Lisa Kaufman, speaking about Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth:
What I loved about The House of Mirth is that it reminded me of what I loved about reading as a child—the epic scope, the stories of unrequited love, the glimpse into a world completely unlike my own in which people nevertheless felt about things as I did, the sense of being let in on a secret or a set of secrets. I employed the technique below, but what I was aiming at was to re-create that pleasurable experience of getting lost in another world...of surrendering to storytelling. This was something different than what I had aimed at before.... The exercise below comprises the first paragraphs of a book I have been working on ever since......
Though these paragraphs probably no longer fit in it, my basic technique and the goal I am trying to achieve with it remain pretty much the same.
The exercise: an omnisicent 3rd person persona narrator—formal tone, of the society & time & place, very interested in and absorbed by those who people that time and place. She’s a bit of a gossip; sees her role as the analyzer and interpreter of these people to the reader. Also reveals them in action and dialog. Not uncritical, clear-eyed, but does not overdetermine how the reader is to see the world as a whole. She had, and reveals, a stance about the characters, but not about Things in General. Takes point of view of one character, then shifts. Will eventually take primarily Lily Bart’s point of view, but has already established that she is not permanently attached to her.
James McGuffey noticed the girl immediately upon stepping into the Kohl Brothers Publishing Company lobby that Monday morning, not because she was so striking, but because she was something less than striking—petite, with glasses, pleasant features, and anemic blonde hair cut bluntly at chin-level—and therefore more likely to come into his orbit. He also pegged her immediately as Harold Baransky’s new assistant for this reason: she was dressed all wrong.
It was summer, a time of studied casualness at Kohl Brothers, when even the most senior executives only bothered with suit jackets if they were lunching with someone who had to be impressed, and when the girls—this was how James thought of women the same age as he, or those of whatever age whose positions in the office did not interest or intimidate him—were dressed for the New York City heat. They wore cotton frocks and sandals, dollar earrings from St. Mark’s Place, and not a pair of stockings was to be seen until summer hours ended after Labor Day. The girl in the lobby, on the other hand, wore a navy blue suit and pumps, clearly first day of work attire, and the weave of nylon glinted off her thin calves as she stood by the lighted bookcase, surveying Kohl Brothers’ bestsellers of the season. Even if it had been her first day of work at Lehman Brothers, down on Wall Street, instead of Kohl Brothers—which would at least have explained the floppy-bowed blouse she wore—the suit was wrong in and of itself. James could not have named the reasons why it was wrong—the jacket was too short, and narrow at the shoulders; and the skirt hung tubelike from her hips to mid-knee, without a taper, the same way the Sisters had worn their skirts at James McGuffey’s parochial school back in Pittsburgh—but he knew that it was wrong, and his perceiving this, together with the girl’s ordinary prettiness and the fact that she kept lifting her heels nervously out of the backs of her pumps, made him feel authoritative and hopeful, ways he did not ordinarily feel on a Monday morning at Kohl Brothers. Harold Baransky’s new assistant needed to be shown some ropes, and whatever disconcerting rumors James had gleaned of Harold Baransky’s personal life, there was no doubting Baransky was a brilliant publishing personality and one of the men at Kohl Brothers most useful for an aspiring editor to have on his side. So, with an uncharacteristic confidence that James truly believed would become characteristic with time and practice, and be then deeper and truer than the athletic, "hail-frat-brother-well-met" variety that had passed for confidence among certain parties at Princeton, he approached the girl. She was at the left-hand bookcase, next to the ficus tree, scrutinizing the cover of Return to Saigon, a men’s adventure potboiler of no originality whatsoever, with an intensity of focus that had probably not once been brought to bear upon it by any of the 200,000-odd people who had, just the week before, forked over some discounted percentage of its $18.95 cover price to put it onto the New York Times bestseller list at #6. "Are you being helped?" James said, and then, regretting immediately that he had sounded just like a store clerk, or a waiter, both of which he had been along his un-trustfunded way and planned never to be again, he cleared his throat.
His voice seemed to recall her from a place as dense and far away as the jungle depicted on the jacket of Return to Saigon. She turned to him startled and suspicious, but when she registered his face, which was earnest and with the hilly remnants of a once more virulent acne problem toward the outer jowls, atop his lanky frame, she smiled. "Well I guess I’m not," she said. "Should I call someone?"
"The receptionist won’t arrive until the stroke of nine," James said. "We think she hovers around in the lobby of somewhere until 8:59 so there’s no chance she’ll work a minute over hours."
The girl raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, and nodded. She gazed at him with great seriousness, in the face of which James became suddenly aware of three sets of elevator bells dinging and of three sets of elevator doors whooshing open and closed again behind him, and to feel an irrational but unshakable anxiety that extremely important players in the daily drama that was Kohl Brothers were undoubtedly entering the scene just out of the sphere of his awareness.
Plus, though he had approached the girl with confidence, he had now moved one step beyond approach, into an area where approach was meant to be sustained and developed. And sustaining and developing anything with a self-possessed, if unsuitably dressed, young woman met in the halls of Kohl Brothers Publishing Company, in New York City, was a lot different than chatting up one’s chem lab partner back at the U. Confidence-wise, James had reached terra incognita. And while he floundered in the dark for a passageway to the next little bit of conversation, he couldn’t help but think that all those very important players now prowling the halls were this very minute saying things to each other that he would pay for, somehow, for having missed hearing.
Finally, the girl stepped into the breach. "Do you know which of these Harold Baransky edited?" she asked, and cocked her head with deliberate casualness at the display case.
He pointed out the linked novellas by an up-and-coming midwestern woman novelist; the collected short stories of a previously unheard-of Nobel Prize winner from Pakistan; a cookbook by the owner of Tuilleries, the new four-star restaurant-of-the-moment; and Newport Interiors, an oversized, $75.00 photography book boasting a foreword by Diana Frick Hoffman, of the late great department stores.
"Oh, just all the good ones," she said. "Except for this Newport thing.
Not exactly one for the ages, is it?"
"You’d be surprised," James said, with great authority. "Style books do great on the backlist."
She looked at him doubtfully.
"Backlist. Books that sell year after year in hardcover for no discernible reason. Probably because Diana Frick Hoffman gives them out as Christmas gifts to all her friends-who-have-everything."
"Well," she said. "It’s still wretched. Rich people congratulating themselves..."
"Shhhh," James said, looking conspiratorily around the empty lobby. "The halls are filled with rich people congratulating themselves." She smiled. It was a smile that did not fit at all with her bad suit or her glasses, or with the overall impression James had first had of her as a girl who, were it not for the job she was about to take on, would not have seemed at all intimidating. It was a smart, direct, ironic smile, one that said she knew more than she was letting on. It was a smile that struck him, suddenly and with great force, as somehow predatory.
"I suppose I’ll be working on a lot of wretched style books, then," she said.
"If you’re Harold Baransky’s new assistant."
"Good guess," she said. "I’m Vera Joseph." And she extended to him a delicate hand, on which, he could see, the nails were well-manicured and painted with a clear polish that glowed in the dim lobby light like crystal on the table of a chic Manhattan restaurant.
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