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Author Priya Parmar On Writing In Virginia Woolf’s Voice: ‘It Was Completely Daunting’

A century after the Bloomsbury group’s heyday, the wildly talented group of artists, authors and critics is often best remembered as the social circle of the brilliant modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, often recedes to the background in these depictions, but the acclaimed artist was far from a mere supporting player in Woolf’s life.

In Priya Parmar’s new novel, Vanessa and Her Sister (Ballantine, Dec. 30), Bell finally gets a starring role. Told in richly imagined diary entries from Bell’s perspective, as well as invented letters and telegrams between Bell, Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury group, Vanessa and Her Sister portrays a time of upheaval in the lives of the famous sisters. When Vanessa married Clive Bell, another member of the Bloomsbury group, Virginia was threatened by the perceived loss of her beloved sister, and struck up a long flirtation with Clive in apparent hopes of getting Vanessa’s attention. Parmar’s extensive research into the Bloomsbury group’s correspondence and diaries lends a realistic gloss to her fictionalized account of Bell’s turbulent life during these years.

This isn’t Parmar’s first foray into biographical fiction; she’s the author of Exit the Actress, a novel about Nell Gwyn, the real-life actress and mistress of Charles II. HuffPost Books spoke to Parmar about the Bloomsbury group, writing biographical fiction, and why she’s fascinated by gaps in our historical knowledge.

What inspired you to write about Vanessa Bell and her inner life?
I read a letter of hers that she wrote when Clive Bell was proposing, and she was saying no. I think it was actually the first proposal. And it was just so modern; she basically told him, “I’m so sorry, I really like you a lot, but I can’t marry you. You’re too available, could you just go away and be a little less available, maybe travel out of the country for a year, don’t talk to me, maybe I’ll like you a little better and we’ll see where we are.” It was like a letter that one of your girlfriends would have written and you would have all talked about. It just didn’t seem like it was written in 1905. She really just leapt off the page as a character for me at that point, and I really wanted to read about her. So I started on the research, and the more I read about her the more I just fell in love with her.

Virginia Woolf wasn’t the way in for me, it was Vanessa Bell, and then Virginia was waiting for me when I got there.

Obviously Virginia was very fond of Vanessa, but most people know more about Virginia than Vanessa. Were you a fan of Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell before you started looking into this project?
I was. I always loved Virginia’s novels — I have my favorites of her work — and I had always liked Vanessa Bell’s paintings. And I knew about the Bloomsbury group, but I hadn’t read about them exhaustively the way that I have now. I had taken a class in college that looked at the Bloomsbury Group, so I liked them all, but I didn’t spend that much time with them before I started doing this.

Were you nervous when you started writing such an unsympathetic portrayal of Virginia, since she’s so beloved today?
Absolutely terrified. Oh my God, I just dread to think of what my English professors are going to think. I was terrified when I realized — and I actually realized it pretty late — but when I realized I had signed up to write in the voice of Virginia Woolf in the first person, it was completely daunting. But then you sort of get over that, because I’m writing in the voice of my Virginia Woolf, which is the character that’s jumped up out of all the research that I’ve done. It’s fiction, it’s very much fiction, but it’s completely informed by the thousands and thousands of letters that I’ve read.

But it’s really frightening for me when someone tells me that they love Virginia Woolf and then that they are going to read this book. I’m really thrilled and pleased and terrified, and also just, like “Oh God, it may not be the Virginia Woolf that you have in your head.” It’s pretty terrifying.

It’s really interesting because this whole episode has sort of fallen away from her accepted mythology. It’s not really in people’s lexicon of Virginia. It didn’t make it into her official history.

When I heard about the affair, it was very much swept into the category of “Oh, they all have such modern marriages,” but obviously that’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. It also all took place earlier in their lives, before Woolf became a published author. Did you decide to focus on the period when this big change in their lives happened, when Vanessa got married and the affair ensued?
I was really drawn by this period, because it’s a largely unexplored period. They hadn’t done the things that they would go on to be really well known for. I didn’t set out to specifically look at the affair, and I didn’t realize that that was going to be the focus until I was actually writing the novel.

I knew it was going to be about the sisters. I knew it was going to be about the difficulty of, what was it like to be Virginia’s favorite person on earth? It really just turned out to be about the period of time where this huge betrayal happens. Then their life enters a different chapter once Virginia becomes published and once you get into WWI, and once they become a famous literary circle. Then it’s very different. They’re not flying under the radar anymore, and they all know they’re going to become famous. They’re just different people. I was really interested in this period of time before all of that happened, when they weren’t cemented as public figures. And [Virginia’s] suicide is so examined, I really wanted to look at her when she was young.

It was massively daunting.

