mean, that's the translation. Good, common sense."
"Yeah. That's good," Elizabeth said." Yeah. I like that." "Seychel," he said.
"Thank you," Elizabeth said. She realized she liked him, even though he had read her paper on Flaubert in Tikkun and wanted to pay her a lot of money to write a screenplay for an updated Madame Bovary, to turn poor Madame Bovary into a "project." She liked him even though he was buying Emma Bovary as if she were a new sweater, cashmere, but still;and buying her, Elizabeth, as if she were. . . what? Oh, come on, now. You mean you like him because he's buying you. Don't be a prig about selling out, you prig. "It's oddly comforting to be a commodity," she said.
"Back at you," he said.
Copyright © 2003 by Cathleen Schine
When Elizabeth, an academic from New York, moves to Los Angeles with her boyfriend, Brett, and their young son, she becomes caregiver to both her grandmother Lotte, who suffers from a disfiguring and terminal tumor, and her mother, Greta, whose own cancer she must keep secret. And in an unlikely career turn, Elizabeth is hired by an enigmatic and stormy Hollywood executive, Volfmann, to be a screenwriter for a new movie based on Madame Bovary. Pressured by Brett to marry him, overwhelmed by the needs of others, and tempted by fantasies of her own, Elizabeth seeks to define her own identity -- as mother or daughter; as an academic or Hollywood hack; as a lover, a wife, or adulteress -- making the various roles we play in everyday life a constantly resonating theme.
But these are not the only challenges this book presents. Greta's heart has taken a secret and unexpected turn: She has fallen in love with a woman, and her own struggle to come to terms with her sexuality, and the impact her decisions will have on her family, is one many readers will identify with. She Is Me also explores on all levels the trials of the caregiver as much as the cared-for; the grandmother, Lotte, a self-described "pistol," must come to terms with her illness and approaching death, struggling with the universal dilemma between holding on and letting go.
Exploring the bonds of matrimony and love, as well as the boundaries of privacy and secrecy, She Is Me will raise crucial and intimate discussions in your book group. Readers will find much to talk about in Schine's take on the roles of victim and hero -- and how we can sometimes be both at once. Finally, those who have read and loved Madame Bovary will discover in this novel countless opportunities for comparison -- and those who haven't will perhaps be moved to make that intriguing classic their next book club selection. -- (Elise Vogel)
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. The title "She is Me" comes from something Gustav Flaubert said about his famous creation: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Emma Bovary has become one of literature's most enduring characters, a symbol of marital frustration and infidelity. What does the title suggest for the women at the heart of Cathleen Schine's novel -- one a fiercely loyal widow, another ambivalent about marrying the father of her child, the third suddenly uncertain about her feelings for her husband: is fidelity a rational or realistic expectation in the face of something as irrational as love?
2. Elizabeth decides that "the trouble with adultery is you don't know whose side you're on." Do you think the novel sides with or against any of these characters as they consider the question of adultery?
3. The question of desire vs. obligation dogs Greta and Elizabeth in very different ways; Greta must choose one over the other, while Elizabeth must decide whether the two are mutually exclusive. Do you find one woman's conflict, or her decision, more sympathetic than the other's?
4. What motivates Greta's and Elizabeth's affairs -- love or lust? How do their lives mirror Madame Bovary's?
5. Lotte, Greta, and Elizabeth are all keeping secrets from one another. Why? Is it because what the others don't know can't hurt them, or is it they are unwilling to admit their desires to themselves, let alone each other?
6. Lotte's illness results in her disfigurement. How does her physical appearance affect her attitude? Do Lotte's memories of her vaudeville days keep her from facing the dilemmas she and her family currently confront or are they the example by which Greta and Elizabeth should model their own unsatisfying lives?
7. Where do the men fit into the lives of these mothers and daughters? Are Tony and Brett pushovers, or the backbone of their relationships?
8. What does Daisy Piperno offer Greta that Tony can't? Does Greta's love for Tony lessen when she discovers what she believes is true love with Daisy, or just become something different?
9. What keeps Elizabeth from marrying Brett? How would marriage change their relationship? Does Harry keep them together or put a wall between them?
Cathleen Schine is the author of five novels -- Alice in Bed, To the Birdhouse, The Evolution of Jane, and the international bestsellers Rameau's Niece and The Love Letter. She divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles.
Talking with Cathleen Schine, author of She Is Me
In She Is Me you write about the secrets, dramas, emotional hurdles, and comic dilemmas that wind through the everyday relationships of three generations of women in a family.
Right. I like to look at the ways in which people take the unforeseen and incorporate it into their daily lives. To me, there is nothing more comic, more touching, more human. She Is Me was a particularly satisfying book to write because all these subjects -- marriage, adultery, illness, family -- rose up and joined together and came banging on my door. One day I was walking along Columbus Avenue trying to understand what the book was really about. And then I thought: Oh! Love. All kinds of love -- between a husband and wife, between illicit lovers, between a mother and daughter.
Did something specific suggest the plot to you?
Some years ago, my grandmother, who was in her nineties, became very ill. I watched my mother, who was very close to her, struggle to take care of her and continue her normal life. Then my mother became ill, and I was running back and forth between them, and this new family dance began. We were all trying to protect each other, and suddenly we were all lying to each other. It took on the shape of a drawing-room comedy, all of us covering up and hemming and hawing and making lame excuses. We could just as well have been having illicit affairs. That's when I realized that this absurd situation, which so many people go through, was the starting point of a novel. A romantic comedy, actually.
Where's the romance?
Just where it always is -- where you least expect it. She Is Me is about what happens when passion blooms not, say, in the secluded moment of a summer romance but in the chaos and tension of a family crisis, like a flower pushing up through a crack in the pavement.
And the comedy?
