Friday, January 6, 2023

Q&A with Edward J. Delaney

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan


Edward J. Delaney is the author of the new novel The Acrobat, which is based on the life of Cary Grant. Delaney's other books include the novel Broken Irish. He teaches at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.


Q: What inspired you to write The Acrobat, and why did you focus in the book on Cary Grant at age 55, in 1959?


A: I always found him to a be a fascinating person, and was particularly interested in the way he shaped his own persona as something of a work of fiction in itself.


And I was interested in the Hollywood of the 1950s in its waning days of dominance as television forced a new way of doing things. The shifting of the conformist 1950s into what would come in the 1960s was there as well. His own experiences with LSD was part of that.


Q: How did you research Grant’s life, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I knew much of his story before deciding to do the book, so the surprises came in small places.


But one surprise was how the facts varied in the telling of his story. There’s no doubt he embroidered his own origin story as it suited his image, and in some ways his own testimony may have been one of an unreliable narrator. Later in his career, he seemed to take a Cary Grantish lightness to the relating of his tale, but in fact it seems to have been a much more traumatic story.


Q: In an interview with NPR, you said of Grant, “It's interesting to look at who he thought he was and who he really was, and how those two personas worked together.” Can you say more about that?


A: He always saw himself as Archibald Leach, the acrobat from Bristol, but he was also was happy to occupy the Cary Grant persona when it had its benefits.

He was not, in any sense of the word, an imposter. But he was a British boy from the lower classes who had a regality to him; he saw himself as an American – having been in the country since he was 16 years old – unless being British had a benefit.


He saw himself as someone from poverty who had to fight for every dime in his pocket, and his accumulation of money made him resent the public perception he was cheap. So there was always this bit of tension between the two sides of him, I think.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel called it “A beautifully imagined, sympathetic portrait of a flawed icon.” What do you think of that description?


A: I appreciate that, and agree certainly that much is imagined. Biographies are, typically, a compendium of known facts that may or may not fully reveal who the person was. But to imagine what was going on in those times when he was young, or when he stepped away from the camera and could be who he really was, that was the task here.


Clearly, this is a work of fiction, and so this Cary Grant is a fictional character. But it was done so with sympathy, to be sure. Actors, and artistic people in general, can be very fragile, and I think he did everything he could – in his life and in the roles he played – to not be fragile.


But he was constantly molding himself in a way that pleased people, until he found that a lot of people were trying to emulate him. He was, certainly, an icon of a kind of elegance and style, and someone who looked at the world with a bit of humor. There’s not as much of that left in today’s culture.


And he was flawed, without doubt. He was self-aware enough of that to spend a lot of his adult life trying to be a better person and to be happy; the LSD therapy was a huge step in trying to be very honest with himself in a way a lot of celebrities, with their egos, would never attempt.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: It has been my habit over the years to work on multiple projects over multiple years, so have two works of fiction in progress as well as a nonfiction project. I work on one until I need a respite, then jump into another.


The fiction I suppose could be viewed as historical, because I find myself enjoying reading history and historical fiction these days. That may be a respite the current chaotic state of our culture. Looking back and trying to take some lesson from it might be useful.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Edward J. Delaney.

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