The Rumpus Interview with Ania Szado
Ania Szado says she first thought she might be onto something when her fourth-grade teacher falsely accused her of plagiarizing a famous writer. Still, it took more than a decade—including four years of visual arts training, a creative writing class that often saw her cowering in the hallway, and the sudden death of a sibling—for her to stare down her dream and commit to writing.
Ania’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, told the story of a young woman’s rebuilding and reinvention after a tragic and strangely ambiguous loss. Regionally shortlisted in 2004 for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, it was reissued in 2013.
Studio Saint-Ex, Ania’s second novel, was first published last year and continues to come out in other countries and languages. It imagines a French-American fashion designer, Mignonne Lachappelle, on her way to Expo ‘67 in Montreal. As Mignonne waits for her plane, she recalls the last years of WWII, when she was in love with the novelist and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and launched her fashion career in a strange collaboration with his tempestuous wife.
Ania conversed with me by e-mail from Toronto, where she lives. I was glad to catch her online because she’s been spending a lot of time recently escaping the city to canoe and hike while thinking about or avoiding the enticements of two very different third-novel projects. I asked her questions about Studio Saint-Ex.
The Rumpus: Mignonne feels some insecurity at the perception of fashion as frivolous relative to the more serious arts, including literature. (Though, late in the book, Saint-Exupéry suggests that painting takes much more courage than writing, suggesting that all artists have some envy for others’ arts.) Yet she defends fashion vehemently to him against the implication that it is superfluous or unnecessary, particularly in wartime, by saying that beautiful clothes are gestures toward our higher natures, our capacity for beauty. Did you struggle at all with fashion’s place in what some think of as an implied hierarchy in the creative arts? You were not constrained by historical givens in creating Mignonne and could have made her an artist of some other stripe, but you must have been attracted to the dialogues and dynamics stimulated by making her a designer.
Ania Szado: I did think deeply about fashion’s place in the implied hierarchy of creativity. No doubt my preoccupation is an extension of many conversations I’ve had over the years regarding illustration and design—so-called applied arts. When I did four years of art college as an idealistic (and no doubt misguided) youth, the line between art and design seemed clear: if a client sets the objective, the work of the creative person who responds to the challenge is less sublime than that of the artist who establishes his or her own parameters. But why should this be so? We don’t dismiss Renaissance paintings on the basis that they were commissions—some of which were created in response to quite clear directives and detailed requests. How is this different from a client giving a designer a creative brief? Why should accomplished, commissioned illustrations be less worthy of respect than artists’ drawings? Why, in fact, do we even distinguish between the two? It used to be easy to dismiss illustration as being too overtly in service to commerce, but my understanding of the art world of today suggests that it’s very much focused on commerce. I’m not sure anymore where the line falls between “applied art” and what we call simply “art,” but it seems to me that it is disappearing—and that ambitious fashion design straddles and blurs it.
Besides my own preoccupations with what is art and what is perhaps not quite art, three additional considerations led me to jump at the chance to make fashion a key element in Studio Saint-Ex. One was a story related by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about his wife Consuelo’s obsession with fashion, and how she put her own life at risk by stuffing their Peugeot with gowns and furs, instead of gasoline and water, in preparation for her flight from the invading Nazis; he appeared in the nick of time and threw her silks and sables into the mud.
The second was my discovery that at the very time Saint-Exupéry was writing The Little Prince in New York, that city was reinventing itself as the new fashion capital of the world. I had been casting around for a creative foil for Saint-Ex, someone who could challenge, use, and collaborate with him, and it all fell into place when I considered his illustrations for the prince. I’m certainly not the first Little Prince fan to focus on the garments and figures Saint-Ex drew. A half-century after the story was published, fashion designers continue to launch collections inspired by the book’s visuals.
Finally, fashion was a constant in my childhood. My mother is a talented seamstress and, when I was young, occasionally sketched clothing—mesmerizing pen and ink drawings of timelessly elegant, long-legged models—for newspaper ads. My sister became a New York-based fashion designer.
I did want to look at painting, too, and how its creative processes differ from or align with those of the writer. (In an early draft, my protagonist was not a WWII fashion designer, but a painter obsessed with Saint-Exupéry fifty years after his disappearance.) So I was pleased to learn that Saint-Ex worked on The Little Prince in his friend Bernard Lamotte’s East 52nd Street studio. Lamotte did both fine art work and commercial work, so he gave me yet another lens through which to consider the relative respect afforded each of these pursuits, and the realities faced by artists having to make a living.