It seems like they were all very prolific letter writers.
Vanessa Bell — she writes beautifully, she writes beautiful, beautiful letters. She has 3,000 unpublished letters.

Since we see so much through Vanessa’s eyes in the novel, obviously she comes off really well. But in the letters that we see from other members of the Bloomsbury circle, she also comes off as this radiant figure. Is this something that you found in your research, and were you concerned about seeming almost hagiographic toward Vanessa?
They adored her. I mean, they absolutely adored her. She was the center of the group in so many ways, and I don’t think she knew it, which made her very endearing. She’s sort of this shadowy center, because she didn’t leave a diary, and she didn’t put herself into the spotlight. I had to figure out a lot of different aspects of her character from what other people were saying because she was often very self-deprecating in her letters. She never mentioned the affair.

She just seems to have been this really, really remarkable person, and people were just mad about her. And Virginia was, you know, completely crazy about her.

In the book, Vanessa seems cool and judgmental toward Virginia even before the flirtation with Clive begins. Is that something that arose from what you imagined would be her reaction to dealing with someone as difficult as Virginia, or was it based on accounts that people gave at the time?
It’s a mixture of both. I’m really interested in the conflicting accounts of the same event. I find you learn so much in that nexus of what different people say. Everyone has their own lens.

For Vanessa’s character … if you read that many letters by somebody you get to know their tone. This is my fictional Vanessa, but it was also all informed by, you know, if Virginia did something particularly difficult, how Vanessa’s tone in her letters would be, how it would fluctuate and how it would change.

Nonfiction, for me, is the gathering of the facts, and the fiction is the guess, it’s the hat tossed into the ring, the working-out of what might have been the emotional landscape of these people.

This is actually the second novel you’ve written that is historical fiction about a prominent figure. Why do you feel drawn to this sort of fiction?
It’s what I like to read. I love history, and I love in particular the pockets of negative space in history, where we’ll know a lot about Virginia Woolf, and we have her diaries and everything else, but there’s this other person in the shadows who gives a completely different angle. I love taking that and looking at that other, unexamined bit of history.

I love doing it with primary documents because my background is in academics, so I’ve spent a lot of time with primary documents. That might be my comfort zone. You get a Ph.D., and you end up with a lot of primary documents! I love that place where history meets fiction, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to write. I chose Vanessa just because she was the character I wanted to spend time with; she was the character who stepped off the page fully formed. She’s a wonderful writer. Her letters are just as good as Virginia Woolf’s, they’re just held in different basements all over the world and they’re not published.

Do you have a person in mind for your next book?
I’m sort of circling a few people. I haven’t quite managed to walk away from the Bloomsbury group yet, but I’m looking at a few people. I just finished editing the U.K. edition of this book, so I haven’t landed on anybody yet. It’s such a great period, and such a fun group of people. It’s difficult to walk away from them.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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Lee Grant’s Dazzling, Delicious, Delirious, Daunting Memoir — I Said Yes To Everything

“”LITTLE Lyova Haskell Rosenthal is precocious,” commented the New York Times after the young child actress had warned the tenor onstage that an actor was sneaking up on him with a big knife in a scene from L’Oracolo. (Little actress Lyova was confined thereafter to Gladys Swarthout’s dressing room to protect the opera from future ruining of the dramatic scene.)

The minute I looked at the new memoir of little actress Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, better known as actress Lee Grant, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist I Said Yes To Everything. Now the book is here from Blue Rider Press and I’m afraid I pretty much abandoned everything else until I read it.

• Lee Grant is one of America’s greatest actors, most heroic survivors, a contradictory enigma one minute, a sympathetic victim the next. A giant talent condemned falsely to a life of failure who keeps turning it all around into triumph…a woman whose central question is “how do I keep them from knowing how old I am?” while she struggles with the simple domestic yes and no of living with men who dominate and control her.

She was nominated for an Oscar for the famous movie Detective Story, which made Kirk Douglas a star, then found herself listed as a Communist and ruined for movies on the infamous Hollywood black list. (She didn’t really know what a Communist was; and as it turns out, neither did Hollywood, where frightened producers and studio heads condemned giant talents to nothingness over nothing.) Lee Grant didn’t get off the list for a dozen years, not even until JFK was President.

Meantime, Lee Grant went right on acting, acting out, writing, reading, searching, exploring life and sex and meeting everyone who was anyone. And finally, to making classic TV and movies like Valley of the Dolls…Peyton Place…In the Heat of the Night…Shampoo.
It has always been a great secret cachet in my crowd to meet Lee Grant and to try to understand her myth and survival, to enjoy her burgeoning talent and sympathize for her mistreated soul. Eventually she won an Oscar, the Emmy, the First ever Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Women in Film, and founded her own production company. She now makes prize-winning documentaries.

