Hollywood.com: Did you know that this book would be received differently when you were writing it?
Jess Walter: Every book is so different
almost in every way. It's kind of a cliché among authors that you're
reinventing [your process] every time you're doing it. The process of
writing this one was so different, in part because I was working on it
for 15 years. So off and on I would come in and out of it.
It's funny, I never have any preconceived notion of
what a book's going to be or how it's going to land or anything like
that. You're almost a slave to the idea. And so the whole time I was
working on this, I was probably sort of stunned that it's done as well
as it has. Because I would explain it to people and how it's about
Hollywood and 1960s Italy and the Donner Party and Edinburgh, Scotland,
and they would look at me like I was kind of insane. So I think I
worried that it was probably too diffuse and elaborate, so I've been
really pleasantly surprised. But I've also learned to not really have
too many expectations about these kinds of things. You just write and
hope for the best.
You mentioned you spent 15 years writing Beautiful Ruins. Why do you think it was so tricky to piece this book together?
Well, you know, it's kind of funny, but I think what the book
ended up being about — which is the span of someone's life and
heartbreak and regret and how we are, I think, made better by our
failures — I needed 15 years of all that hell. I started the book when
my mom was still alive, and she passed away. And I had two kids and
watched them grow up, and watched my older daughter become an adult, and
I had all sorts of failures and successes. I think the scope of the
book almost required a little more living on my part. But I never
thought that while I was working on it. Every time I quit working on it I
assumed it was because the novel was just bad. I just thought it had
failed somehow. I think one of the pleasant surprises of the book was,
every time I came back to it, I could reanimate it, which isn't always
the case. A lot of times I walk away from something, I abandon it and
the paint's dry. I can't manipulate it anymore, I can't get it to do
anything else. But it seemed like every time I went back to this book,
Pasquale and Dee inspired me. They had more to say. When I started it I
thought they would spend 40 years apart, 35 years apart, and by the time
I finished it… If it had taken much longer, they would've died before I
could've gotten them back together.
You've lived with these characters for so long, was it hard to let them go?
It's always hard to let a novel go, but the characters from
all my novels — that old saying that they become real, in a way they
really don't. More than anyone, I think the author is aware that they
are a collection of your own kinks and narrative impulses. The hard
thing to let go of with a book is being afraid that it's not done, "It's
not ready! I haven't finished it!" You know, maybe the Donner pitch
needs to be a page shorter and maybe Claire's boyfriend needs to get a
better job. It's more that you feel you haven't done it justice. It
isn't as if the people have an impact on your life other than that
you're hauling them around trying to figure out what a satisfying
narrative conclusion would be.
fourth album, Wind, originated from a commission to write a soundtrack
for René Clair’s 1927 silent film The Prey of the Wind.
But it was directly inspired by another soundtrack long admired by the Beirut-born, now Paris-based trumpeter: Miles Davis’ iconic score for Louis Malle’s 1958 noir classic, Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud.
On pieces like the Doubts, the influence is absolutely unmistakable: a
laconic blues with Maalouf blowing sweet and melancholy, with more than
a hint of the young Miles’ haunted vulnerability.
It’s lent further nocturnal mystery by the effortlessly laidback
accompaniment of the crack team of New York sidemen assembled for the
album: bassist Larry Grenadier, saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer
Clarence Penn, as well as Maalouf’s longstanding collaborator, pianist
and co-arranger, Frank Woeste.
They form an acoustic quintet dripping with mid-20th century insouciance.
Yet there’s more to this project than merely recreating 1950s black
and white cool. Maalouf’s instrument of choice is the quartertone
trumpet, which features an extra, fourth valve, enabling him to
incorporate microtonal intervals more commonly heard in Middle Eastern
Thus, the smouldering, offbeat groove of Suspicions carries a heavily
spiced hook, played by Maalouf and Turner in tight unison, transforming
it into a street dance in the Arab Quarter.
Elsewhere, Questions & Answers feels like a Balkan-flavoured take
on the tumbling circularity of The Jazz Messengers’ Wheel Within a
Excitement features a stumbling rhythm and Maalouf’s melodramatic exclamations come across like a parody of Charles Mingus’ satirical swipe, Fables of Faubus.
But it’s on some of the slower, more spacious pieces that Maalouf’s
artistry with the quartertone really cuts through. On Waiting, a
minimalist background of drizzling brushes and a stark, two-note bass
riff provides the context for delicate, upward-arching vocal
inflections, like an Arabesque crooner singing with seductively gentle
And on Certainly, a loose and lush contemporary ballad setting –
featuring some beautifully paced piano comping from Woeste – lets
Maalouf ease off on the Arabic dialect and play with a soft, sighing
accent, like a homesick visitor on the streets of New York.