Families are funny and adultery is funny; families are tragic and adultery is tragic. Love just complicates everything that much more. Elizabeth, Greta, and Lotte's family has no boundaries -- only secrets, the meat and potatoes of comedy and of passion. A secret romance is surely the most romantic of all. But there is a decidedly comic element when you're daydreaming about undressing your secret lover while you're pulling up your grandmother's corset.
Each person's life has so many different sides -- the mother side and the daughter side and the career side and the romantic, sexual side. We're like these weird octagonal cells floating around, colliding. One of the most comic elements of family life occurs when those roles come crashing up against one another, when need and desire and tribal responsibility crash. That's one of the joys of writing about families.
She Is Me is a work of fiction, but readers often wonder just how much of the author is in the characters. To what degree do you mine your writing with your personal life?
She Is Me includes certain events that parallel events in my life. My grandmother died of skin cancer. My mother survived colon cancer. I was married and now live with a woman. I had a dog who chased waves and bit people. But unlike, say, my first novel, Alice in Bed, She Is Me is not autobiographical at all. For me, the real story is always in the characters, and Elizabeth and Greta and their husbands and lovers are not disguised real people. Not only are they unlike me or my family, but they are like themselves. To me they're very real and very fictional characters.
Sometimes the connection to real life is just serendipitous: when I was writing The Love Letter, not sure of anything but Helen's seductive personality, I received an anonymous letter that had clearly been sent to me by mistake. Of course I used it, but, like anything I absorb into a novel, it showed up there transformed, distorted, and new. Another writer, I can't remember whom, said, "Do not trust a writer. She is not your friend." I gather up bits and pieces from the lives of everyone I know, and from the lives of those I don't know. I'm an equal-opportunity scavenger.
I would say that for me, and for many other writers, the relationship between my life and my books is intimate, inescapable, and usually irrelevant.
One surprising twist in the book is Greta's decision to leave her husband for another woman. It would seem that a decision like that would take a tremendous amount of courage. Where does Greta get hers?
When I was twenty, I was in the hospital for a year and I was in a lot of pain. People would say, "Cathy, you're so brave." I tried to explain to them that it wasn't bravery. It was reality. If I could have run away from the hospital and the pain, I would have. I think Greta is in a similar situation. She's married and relatively content. That has been her reality. But her reality changes. It's frightening, it's painful, but unlike my hospital stay, it is also a door opening to her future. At first, that door seems like the door of an airplane at 38,000 feet. Greta feels like she's being sucked into the sky without a parachute. But she lands on her feet.
Greta's family is ultimately very accepting of her life change. Where does their understanding come from?
Do they really understand her? Or are they relieved that they still recognize her? Both, I think. They discover that they are still a family, although their family shape is now a little lumpy. Elizabeth and her brother need the chance to remember that they want to keep loving their mother. Greta's husband is furious and hurt, but he is also strong enough to accept the reality of their past together and the reality of their future apart. As for Lotte, well! Thank God she didn't live to see this day, what goes on in this world, it's enough to kill you, but as long they're happy, although how they could be, don't ask, they should live and be well.
The title, She Is Me, is both ungrammatical and intriguing. How did you happen to choose it?
It is a poor translation of something Flaubert said: Madame Bovary, c'est moi. The youngest of my three heroines, Elizabeth, is trying to write a modern adaptation of Madame Bovary for the movies, so Flaubert was much on my mind. Flaubert was identifying himself with the baffled, tragic, and romantic character of Emma Bovary. I found the phrase particularly suggestive for this story because my heroines are not only bound to Madame Bovary by their own passionate confusion but also bound to one another. I think mothers and daughters can sometimes be so close, so intimate, that they have to struggle in order to not lose themselves entirely. That struggle is part of what She Is Me is about.
It is difficult for Elizabeth to write the screenplay. Why?
I think Elizabeth's struggle is about how to authentically translate at least some of the meaning of Madame Bovary into a contemporary cinematic form. Flaubert was obsessed with cliché and with the romance novels that Emma Bovary was constantly reading. She was seduced by banality. Elizabeth has to find a modern equivalent. For her Mrs. B, banality resides in the modern world's obsession with brand names and celebrity.
You've had two of your novels (The Love Letter and Rameau's Niece) adapted into feature films. To what degree were you involved in that process, and what was it like?
The two experiences were very different. Rameau's Niece was made into a movie called The Misadventures of Margaret. The director/screenwriter and producer were two young British guys, and it was their first feature film. They were so excited that they called every time anything remotely promising happened. The Love Letter was a DreamWorks film and had a much smoother journey to the screen. The people involved were wonderful and friendly, but the process was far removed from me.
I know many writers complain about adaptations of their books, about changes from the original material. I've always felt that in order to be faithful to a book, a movie has to stray and find its own way of telling that story. Watching a character you created grow and change in someone else's hands was weird, like bumping into someone you haven't seen in forty years. They're the same, but…they're not. It made me want to go back and re-meet all my characters in that way, see what they've been up to since I last wrote about them.
In the novel, love pops up in unexpected places, and not just for Greta. Lotte bonds with her male Japanese housekeeper; a stray dog jumps into Elizabeth's car and into her heart. What did you want to say about the nature of love?
Love, as Flaubert showed us, is a cliché, a powerful cliché. We're all Emma Bovary in all her anguished banality. That's why it's so hard to find any original language to use to describe love. It's all been used. And yet, when you're in love, you long for those words. That's why Greta can lie on a hotel-room bed and read the Psalms while waiting for her lover and see her own situation reflected in those ancient words. Because this banal, universal cliché is always completely fresh and doesn't follow the rules. There's a line from a Yeats poem (which I used for the epigraph for The Love Letter): "O love is the crooked thing." I like that.