Starting Out in the Evening

An unfilmable novel about literary life hits the cineplex. Scott McLemee interviews the author.

December 12, 2007

If you love a book, there is a special thrill that comes from seeing the phrase "soon to be a major motion picture." It is a thrill of dread. In the case of Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening, though, my initial reaction was disbelief. Starting Out, first published in 1998 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award that year, is one the best things I've ever read -- possibly the best -- about being a writer. But that makes it seem unfilmable almost by definition.

At its center is the relationship between an elderly novelist and the young woman who is writing a thesis on him. The most important and difficult truth Morton portrays about the life of an author is that so much of it must be spent alone. It can color a writer's dealings with other people in various ways, some of them quite complicated -- but that's not always the same thing as being dramatic. So how would this be portrayed in a movie? For that matter, could it be?

Well, in any case it has been, in a film that opens in a few days. "Starting Out in the Evening" already has some critics mentioning an Academy Award nominaton for Frank Langella's performance as a novelist in the final season of his career. Earlier this week, Langella was named Best Actor at the Boston Film Critics Awards and runner-up (to Daniel Day-Lewis) at the LA Film Critics Awards. Lili Taylor plays his daughter Ariel; as ever, the fact that Taylor is in the film is itself a recommendation.

Hurl all the accusations of phallocratic ocularocentrism you want but I do enjoy looking at Lauren Ambrose. She plays Heather, the graduate student who hopes to edit The Leonard Schiller Reader for the University of Chicago Press. Unfortunately the screenplay leaves her character rather thin -- as it does that of Casey, played by Adrian Lester. As Brian Morton originally portrayed him, Casey seemed very much to be one of the young African-American public intellectuals who were assuming the cultural role played by Jewish writers of an earlier generation. Despite a fine performance by Lester, that very mid-1990s dimension of the novel does not make it to the screen.

It is difficult to picture Brian Morton himself -- a wry and quiet man who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College -- walking down the red carpet during the Oscars. But who knows; the experience might make for another novel. At the very least, Starting Out in the Evening should now reach a new audience. The author answered some questions by e-mail, from which the following interview was assembled.

Q:I read "Starting Out" right after it appeared and identified most with Heather: the young person going to New York and trying to find her way, driven by admiration for literary heroes, but also by a good bit of raw ambition. About two years later, I reread the book and found that it was actually Schiller whose life felt most familiar, this time. His reputation, never huge, is fading, but he keeps on working, because persevering is the best a writer can manage, most of the time.

You somehow conveyed both of those kinds of experience without simply playing one of them off the other as superior -- the younger person treated as full of illusion, for example, or the older as being just bitter, or out of touch. There is a graceful acceptance of both phases of life as necessary and, in their way, right about things. At the same time, they have their limits. Heather really is a bit callow, and Schiller has armored himself against life in ways that he comes to regret. The balance is extraordinary. How did you do it? Where did the novel come from?

A: First of all, thank you. If I did portray both of these characters persuasively, I guess it was because I identified with them both.

In answer to where the novel came from—to a large extent it came from my attempt to work through my disappointment about the fate of my first novel, The Dylanist. The Dylanist was published in the summer of 1991, and went out of print less than six months later. Before it came out, I was aware that it might not live forever in the annals of literature, but I didn't really anticipate that it might have approximately the shelf life of milk. I was already 36 by the time the book was published; I'd spent thirteen years writing as seriously as I knew how; and it was devastating to see the book go instantly out of print.

Schiller, the main character in Starting Out in the Evening, is a 71 year old novelist who has written four books, all of which are out of print. So, although I'm not sure I was perfectly conscious of this when I was actually writing the book, I think that by writing about him, I was asking myself what it would be like if I spent the rest of my life writing novels that didn't do any better than The Dylanist had. I was trying to ask myself whether a writing life that came to nothing in terms of external recognition would be worth living.

Photo: Roadside Attractions


I used different parts of my own experience in writing about Heather. Her initial love for Schiller's work, her feeling that reading him was such a profound communion that it almost felt as if he was somehow interested in her as deeply as she was interested in him, seemed like an an experience that any reader has from time to time. (Schiller's nothing like Raymond Williams, but I kept having this experience as a reader of Raymond Williams's work all through my twenties and thirties.) After she meets him and grows disillusioned with him, starting to suspect that his monomaniacal focus on writing had drained his later work of vitality—well, the questions she was asking about him are questions I've asked about myself.

Q: Interesting to think of Raymond Williams as a source for Schiller. You edited the review section of Dissent when Irving Howe, one of its founders, was alive. I always figured he there in the novel, too, somewhere. Is that wrong?

A: No, it's right. I worked with Irving for 10 years, and learned from him, and loved him. My mental picture of Schiller's body -- his height and weight and the way he held himself and moved -- is drawn almost completely from Irving, or rather, from the way Irving appeared near the end of his life. And you could say that Schiller's attitude toward his own writing had something in common with Irving's attitude toward democratic socialism.