Rumpus: Could you talk further about creating Mignonne? With Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo, you were triangulating from and elaborating on historical record, and clearly the book is motivated in large part by an investigation of their individual natures and their relationship. Mignonne is shown to be a sharp, ambitious young woman. She is timid and uncertain at the start, but gains considerable assurance over the course of the story. Consuelo, though she is in her forties, comes across like a spoiled five-year-old: vain, hyper-perceptive, and manipulative. The novel perches on this precarious amorous balance: a helpless, toxic dependence between the husband and wife; a mature sympathy between the middle-aged man and his young lover; and a dangerous attraction between the young lover and the self-consciously seductive wife. But most of the book is told by Mignonne in first person. Where did she come from?
Szado: No doubt Mignonne developed, in part, through an exploration of my own insecurities and development as a creative person. The entire time I was pursuing visual art, I could never quite understand how art-making came so effortlessly for some. Even now, as someone who loves to write, there are stretches of intense misery and struggle. Mignonne grapples to find her vision as well as ways to navigate the politics and economics of what is, in the early 1940s, a fledgling industry. Like me, she is not particularly adept at pretending she’s better at something than she actually is—she isn’t as brazen or calculating as her boss or Consuelo, she’s not good at selling herself, and initially she doesn’t have the acumen to recognize when she’s being manipulated. It’s necessary for her to go through the fire, to have experiences that test and strengthen her, that hone her skills, that sharpen her focus and drive. Only then can she stand up to large, fully-formed characters like Consuelo—who was in real life a forceful, needy, and seductive manipulator who stopped at nothing to get her way.
Rumpus: And what about your structural choices? The book makes regular but very brief departures from Mignonne’s point of view to Consuelo’s, though these sections are in a very close third person. We never get to enter the mind of the man they both love, and the frame of the book has both women traveling to the 1967 World’s Fair, which was named for a Saint-Exupéry novel, Terre des Hommes. It seems particularly tricky, while handling historical subjects, to figure out what to exclude, elide, elaborate, and/or invent.
Szado: The more I learned about Saint-Exupéry, the more I despaired of ever being able to put him on the page in a way that captured all his many and contradictory aspects. He was a revered writer, of course, but he was also an inventor who held several patents; a skilled mathematician; an astounding magician; an infuriating man who nonetheless managed to capture women’s hearts through his unique blend of charisma, awkward charm, talent, and helplessness; a great French patriot; an incredible pilot; a depressed man who loved humankind; a man whose mind and heart were a wonder to me, yet who insisted that character can be measured only by one’s actions, and not one’s thoughts or words. How could I convey all this without straying into biography or losing the thread of the story I wanted to tell?
Eventually, I realized that I didn’t have to tell the reader everything I knew about Saint-Ex. By showing him through the POV of Mignonne and Consuelo, I could confine my depiction of his character largely to those aspects that the two women would be inclined to look for, to grasp onto, to love, or to react to with frustration or longing. I could hint at his complexities, but only through the filter of these women’s eyes. When he has been experimenting with toy submarines in the bathtub, for example (a detail taken from real life), Mignonne focuses not on the fact that he might be working on a new patent or an engineering breakthrough, but on the realization that when he touches her face his sleeve is disagreeably cold and wet.
The Expo ’67 frame allowed me to do a few additional things. It let me introduce a Canadian connection that pleased me. It demonstrated that Saint-Exupéry’s influence cast a long and unbroken shadow through the decades—from the 1940s leapfrogging to the 1960s, with an ongoing continuum implied by the existence of my novel (among numerous other tributes and adaptations) in the 2010s.
Above all, of course, it provided justification for Mignonne’s recounting or recollection of her interactions with Saint-Ex. I might say the same of Consuelo, with a twist. There’s a subtle suggestion that Consuelo’s POV can be read as a construct of Mignonne’s imagination, a reflection of Mignonne’s struggle to come to terms with the ethics of her own actions vis-à-vis The Little Prince, to understand whether her motivations lay primarily in her wish to aid the man she loved or in her ambitions for her fashion career.
Rumpus: Studio Saint-Ex had its origins, in part, in your longtime love—a love that millions share—for Saint-Exupéry’s final book, The Little Prince, and I found multiple references in your novel to that book, however transformed: in the narrator thinking the little prince more fragile than he had realized, which is how Mignonne thinks of Consuelo; in the image of the narrator carrying a little boy with tousled blond hair; and, more generally, in the rose’s difficult nature and the little prince’s dedication to her despite her vanity, both of which are mirrored in the relationship between Saint-Exupéry and his wife. Did you come to read The Little Prince, or other Saint-Exupéry novels, differently than you had before, because of writing this book?
