The memoir James Jennifer Georgina illustrates author Jennifer Butler’s struggle of dealing with her husband’s alcoholism while trying to shield her daughter Georgina. The memoir is told through postcards that Jennifer wrote to Georgina over a decade.
Jennifer explains: James was drinking himself to death. But he could drive a car from A to B, have a sense of pleasure and not drink – so in an irritable panic I made the decision to take him on a road trip to dry him out, leaving our daughter at home with nannies. The postcards record the 268,162 miles driven, 2 bullfights, 1 speeding ticket, 53 unpaid parking tickets as well as 205 church stops, candle after candle lit in hope. Hidden drink, broken promises.
We look forward to welcoming Jennifer Butler to the Library on Wednesday 6 April at 19h30 and hope to see you for an engaging conversation with the author.
Here, Laurel Zuckerman, director of Paris Writers’ News, shares an excerpt of her latest Authors on Authors interview with the Library.
« I wrote 1000 postcards to our daughter, Georgina, from 1989 to 1999.
It was a kind of mothering from a distance.»
In collaboration with the acclaimed designer Irma Boom, Jennifer has created a searingly personal memoir so remarkable in design and content that it will be exhibited at the MOMA and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Laurel Zuckerman : What was your first job writing? How did you get into screenwriting?
Jennifer Butler : My first writing job. Job sounds a funny description for those 26 letters. My first try at writing was a contest for the New York State Historical Society. I think I was in the sixth grade in Elmira, New York. It was probably a 200 word essay. I chose the origin of the name to the nearby village of Horseheads. I won a trip to Albany, the state capital and a photo with Nelson Rockefeller who must have been governor and $50 for first prize. It was a very heady experience. My next assignment was for Harper’s Bazaar, the women’s fashion magazine – it’s printed in the book. Seeing my name in print the first time thrilled me like no other thrill. And that first check equally thrilled me. Paid to write. I still have a copy of the check with a note to my parents. That article, ‘Traveling at 2000 m.p.h,’ I sent that in cold and the feature editor, Barbara Goldsmith, rang me and said she was printing it and to continue submitting any work I wrote.
I went to Hollywood because of another writer, Nancy Dowd. We had an idea for a soap opera about an adopted girl looking for her real mother. We pitched this to Lyn Bolin who was in charge of Daytime Television at NBC but nothing came of it. Between that experience and finally getting on staff at EMI television to develop FIRST WOMEN”S BANK there were the usual odd jobs like selling film ends bought from studio productions and sold to low budget independent film makers. I don’t want to remember some of the other odd jobs but I had a very typical career in Hollywood. No over night success was there at any time. I paid my dues.
LZ : What path led from commercial writing to James Jennifer Georgina, which has been hailed as a revolutionary renewal of the book?
JB : A number of rejections. I have written three novels which have been “almost” published. I wasn’t discouraged but in 2007 we were selling our house in Provence, Le Mas de la Chapelle St Sixte, in Eygalieres. It was rumoured to have been slept in by Pope Clement VI. Whether it was truth or gossip it was an extraordinary house with a parade of very high vaulted ceilings. It was unusual in many ways and we decided to self publish a document about the history of the Mas. The book was a wonderful visual success and even brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to consider buying it. Like any historic monument it came with development limitations and code restrictions. Nevertheless, publishing fascinated me. The format. The type. The layout. The concept. The marriage between content and design. The paper. The ink. I realised then, with the internet, books had to become more than information. They had to be an art object, an intimate human document or an extraordinary edition. A book had to be beyond the capability of an i-Pad, a Kindle or even a computer screen. My search for Irma Boom took a year and a half. I don’t want to mention the designers I looked at but they were all innovative but not right for the subject or they dominated a subject with their designs or they didn’t pay attention to the ink/paper contrasts or they didn’t invent anything new which touched me. At the same time I read books by Jan Tchichold, Wim Crouel, Karl Martens, Eric Gill, Müller-Brockmann, Alan Fletcher to name a few. For any aspiring writers reading this: the most important step between success and failure is the query letter you must write cogently and clearly to get inside the door. You need to do the ‘do diligence’. Irma has admitted in public that the letter I wrote convinced her from the beginning that we would be a good team and she had never ever worked with a commissioner and she had never done a human document. She is a specialist in catalogues and academic treatises on architecture and archive material. And that still is her speciality.
LZ : What is your process? How do you write?
JB : The hardest part of the process is sitting down at my desk. I could write the longest list of excuses I have created NOT to write. I would prefer to take the rubbish out than sit down and write. However, once I am seated I equally hate to stop. In the end, it has to be a mindset, a mindset like losing weight or giving up drink. Before I go to bed I commit myself to 2 hours of writing. It doesn’t matter whether it is good it just matters that I have written. I like the process of revising. I do find reading a necessary part of the process. The way eating nourishes the body, reading nourishes the mind. I find interesting techniques for dealing with time which is always challenging. And poetry is helpful for innovative ways to use words.
LZ : You have a letter from Simon de Beauvoir. How did you enter into contact? What did she represent for you?
JB : The way in which I contacted her reveals how the world has changed and privacy. In 1980, there was a gazetteer of Who’s Who in the World and as I remember it might even have been divided by specialities. Who is who in history. who is who in politics. Who is who in literature etc. I had been a great fan of her work. She is a hero for my generation of women. And I looked her up in Who is Who in Literature and at the end of the column or columns describing her life and career was her home address. She was approaching her seventy-fourth birthday and so I wrote “Chocolate Cakes” as a kind of birthday card, a sort of very long postcard. She was my role model and I tried to imagine myself at seventy-four and the card just went on and on. I never revised it. I wrote it in one sitting in long hand with a proper pen. I still have the graph paper notebook I wrote it in. I then transcribed it with my manual Smith-Corona typewriter. I think it is in pica font. The return was a handle near the roller.
She represented a legitimacy as a writer. She was an academic. She was a novelist. She was a lover of Jean-Paul Sartre who was a literary hero of my father’s. “Words” was one of his favourite books. And she lived in Paris and travelled and was independent. Yes. Legitimacy is what she still represents to me. I still treasure that first letter from her where she wrote. “Vous avez beaucoup de talent….” It was like an anointment.
LZ : What writers inspire you? Who should one study to become a good writer?
Alice Munro comes to mind first. Her skills are so many and all so subtle. Although her characters mostly have a similar problem, divorced and financial and on the move, each is unique and she handles each differently. The dialogue from one would never be similar to another. Her stories are always fresh, always well paced. When I am down I can forget about the black dog with her work. That is how deeply she affects my spirit.
I think Flannery O’Connor is one of the most imaginative writers. Hemingway and his use of enormously long rhythmic sentences in between his short sentences. I learned the importance of AND in his work. Chekhov. George Elliot. Whatever I’m reading currently is my favourite. Like a young girl with her changing boyfriends. The current one is the one I love. And some of the previous I have outgrown in some curious way. I’ve moved on and I can trace my biography through my books. I can look at an author and remember what I was doing and how I was feeling. My library is an information retrieval of my time line. At the moment, I am deeply interested in the page – the air between letters, the thickness of lines, the letter ‘g’, margins, paper quality, fonts. Alphabets are as complex as any canvas and it is the designer who manipulates the subjects on the page. I’m reading Paul Rand and Wim Crouwel, two iconic designers. And, I am also reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I find it difficult to put down it is so good and am astonished she was eighteen when she wrote it.