One Great Reader No. 14: Susanna Moore
OGR No 14: Susanna Moore
“Mr. Thau asked me to meet with Warren Beatty at his penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire, a block from the agency. The screenwriter Robert Towne was with Warren when I arrived, as was Warren’s secretary, Helen. Towne was wearing so much scent that I immediately had a headache. Warren, handsome, boyish, confident, began telling me that I was too tan. I told him I was from Hawai'i, as if that might explain my skin color, and he let it go at that. I said that I had not previously been employed as a script reader, or anything else, for that matter. I did not mention my brief reign as Miss Aluminum, or that I had been a model. Fortunately, he was not particularly interested in my work experience, but wanted to know who I knew in Hollywood. When I said I knew the Dunnes, he smiled, and so did Robert Towne, who seemed to agree with Warren about everything. Warren then asked if he could see my legs. I was wearing a short linen skirt, and I placed my hands on my hips to raise it a few inches, not in the least offended as Warren and Bob checked out my legs. ‘Can you start tomorrow morning?’ Warren asked.”
That’s Susanna Moore in 1969 in her frank memoir, Miss Aluminum, and it quite perfectly encapsulates so much about that specific milieu when a brave, attractive 23 year-old was navigating her way through Los Angeles and life. While in LA she moves in circles which include Joan Didion and John Dunne (the quoted Dunnes), Audrey Hepburn, Roman Polanski, and Jack Nicholson. But as is usually the case with any similar story that travels through Hollywood, it’s not all glamour. Nor is plenty of the rest of Susanna’s story (but fear not, there are many high points as well) and she never holds back from candidly revealing life-altering episodes from her childhood and teens through her 20s, the years the book focuses on.
A constant companion and reliable source of learning, self-discovery, and comfort from the beginning and throughout her many journeys? You guessed it: books. After enjoying her memoir I immediately wanted to be in touch and know her thoughts on those most important to her—they’ve shaped her into an author of several titles and helped deliver Susanna to her current life of teaching creative writing at Princeton. And they’ve let her start reading them without having to show her legs...though they did once prompt a physical altercation. You’ll see. -WDV
WDV: What book can you not believe hasn’t yet been made into a movie?
SM: The short story “The Cage” by Henry James. It is about a young woman who works in a telegraph office and falls in love with an English officer thanks to the telegrams he sends to his mistress.
That does seem like it would find an eternal audience. Seems perfect for PBS.
In the last six months what book were you most eager to begin?
Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. It was written in 1963, and I regret that I have come to it so late. It is a story about an Italian family that is connected, as are all families, by special words and expressions, some of them generational.
I wonder what made you pick it up now?
I read that Ginzburg explored in her writing the ways in which words are used and misused, and how in families and other social groups words become a particular code. I immediately ordered Family Lexicon and read it in one sitting.
The city council where you live asks you to pick a book for the whole city to read, what do you choose?
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Rather than any lecture or book of history, it conveys a sense of what it is to be African-American. Given this particular moment in America, with the civil turmoil over the murder of African Americans by the police and others, as well as the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics who have been killed by the coronvirus, a reading of The Bluest Eye might draw attention to the suffering that African Americans and other minorities of color have endured in this country. It would be a gentler, more emotional approach than any lecture or political treatise. And perhaps, if read, the book would change the minds of those Americans who are unable to acknowledge or condemn the horrors of racism.
What’s your favorite first page in a book?
My favorite first line on my favorite first page is in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And your favorite last page?
My favorite last page (last lines really) is in Joyce’s short story, “The Dead”:
“…snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Have you read any screenplays which you’d promote as literature?
I have never read a screenplay that I considered to be literature, which doesn’t mean that now and then certain screenplays don’t turn out to be good movies.
I’ve never actually read a screenplay so are there some you’d recommend to a great reader or does it mostly depend on whether or not a person liked the movie? I find it curious that famous plays are often included on reading lists, but I’ve not ever seen screenplays (or television show scripts either) on one. Can you talk a bit more about screenplays and if there are unique reading benefits associated with them since you’ve spent so much time going through so many?
I don’t know a screenplay that I would recommend to read. There must be some that are interesting, but I have not come across any. Although there are thousands floating around, very few are made into films. When screenwriters and actors and would-be directors discovered that I was reading scripts (almost fifty years ago) for Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, they would press their scripts on me in the hope that I might like them, and recommend them. I never recommended any.
What’s the most satisfying conversation you’ve ever had about books while at a dinner party?
A dinner party at my house in Los Angeles in the late Sixties when in the midst of a conversation about Carlos Castaneda’s recently published book, The Teachings of Don Juan, which seemed to exemplify everything that one loved or hated about hallucinogenics and new age philosophy. One of the guests slapped another, and a woman reeled over in her chair, hit her head, and had to be taken to the emergency room with a broken nose.
Was it that book and subject? That group? Had you discussed other books at other parties with the same people? Must have resulted in some amusing conversations the days following…
Several guests were high; several guests were not, and a few disapproved of drugs, as well as the hippie culture then fashionable. Some suspected that Castaneda was a fraud. I like it when conversation is animated, even passionate, even occasionally contrary, but I never imagined that one of the guests would end the evening in the hospital.
Which female author writes the most realistically about men?
The poet Louise Glück. This poem is entitled “Circe’s Power”:
“I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Did that to them. As pigs,
Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw
We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think
A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.”
Our first poem in the OGR series, thank you!
When’s the last time you started a book and little beyond eating and sleep kept you from reading it straight through?
The last book that I only put down to sleep (I ate with the book in front of me) was Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who wrote of their life—persecution, imprisonment, exile, and Osip’s eventual death in a Siberian labor camp—in Russia during the War and under Stalin.
How many books are you typically reading at once?
I am usually reading two or three books at a time; a novel and then a book of criticism or history.
Current criticism or collections of historical and on what topics? Who today is writing criticism (again on any topic) that you particularly like?
I’ve been reading about the Civil War as well as the history of slavery in America, perhaps as my contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement as I am not able to go outside because of the virus. There is a great deal that I did not know, and it has also led me back to Faulkner, whose novels I have read over and over again since I was a girl.
I tend to read the criticism of T. S. Eliot, V. S. Pritchett, Virginia Woolf, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, Julian Barnes. I can see from my list that I am a bit old-fashioned in my choices (other than Barnes).
Who’s the finest writer you’re aware of who never wrote a book?
The finest writer I know who has never written a book is Penelope Tree, although I think that she may at last be writing one.
What attracts you most to her writing and what would you hope to find in a book by her?
She is a friend and I have listened with great interest and pleasure to her stories. She has had a very full life, although that in itself is not enough to make one a writer—she is funny, sensitive, intelligent, also qualities that do not necessarily make one a writer, but she has that other thing, that gift that one seems to be born with—she is a writer.
Which books must you own? God forbid there’s a fire or something damages one or one is loaned but never returned, those you’re suddenly without which you’d simply have to replace.
Books that I could not live without: The Tale of Genji, The Odyssey, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, and the twelve volumes of the memoirs of Casanova.
Fittingly per your reading habits of “a novel and then a book of criticism or history.” Thanks Susanna!
Susanna Moore at a screen test in 1974