Monday, November 23, 2015

ABOUT WOMEN, a fascinating series of conversations between writer Lisa Alther and painter, Picasso muse, and author Francoise Gilot

Recently, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an article about the plight of women directors, how their stories are not being told, or are not giving as much weight as the stories men might tell. So I was delighted to see this book, About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter, by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot. Truly, these are stories that are fascinating, surprising, raw and honest.

Alther is the author of six novels -- Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, Five Minutes in Heaven and Washed In The Blood as well as a memoir (Kinfolks), a narrative history on the Hatfield-McCoy feud (Blood Feud) and a short story collection (Stormy Weather And Other Stories). Three of these were Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and four were New York Times bestsellers. Her books have been translated into 17 other languages and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide. A novella entitled Birdman of the Dancer, based on a series of monotypes by the French artist Francoise Gilot, has been published in Holland, Denmark and Germany. 

 Francoise Gilot is the author of Life with Picasso and is an extraordinarily talented and critically acclaimed painter. Her book Life with Picasso sold over a million copies. She has been friends with Alther for 25 years.

In their conversations, they cover everything from their own oral histories to fashion, sex, love and art--it's exhilarating and important to hear their voices. I'm honored to host them both here. Thank you Lisa and Francoise.

What made you decide to turn your private conversations public?
The conversations that make up ABOUT WOMEN are very distinct from our usual private conversations.  They began when Lisa was living in Paris researching a novel set partly in France.  Francoise was trying to explain to her French attitudes toward women, feminism and fashion.  Lisa found what Francoise was saying so intriguing that she began to tape it.  We selected a certain number of pertinent chapter titles – The Little Black Dress, Ceremonies in White, The Virginia Club, etc. – and used them to structure our discussions.  So we had a definite creative goal right from the start – though no particular intention of publication.  Doing the project was the point, not what might become of it afterwards.

How did you choose what to reveal and what to keep hidden?

Within the confines of our chapters, we kept nothing hidden because we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to say.  The conversations were a process of discovery.  As we talked, we uncovered aspects to the issues that were new to us.  So we added material and organized it in order to clarify our evolving perceptions.  Repetitions were the only thing we eliminated.  But because we had both practiced our crafts for so many years, we usually knew in advance how not to include irrelevancies.  Even though we work in different fields, we found that many characteristics of our creative processes are similar. 

We had experienced this kind of artistic dialogue before:  Lisa had watched Francoise create monotypes on a lithographic press in Soho.  As the monotypes emerged, Lisa invented a story based on them.  Upon reading it, Francoise was quite astonished to discover her own hijacked characters starring in a plot very different from the one she’d been telling herself as she composed the monotypes.  We titled this story BIRDMAN AND THE DANCER, and it was published in Germany, Holland, and Denmark, using some of the monotypes as illustrations.

Looking back at your prior conversations, have your feelings changed about anything you discussed?

Our feelings about what we said were valid when we said them.  But everything on earth either disintegrates or evolves.  So no doubt some of our feelings have already shifted, but these shifts aren’t evident to us at the moment because the book is so recently completed.

Did anything from your pasts surprise you?

Nothing about the actual memories surprised us, but the added meaning those memories acquired when juxtaposed to the other’s memories was indeed sometimes surprising.  For instance, Francoise described a white dress in which she was supposed to meet the Pope as a small child, and about spilling ink on it beforehand with the hope that she could avoid this meeting, no doubt already questioning the religion in which she was being raised.  This triggered Lisa’s memory of diving into a swimming pool on the afternoon of her wedding, ruining her hairdo.  She had  previously recounted that episode as merely a humorous anecdote, but in the light of Francoise’s moment of rebellion against the Pope,  Lisa’s plunge into the pool took on new meaning for her:  She realized that she had perhaps been rebelling against the notion of marriage in the only way left to her at that point, by ruining her wedding bouffant.

Francoise refers to this process of each seeing the episodes of her life reflected in and refracted by similar episodes from the other’s life as our serving as “parallel mirrors” for one another.  Moments take on new meanings once you realize that they are not isolated individual acts but are, rather, symbolic ones, shared in different manifestations by others.

What was it like working on this book together?  I imagine looking back on all those years of friendship cemented your bond even more?
The most important thing to be said is that working on this book was great fun for both of us.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have done it!  We discovered that we share a natural kinship in terms of our art.  Our process is very similar, as are our aims.  We are both searching for truths about our lives, and we regard our creative work as a pathway to such discoveries.

People often ask how we became friends, since we represent different generations and dissimilar backgrounds. Each person meets many thousands of people during a lifetime, yet we become close friends with only a handful.  Why do we pick the ones we do?  Why do they pick us?  Such affinities are one of life’s great mysteries.  The only answer seems to be what the French essayist Montaigne said about his friend, the poet La Boetie:  “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: Because it was he, because it was I.”

What I admired most about the book was the honesty, the way there was really nothing you both would not talk about.  Or was there?

Well, of course it’s impossible to talk about everything on earth!  And we did have a structure that delineated our areas of conversation.  We started with the theme of black and white – The Little Black Dress, Ceremonies in White – and we also ended with the theme of black and white – the Middle Path and the need in life and in art to tread the narrow line between darkness and light. 

 But we are both quite direct and not overburdened by a desire to please, so there’s probably very little we wouldn’t be willing to discuss, even outside the confines of this book.  Since we’ve both studied eastern spirituality, we’ve learned how to set our egos aside during the creative act – and some of that probably carries over into our interactions with other people, such that both of us usually enjoy hearing about and commenting on the concerns and behavior of others, however bizarre.

What is obsessing you now and why?
Francoise is concerned with how to conclude her long career as a painter and what she wants her final word on that to be.

Lisa has started her seventh novel and is preparing to return to it, unless we decide to do a sequel to ABOUT WOMEN.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Francoise suggests, “What is joy?”

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