It all adds up to a very satisfying cultural exchange.
“I think there’s a problem with the system,” said Marston to Variety
at the time, “when Hollywood claims to know better than the submitting
country whether a film belongs to them. It is incredibly disempowering
and disenchanting for a country with a young film industry.”
This year, an unprecedented 71 films were officially submitted, amongst them Kenya’s first ever submission, Nairobi Half Life, and Cambodia’s first submission in almost twenty years, Lost Loves
(neither made it past the first round). Later, a 9-film shortlist was
announced, and then nominees were further whittled down after a series
of special screenings (Foreign Language is the only category in which
Academy members must prove they have seen all nominated films in order
to vote), culminating with five official selections: Austria’s Amour, Canada’s War Witch, Denmark’s A Royal Affair, and Chile’s No.
A French film executive expressed frustration over the lack of French nominees in this year’s race (France’s submission, The Intouchables,
failed to make it past the shortlist), telling Deadline: “It’s
unbelievable that producing 200 movies a year France has not been able
to win a single [Foreign Language Oscar] in 20 years.”
is much more pronounced when considering those countries that have
produced fewer films, in even less time. When the Foreign Language
category was first introduced to the Oscars in 1947, an overwhelming
number of the movies recognized were mostly European, with Italy over
the years earning the most wins of any nominated country (13, with an
additional 27 nominated films), and France with the most nominations
(36, with 12 wins). The French executive’s frustration must pale in
comparison to his peers who hail from the younger, smaller film cultures
that have just begun to come into their own.
No one needs to be told to see Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook,
but if there’s one thing that the Oscars do for foreign film, it’s to
bring a larger audience to work otherwise little seen. Even a nomination
can bolster the careers of budding filmmakers in countries such as
Taiwan, where Ang Lee’s Foreign Language nominations for his 1993 and
1994 films The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman
launched his international career. He’s continued to produce, as well as
shoot and edit a majority of his films in Taiwan, including this year’s
Best Picture nominee Life of Pi.
The Foreign Language
category represents an exceedingly small proportion of the international
film community, presenting only a handful of movies to reflect a
worldwide cinematic landscape. Seven of the nine films on the shortlist
this year were European, and while Chile’s No sets the important precedent of being the country’s first nomination, and War Witch, though technically Canadian, tells an African story (calling into question the stipulations that have knocked out films like Forgiveness of Blood), Asian, African, and Latin American nominations have still been lacking in recent years.
Stephen—Is there irony in your title for this series, “Love Doll?” It may be generic, but the figure seems forlorn, without love.
I rarely go for irony in my work—at least not consciously. When I
discovered the sex dolls in Japan I understood that, there, they are
called “Love Dolls” as opposed to the American name, “Real Dolls.” They
seem more tender and adoptable than their coarse, sleazy, and fake
American cousins. It makes sense given the Japanese obsession with anime
and manga girls that a real-life embodiment of those characters would
appear—though I’ve heard that Love Dolls were created around 30 years
ago so men with disabilities could enjoy female companionship…True? I
Stephen—Come to think of it,
there is enough irony in popular culture! Contradiction may be a better
term for what she represents: the impossibility of love…Does her
specific cultural—Eurasian—identity have any place in your thinking, a
Japanese girl who has been ‘imported’ to Connecticut where you live and
Laurie—She is a peculiarly Asian
fantasy, exquisite and insanely well sculpted. Before I left for Japan
in the summer of 2009, I wished desperately to bring something back that
would change my work. I didn’t count on it being the size of a family
member; everything around me has become a potential stage. Until I
dressed her like a geisha in the final pictures she lived and acted like
an American—but sort of like one who had just fallen to earth from
Stephen—I am thinking of mail-order brides and adoption; isn’t there a cultural stereotype in her Asianess?
Laurie—I was very aware of her Japaneseness
when I first got her. She seemed to spring from that culture so
completely. I was told there were Love Doll hotels where men could go
for the night—for a fee. I ordered her online and picked out her face,
hairstyle, eye color and other delicate details. But she assimilated
quickly when I bought her clothes and posed her in rooms in Connecticut.
So she was adopted in a sense, though I must reiterate the doll is not
part of my family. It’s a prop.
Under different political circumstances or under no political
circumstances at all, “Barbara” might have been a tidy romantic drama.