By the end of his life, I sometimes thought that Irving's fidelity to democratic socialism might be summed up in T.S. Eliot's line: "Sometimes we must fight for something not in the belief that it will triumph, but in order to keep the idea of it alive." (I can't remember exactly how it goes, but it's something like that.) Schiller was completely uncertain about the strength of his own gifts; he kept writing not because of any faith that his work would live on, but simply in order to pay tribute to his own conception of beauty, whether or not anything he wrote would ever fulfill it.

Also, Ilana Howe, Irving's widow, thinks that Schiller's nearly empty refrigerator was based on hers and Irving's, but I think I was just describing my own.

Q:Some scenes in your novel are not so much satirical as sharply observed. There's a bit about how all the up-and-coming literary editors in New York have exactly the same editions of the same authors on their shelves, for example, and how someone could sneak into their apartments late at night and exchange their libraries without anyone noticing. In another scene, you describe how a young writer who is on-the-make is just a little too amused at the jokes of a magazine bigwig. Did anybody reading the book protest? When I first read it, the part about the guy laughing too hard gave me a brief, paranoid flashback to my 20s.

A: No, nobody's ever complained. In some of my books I've had characters who were too obviously based on people I knew, and who were portrayed very unkindly -- caricatured -- and I've hurt a few people that way, which is something I'm not proud of. But that's a different story. I can't remember anyone feeling personally insulted by any of the scenes from literary life.

About the time we met in 1990 -- are you implying that the things I said that day weren't really that amusing?

Q:Let me plead the Fifth on that one..... Some novels -- even works of "literary fiction," as the expression goes -- feel destined to end up on screen. The possibility of adaption for film now often seems to condition the writing of a novel, or the experience of reading it, or both. But I've never thought that was the case with your work. How did it come to pass that Starting Out in the Evening turned into a movie?

A: I never imagined it as a movie either. There's so much interiority in the book -- so much "Was she thinking I was thinking what she was thinking I was thinking?" Kind of hard to film.

It became a movie because Fred Parnes thought he could see a movie in it. Fred is the kid brother of one of my best friends from high school, and he'd already made two movies -- a documentary about the a capella group The Persuasions called "Spread the Word," and an indie comedy called "A Man Is Mostly Water." Fred wrote a screenplay along with his writing partner, Andrew Wagner, who ended up directing the movie. They put it through many, many drafts, none of which I saw. They asked me if I wanted to look at it, but I didn't. I understood that in order to turn the book into a movie, they'd have to change a lot of things around.

I knew Fred well enough to respect his integrity -- I knew that whatever changes he made, he wouldn't turn Schiller into an elderly New York Intellectual who had a little business selling skag on the side. We wouldn't have a scene where Schiller, sick and tired of years of critical neglect, sticks a Beretta under his belt and goes out to gun down James Wood. So, since I trusted Fred's integrity, I didn't want to be standing there breathing down his neck, saying "Schiller would never do that! Heather would never say that!"

Q:What's it like to see your characters on screen, in the shape of famous actors?

A: When they were shooting the movie, Fred told me that it was remarkable to see Langella arrive on the set each day, a strapping Italian in a leather jacket, and then, after putting on a button-down shirt and a tie and a pair of glasses, transforming himself into an infirm Jewish intellectual. I only visited the set for one afternoon, but I instantly saw what he meant.

They were preparing a scene; people were bustling around and making a lot of noise; and Langella was sitting in a corner, buried in Leonard Schiller's overcoat, looking down, reading something from an index card he was holding in his hands. Looking at him, solitary in the midst of all that activity, it seemed as if he'd somehow managed to create a zone of quiet around himself. You could almost touch it. As I watched him, I thought, "He's got it."

John le Carré had a character named George Smiley in many of his books; after Alec Guinness played Smiley in two miniseries -- played him brilliantly -- le Carré said that he couldn't write about Smiley anymore. He said that Guinness took the character away from him. I'd never had any plans to write about Schiller again, but if I had -- well, I won't say that Langella's performance would have made it impossible. But it was so damn good that I would have had to work hard to wrestle him back.

Q:Langella's performance really makes the film. It's no surprise that the expression "Oscar-worthy" has come up in describing it. I found the final scene overwhelming -- lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, a sense that the whole course of Schiller's life was concentrated there in the expression on Langella's face.

But.... how to put this.... An awful lot of your novel isn't on screen. Most of the characters and incidents are there, but only a very small part of the spectrum of tone. As a movie, "Starting Out in the Evening" is pretty solemn, while one of the things I love about the novel is how it moves between serious and comic perspectives. How do you feel about that? Was it something you just accepted as inevitable?

A: Well, if you have a song and somebody does a cover version, you have to expect that they're going to interpret it in their own way. Mostly, I'm flattered that Fred and Andrew made a movie of it, and I'm glad that it's led a few people to discover the book.

Q:You teach writing at Sarah Lawrence. Have you had students who know you as the author of Starting Out in the Evening? Who imagine themselves as the Heather to your Schiller, perhaps? Do you expect a rush of people trying to audit your classes and show you their screenplays?

A: The student community at Sarah Lawrence has somehow intuited that I shun the limelight, and has tactfully conspired to help me feel as if I'm working in obscurity, a condition in which I thrive.


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