Traditionally, curatorial institutions like the Walker and Coffee House Press are viewed as tastemakers presenting “great art” to audiences. Walker Education Director Sarah Schultz and her colleagues, as well as my colleagues at Coffee House, have been striving to subvert that dynamic. With much of our new programming, we seek to create opportunities for audiences to engage with the art we present, to use it as stepping stone, or tool, to make something new, to inspire.
In conjunction with the exhibition Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, we invited Coffee House writers Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt to do just that. The two have spent the last few months “in residence” in Office at Night, charged with the task of collaborating on a novella related to Hopper’s 1940 painting. We gave them no other instructions—they were free to do as they pleased. The results will be serialized on the Walker’s website throughout April, then it’ll be published by Coffee House as an e-book in June.
We chose these writers because each of them work in genres that Hopper’s work lends itself to: noir, in the case of Laird Hunt, and fairy tales for Kate Bernheimer. Why fairy tales? Not because of any magical elements, but because fairy tales, structurally, draw frames around themselves and deal heavily with archetypes, objects, and light and dark the way Hopper’s paintings sometimes do. Having worked with both Laird and Kate for many years, I also knew that they would leap at the chance to participate—and that they would think expansively about their approach. Believe me, they have.
What they have written is not meant to be a definitive interpretation of the painting. And when you read it you’ll see why. Their novella is only one of a thousand stories we hope are inspired by this remarkable painting.
What were your first thoughts when we approached you with the idea of being a “resident” in Office at Night?
Your initial letter of invitation to us read, in part, “I think the noirishness of the painting, and its creepiness, and something I can’t quite tell what, made me think of both of you right away.” I am a big Laird Hunt fan, and a big Edward Hopper fan, so I was hugely flattered. But at the same time, frankly, I was terrified. If you’ve read any of Laird’s books, you know what a formidable stylist and thinker he is. So one of my first thoughts was that I really needed the outfit of the woman in the painting, not to mention her lipstick, so I could get into the role—which means one of my first thoughts was of her body, my inhabiting it. Basically, the idea took hold immediately for me, artistically. I even exchanged emails with Sarah Schultz about whether the Walker was offering costumes to us; she sent me an enchanting photograph of a 1940s secretary in spectator pumps with a note that read simply, “The secret might be in the shoes.” (Laird and I actually didn’t find ourselves assigning roles by gender, in the end. We traveled as desire took us from body to body, object to object, in the painting instead.) Coffee House and the Walker had such a brilliant, original concept for this: we were told the residency would be about the process of being inside the painting together as much as about the finished novella. It was smart and seductive, and I think I typed back, “Yes, please!”
What kind of research did you do in order to prepare for writing?
I looked at the painting (a digital version provided by the Walker of said). Then I looked at the painting again. Then I looked at it some more. Then I covered up parts of it and looked at what was still there and what wasn’t. Then I looked at whatever marvelous ideas Kate was coming up with. Then I read up a bit on Hopper. Then I looked at the painting. Then I thought about an unfinished and abandoned manuscript of mine set partly in New York and partly in Hell’s Kitchen, in the ’20s and ’30s. Then I wrote. Then I looked some more. Then I wrote some more. Then I imagined I was standing just out of sight, perhaps beyond the open door, inside the painting. Then I looked at one of my daughter’s rather elaborate paint sets and the abandoned (or all but) easel we have in the back room. Then I wrote some more. Then I looked again.
What method did you come up with in order to “collaborate,” and did you consider different options?
Looking back at the hundreds of emails we’ve had about this project since its inception, I realize that very early on in the process we moved super naturally into a “call and response” form of composing the novella. The first words arrived on my desk on the evening of December 30 from Laird, who sent what he called “a start on the guy in the picture.” He wrote: “I’ve named him Chelikowsky, after a colleague of my father’s from the old days. Writing it, which starts with a kind of paranoia about the open window next to him, makes me realize: he is effectively frozen, a figure in a painting, an epic instance.” Laird also asked me if I knew the woman’s name, and mentioned that he thought she was a new hire. Soon after, I wrote the first passages for Hester’s narration—in which she sets forth some complaints about the new hire, Marge Quinn.
We collaborated via correspondence. Our many exchanges contained passages for the novella, letters to each other about the painting and the novella, and stuff about our personal lives outside of the painting (worlds colliding intensively for a couple of months). Amidst very intense discussions about the aesthetics and plot of the novella, we talked about things like Laird’s childhood in Singapore and my Chinese-American daughter—who is the same age as Laird’s daughter—and sometimes we suggested cocktails to each other for the end of the work day. Bits of these personal exchanges made their way into the fiction. Even the subject lines of the emails became part of the story as it evolved: “Thus spake the file cabinet,” “Does Chelikowsky have a first name?” and “Hester (far from painting)” are three examples. Once we were exchanging letters and bits of fiction, we didn’t consider doing it any other way; questions, challenges, were built into the process, and I found the whole experience aesthetically thrilling. The “call and response” method challenged me technically in certain tangible ways, and it also gave me a new sense of freedom to put an idea in the story, trusting Laird would take it from there.
Did you ever disagree about the direction of the story?
The quick answer is no. The possibly more interesting answer is that we disagreed all the way through, but that disagreement took the happy form of writing into the collaborative, respectful freedom we had each granted each other. Conversation is, after all, in its component parts, a kind of disagreement—a most interesting kind! And this was a conversation to be sure.
Were there any surprises along the way?
There were so many surprises. Every time Kate sent a new section I was surprised in that best of all possible ways: seeing a first-rate writer galloping after her imaginings. And, of course, when you write the way I think we both do when we’re doing it solo, tending not to plan out the whole thing ahead of time, just the daily fact of writing is a constant surprise. Years ago, when I was a student at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), attending the Summer Writing Program, I went to a lecture by Michael Ondaatje, who was asked if he made a detailed outline before he wrote his novels. He said that although he knew that worked for some people it absolutely killed the thing for him. Writing, to his way of thinking—and I’m grossly paraphrasing—was all about discovery, about surprise. A novel was a kind of great journey. Clearly you thought ahead, but you didn’t think all the way to the end. I had been banging my head against the whole you-must-plan-it-out thing and was sold on this approach.
In the context of Office at Night I had no idea that the narrator of the first section I wrote would turn out to be the phone or that the chair by the door would be paranoid and lascivious or that there would be an abandoned, loquacious paint brush in the back of the desk drawer or, as Kate dreamed up for us, the story would end with a dance. It was only in the editing stage, when Chris put a series of great questions to us, that the idea of a chorus of frame, canvas, and pigment came to me. New ideas bloomed up for Kate at that stage, too. So it was surprise, surprise, surprise all the way through.
How has your relationship to this painting changed over the course of your “residency” within it?
No doubt I have been reading the wrong ekphrastic poetry and fiction, but I have almost always encountered a kind of distance in the result, often distance of a rather pious variety. Here I am standing mournfully—or at least soberly but intelligently—before the great work, and now here are my thoughts… As I say, I have not read broadly enough! At any rate, the idea of inhabiting the painting with and through fiction was terribly attractive, and the playfulness with which we approached it made it possible, and even necessary, to spend a lot of time staring at odd details. At certain junctures, I actually found myself looking out into the room from different angles, as if I were sitting on the chair by the door or leaning against the file cabinet or leaning out the window. You come away from that kind of immersion colored-stained. I have always loved Hopper’s colors, so this is a happy state of affairs.
Chris Fischbach is publisher at Coffee House Press.