Carmela Ciuraru was kind of enough to answer my questions about her wonderful new book, Nom De Plume.
JR: Pseudonyms give people the license to lie (I stole that from you). Especially writers, who in most cases, lie all the time, in one way or another. This is a very specific book, and you take the reader into the private lives of some of the worlds greatest writers. For the most part I would never have thought much about this, what made you write an entire book on this incredibly rich topic?
CC: This was a happy accident. While I was sort of stalled on another book idea, I was assigned to write an article for an international art magazine. The editor was very vague; he just said that the theme of the issue was “secrets,” and could I apply that theme in the context of literature? Naturally, pseudonyms came to mind. I looked into the subject a little bit, wrote my piece, and then became wholly absorbed in the topic. (As you say, this topic is incredibly rich, much moreso than I had even imagined.) I wanted to keep going, and it occurred to me that this might evolve into a book. I started learning about all these other stories that I wanted to tell–and actually, I had always been fascinated by the fact that certain writers maintain secret identities, like superheroes leading double lives.
Also, I’d known for years about Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer who harbored more than 70 different identities. I loved his work. So I knew he would have to be in the book for sure. I did some preliminary research and saw that no one had done the kind of book I had in mind. And then I was very excited to dive into the researching and writing. It was the most difficult and draining thing I have ever attempted, but (in the end, after much suffering) immensely satisfying. I learned so much.
JR: You take us behind the scenes of great literary lives, and some of the coolest, like Patricia Highsmith. She seemed like one really nasty woman. But, she wrote some great books. So does that give her a pass? You know in life? I think parts of Tom Ripley are really just layers of her own personality.
CC: I am in no position to judge a dead woman. But you know, some artists are very nice; others very cruel and self-absorbed. So are people in general. I really think you have to separate the work from the life. I agree with you that there must have been some part of Highsmith expressed via Ripley–an alter ego of sorts. There was a kind of violence to her emotional life. She was indeed a nasty woman, by all accounts, and to what seems an astonishing extent. But let’s also keep in mind that she wrote the first successful, positive story of lesbian love (under her pen name Carol Morgan), which was a very brave thing to do in the mid-twentieth century. She did not attempt to pathologize the relationship portrayed in the novel. People wrote her letters to say how grateful they were to have found this book. So perhaps she wasn’t all bad. And in some ways, one could admire her. Highsmith had a very difficult time dealing with other people, and with managing most of her personal relationships. She knew that. In that regard I find her a sympathetic figure. She had suffered so much cruelty from her own mother, which partly explained her treatment of others later in life. I mean, when her mother was pregnant with her, she attempted to abort the fetus by ingesting turpentine. That will not do wonders for your child’s self-esteem later on.
I’m not saying that Highsmith’s spitefulness was justified–and her anti-Semitism was of course loathsome–but I can see where it came from. She really struggled in her life, however wealthy and famous she became. Often she was battling herself (her own worst enemy). To me it’s impressive that despite what she’d endured, she was still able to produce important and influential work. From what I can tell, Highsmith was probably her “best” self when she was alone and writing. And solitude was her preference, anyway.
JR: The kinds of writers you cover here, some of them had drinking problems (common). Henry Green, Georges Simenon, and Patricia Highsmith. “Problems” is putting it lightly. Or they had shitty childhoods. This shaped them. But we don’t hear that much from today’s writers. Jennifer Egan‘s life is what it is. We know what we know, but other than James Frey, we have not really heard much “bad shit” from prominent writers. Would you agree that if you’re writing fiction, no one really cares if you’re fucked up. But if you’ve written a memoir, that’s juicy, then people want to know. Right?
CC: I’m not so sure about that. In our current era we are so caught up in the cult of celebrity that I think it’s pervasive even among prominent fiction writers.
It would be inappropriate to name names, but you know, when it comes to issues such as infidelity, drug use, etc., word definitely gets around in the literary world and people start gossiping, especially if the author is distinguished or famous. I’ve heard stuff sometimes and have just tried to put it out of my head, so that it would not color my reading of someone’s work. Obviously, you’re right that well-known authors of memoirs can more readily draw negative attention or curiosity for their missteps–but again, novelists are hardly immune to that treatment. The more successful they are, the more people are waiting to catch them in a bad mood, or to find out something “juicy” from their past. And then it ends up on Twitter or the New York Post. I can’t stand that.
I think that some writers, whether fiction or nonfiction, court and exploit that kind of attention (however damaging) to get more “buzz” or to create some sort of public persona. It’s repugnant. I don’t find those writers interesting, and I avoid their work.
JR: This is a very readable piece of non-fiction, and as readers of this blog know, I don’t ever read non-fiction (okay, I read the newspaper…on my phone). I liken Nom De Plume to a summer home built by hand, carefully, and with no rough edges. You did a boat load of research, how did you not make it sound like you wanted to teach us something, and make it anecdotal, even insider-ish?
CC: Thanks, Jason. I am not a scholar, nor do I aspire to be. But yes, I did an exhaustive amount of research, an obsessive amount of research, much more than is reflected in the final book. And because I’m not a scholar, I took a different approach, working with my own inadequacies and intellectual limitations as I went along. I was just trying to write in a conversational tone, as if sharing these interesting stories with a friend. That was the only way I could tackle this. If someone had asked me to write in a somber, scholarly voice, with the explicit intention to enlighten readers, I would have failed. Or abandoned the project.
Had I attempted to “teach” readers something with this book, it would have seemed didactic and, frankly, probably boring to read. Personally, I respond poorly to authors who seem to carry an agenda, or who force certain perspectives or “lessons” on readers. I want to make up my own mind. To me, the best books–whether novels, biographies, or poetry collections–ask complicated, provocative questions. They might even ask terrifying questions. But they don’t necessarily offer answers.
When it came to writing my book, I just wanted to find the richest anecdotes, the details that conveyed these stories most vividly. And everything else, I figured I’d leave up to the reader. With each chapter, my only concern was, “Is this a compelling story? Is it accessible and informative and engaging?”
Because pseudonymity is by definition such a strange and mysterious tradition, it seemed appropriate to step back a bit and let the stories speak for themselves.
Various themes and patterns come into play over the course of this book, having to do with privacy, creativity, identity, and so on. People can form their own conclusions about what those things mean.
JR: What’s next? Can you tell us a little bit about your day job? And what is it like to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle?
CC: I have an idea in mind for my next project, but at the moment I’m just really focused on this book. I can’t devote my attention to anything else work-wise.
My “day job” is being a freelance writer and editor, so there isn’t much to describe. Typically, I work from home. I sit at a desk. My schedule is somewhat flexible. One benefit is that on slow days I can go to an art museum, or stop by some of my favorite galleries and bookstores, or just wander around the city and clear my head.
As for the NBCC, it is a wonderful community to be part of. I enjoy casting my votes for the annual Awards Ceremony and supporting the books I believe in. Throughout the year, there are great NBCC events (panels, readings, etc.) that I attend whenever I can. I’m happy to be among people who are as hopelessly passionate about books as I am. And I always learn something from the people I talk with–a new novel to check out, for instance, or interesting insights into the publishing industry.
JR: Thank you for taking the time, I really appreciate it.
CC: Thank you, Jason. It’s been a pleasure.
- Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru + trailer (threeguysonebook.com)