Szado: Absolutely. But I must say, I didn’t entirely grasp how my reading of Saint-Exupéry’s novels had changed until I contemplated how Mignonne’s take on his material might evolve as her vision for their relationship changed. I didn’t realize, until I saw how she held tight to a reading of his heroes as doomed, determined, honorable men—reflecting her sense of Saint-Ex himself—that I too had initially slotted them into this conveniently romantic category.
It was a relief to be shaken out of this too-easy take on his creations. Through repeated readings of Saint-Exupéry’s letters, and the works of his biographers (particularly Stacy Schiff), I came to see how Saint-Exupéry’s inquisitive and disillusioned sides were expressed through the prince and other characters, and how Saint-Ex’s works reflected both his despair at life’s banal realities and what he saw as an inevitable trajectory toward a future lacking in humanity and free will, as well as his veneration of the uncorrupted childlike mind and the spiritual or eternal. Once I saw the connection between his mindset and his work, I could begin to seed ideas throughout my novel to suggest to the reader how The Little Prince came to be the haunting work that it is. It is, I think, like a cabinet with secret drawers. The cabinet is lovely and masterfully crafted, but one must live through episodes of confusion and pain, and grow in maturity, before the hidden drawers reveal themselves and their contents. Which is not to say they offer answers. The beauty of The Little Prince is, I think, how increasingly non-didactic and painful it becomes as we experience more of life.
Rumpus: A conversation threads variously through the entire book on questions of plagiarism versus inspiration, artistic tribute versus exploitation. The novel opens with Mignonne demanding reparation from a former fashion school professor for having stolen her designs, and concludes with her own breakthrough: a series of designs based explicitly on images from The Little Prince, and done against the author-illustrator’s wishes, although he ultimately comes to be enthusiastic about the show. How did this theme shape your book, and vice versa? Is it, in part, your way of reflecting on the creation of your own fiction out of the lives of “real” people whose fictional works also inspired yours?
Szado: I was intensely aware, as I was writing Studio Saint-Ex, that I was carrying on a tradition of paying homage to The Little Prince—a tradition that might alternatively be described as using, abusing, taking advantage of, and so on. I was doing as Mignonne does: building something new from The Little Prince to bring attention to Saint-Exupéry out of love for the man—for I truly felt, for a time, that I had fallen in love with Saint-Ex. I mourned him. I wanted to bring him back to life. I wanted to spend time with him. Yet, like Mignonne, I was aware that The Little Prince and its creator came replete with a certain amount of market interest: Saint-Ex was a celebrity in 1940s America, when I have Mignonne deciding to create a collection based on his writing, and today The Little Prince is one of the all-time bestselling works of fiction. Mignonne and I might both wish to see ourselves as virtuous, but there’s no denying that Saint-Ex didn’t give his blessing to the paths that we chose to pursue—though, as you say, he does eventually come around to support Mignonne’s work.
I made an effort to include as many variations as possible on the theme of tribute versus exploitation, from inspiration through to outright theft. There’s no doubt in my mind that I had Mignonne grapple with issues of theft, plagiarism, homage, collaboration, and so on, in part because I wondered where I stood in this spectrum. On one hand, I felt I was entirely justified in weaving plausible “what-if” scenarios into the known details of Saint-Exupéry’s life. On the other hand, the fact that I initially placed Saint-Exupéry on a pedestal, and the selfish motivations implied by the existence of a marketable hook, brought out my insecurities and made Studio Saint-Ex quite difficult to write at first.
I’ve written short fiction that involves historical characters, and never before felt the weight of this conundrum, but I was intimidated by the challenge of inhabiting Saint-Exupéry and putting of him on the page as a real, flawed man, while simultaneously doing right by him. I felt a sense of responsibility to him. Then again, this is something I feel toward all my characters. The difference is, of course, that with fictional characters like Mignonne, I get to decide what is right and true. Saint-Exupéry and his biographers left abundant information and documentation to guide and restrict me. Fortunately, the recorded interpretations of Saint-Exupéry’s life and character were fairly contradictory. So, in the end, the choice was mine as to what to use, honor, or set aside—as it is in writing any novel, historical or otherwise.