Monday, July 29, 2013

Canadian Historical Fiction Interview with Ania Sazdo

Today I have the lovely Ania Szado who wrote Studio Saint-Ex stop by and answer some questions. I reviewed this book earlier in the year and absolutely loved the story. You can check out the review here

1. What made you decide to choose the story of Antoine Saint-Exupery as your basis for the novel?

Picture taken from author website
I'd always loved The Little Prince, but didn't know much about its author until I stumbled across a biography of him several years ago. I became completely entranced by him. He was very contradictory and complex, and he had a richly adventurous, romantic and creative life. I was especially drawn to his WWII New York period, when he was living on Central Park South and writing The Little Prince. I'd had no idea that he wrote the book entirely in New York, or that the storyline and its details were so reflective of his own personal struggles at that time. I felt compelled to tell that story—and to bring Saint-Exupéry back to life for a while.

2. Who was your favourite character to write? Do you feel that you wrote yourself in any of the characters?

Of all the characters in Studio Saint-Ex, I'd have to say that Consuelo, Saint-Exupéry's estranged wife, was the most fun to write. In the novel, she's a fiery, tempestuous, needy and manipulative character—quite a piece of work—but I actually toned her down from real life. For example, to illustrate her volatile nature, I had her throw a makeup compact and a picture frame at her husband. In reality, she broke plenty of furniture and was known to send dinner plates flying at his head as he tried to entertain guests with a story. She casts herself as a long-suffering, self-sacrificing wife in her own memoirs, but at the same time, she reveals (presumably inadvertently) how exasperating, infuriating and conniving she was. The contradictions gave me some freedom to interpret and shape her as I thought appropriate. She wasn't well liked by her husband's friends or admirers, and many of the Saint-Ex biographies are fairly dismissive of her, but she had an incredible hold on Saint-Exupéry to the end of his days, despite the on-and-off nature of their relationship.

I think the part of me that appears most directly in the novel is in the exploration of creative impulses and struggles, and in Mignonne's love of the old, well-worn, sunlit space that is Madame Lachapelle's studio. I did visual art before turning to writing, and lived in non-residential studio spaces before the days of factories and warehouses becoming converted to pristine lofts. Of course, Mig's longing for Saint-Exupéry also reflects my irrational yearning to have known him in real life.

3. My favourite part of the book was the idea of artists, each of the characters is some sort of artist, but you wrote it in such a sensual way, it was beautiful. What part did you have the most fun writing?

Thank you! I loved writing about the fabrics that enthralled Mignonne, and how she drew on their most distinctive and sensual qualities to create her fashion designs. I've been told that you don't need to be interested in fashion to be drawn into the story, and I think that's because I tried to convey the artistic sensibility and struggle rather than just the mechanics of working with materials. I knew how it felt to yearn to make art, the mixed sense of calm and anxiety that accompanies the initial opening of a jar of linseed oil or tubes of paint, the sensual satisfaction of moving brush bristles through oil paint on a palette, and so on. I had to confer with my mom, an accomplished lifelong seamstress, to find out how those feelings translated into cutting and working with seductive fabrics. I anchored the fabric and design work with some technical details to ground it in Mig's workaday world, but the real enjoyment came of entering with her into the less pedestrian aspects of creativity.

4. How much research did you have to do on the subject before sitting down to write this story?

I tend to start writing quite soon after I begin researching—as soon as I get a sense of what the possibilities for story or characters may be—fully expecting to have to discard or revise this early writing as I learn more. And then I never really stop researching; I just go back and forth between reading and writing, as seems fit or necessary. For Studio Saint-Ex, I read Saint-Exupéry's writings, including his letters, as well as books and articles about him and his works; numerous biographies; Consuelo's memoirs; books on WWII Europe, the US and New York City; WWII fashions and the American fashion industry; Manhattan's French expatriate community; Expo '67; and other materials. I checked out adaptations of The Little Prince and fashion collections inspired by it. I was very fortunate to be able to ask questions of Stacy Schiff, whose biography of Saint-Exupéry first set me down the path of writing Studio Saint-Ex, and Howard Scherry, a Saint-Ex scholar with vast knowledge of the author's New York period, who was extremely generous with his time and resources. I drew on my mom's experiences as a seamstress and my sister's in the New York fashion world. I did many research trips to NYC, as well as to Long Island, Montreal and Quebec City.

5. What was the most difficult thing to write for this book?

The most difficult thing to write, initially, was the character of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. At first I worked on storylines in which he was kept at a distance. I had a protagonist living in the 1990s who was obsessed with him and his death; she was an artist who volunteered at a warplane museum, and whose canvases depicted Saint-Ex's plane lost in hostile skies. After I put that aside, I got quite far into a version of the story in which each member of a family is deeply affected by an encounter with Saint-Ex. Eventually I summoned the courage to write Saint-Exupéry directly—to dare to really enter his character and feel what he might have felt, to show him naked, to write in his hand. Once I made that commitment, he turned out not to be all that hard to write, particularly since I'd been researching him for years by then... but it took a long time to get there, and many tens of thousands of discarded words.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Andrea! I just finished this recently so it was nice to read about how she went about writing it and so on. It completely makes sense that she worked in visual arts before writing as that part of the novel was so full of feeling. Thanks for sharing this!



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