photo credit: Jenny Zhang
I recently had the good fortune of interviewing my dear friend and brilliant author Anna North, whose second novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark (Blue Rider Press), will be released on May 19. In this conversation, we discuss the titular character of the novel, thoughts on celebrity and myth-making, the art of writing, and creative legacy–among many other topics. And, at the very bottom of the interview, you’ll have the chance to win your very own copy of the book!
The description of Sophie Stark is as follows:
Gripping and provocative, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a haunting story of fame, love, and legacy told through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist. Sophie Stark begins her filmmaking career by creating a documentary about her obsession, Daniel, a college basketball star. But when she becomes too invasive, she finds herself the victim of a cruel retribution. The humiliation doesn’t stop her. Visionary and unapologetic, Sophie begins to use stories from the lives of those around her to create movies, and as she gains critical recognition and acclaim, she risks betraying the one she loves most.
Told in a chorus of voices belonging to those who knew Sophie best, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is an intimate portrait of an elusive woman whose monumental talent and relentless pursuit of truth reveal the cost of producing great art. It is “not only a dissection of genius and the havoc it can wreak, but also a thunderously good story” (Emma Donoghue, author of Room).
Bio: Anna North is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her first novel, America Pacifica, was published in 2011, and her second, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was published by Blue Rider Press in May 2015. She has been a writer and editor at Jezebel, BuzzFeed, and Salon, and is now a staff editor at the New York Times.
image credit: Blue Rider Press
E: I’m really excited to be talking to you about your new book, which is coming out this month–I’ve marked it on my calendar with some green squiggles around it. One of my strongest memories about you writing this book was pretty early on, I think, when we were in New York. I was visiting, and we were on a walk, and it was very hot and muggy–you were talking through the chapter that you were working on. Once a book is finished and you know it’s going to be Out There soon, what is it like to look back on the process of making it?
Anna: It’s funny, I think it becomes a bit of a blur. I mean, I do remember some parts of the early writing process. I remember the coffee shops where I wrote some of the earliest stuff, and I remember the process of realizing it would need to be multiple points of view. But I don’t remember what I was talking about on that walk, for instance. And I know there were a lot of points where I got stuck, but I don’t necessarily remember all of them.
E: What you said about realizing it would need to be multiple points of view is interesting. Was there ever a point where you had to make a hard right about what the book was actually about? I’d imagine that the character of Sophie probably came first, and stayed there. But I don’t actually know.
Anna: I never had to totally change what it was about, but I did have to change how it was told.
The character of Sophie definitely came first. I was trying to write about her from all these different points of view (though never hers). I figured one of them would be the final point of view of the book, but then none of them really felt like they could tell the whole story. And at a certain point (I think this was after about a year of writing bits and pieces), I realized that I could use all of them. That’s when the book kind of started to come together.
E: What did the bits and pieces look like?
Anna: I remember writing a few pages (maybe a whole chapter) about movies Sophie and Robbie made as kids, from Robbie’s point of view. That part had way more about their family life that didn’t make it into the novel, and that I think isn’t even really “canon” anymore, in terms of how I describe their family in the book. And then I wrote some things that got totally scrapped, like I think I had this idea about [the screenplay for Sophie’s final film] being passed to like a grad student that she vaguely knew.
E: In some ways, even though Sophie is a real live human being in the book, she does become sort of unreal by the nature of her… canonization. Or celebrity. One thing that I talk about a lot regarding the creative process is obsessions; I feel as though a lot of artists have creative obsessions.
Anna: That’s interesting–I sort of feel like Sophie is driven less by obsession than by curiosity. Like, she doesn’t totally understand the emotional world that most people live in, and she’s sort of investigating it, and them, through her movies.
E: I do think Sophie acts like a bit of scientist sometimes.
Anna: I think she sometimes approaches other people in a way that’s really analytical, which can also be very cold. In the book we don’t entirely learn why she’s this way, which is sort of part of her mystery. I think she would want it that way–that we don’t totally understand.
E: Have people, in talking to you about the book, tried to put some kind of diagnosis on Sophie?
Anna: Not yet, really. I wonder if they will. It’s something I thought about somewhat as I was writing–she does, for instance, have traits that could be consistent with an autism spectrum diagnosis. But she doesn’t have such a diagnosis. And I think even if she did, it wouldn’t really explain the way she is (this is one reason I didn’t want her to be diagnosed at any point in the book).
I think no diagnosis can explain everything about a person, and with someone like Sophie, who’s so mysterious, I was worried that any diagnosis would feel like a shorthand–I didn’t want to send any message that “she’s the way she is because she has x.” Especially with any x that real people live with.
E: I asked about that in part because it seems to be something that people are really dying to do. I see so many things written by fans, or even media journalists, about “what Sherlock’s diagnosis is,” for example.
