"Brilliant and dangerous": Anna North's fictional Sophie Stark uses and discards people to make her vérité films

North on the androgynous Sophie Stark, the chorus of ex-lovers who tell Sophie's story and the ethics of filmmaking

Published June 10, 2015 10:29PM (EDT)

Anna North
Anna North

Anna North is the author of the novels "America Pacifica" and the just-released "The Life and Death of Sophie Stark," but before that, years ago, she was the film critic for a tiny newspaper in California, the Stanford Daily. For this august college publication, she reviewed films such as "Gothika" and "The Singing Detective." Now, she has written an eerie novel about the ethics of filmmaking, a book that features at its core an enigmatic, phlegmatic indie director named Sophie Stark.

Sophie Stark is described as having a “roguish” smile and Bill Bradley-esque extraperipheral vision; other characters in the book — ex-lovers and collaborators, mostly — repeatedly liken her to a 12-year-old boy, even as she androgynously dresses up in men’s suits and shirts. But it is Stark’s filmmaking that gets her into trouble. Stark vampirishly latches onto and then discards people to make her vérité films, which are partway between mumblecore and the urban style of Sofia Coppola. She has little use for emotions even as she channels others’.

The novel considers the puzzle of this would-be icon by giving us a chorus of perspectives, one of whom, in a nod to North’s own past, is a pompous and hilarious college critic who awards Stark’s first movie, "Marianne," “3,468,994.2 stars” out of a maximum of five.

I spoke with North, who is currently a staff editor at the New York Times Opinions Section, about the challenges of portraying a female artist and about how "The Life and Death of Sophie Stark" differed from her first novel, the post-apocalyptic "America Pacifica."

Your first novel was set in an imagined apocalyptic future and was told in third person. Was it difficult to move into first person realist mode with Sophie Stark?

It was definitely an adjustment. With "America Pacifica" I was used to the built-in high stakes of a post-apocalyptic world where people were fighting to survive. Going back to the real world after that was difficult — for the first few months that I was writing "Sophie Stark," I kept trying to insert futuristic elements as a way to raise the stakes. I was worried that no story set in the present could be important enough — after all, it was just about people living their lives, not about the fall of the human race. I think I finally stopped feeling that way when I figured out how to deal with point of view in the book. When I started going deep into the other characters’ stories, I stopped worrying about what would make the book “important,” because of course people’s lives are important — once I sort of got immersed in them, I think I understood that.

Moving into the first person was difficult too. I had almost always written in third person limited before I started this book, and I sort of thought that was my point of view and I wouldn’t change it. But when I started this book it just made sense to write in first person, even though that created various problems. One of my teachers in grad school told us that a book kind of comes to you in a certain point of view, and once it’s set, it’s difficult or impossible to change. I definitely felt that way with "Sophie Stark."

You're a rare writer with a full-time writing job. How do you balance novel writing with your reporting and opinion pieces? Do they bleed into each other in an interesting way?

Writing fiction and nonfiction feel almost totally different to me. Fiction feels like this slow, almost prayerful thing, that I have to drop far away from the real world, at least mentally, to do. My journalistic work needs to be fast and clear and totally engaged with the real world. I’ve been sort of pleasantly surprised at how little the one exhausts me for the other — fiction actually feels like a break from nonfiction in a funny way. Weirdly, the hardest thing for me is writing creative essays, because they need to combine some of the beauty of fiction with the rigor of nonfiction, and being in those two mental states at once can be really taxing.

I do think they bleed into each other — I think fiction has taught me about the rhythm of a good sentence, which is important in journalism too, and also about how to be empathetic and put myself in other people’s shoes. And I think my journalism work has taught me to drill down to the truth of something, the core of it, and also to be a little more businesslike about writing — you have deadlines, you have to meet them, so you have to get your writing done. You can’t wait until you feel inspired.

You're a young female artist yourself, of course. But I was interested in how little of the novel was about the difficulty of being female in the film world, and more about the murky morality of making films in general. Did you consciously try to keep out the economic/industrial aspects of being a female filmmaker?

It’s funny, I only realized after the fact how little Sophie faced sexism in the book. Before I started writing, I definitely talked to women in the film industry about the specific difficulties of being a woman in that world, and I was and am interested in those difficulties. But I think as I wrote, questions of who Sophie is, how her art relates to her life, and how both hurt and help the people around her, sort of crowded everything else out. I really wanted to write a book that positions a female artist as truly great, as brilliant and dangerous — I think so often women are encouraged to view their creative work as just this little thing they do, this little thing that can’t possibly be very important and certainly isn’t capital-G Great, and so I did want to create a woman who wanted to be and who was a great artist, without apology (even when she kind of should apologize). And maybe Sophie became almost like a fantasy for me — this woman who is hailed as a genius without all the questioning and minimizing that real female artists experience.

It’s not realistic — and looking back, I now wish I’d dealt with sexism more directly in the book. But I do like that the book takes for granted that a woman can be a certain kind of artist. Calvin Trillin has this idea of the Dostoyevsky test — if you think you’re the next Dostoevsky, you can write about your family and not worry about the consequences. I think he’d probably say the vast majority of us are not the next Dostoyevsky. But I like the idea that Sophie kind of could be — at least, her art is important enough that people ask whether it was worth the pain it caused, and don’t just assume that it wasn’t.

