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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Jami Attenberg & Liza Klaussmann

Take two American writers, put them on the stage at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation and let Kate Feld ask them questions. Makes for a pretty good evening, and an excellent start to my MLF experience this year.

Jami Attenberg took her wine onstage, misplaced her glasses, and checked that we were all right for her to read out ‘something dirty’ from her latest book, Saint Mazie. The eponymous heroine of her book, Mazie Phillips Gordon (above), was a real life goodtime girl, the doyenne of The Venice movie theatre in Depression-era New York and big-hearted champion of the homeless. In the extract we heard, drinking gin ‘makes her pretty and mean’. Liza Klaussmann’s second novel, Villa America, also involves alcohol, much of it drunk by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set on the French Riviera of the ’20s, it’s based on the life of Sarah and Gerald Murphy who, in turn, were the inspiration for Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night.

As so often, the pairing of the writers brought out the parallels between their writing experiences as well as the differences. Mazie Phillips slid from life leaving barely a trace. Attenberg came across the mention of her and was intrigued, but there was nobody to interview. Rather than leave it there, though, she invented them. Klaussmann, on the other hand, had almost too much source material. It is, she says, an extreme experience as a novelist to write biographical fiction, and she ‘never landed anywhere where it was comfortable to stand.’

One thing they both agreed upon was that, with biographical fiction, it’s best if you can fall in love with the person you are writing about. For Attenberg, this was easy. Mazie was a good person, and Attenberg wanted to write ‘a study in how to be a better person,’ much as the writing of it had had that effect upon herself. For Klaussmann, it’s about the amount of time you spend with them. With the writing, editing, publicising and talk, ‘you’re going to spend a lot of time with them.’ Oh, and try and pick characters who have been dead for more than fifty years. Klaussmann joked that she spent more time going through the manuscript with the lawyer than with her editor.

The night finished with talk of books that had influenced each writer: from the classics of James to the fairy tales of Grimm, via Greek legends, Joyce Carol Oates and Grace Paley, we ended up with quite a reading list. And the novels themselves, of course, which I’m looking forward to reading with the voice of each author in my head. Perfect.

I’ve been running a little feature on my own blog called The Summer I Was Sixteen, in which I’ve been gathering memories of that time in life and turning them into anonymous postcards. Jami and Liza were kind enough to contribute their own memories. You can find them following this link: http://sarahjasmon.com/thesummeriwassixteen/


Sarah Jasmon lives on a boat on the Leeds/Liverpool canal. Her debut novel, The Summer of Secrets, was published in August.