Anna North’s new novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, examines the impact of a tenacious but difficult young filmmaker through the narration of those who loved her. “I really just imagined her as a filmmaker from the very beginning,” North says of Sophie, a character she’d been thinking about for years before she sat down to write the novel. “I was interested in having her be someone whose art draws from life.” But what North didn’t want was to write about a writer, so she chose to explore an art form that was visual and documentarian.
In an interview with Flavorwire, North shared her recommendations for books and films about female artists that she loves, many of which informed her thinking as she created Sophie and her troubled, compelling world.
North watched this French movie starring Charlotte Gainsbourg in grad school. “I had a lot of time on my hands and only watched French movies, and after a while I was only watching Charlotte Gainsbourg movies,” she says. Starring Gainsbourg and her actual husband Yvan Attal as a married couple, the movie looks at gender and “his insecurities, being with some who is much more famous than he is.”
“It’s about someone who has a lot trouble living in the world, a reclusive young woman who has a beautiful singing voice and can mimic great singers but is totally unable to live publicly,” says North of this late-’90s film starring Brenda Blethyn and Ewan McGregor. “Then she meets someone who tries to make her have a career.” The question the film asks is, “What is the value of art if you are not sharing it with anyone?”
This film is “about actresses insofar as it’s even about anything,” says North, who is an avid fan of horror and sci-fi films and thinks those genres don’t get enough credit for their smarts. “It does seem to be about performance and about image and about identity. It’s kind of a horror movie in how little sense it makes — you feel like you were in a giant nightmare.”
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
This experimental novel is broken up into two halves, which you can read in two different sequences. “Half of the book is about a young girl who starts to do art, while the other half is about a Renaissance painter, and gender is more of a question in that half, in an interesting way,” says North. “But it’s one of the most beautiful books about painting I’ve ever read.”
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
A novel about two sisters, a pianist and a writer. “It’s a really sweet, unpretentious view of being a novelist,” says North. “The narrator doesn’t care about her book, while her sister is portrayed as the one who is great and a genius, but troubled. It’s so great at portraying an an artist who has depression.”
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Smith’s acclaimed memoir reveals the music icon’s writing talent. “Patti Smith is different from Sophie,” says North of her heroine, who dresses with purposeful androgyny. “But I’ve been really fascinated by her look and her style, and I was thinking about that with Sophie.”
Outline by Rachel Cusk
North calls Cusk’s novel about a teacher “so groundbreaking in this Knausgard-y tradition of seeming like realism,” but with a deep undercurrent. What particularly draws her to the book, she says, is its exploration of “the business of being an artist,” which in this case involves teaching.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
“It speaks to the other side of my writing life,” says North, a Jezebel and Salon alum who currently works at the New York Times (and writes her fiction in the morning, before work). “There aren’t that many books about bloggers, let alone really good ones. It’s a profession we haven’t yet seen immortalized.” The descriptions of blogging about race and culture in Americanah are the best literary treatment of the subject so far, she says.