The impressive thing about the novel is how controlled and structured it is, despite how sprawling it seems at first. How did you arrive at the characters who surround Sophie and tell her story? Were you hoping for each of them to do something different? Did you write them in a linear manner?

I wish I could say I had a specific plan for each of the characters and what they’d reveal about Sophie. It was more that there were certain relationships I wanted Sophie to have — with a brother, with a girlfriend, with a husband, with a producer — and the characters sort of grew out of that. And then as they took on lives of their own, I started to find out what they could tell the reader about Sophie. I wrote them mostly in a linear order, but not entirely — for instance, there was a chapter that I ended up cutting that focused on Sophie as a child, and that one I wrote later in the process. I also shuffled the chapters around until very late in the game — the book is mostly in chronological order, but the first chapter takes place later in time than the second. I think from the very beginning I thought of the book not just as the linear story of a person’s life, but also sort of as a collection of documents that constitute her legacy — in the early drafts I wanted it to be even more like that, with footnotes and everything, "Pale Fire"-style. And so I always kind of thought of the chapters as elements that could be moved around, if necessary.

What did you struggle with most with this book?

I struggled to get into the heads of some of the characters. I saw Sophie so clearly from the very beginning (even though she’s mysterious in certain ways and has a lot of contradictory characteristics), and I wanted to give every character as much consideration as I gave her, and that was hard sometimes. With every character I tried to find a way in, usually an intense feeling or memory they had that I could kind of tunnel through to the core of their personality — but with some it took longer than with others.

Were there any particular filmmakers you had in mind while writing this book? Both as an inspiration for Sophie and for the structure or style of the book?

I didn’t really base Sophie on any filmmakers. I thought about Patti Smith, just appearance-wise, when I was writing about her, and I thought a lot about male artists, especially those who were sort of caddish and careless with the people around them, but are still remembered as great. That’s not to say that film didn’t influence the book, though. Sophie’s taste in movies mirrors mine, in certain ways, though hers is probably more wide-ranging. And a lot of movies that had a big effect on me get mentioned in the book — Danny Boyle’s "Sunshine," "The Silence of the Lambs," the 1980 animated version of "The Return of the King." That last one in particular isn’t necessarily thought of as a good movie (I learned while looking it up after the fact), but I remember it having this sense of sort of uncanny sorrow that I try to re-create in my writing. I think a lot of my favorite movies have had that kind of indirect impact on my writing — they’ve gotten me interested in a certain mood, for instance, or a way of putting a story together.

How did you research the book?

I read some books on independent filmmaking — I read Christine Vachon’s "Shooting to Kill" and Sharon Waxman’s "Rebels on the Backlot." I also talked to some female filmmakers, especially my friend Anna Kerrigan, who most recently wrote and directed the web series "The Impossibilities." She helped me understand a lot of the logistics of making movies, especially some of the issues that come up in George’s chapter with getting a star attached, and with what happens if you lose that star. I’ve always liked movies but I knew nothing about the financial and legal aspects of getting them made, and Anna helped me understand those.

Any mistakes are, of course, my own. I always wish I could do more research for books. I have this problem in which research feels like it doesn’t “count” as work — the only thing that “counts” is actually sitting down and writing. So I end up jumping into the actual writing maybe more quickly than I should, because I want to feel like I’m working.

I'm curious about the decision to show Sophie as being androgynous -- always wearing men's button-down shirts or suits, for example.

Her androgyny was really part of her character from the very beginning for me. I imagined her in a suit really early on, though I also imagined her in lipstick and a dress. She’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and presenting as more feminine or more masculine is part of that. It’s also part of her mystique — everything about her identity, including her name, is sort of fluid, and her gender presentation is a bit fluid also. It’s part of who she is, and it’s part of the persona that she creates, unconsciously and consciously, for herself.

When the book starts it seems to be about gender issues and sexual violence in a very direct way, but then it homes in on a series of male characters struggling with their confidence in the aftermath of trauma. Were you surprised by the direction the book took?

I’m actually still surprised that there are more male narrators than female in the book, because I think of myself as someone who writes about women and because I think of Sophie Stark as so much the story of a woman. But I kind of like that there are so many men. As I mentioned, I thought a lot about male artists while I was writing the book  — men like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock or Ernest Hemingway who caused a lot of pain for the people around them but who are still kind of remembered as heroes. And so often when we hear the stories of those artists we hear about “the women who loved him,” all these women who are at the periphery while the man is at the center. I like the idea of flipping that on its head, of having all these men tell the story of one woman. Which isn’t to say I don’t care deeply about the male characters in the book; I do. But ultimately it’s Sophie’s story.

Who would play Sophie in the ideal movie version of the book?

There’s an actress named Maria Pankratz who appears in "Silent Light," a movie set in a Mexican Mennonite community. I thought of her face a lot when I was writing about Sophie; she has that perfect sort of hawkish beauty. Going more mainstream, I think Kristen Stewart would be an interesting choice. She’s probably too conventionally gorgeous, but she has that kind of brooding affect that I think would be a good fit.

By Karan Mahajan

Karan Mahajan is the author of the novels "Family Planning" and the forthcoming "The Association of Small Bombs." He lives in Austin, Texas.

MORE FROM Karan Mahajan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American Pacifica Anna North Books Fiction The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark Writers And Writing