Format: Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
ISBN: 978-0-7710-3793-1 (0-7710-3793-7)
Pub Date: September 7, 2004
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McCelland & Stewart: Garbo Laughs is very much a novel about the love of movies - movies play an important role in the lives of the book’s characters, there are movie references scattered throughout the book, along with biographical information on various actors and some history about movies in general. What kind of research was necessary in preparing for this book?
Elizabeth Hay: Garbo Laughs required very little research compared to A Student of Weather. I had a lot of the movie information in my head, being something of a movie addict myself. The labour was not the research but the struggle to have the right elements in the book, to have a balance between those elements, and to have the right tone. I really wanted to write a funny book, but humour and sadness needed to go hand in hand if the novel was to have any emotional depth. I should add that one of the joys of writing the book was that I could re-watch old movies and say I was doing research, very serious research.
MS: In this novel and in your previous novel, A Student of Weather, weather plays a pivotal part in the narrative. What is it about the weather that contributes to your storytelling?
EH: Weather is both restful and dramatic, and it always widens the story, bringing a sense of the larger world. The great ice storm of 1998 is one of the key elements in Garbo Laughs. It arrives with a vengeance and brings with it a visitor, the formidable Aunt Leah. As I was writing I was thinking of the movie critic Pauline Kael's comment about In the Name of the Father, the movie with Daniel Day Lewis. A son is thrown into jail with the father he can't stand, and it's a "great situation," she said. I thought that having Harriet Browning trapped inside during the ice storm with an aunt she couldn't stand would be a great situation too.
MS: Movies play an important role in the lives of your characters whether they are film lovers or not. How would you describe the different ways in which your characters relate to movies in the book?
EH: Not everyone in the book is crazy about movies. Lew Gold, the father in the story, is far more interested in the real world. But among most of the characters movies are the common currency, the one thing they can all talk about easily and eagerly. Harriet and her two children dote on movies; they come to life when they watch them. With one of their neighbours, Dinah Bloom, they form a Friday night movie club which gives them great pleasure: watching videos, talking about them, dressing up like certain movie stars. The trouble with movies is that they awaken hungers that can only be satisfied by watching more movies. They fill us with longings to be more intense than we are, more carefree, funnier, more beautiful, more loved, more loving, and it's hard to return to real life. At one point I toyed with the idea of having Harriet permanently turn against movies, just as Don Quixote rejects his books on chivalry; he turns his face to the wall and dies. But I couldn't do that, since it would have meant denying the very real pleasure that movies give us.
MS: What do you think it was about Greta Garbo or what she embodied that made her so alluring and contributes to her continuing appeal?
EH: She was the most beautiful woman in the world, as one of the characters says. She was also a loner. She gave the impression of not caring what the world thought of her. On screen she was unusually sensual and intense, and off screen she went her own way. But there's also such a sense of waste about her. She stopped working at the age of thirty-six and the rest of her life was something of an empty book.
MS: Was there something specific to Garbo that spoke to you as a movie fan and, moreover, as a writer that made her a perfect fit for your novel?
EH: When I read that the ad for her 1939 movie Ninotchka was "Garbo Laughs!" I knew that I had the title for my book. I'm always drawn to opposites, and this phrase captured two marvelous opposites: solitary Garbo bursting into laughter. Garbo's laugh isn't as legendary as Mona Lisa's smile, but it's close. Apparently, when she had her great laughing scene in Ninotchka no sound came out, and they had to dub in the sound of someone else's laughter. Harriet Browning also errs on the side of seriousness. I wanted to have her discover her sense of humour in the course of the book. I wanted laughter to come to her rescue.
MS: As a substitute for “Dear Diary,” Harriet often writes letters in her head to Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s legendary film critic. You yourself have written an essay on Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies. What is it about Kael and her work that connects with Harriet, and with yourself?
EH: Recently, I read Pauline Kael described as an "intellectual warrior." She was very tough but very open, and she wrote enormously well. Nothing she wrote was boring. She loved movies of all kinds and used them to write about life. She gives Harriet permission to love movies without apology and she gave me the idea to write about the way movies interact with our lives.
MS: As a writer, Harriet has to deal with the consequences of borrowing details from the people in her own life and putting them into her writing. Many of your personal experiences with movies described in your essay discussing Pauline Kael, The Most Fearless Book I ever Read, read just like your description of Harriet’s experiences with movies in Garbo Laughs. How do you approach the potentially tricky territory of borrowing from life for your fiction?
EH: I cross my fingers. Certainly I mine real life for situations and details that I can use, embroider, expand upon and move forward from. The result is fiction, an invented world inspired by the real world. What I would really like to do is bring everything that's in me to a book, just as Pauline Kael brought everything she knew and everything she was to her reviews. Let me add that I'm far better at invention than I was ten years ago, and this is a relief to me and to everyone I know.
MS: If Hollywood were to make a movie of Garbo Laughs, who would you like cast?
EH: Ah. Colin Firth would make a great Lew Gold, but so would Daniel Day Lewis. Too bad that Paula Prentiss is too old to play Harriet. We need someone long, loopy, capable of being intentionally and unintentionally funny. Dinah Bloom in my mind's eye looks a bit like Simone Signoret in Room at the Top. Could we get Charlotte Rampling to play Dinah? Only if she's able to be funny, of course. I'm not a big fan of child actors, so I have no suggestions for Kenny and Jane. Just don't let them be cute. Shelley Winters could probably do a good Aunt Leah. And Jack Frame? Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ottawa should certainly play Ottawa.
From the Hardcover edition.
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