All About Steve
We talked to the master comedian, actor and banjo player about his love of writing and his new novel, An Object of Beauty
Chatelaine | December 2010 | Ryan Bigge
|From interviewmagazine.com culture blog|
Steve Martin remains best known for his comedy – be it as an Academy Awards co-host, Tina Fey’s one-time love interest on 30 Rock, doting boyfriend to Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated or, of course, his wild and crazy stand-up days. But over the past 10 years he has quietly developed a respectable career as a man of letters. Along with a couple of novellas, 2001’s Shopgirl (about a sad young woman selling gloves at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills) and 2003’s The Pleasure of My Company (about a young man with obsessive-compulsive disorder) Martin has also written the memoir Born Standing Up (2007), which details how he conquered the stand-up world before quitting forever in 1981 to focus on feature films. The newest addition to Martin’s book list is An Object of Beauty, his first full-length novel. “I wanted to blend art history with a novel,” Martin explains. “And making the narrator an art writer gave me an excuse to recall what I thought were some fascinating historical stories about the art world.”
Spanning 18 years, An Object of Beauty is a dark and wry look at the 1990s boom and eventual bust of the contemporary art market in New York. The novel follows the exploits of a young, stylish and ambitious woman named Lacey Yeager who starts as an underling at Sotheby’s auction house and eventually opens her own gallery in Chelsea. Along the way she breaks a variety of hearts, inflicting multiple fractures on an art-collecting playboy named Patrice Claire. Narrated by Daniel Chester French Franks (an art writer and friend of Lacey), An Object of Beauty is filled with sharp and witty observations about fashion, Manhattan rituals and the culture of money. And, as an added bonus, the novel includes various colour reproductions of famous artworks (including pieces by Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha), providing Martin with an opportunity to dabble as a curator.
Despite recently turning 65, Martin has no desire to slow down. “I don’t even know what that means,” he says. “Sometimes for me, retiring is sitting down to write a book and doing nothing else. But in a sense I am retired since I don’t have a job.” Chatelaine spoke with Martin by telephone from his New York home about his favourite kinds of literary characters, his brand-new Twitter account and the financial (and artistic) genius of Andy Warhol.
What inspired An Object of Beauty?
I have been fascinated with art and the art world and how they overlap my whole life. I’ve also been fascinated with a certain type of character that exists in both men and women: the narcissistic personality or sociopath, although I don’t like to use those terms because I think they ruin books. I’ve seen these characters come and go throughout my life and since I’m a writer, I’m always looking for things to write about.
Why did you decide to include colour reproductions, like Pablo Picasso’s Woman with Pears and Willem de Koonig’s Woman I, in your book?
I found myself describing the pictures – and I really enjoyed writing those descriptions – and I suddenly thought “Why not create an illustrated novel?” Which, by the way, is not unique: they used to do woodcuts in novels. It felt interesting to have colour photographs of paintings in a novel. I hope the images help the description’s poetry rather than inhibit them.
An Object of Beauty includes a lot of references to Andy Warhol: There’s an image of his Marilyn silkscreen; the character Lacey Yeager buys a Warhol and you describe the work of Picasso and Warhol as equivalent “objects of beauty.” What’s so appealing about Warhol?
Not only is Warhol important as an artist, like Roy Lichtenstein, he was also a financial wonder during the period of time I describe in the novel. He was really leading the way in terms of the art world and the auction houses. As I explain in the book, his phenomenal prices were actually making work by new artists more valuable.
You’ve written two novellas before, but this book is your first full-length novel. Did you experience any significant challenges while writing the longer work?
I tend to write terse. And I knew I wanted to write a longer book. So I wrote about a longer period of time. Both Shopgirl and The Pleasure of my Company were about events that occurred over about two years. This book takes place over 18 years. So that was one way I tricked myself into writing a longer book.
You’ve written a number of screenplays, including L.A. Story and Roxanne. Do you approach fiction and screenplays differently?
Yes, completely different. A screenplay is an interface that is not an end in itself. It’s almost a shorthand or a guide, while a book is the final thing. You craft every sentence. You let it stew. You put it down for three months. You pick it back up. You read it aloud to yourself. I read it to my dog. I worry over individual choices of words for weeks.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
In terms of this book, I would say my favourite authors are art writers. Adam Gopnik – but he hasn’t written about art lately. Peter Schjeldahl. John Richardson. And Deborah Solomon, who only writes sporadically about art. She wrote the Joseph Cornell biography and is working on biography of Norman Rockwell.
Is there something you’re reading right now that you’re exciting about?
Not right now because I’m overwhelmed. But I do recommend the John Richardson biography of Picasso.
What projects do you have coming up next?
I’m working on another bluegrass-banjo album that will be out in February. It’s called Rare Bird Alert. And I have a movie coming out next year that I’m quite proud of called The Big Year starring Owen Wilson and Jack Black.
And you also recently joined Twitter. Last week you wrote “Reading other people’s Tweets, I think I’m getting the hang of it now. 9:23am: cleaning toenails.”
Yes. I do jokes. I don’t do personal stuff. I’m not sure how long it will last. I’m just experimenting. But it’s fun.