Saturday, June 22, 2019

Q&A with Whitney Scharer

Whitney Scharer is the author of the new novel The Age of Light, which focuses on the photographers Lee Miller and Man Ray. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New Flash Fiction Review and Cimarron Review, and she lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Q: You write that your "fascination with Lee sprang from images--images of her and images taken by her." What were some of the particular images that you found especially compelling?

A: There are so many images of and by Lee that I find fascinating. One thing I loved was how she often reinterpreted portraits of herself, created by Man Ray and other men, in her own work.

In one of Man Ray’s photos, he has Miller in the nude, her head caged inside a fencing sabre guard. Lee took the sabre guard and used it in her own shoot: in her version, her model is at ease, with the sabre guard wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl. Lee’s image reclaims the sabre guard from the sadomasochistic overtones it had in Man Ray’s work. When I was drafting my novel, I used the sabre guard photographs as a jumping off point for one of the first scenes I wrote.

Another of the first images I used in drafting my book was Dave Scherman’s photo of Lee bathing in Hitler’s bathtub after Hitler had fled Munich at the end of the war. Her expression in the pictures is so compelling: contemplative and challenging all at once—the knowing look of a woman who is using art to make a statement. Looking at that picture helped me get inside her head and start to understand her. 

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between Lee Miller and Man Ray, and what do you see as their legacies today?

A: Lee and Man were many things to each other. Lee was Man Ray’s muse and inspiration, and he used her image in his work for decades after their relationship ended. Man Ray was Lee’s teacher, lover, and professional partner—the person who set her on her artistic journey.

And they loved each other deeply, but their love affair was really complicated. The love was so wrapped up in artistic creation that it’s almost impossible to untangle them. It’s what makes their relationship so compelling to me. 

Man Ray is one of the most important Surrealist artists. He was truly multitalented: a painter, photographer, and sculptor. He’s also well-known for inventing several photographic techniques: Rayographs, where images are laid directly on photographic paper which is then exposed to light, and solarization, where negatives are briefly exposed to light during the developing process.

Lee Miller’s legacy is, I think, still coming to light. She was a talented Surrealist artist, fashion photographer, and photojournalist. Perhaps most important to her legacy was the work she did as one of the first—and only— female war correspondents during World War II. I think people are just beginning to recognize how powerfully her photographs bear witness to the horrors of the war. 

Q: How did you research this novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: Before I began writing, I spent two years reading and researching everything I could about Lee Miller, Man Ray, Surrealism, and Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I then spent the next five years writing, and continued to do research during the writing process. I read and read and read, and then I stepped away from the research and wrote, going back to what I’d researched when I needed to. 

I think one thing that really surprised me in my research was how wild and uninhibited artists were in 1930s Paris. They were far more sexually open and free than most of us are today—or, at the very least, they are far more sexually free than we picture people who lived a century ago being.

Some of the details about Man Ray and Lee Miller’s activities wowed me: she used to walk him around Montparnasse on a leash, he designed bondage collars for clients, he took erotic, risqué photographs for a book of Louis Aragon’s poetry called 1929, etc. Some readers have been surprised by the amount of sex scenes in my novel, but I’m here to tell you: I could have had a lot more! 

Q: You write, "Though I worked to render history authentically...I chose to experiment and to invent scenes and actions, as long as they felt genuine to who the characters were..." What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical as you wrote the book?

A: I love historical fiction, but I think authors run the risk of doing too much research or including too many details in a historical novel. Just because you do the research doesn’t mean it has to go into the book (and I say this having excised many details about Surrealist party games, the type of satin used on a gown, or the price of oysters at La Coupole).

Including too much research weighs a book down and never allows the characters to come alive. The most important thing about a novel—whether it’s contemporary or historical— is bringing a character to life and making the reader turn the pages. 

So, for me, the “right blend” is that perfect balance between making history come alive through authentic detail vs. allowing the characters to come alive. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another piece of historical fiction, but I’m scared to say anything more about it right now because the idea feels very fragile. Ask me again in six months—let’s hope I’ve made a lot of progress by then! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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