It might have been “Grey’s Anatomy.” But the suffocation of the Stasi
surveillance apparatus imposes a kind of severity upon every look,
conversation, and urge. Barbara is forced to live an emotional double
life. Even if she’s attracted to André (and she’d be insane not to be),
what would acting on that desire mean for her? The director Christian
Petzold wrote the script with the documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki,
and he maintains an air of existential and humanist suspense. Will
Barbara escape? Will she even make sustained eye contact with André?
Petzold’s previous movie was the juicy, preposterous thriller “Jerichow,”
which had Hoss as an abused wife hot for a military man. This new movie
is better photographed and framed, and the symbols, motifs, and
metaphors are more reasonably executed. André gets to prattle on
meaningfully about Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”;
Barbara has a hard time forgetting his synopsis of a story from
Turgenev’s “A Sportsman’s Sketches”; and the song that plays over the
closing credits is Chic’s “At Last I Am Free.”
“Barbara” isn’t nearly as absurd as “Jerichow.” Although the ending
comes close. But that’s earned. It’s a real act of personal rebellion
dictated as much by screenwriting as by moral necessity. Life under
constant inspection and surveillance meant, in part, the suppression of
expression. The Stasi always had the dominant ego. What you see in the
final minutes is a woman ironically asserting herself over so much
But you ended up choosing the path of graphic design, which is close to art. How did that happen?
Well, I needed to make a living. I was actually adopted by the Yokoo
family and my adoptive mother and father were already quite old. I
needed to generate income, so I started working straight after high
school — first at a printing company, then at the Kobe Shimbun newspaper
and then at an advertising agency.
Were you doing design work at those companies?
That’s right. I just learned on the job.
Eventually you decided to go to Tokyo. Why did you make that move?
Well, the reaction I got to my design work was good, so I kept it up.
I came to Tokyo with the advertising agency in 1960, and shortly
afterward I moved to a dedicated design company.
In what way was the reaction to your work good?
Well I entered my designs in exhibitions and they won prizes. And
then I gradually realized that this might be a good job to do. And then I
came to Tokyo and at the time what lay behind everything that was being
done was this idea of “modern design.”
Do you mean the very simple, function-over-form style of design, where all decorative elements were excised?
Yes. I had a very strong yearning for this modern design, but at the
same time I had been raised in a kind of premodern age — a nativist kind
of climate, where the old ways remained in place. So for me, in order
to enter this world of modern design, there were many things inside me
that I had to discard.
But at the same time, I had this lingering doubt about whether I
really should be doing something simply as a job or if I should try to
do it as a work of art. You know, it’s all very well to be in sync with
the trends of the day, but is there something of yourself being
expressed in the design? Is it really your own design or not?
So then I went through this process of thinking that I should try to
incorporate those premodern or nativist elements into modern design. And
it was from that point that what is really my own design was born.
What kind of old-style, decorative elements were you bringing into your work?
My adoptive father had been a kimono-fabric wholesaler when he was
still working. So in our house there were lots of the labels that they
would put on the fabrics when they sold them, and those labels had
wonderful designs — designs that blended Western and Japanese motifs.
They were sort of slightly tacky, mysterious. I guess now you would call
There were also cards for menko (a children’s game in which
wooden cards are slapped down in order to overturn an opponent’s cards),
and those cards had pictures of samurai and film stars and sports
Those kinds of things formed the visual language with which I was
surrounded. I tried to bring all of that baggage into the framework of
How was your work viewed in the design community? The company you
joined, Nippon Design Center, was run by a leading figure in Japanese
Modernist design, Ikko Tanaka (1930-2002), and you had deliberately
sought out that company. How did Tanaka and the others there react to
What I was doing constituted quite a critique of design as it existed
at the time. I was going back and picking up all these things that
Modernist design had discarded. People in the design community tended to
see my work as “anti-design.”
The people in my company? Well, they had all grown up in the same
kind of environment as me. I think for them, it was probably sort of
like being reminded of a terrible nightmare! But it wasn’t that we
For me, incorporating those things into my work was actually a way to
get them out of my system. By confronting that old stuff, by putting it
out there, I was trying to discard it, too.
I was told by Yukio Mishima once that there were three things that he
and I had in common, and one of those was that we sought to deny
nativism. But he said, “I denied nativism by expunging it. You deny it
by depicting it head-on.”
What were the other two things you had in common?
He also said that the thing Japanese are worst at is black humor, but
that my work had black humor. The third thing was that we both had very
thin wrists. And he grabbed my wrist as we were sitting in a taxi. That
was his black humor at work there!