Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mining the cult of women

Author Susanna Moore to be a guest at Writer?s Conference

Express Staff Writer

Susanna Moore will attend this year?s Sun Valley Writer?s Conference.

While researching the work of novelist Susanna Moore, one comes across these words: fabulously talented, complex, superb, having remarkable gifts and—a favorite of this writer—elegant bohemian socialite.

Now is she all these things? Quite possibly, but I suggest not mentioning them. The author, raised in Hawaii, now lives in New York City. She will be in the area for the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, the weekend of Aug. 18 through 21, and she loathes stereotypes.

Among her six novels are the Hawaiian trilogy of "My Old Sweetheart," "Sleeping Beauties" and "The Whiteness of Bones." She also wrote a quasi-memoir/travel book, "I Myself Have Seen It" ("To call it a memoir makes me shy," she said.) Then there is the edgy "In the Cut," a novel about a murder in New York whose notoriety dumped her unceremoniously into a category called "erotic writer."

"It's really preposterous, the stereotyping and the narrowness," she said in her singular lilting accent. "I am often asked to write articles or review books, always about lingerie or how to seduce a man or about fading, aging beauties."

Indeed. It is laughable to cordon off this writer's talents in such obvious places. Her last novel, set in 19th century India, is called "One Last Look." It is about two young English sisters and their brother who is appointed governor-general in Calcutta in 1836. The story, told through one of the sister's journals, reveal glimpses of their lives during their six years in India, beginning with a sense of entitlement that slowly is eroded over the years, and, yes, okay, intense erotic high notes. It draws heavily on the real letters and diaries of three women.

"I have thought about, from time to time in my life, what it means to be female," she said. "That's always what I'm interested in and what the books are about. When I get started (on a new book), I ask myself what was it like? What were they feeling? What was in her mind? The way the Indian book started, I was reading all these journals, diaries and letters from the 18th and 19th century. Many were written by women, and it became apparent to me there was a huge body of information and secrets that for many reasons (were) not expressed. What really happened?

"They were a product of their times. They didn't reveal anything, didn't complain. People not only dressed in a certain way and lived in a certain way, but they actually thought in a different way."

Through each of these works, Moore proves she is more than a compelling storyteller. Her insight, abilities to evoke time, place, nature and sensuality make her a unique voice, a maven of the feminine literary art form.

Her new novel, to be published in 2007, veers into another realm, albeit still in the land of women and what they actually feel. Titled, "The Big Girls" it will be published in May by Knopf.

"It's about a woman in prison for killing her children," she said. "I wanted to write about mothers, about being a mother. What was interesting was, I had spent about a year reading about prisons, psychosis, and guards, everything I could find. My interest was so awakened I volunteered to teach writing in a prison.

"I really was interested in writing about what it is to be a mother. And what is the most extreme condition? What are the most extreme things that can happen?" she asked. "Some of the women in the prison were more sympathetic to me. Some I found poignant. Others I was less patient with. It changed my views."

Moore's own past is as evocative as her novels, which explains why many of her female protagonists resemble her to some degree. In "The Whiteness of Bones," Mamie, a young girl who grew up in Hawaii, moves to New York City and gets a job through her aunt at Deardorfs, a fancy department store where she meets all sorts of characters. Moore moved to New York when she was 18, and through a friend of her family's got a job at the upscale department store, Bergdorf Goodman.

In a lovely article, published recently for Vogue magazine, Moore wrote about her own experience upon moving to New York with designer clothes given her in a rush by the family friend. With nothing else to wear, she made her way through an upper East Side socialite life in clothes that were overtly sophisticated for one of her age and background.

OK, besides being a bohemian beauty, Moore is also immoderately modest and circumspect. When asked about her life in Hollywood she said she read scripts and wrote synopsis reviews. This is true. But the person she wrote these reviews for was Warren Beatty. She had several small roles in his movies and married Richard Sylbert, a two-time Oscar winning production designer and art director, who worked on many classic movies of the 1970s.

"The acting came as a consequence of having friends. I had a tiny little part in 'Shampoo,' because I think Warren liked my voice," she laughed. "I didn't know I was going to be a writer. I was such a bookworm and read constantly. I married someone in the movie business, had a child, lived in London. Then I began to write. I didn't write my first book until I was 32."

Because of her time in the movie business, it was not unusual for her to have a hand in writing the screenplay for "In the Cut," which came out in 2003.

"I wrote the screenplay with Jane (Campion, the director) and spent a lot of time with her in London, Australia and Hawaii," she said. "I am devoted to her beyond measure. I think of her as one of the most interesting women I know. Having spent those years in Hollywood, and reading scripts, I was not concerned about turning it into a screenplay.

"As it turned out I thought the movie was just wonderful. I don't think she nor Meg (Ryan) got the credit they deserved. It's very dark, both in story and design, although I thought it was ravishing. In retrospect, it was a mistake to change the ending. I was adamant to change the ending. It was my idea so that it had a less terrifying and somber ending."

Of course, "the book was notorious for being erotic," Moore said. "Extremely erotic."

This fall she is going to Berlin on a fellowship to research and write about women and fascism.

A bohemian beauty who writes with the legacy of island wind and water in her bones, Moore is much more than an erotic writer. She is one of the interesting women we all wish we knew.

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