A magnetic novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark tells the story of a young filmmaker’s meteoric rise and sudden disappearance as relayed by the people closest to her. I recently talked with its author, Anna North—who is fresh off a Lambda Literary Award and the novel’s (her second) paperback release—about art and work and ethics. Which is to say, the fun stuff. North is appearing in Brooklyn this upcoming Sunday and Monday—talking about sex at BookCourt on June 19 and talking about movies at Videology on June 20. Don’t miss her!
What’s the origin story of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark? I was reading The New Yorker at my parent’s house and there was actually a profile of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi documentarian. It was a really fascinating and really disturbing profile. That got me thinking—what would it be like to be a documentarian for a dictator? I sort of was playing with that idea, someone who follows this communist leader around, what that person’s life would be like. I realized I wasn’t interested in the politics, that mostly what I was interested in was someone, a woman, who would be a film director, who would be very mysterious and amoral. So I started writing with that in mind. I was really interested in how she would disappear one day. I don’t mean to say that Sophie Stark has anything in common with the Nazis. As amoral as she is, it’s not a story about someone who is very terrible. To the extent that Sophie’s art has a message at all, it’s about trying to understand people.
For this book at least I haven’t read any reviews, I created a cone of silence for myself. In that way I haven’t seen the reception that much, but I have talked to readers. I did a panel with Emily Schultz and some other writers about bad women and unlikeable characters, and even though I love Sophie Stark, I thought of her as very unlikeable. I don’t want to say she’s a bad person, that’s so black-and-white. But I was surprised that people don’t necessarily view her that way. I was happy that people were captivated by her in the way the characters in the book were captivated by her. She does do really bad things.
I think Sophie just as enigmatic to me [as she is to the characters]. I just have one extra insight, which is that it might not be possible to get her. Obviously I know her better than anyone could possible know her, she isn’t real, she exists in my mind. When I think about her, I think, okay, there’s a way in which no one can exactly know why she is the way she is. That’s painful to her. We can’t know anybody fully, but for her even more so. One thing I think she does consciously is try to play that up and be mysterious and enigmatic. I think that probably serves her well in building her artistic legacy.
You just won the Lambda Literary Award for bisexual fiction. In your book, two characters—both Sophie and one of her partners, Allison—date men and women. How much were you thinking about bisexuality—or sexuality in general—as you were writing? Sophie Stark came into my mind whole in a way that most characters don’t, and her bisexuality was part of her character from the beginning. Even though she has such a difficult time connecting with people, in the novel she’s defined in a way by her relationships, and I always knew her romantic relationships would be with both women and men. I did think about her bisexuality to some degree in terms of the way other characters would perceive her—her brother’s reaction to her coming-out, for instance. But in general I thought more about her individual relationships than about her sexual orientation more generally, in part because I think she’s someone who doesn’t think about her sexual orientation generally a whole lot. One result of that approach, I think, is that Sophie doesn’t face a lot of homophobia or biphobia in the novel. That’s not realistic, and I feel somewhat conflicted about it at this point, much as I feel conflicted about Sophie not facing a lot of sexism. I think I wanted Sophie to be able to live, to some degree, the way straight, male “difficult artists” (or art monsters, to steal Jenny Offill’s phrase) have lived, even though in real life she probably wouldn’t be treated the same way as a straight male director at all.
What is it like publishing your second book? I knew a lot more about publishing this time than last time. It’s also changed a lot since last time, even in those intervening years. Sort of as a result, I did a lot more to promote the book this time. I wrote a lot more essay pieces to go along with it than I had for the first one. I did more social media stuff. I didn’t even know that I had my own Facebook page when the first book came out. Social media feels like the biggest difference. In 2011, I had a Twitter account for work. Now there’s so much more of an online community for books and reading. There’s certainly more pressure for authors to be active on social media. It’s a double edged sword. It’s really great to connect with readers, to talk with other authors, but for me it’s always been a lot more of a struggle. I get a lot of value from it, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. The only thing I’m confident about now is [asking myself the question], “Okay, is this working?” I’m a little bit better at that sense then I used to be. I find it about the same to write, though. I wrote a novel before American Pacifica that never was published for good reasons and ever since I did that, I know—I can finish a novel, it’s possible.
You also write editorials for the New York Times opinion section. How does this kind of writing interact with your fiction writing? I’ve always felt like there were two halves—that each were a break from the other. Writing fiction feels really different from writing nonfiction, especially editorials. They aren’t narrative, they’re very fast paced, very persuasive, very short. It’s good for writers to be aware of what’s going on in the world. It does affect my fiction. The book I’m currently working on is set during some kind of alternate future, though it wouldn’t make sense to put actual news events in it.
I’ve been really struggling for a way to articulate this way I want to be as a writer. I really want to be empathetic and difficult to shock. I want to be someone who can absorb all these different things that are happening in the world and present them in a way that isn’t sentimental or shocked or surprised. I want to present them as: this is the variety of human experience, good and bad. If you’re writing about someone to whom something awful has happened, it’s important to maintain that kind of open mind, one that accepts human experience and doesn’t freak out. I try to be that way with both my fiction and nonfiction. I try to be that in my life too, but that doesn’t always work.
One of the central questions of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is the human cost of art, and whether or not art it worth that price. As a filmmaker, Sophie Stark privileges the final product above the people involved. Her choice also appears to allow her to produce unflinching, unnerving works of art. How do you come down on this issue? I fall pretty far away from Sophie on this question. Artists should have the right to write about their personal lives, definitely. But I think you could make a lot of really great art without hurting people close to you. I’ve talked to people about the question of whether you’d rather be a really great artist or be really happy in your life—I’d much rather be happy. But I don’t think they’re that mutually exclusive.
I think for Sophie, sometimes her art suffers because she can’t be good to people. It’s not always one direction. It’s not always that she’s able to make better movies because she exploits people. For female artists, being able to carve out time and being selfish about your work is essential. That selfishness helps them be able to do what they are called to do in their lives. But I’ve never felt that romantic about the life of the artist. You don’t have to be a jerk to people.