Anna: Right, totally. And it’s not uninteresting to think about, especially if you’re trying to think about representations of people who aren’t neurotypical in media, for instance. But in the case of Sophie I just felt like it could be too easy to be like, “Oh, that’s why she’s acting this way,” when that would be an oversimplification both of Sophie and of whatever the diagnosis was.
photo credit: Jenny Zhang
E: Were there any works of art that served as touchstones for you as you were writing the book? I often wondered if there were celebrities that you thought about as you were developing the story and mythos around Sophie.
Anna: Definitely. Just physically, I thought about Patti Smith a lot. Not personality-wise, though–in her memoir, Patti Smith comes off as a really generous and empathetic person. I thought a lot about sort of “badly behaved” artists–Picasso, Jackson Pollock. Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Hemingway.
E: Picasso and Jackson Pollock, etc., are people that I think of as having a lot of agency in their “bad behavior,” though, whereas I think Sophie comes across as having… well, actually–do you think Sophie has control over her bad behavior?
Anna: I think she does. I kind of went back and forth on this as I was writing, and I’d like readers to go back and forth on this as they read. But these days I think she really has a lot more control than she lets on.
E: The question of how consciously she’s hurting the people she loves is an interesting one in the book.
Anna: I think she’s conscious of the way she’s shaping her own mythos. And I think she makes conscious choices when it comes to how she treats people. Maybe what she can’t control is how those choices turn out for her. Like, there might be another way for her to live that would make her happier, but she might not be able to see it; then again, that way of life might not include her films. Ultimately, if we were able to talk to her beyond the grave (now I’m talking as though she’s real), she’d say she was satisfied with her life.
E: Do you see celebrity and the making of icons differently now, having written this? Particularly artistic celebrity and legacy, but not necessarily limited to that.
Anna: Definitely. I think this book and America Pacifica were both about being heroic or iconic in a certain way. And (I also said this a little bit in a Q&A with Rebecca Makkai) I think writing this book made me feel that in becoming iconic, you sort of have to sacrifice a little bit of your humanity. I think Sophie definitely does this; I’m not sure if she’s aware of it, but if she was, she might still make the same choices.
E: Yeah. There’s not really a “chill, at-home Sophie who watches reality TV in her sweatpants” vs. the Sophie who’s directing films in this very particular and pointed way.
Anna: Haha–yeah, there’s definitely not. She kind of pretends she doesn’t care about how she’s perceived, but she does. I think she wants her life to be a work of art in a certain way. And I don’t know if happiness as we understand it is super-important to her.
photo credit: Jenny Zhang
E: You mentioned America Pacifica, which was your first novel that came out in 2011. What was the period of time like for you between the publication and promotion of that book, and the beginnings of writing this one? Or were there a lot of half-formed projects?
Anna: I started working on Sophie Stark pretty much as soon as I finished edits on America Pacifica. I had had the sort of germ of the idea for a long time, and I wanted something to work on to take my mind off the stress of having America Pacifica come out (it was very exciting, but also scary, to have my first book out in the world).
It took me about a year to get the points of view right in Sophie Stark, but I was working on it in some capacity starting in 2010, and I had a draft of a sort of nascent thing called “Sophie Stark” on my computer years before that.
E: How does the experience of having a second book come out feel differently than the experience of the first one?
Anna: I think I’m more relaxed in some ways since I’ve done this before. But I’m also trying to do certain things better than last time — social media, writing essays related to the book, etc., so I feel like I’m spending more time on promotion than I was the first time around.
E: Do you feel as though the book world has changed in those last four years?
Anna: It’s definitely changed — even something like Twitter wasn’t nearly as big in 2011 as it is now. But there are probably other ways it’s changed that I’m not even aware of. I’m interested in the business of publishing but I also don’t feel like an expert. In certain ways I pull away from knowing too much sometimes, because forces are at work that are much bigger than me and my book and I don’t have a lot of control over them.
E: Yes. We were just talking about a book that seemed to me like a very unexpected NYT bestseller. I find it both interesting and totally mysterious.
Anna: Yes I find the publishing industry in general both interesting and mysterious!
E: Two more questions. So, the first one is: what do you think Sophie Stark would want her creative legacy to be?
Anna: I think she would want us to remember both her and her films. I think she would want us to keep wondering about her and trying to understand her and failing to do so.
E: I love that last part: “…and failing to do so.”
Anna: Yeah. I don’t think she would want anyone to feel that they fully understood her. Maybe her films, but not her. I think she would want us to keep trying.
E: What do you think Anna North would want her creative legacy to be?
Anna: Ha! That’s kind of a scary question.
I think it might change as I hopefully produce more work in the future, but for now I think I’d want people to remember that I wrote stories about women who were heroic in some way, even if they were also badly flawed. That I told stories that examined the meaning of heroism. *
In my very biased opinion, I think this book is brilliant (but you don’t have to take my word for it, in the immortal words of Mr. Burton; there are plenty of blurbs from all manner of places here). Order your very own copy from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up from your local indie bookstore after May 19. We’re also giving away a copy here; to enter, leave a comment with your email address and the name of the most recent book you’ve read. I’ll randomly draw a name on May 19.