Author Interviews
5:36 am
Sun February 24, 2013

Literary Idol Comes To Life in 'Farewell, Dorothy Parker'

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 11:43 am

What would you do if your literary idol came to life — came into your life — and then you couldn't get rid of her? Violet Epps, heroine of the new novel Farewell, Dorothy Parker discovers being a fan isn't the same as being a roommate when Dorothy Parker's spirit rematerializes from an ancient Algonquin Hotel guestbook — and then follows her home.

Author Ellen Meister tells NPR's Rachel Martin that she first encountered Parker's work as a teenager.

"I was from the generation, we probably thought that we invented sex, and we invented sarcasm, and we invented snark and disrespect," she says. "So to be a young kid like that, and discover this writer who was so brilliantly witty, and so edgy, and so out there, and with all of that, she had such a keen understanding and knowledge of the tender, broken young female heart. ... That was the very first thing that turned me on to her."

The more she read, Meister says, the more she loved Parker — and eventually, she made Parker the central character in her novel.

"I pictured her, in a contemporary setting, really, the ghost of Dorothy Parker literally coming back to life," she says. "And I saw her sitting in the easy chair in someone's house, and becoming the resident ghost and adviser to some modern woman."

In this case, the modern woman is Violet, a movie critic who's ferocious on the page, but wilts when forced to interact with actual people.

"And then through this device within the book, the ghost of Dorothy Parker literally comes to life and hitches a ride onto her life, and becomes mentor to this woman so she can help her develop her voice and overcome her timidity," Meister says. "So in addition to becoming mentor, in some ways she also becomes her tormentor."

As the book opens, Violet is trying to break up with a boyfriend who has no interest in breaking up, "and she needs to find more strength than she has, to really give this guy the boot," Meister says. "So she arranges to meet him in the Algonquin Hotel, so she can sort of pull strength from the hallowed walls where Dorothy Parker and the other famous wits of the 1920s traded barbs."

But Violet gets more than she bargained for when the ancient guestbook, signed by the Algonquin Round Table regulars, conjures up Parker's spirit.

The two women — spirit and flesh — come to depend on each other, Violet using Parker's words to become more confident, and Parker learning to deal with her own ghosts.

"Dorothy Parker did have a lot of pain in her life, so I put that into the book, and I dealt with her sort of fear of crossing over into the light, and joining the afterlife where she was supposed to be," Meister says.

Parker did become alcoholic and bitter toward the end of her life, Meister says, with very few kind words for the Round Table crowd, whom she referred to as "the Vicious Circle."

But, Meister continues, Parker remains one of her heroes, and she has a new appreciation for Parker after researching and writing her novel.

"Once I sat down in front of that computer screen and actually had to capture the voice of Dorothy Parker, I had completely renewed respect, not just for her wit, which was so brilliant, but also her precision with language and her economy with words," she says. "It was so precise that I really just had to take a laser tool to edit the book and capture Dorothy Parker's voice, to make it as precise as it really was."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Novelist Ellen Meister had a problem. She wanted to write a book about one of her lifelong heroes, the writer Dorothy Parker. But all kinds of biographies had already been written about Parker who passed away in 1967. And besides, Meister is a novelist not a biographer. She could write a character that was based on Parker but that's not as much fun. She wanted to write in Dorothy Parker's voice so Meister brought the literary star back to life as a ghost.

Ellen Meister's new novel is called "Farewell, Dorothy Parker." And when I spoke with Meister, I asked her what it was about this literary figure that captured her imagination.

ELLEN MEISTER: You know, when I first discovered her when I was a teenager. I was from the generation, we probably thought that we, you know, invented sex and we invented sarcasm, and we invented snark and disrespect, and all these other things. So to be a young kid like that and to discover this writer who was so brilliantly witty, and so edgy, and so out there, and with all of that she had such a keen understanding and knowledge of the tender, broken young female heart. So that was the very first thing that turned me on to her.

But the more I read her poems and the more I read her short stories, the more I came to love her and admire her on a much deeper level.

MARTIN: So much so that you've made her one of the central characters in this story. Why don't you explain what Dorothy Parker's role is in this book?

MEISTER: I pictured her, in a contemporary setting, really the ghost of Dorothy Parker literally coming back to life. And I saw her sitting in the easy chair in someone's house and becoming the resident ghost and adviser to some modern woman. And eventually I developed the main character, this woman named Violet who is a movie critic, who is actually in her real life quite timid. She has a lot of social fears.

