The Beatrice Interview

Whitney Otto

"This is the beauty of fiction writing, that you can rearrange the world."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity is set in San Francisco during the early 1980s, but its title--and the titles of its chapters--stem from the art of Japanese woodprints, which are also used to illustrate each chapter. The novel begins in the Youki Singe Tea Room, a North Beach locale where young men and women drift in and out, wandering about the city and living as well as they can afford to, circling around each other so that a throwaway detail in one chapter will become the core of another story a hundred or so pages later, while one young woman, Elodie Parker, records her impressions in a journal modeled after the Japanese pillow book, a small book (usually kept by the bedside) for recording fleeting impressions and thoughts. One of the first things I asked Whitney Otto, as we sat in her publicist's office, is why she decided to set this novel twenty years in the past. "A few people had answering machines and fax, though none of my friends did," she pointed out. "But there was no email, no cell phones. People really couldn't get to you at any hour of the day. They had to know where you were or spend some time looking for you. I wanted my characters to move around and be out of touch with each other a lot of the time." The result is a series of episodic moments that interlock to form a charming group portrait of lives in discovery of possibility.

RH: Japanese woodblock prints form a structural backbone for the novel. How did you become interested in them?

WO: I first saw the woodblock prints twenty years ago in London. I'd seen a poster for a museum show, mostly of prints by Utamaro. I bought that poster and took it with me to every crappy apartment I lived in until it fell apart. But the art really didn't move me at the time. I thought it was pretty, but it didn't really become an interest. Then about five years ago, I found a book by the nineteenth-century woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, one hundred prints that all had the moon in them but were otherwise unrelated. That was when I thought, "I want to write the text for this book."

I always wanted to do a novel with pictures in it. I loved those kinds of books as a kid, and there's just not enough novels with pictures for adults, I've discovered. (laughs) We could use some more.

RH: How did you work your way into the story?

WO: First I had a list of titles, a number of which were woodblock prints, but some were other Japanese things, like the "nightingale floor," which was a floor in a palace designed so that the slightest step would produce a noise that would warn the shogun. I began to realize that I had too many things to work with, so I decided to focus on the titles that were also woodblock prints, and that helped to determine the characters I would work with.

I was wondering what I could do with these twentysomethings, and then I realized that they had their own version of the floating world. Your twenties are a time to discover who you are, what you want, what you don't want. I'm always suspect of people who got out of college and right into their lives; I always think they'll end up having this period when they're forty-five. Looking at that time as a floating world was another way I could tie the characters to the woodblock prints. I wanted everything to lock in; I didn't just want to use the titles because I like woodblock prints.

RH: How about Dawn Powell? The opening of the novel explicitly evokes The Wicked Pavilion, but you quickly head into your own direction.

WO: I read The Wicked Pavilion right around the time I started writing this book, because that was when they began to reissue her stuff. I'd never heard of her before that. A friend called me up and I thought she asked, "Have you ever read any Don Powell?" so I was like, "Who's he?" But I loved The Wicked Pavilion... She's much sharper, more satirical and cynical than I am.

The opening of that novel really does remind me of the early 1980s, with the focus on money, on the haves and have-nots. I wanted to start with the same type of scene she did, where Dennis Orphen goes into the Café Julien and asks for his writings. But I drift away from that pretty quickly, into the passages from Elodie's pillow book.

RH: In addition to Japanese woodprints and Dawn Powell, you add some anachronistic details to the mix, books and artwork that weren't yet created in the early '80s.

WO: This is the beauty of fiction writing, that you can rearrange the world and bend it that way. (smiles) I'd read K. C. Cole's The Universe in a Teacup a few years ago, and I just really liked some of the ways she'd expressed themselves. And the Japanese photograph I used related to Man Ray's portrait of Marcel Duchamp, which worked within the context of that story.

And the scene at the museum--I'd seen the "museum in a valise" collaboration between Duchamp and Joseph Cornell a number of years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I had the sensation that the characters have of walking through the museum, seeing something and just being riveted because it resonates with you and you can't quite figure out why.

RH: Is the Youki Singe a real place?

WO: It's imaginary. Where it would be in North Beach is a spot where there used to be a café I'd go to a lot, but the two are nothing alike. A little further down the street was a bar called Specs, and Specs is nothing like the Youki Singe either, but they did have a sex show upstairs which I borrowed. The decor and everything else is all my imagination, though.

RH: One of my favorite things about fiction writing is that in addition to being a storyteller, you get to be a set designer as well.

WO: It's great! And you can decide what outfits your characters should wear, where their apartments should be, anything like that. It was fun making up the bar; I wasn't sure what it would look like at first, and then the French-Japanese mix came together--the French from the Julien and the Japanese from the woodblocks. But it felt very much like the work of one person. You can always tell the difference between a place designed by one person and a place designed by committee. Everything falls too neatly into place in a place done by committee; a place designed by one person has quirks, things that stick out.

RH: People who know you primarily through How to Make an American Quilt might consider this novel a very abrupt change for you.

WO: When I wrote Quilt, I thought of it as primarily about structure, with the story being secondary, because it came out of a writing exercise. And it's all made up--I don't even sew, I don't know any quilters, never lived in a small town, wasn't planning to get married that young... I also thought of that group of women as a very cold group. They're not really supportive of each other, they just get together to sew once a week. They don't even all like each other. So it's funny that it got interpreted in that warmer way, and I ended up thinking, "OK, I guess if that's what you want to read into it..."

I think if people liked the structural elements of Quilt, they'd like this book, but if they're looking for stories about women of a certain age, women closer to the ends of their lives than the beginning, then they may feel that it's not what they're thinking of. I think that structurally the two novels have similarities, as do the two novels that came in between. I keep promising myself that the next book I'll write straight through from beginning to end, but it doesn't happen.

RH: One of the dangers of success is being typecast. While you're proud of your work, you don't want to be known...

WO: the quilt lady, right. (laughs) It is really hard. I am proud of it. I'm happy I wrote it. But even now, twelve years later, I'll be invited to speak at a library, and someone will suggest that I talk about Quilt. I don't want to be rude to anybody, but I do have more than one thing going on, and this is where I'm at now. I don't want to complain, because it seems ungrateful, and I'm not ungrateful, but I'm a fiction writer, and I want people to look at the other things I've done, even if they don't like them. But I'm a reader as well as a writer, and I read a wide range of things, and I think a lot of people who consider themselves readers would have the range to try different things, too.

When I wrote Quilt, I felt like I could have written a companion volume about the men in their lives, or about another period, because it was just a slice of those characters' lives. And I feel the same way about Beauties. There's always more to say about the characters, like where would they be twenty years later.

RH: Are you working on your next project?

WO: I just started it. I have a couple other things I've been doing. I wrote a 110-page nonfiction piece last year that may never see the light of day. It's really just one big digression about being a writer: how I became a writer, why I stay a writer, that sort of thing. People who've read it find it very comical. It was just fun to write. I have two other nonfiction I'd like to put with it, but I don't know if they'll ever come out. In the meantime, they're just for me.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Alain de Botton | Complete Interview Index | Julianna Baggott

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