Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Q&A with Anna North

Anna North is the author of the new novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. She also has written the novel America Pacifica. A staff editor at The New York Times, she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sophie Stark, and why did you decide to make her a filmmaker?

A: I had the idea to write about a character named Sophie Stark years ago, long before I really started the book in earnest. In my mind she was always a filmmaker.

At first I wanted to make her more of a political documentarian, but over time I realized I was less interested in the political aspects of her work than in the personal -- how she relates (and fails to relate) to the people closest to her, how her art intertwines with her identity.

I think I was attracted to the idea of writing about a filmmaker because film feels so different from writing -- focusing on Sophie allowed me to tell a story about a creative person whose skills and outlook on the world are totally different from mine.

Q: How did you decide on your novel’s structure, and did you make many changes as you were writing?

A: It took me a long time to decide on the structure. At first I thought I'd have one character tell the story, but I could never decide who it should be -- I tried writing from Robbie's perspective, from Allison's, and from the perspectives of other characters who don't appear in the finished novel, but none of the characters felt like they could tell the whole story on their own.

Then I realized that I could tell it from multiple characters' points of view, and the book began to come together after that.

I did make a number of changes after I wrote the first draft, from changing the order of certain chapters to adding a few to cutting an entire chapter.

The structure of the book allowed me to experiment a bit, which I appreciated, but it also made it harder to decide on a final order of chapters, since the storyline doesn't always proceed in a linear way. 

Q: Of all the characters telling Sophie’s story, did you have a favorite or feel closer to some than to others?

A: I had some favorites early on, but I tried hard to care about each of them equally. Some characters took longer for me to understand than others, and I had to spend more time thinking about their histories -- what were their childhoods like? Their relationships? What happened to them to make them the way they are now? 

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: Some authors who have affected my writing a lot over the years are David Foster Wallace, Anne Carson, Li-Young Lee, Neal Stephenson, and Annie Dillard. I also love Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Specimen Days, and their structure may have influenced this book.

When I think of books about art I always think of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. And the Sherlock Holmes stories have been a big influence on me since I first read them as a kid; I think Sophie is a little bit like Holmes. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a new novel that's a little bit more like my first novel, America Pacifica, than like The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.

I don't want to say too much about it yet, but it's set in the future, or at least in a time and place that's not exactly our world right now, and it deals a lot with issues of gender. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm also a writer and editor at the New York Times, where I'm on the editorial board and write for and edit the editorial page blog. Recently I wrote about an artist who painted Pluto during the historic flyby, and the potential mental health benefits of video games.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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