When she writes her movie reviews however, she's able to channel Dorothy Parker, and she can be as acerbic as anybody else. So she's a great movie critic but her timidity holds her back greatly in life. And then, through this device within the book, the ghost of Dorothy Parker literally comes to life and hitches a ride onto her life, and becomes mentor to this woman so she can help her develop her voice and overcome her timidity. So in addition to becoming mentor, in some ways she also becomes her tormentor.

MARTIN: Can you explain how Violet, Violet Epps, discovers Dorothy Parker's ghost?

MEISTER: Sure. What happens is when the book opens up, Violet happens to be in the midst of trying to break up with a boyfriend who doesn't want any part of breaking up. And she needs to find more strength than she has to really give this guy the boot. So she arranges to meet him in the Algonquin Hotel so she can sort of pull strength from the hallowed walls where Dorothy Parker and the other famous wits of the 1920s traded barbs.

But once she's there in that room, she sort of gets more than she bargained for. And there's a guestbook that all these ancient writers have signed. And Dorothy Parker's spirit lingers in this ancient guestbook and she winds up first taking over Violet's body, and then going back into the guestbook which Violet absconds with. So when she gets home with the guestbook she's able to open it up and there is Dorothy Parker in corporeal form right in her living room.

MARTIN: Was it kind of fun to just throw away all the laws of metaphysics for this story?

MEISTER: You know, what's interesting to me is that I'm not particularly interested in writing a paranormal story or a science fiction story. What I like to do is write a story that's really quite grounded in reality but has this magical realism element. But for me, it just busts everything wide open and let's my creativity flow and let's me do whatever I want with it. And it's just a tremendous amount of fun.

MARTIN: The two characters - Dorothy Parker's ghost and Violet Epps - there's a dependency that is created between the two of them in this dynamic. Can you talk a little bit about that? How does Violet need Dorothy and how does Dorothy end up needing Violet?

MEISTER: When I construct any novel, there are sort of two threads that I deal with. One is the character's outer journey that's really the story and what happens. And the other is the character's inner journey and that's the arc that they have throughout the book. So it was very important to me to create an arc for Violet, and that was overcoming her timidity and finding her voice and the person she really was inside.

MARTIN: Because, we should say, Dorothy Parker does this whole Cyrano De Bergerac thing and...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...at some point actually tells her what to say and Violet recites it accordingly.

MEISTER: That's quite true. But I also wanted Dorothy Parker to have an arc. So I dealt with the actual - a lot of the actual real pain Dorothy Parker had. Even though the book is quite fictionalized, Dorothy Parker did have a lot of pain in her life, so I put that into the book. And I dealt with her sort of fear of crossing over into the light and joining the afterlife where she was supposed to be. So I created Dorothy Parker as somebody who is sort of stuck between this life and the afterlife.

So in addition to Violet having something to learn from her, Dorothy Parker had much to learn from Violet as well.

MARTIN: You said a big part of who she was and how people remember her is part of this group, this literary group that gathered at the Algonquin Hotel.

MEISTER: Right.

MARTIN: In your research or your writing for this, did you learn anything about the kinds of conversations that were taking place there with those folks?

MEISTER: It seemed like such great fun, right? I mean, they were George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood and Franklin Pierce Adams, and sometimes Harpo Marx made an appearance, and Alexander Woollcott who was a famous critic. But when Dorothy Parker looked back on it, she had nothing but bitterness about it. You know, she called it The Vicious Circle.

MARTIN: Why?

MEISTER: She didn't really count many of them in the end as her friends. I mean, they may be one or two. But look, I mean, toward the end she was a very sad, bitter alcoholic. And she didn't really have many positive things to say about her old friends.

MARTIN: Did your perception of Dorothy Parker change at all through the writing of the book? I mean, she clearly was a hero to you in some way.

MEISTER: She was always hero. Like I said, I admired her wit. I admired her talent. I admired her writing. But came to admire her even more because I'll tell you something, going into this book - and I know it's always a challenge to write a book. I've never written a book that was an easy book to write. But this one, I thought I had a little bit of a leg up because here I had a wonderful character already ready-made. I didn't have to invent Dorothy Parker. She already was. I didn't have to invent a voice. She already had a voice.

All I had to do was re-read her essays and her letters and capture her voice and I'd be able to - she'd speak right through me. I could put her in my fictional scenes and I would hear her. Only once I, you know, sat down in front of that computer screen and actually had to capture the voice of Dorothy Parker, I had completely renewed respect, not just for her wit, which was so brilliant, but also her precision with language and her economy of words. It was so precise that I had to really just take a laser tool to edit the book and capture Dorothy Parker's voice to make it as precise as it really was.

MARTIN: Ellen Meister, her new novel is called "Farewell, Dorothy Parker." She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Ellen, thanks so much for talking with us.

MEISTER: Oh, thanks for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.