•I CONFESS I was disappointed not to find myself in the index of the glorious in the back of this book, though I am such a minor player in her saga. Lee does make you feel like the only person in the world she has ever loved or trusted (although all I was doing was talking to her about Elizabeth Taylor and what made the star of stars tick.) Like Helen Gurley Brown, Lee Grant lets you remove from her presence while thinking you are the most fab person she has ever met. Quite an art!

ANYWAY, I love, adore, admire Lee Grant. Some of this book makes you think she is crazy; other parts open the reader up to her humanity, love of others, tolerance and the way she keeps show business at arm’s length with a jaundiced but innocent eye. I can’t really do justice to this memoir; it is crammed with names from Orson Welles to Warren Beatty…Jill Clayburgh to Faye Dunaway…Kim

Stanley to Meryl Streep…Roddy McDowall to Chris Walken…Oscar Levant to John Garfield…and on and on; let’s include Gloria Steinem and Susan Sontag.

Here is just a sample of the eye of Lee Grant talking about Grace Kelly after the Hollywood star and super beauty had decided to leave the movie business and become Prince Rainier’s Princess of Monaco. You haven’t read this particular description of the girl from Philadelphia, nor of how the writer Lee Grant segues from her own important business to comment on elements of her own private life. And she never writes or warns the reader of these amazing digressions, not even saying, ‘But I digress…’ You seldom know what road you are going to travel down with Lee.

• She writes:

A kind of elegant ex-actor, mixer in social scenes approached me about doing an hour-long TV program on Princess Grace in Monaco. Budd Schulberg was writing. Interesting. Budd had given names to the committee (on un-American activities.) He’d also written On the Waterfront, the great film Elia Kazan directed. This was the project Kazan and Arthur Miller had shopped in Hollywood and been turned down because –it seemed to favor the unions — and the studios were trying to strangle them.

Budd was a charming worn-out guy. Very simpatico. We met on the way to the airport–we looked in each other’s eyes, saw the worlds apart in them, and kept our thoughts to ourselves.

I visited the castle, went through all the formalities. Çastles are dreary old places. One thinks, the upkeep, the upkeep. We were taken to the royal living quarters — a comfy living room. Grace was welcoming, charming, stressed and nervous–I asked her the questions Budd had written. The answers were formulaic and pleasant. Her posture was that of a girl whose mother had told her to sit straight.

After the first set of questions, while the camera was reloading, I spoke to her as one woman to another, one actress to another. Before this choice to be princess, Grace had gone with my first theatre boyfriend, Gene Lyons. Gene and I were together for two years: Grace and Gene were together for two years– and he was madly in love with her. She was a rich girl from Philly. Taking away the trappings, I said to her, ‘Why are you so cowered? What are you afraid of? Here’s a chance to talk about your life, your children, your husband– be open. You’re so closed off; the things you’re saying sound scripted. It’s boring.’ She started to cry. The producer, who had been her friend in an earlier life, stepped in. ‘Am I boring?’ she asked. ‘Am I boring? I don’t want to be.’ I watched and wished the camera were rolling. There she was, our Grace, so vulnerable and appealing. The producer was furious.

On camera she relaxed more, was very charming, but revealed nothing. She saved the reality for the periods when the camera reloaded, and then she would really talk. She had no friends in Monaco, and the women in the Royal families, those who were in the court, were very critical of her free and easy American style. She, at the time, was surrounded by sharp, mean critics. So she had to watch what she said at all times. Her husband, Prince Rainer? He had a lot of other interests, and she missed him. And he was sending her off that year to live in Paris by herself, because Stephanie was going to start school there, and he felt that the child needed her mother’s guiding hand. I said, ‘Well, Paris– you’ll be away from here at least!’ She said, ‘I spent time in Paris. I was never invited to dinner. I was never invited to anyone’s house, their home. The only time anyone asked me anywhere was to some big function, where they wanted me with the ribbon across my chest!’

While I was getting to know and care for Grace, Joey and Larry joined me in Monaco. I miss Larry Hauben more than any other of my dead friends. He was so fucking unique and smart. And a total druggie. Larry won the Oscar for the screenplay One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Larry and Joey took off for Rome, where Joey’s friend Cerro was the biggest and cuddliest coke dealer in town. They all stayed up at the Spanish Steps at the Hotel De La Ville, which had been my favorite hotel, and then went through, literally, pounds of white powder piled up on the coffee table. Joey and Larry understood Italian perfectly, though they didn’t speak a word of it, and had hours of heated discussions with Cerro and his friends. Larry slept upright in a closet, and they were both thrown out of the Vatican for lying on the marble floor in order to better view the Sistine Chapel. A boy’s life. All the while I stayed behind in Monaco.

The producer never spoke to me ever again.

Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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