Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Amanda Filipacchi.
Ms. Filipacchi is the author of “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” (W.W. Norton & Company). Her previous works include “Nude Men,” “Vapor,” and “Love Creeps.” Her fiction has appeared in Best American Humor; her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. Filipacchi earned an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. Born in Paris, France she now lives in New York City.
“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” was published in paperback last February. Publishers Weekly praised: “Filipacchi’s fourth novel blithely upends the social constructs of beauty, desire, and art in her signature brisk, darkly comic style … with sharp surreal turns and layers of subversive meaning … While looks can kill, they’re no match for Filipacchi’s rapier wit.” Further, The New York Times Book Review noted: “Filipacchi’s book [has] a philosophical heft and prods us to examine our own prejudices … Funny, surreal, absurd, and charmingly preposterous … Filipacchi’s characters never question the weirdness around them but meet it with a delightful, practical ingenuity.”
From the publisher:
“A sure comic touch . . . smart and sweet . . . a tribute to the pleasures of friendship.” ―The New Yorker
In the heart of New York City, a group of artistic friends struggles with society’s standards of beauty. At the center are Barb and Lily, two women at opposite ends of the beauty spectrum, but with the same problem: each fears she will never find a love that can overcome her looks. Barb, a stunningly beautiful costume designer, makes herself ugly in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, her friend Lily, a brilliantly talented but plain-looking musician, goes to fantastic lengths to attract the man who has rejected her―with results that are as touching as they are transformative.
To complicate matters, Barb and Lily discover that they may have a murderer in their midst, that Barb’s calm disposition is more dangerously provocative than her beauty ever was, and that Lily’s musical talents are more powerful than anyone could have imagined. Part literary whodunit, part surrealist farce, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is a smart, modern-day fairy tale. With biting wit and offbeat charm, Amanda Filipacchi illuminates the labyrinthine relationship between beauty, desire, and identity, asking at every turn: what does it truly mean to allow oneself to be seen?
Now, Amanda Filipacchi exposes “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” …
John Valeri: What first inspired you to write “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty”– and how does the title signify the book’s theme(s)?
Amanda Filipacchi: I’ve always found it strange how highly most men prize beauty in their selections of girlfriends and wives—often above other qualities. Women are usually able to fall in love with men for reasons other than their looks—for example, for their talent. How often do you hear of a man falling in love with a woman for her talent? As to where my interest in the power of beauty originated: My mother was a fashion model in the 1960s, before I was born. Perhaps this made me more aware of beauty and its importance in the world and in relationships, especially romantic relationships.
JV: Speaking of beauty … how do you see your protagonists, Barb and Lily, as representing both its inner and outer qualities – and what do you hope that their friendship reveals about core depths that transcend superficiality?
AF: Both Barb and Lily are kind, selfless, devoted to their friends, and not interested in the superficial. Even though they are both possessed of inner beauty, only Barb has outer beauty. One of my goals was to show that no matter how kind and wonderful and talented a woman is, if she is physically “ugly” by conventional standards, she won’t have an easy time finding romantic love. I wanted to illustrate this unfortunate fact, in hopes that readers will think: this is true, and there’s something wrong here.
Lily is part of a tight group of friends, and even though she’s not having much success finding romantic love, at least she has friends who adore her and whose love for her enable them to see her as nothing but beautiful.
Barb, disgusted by the importance beauty holds in most people’s eyes, has made things very difficult for herself by donning an unattractive disguise and refusing to get involved with any man unless he can fall in love with her for her inner qualities and despite believing she is not beautiful.
Even though our society is teeming with single people who have not found a great love (often simply for lack of good luck), I wanted to show that people can still have happy lives, especially if they have a strong support network of friends.
JV: Your books are known for their satirical quality. How do you see humor as a tool for exploring serious subject matter? And what’s the trick to balancing funny with thought-provoking?
AF: I think humor is one of the few things in fiction that is almost inexplicable. My humor seems to often come from truths I’ve noticed in life, and I push those truths to the extreme, and if I manage to do this successfully, the result is humorous, and hopefully, thought-provoking. But sometimes the result is tragedy, and that can also work. That’s how “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” ended up being a novel that is both funny and sad.
JV: You were born and (partially) educated in France. How do you see that as having informed your world view? In what ways, if any, does that influence your fiction?
AF: My having been educated partly in France must have had an impact on how my mind developed, but it’s not something I’m aware of on a conscious level. The fact that France is less puritanical than the U.S. might have had some influence on my world view. For example, there is a certain fairy tale in France called Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin, in English). It was written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, the same author who wrote all the other famous fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots—which were later rewritten by the brothers Grimm in the 19th century. Peau d’Âne was my favorite fairy tale growing up, partly because it was made into a beautiful movie (starring Catherine Deneuve) that impressed me a lot when I was seven years old. In France this fairy tale is just as important and well known as all the others, but in the U.S. it’s completely unknown. When you hear what it’s about, you won’t be surprised. It’s the story of a king whose beloved queen is dying, and on her deathbed she makes him promise that when he remarries he will choose a wife who is more beautiful than she is. He tells her it’s impossible, for no one is more beautiful. But he promises anyway. After she dies and the time comes for him to remarry, the only woman who is more beautiful than his dead queen is their daughter, the princess. So he proposes. The princess seeks advice from her fairy godmother, who makes her run away from the castle, hiding her beautiful body and face under the skin of a donkey. The other part that might shock Americans is that this donkey, before it was killed, was the king’s beloved donkey that defecated gold coins.
This fairy tale might possibly have been one of the inspirations for my first novel, “Nude Men,” which was a Lolita-type story. And it might also have inspired my latest novel, “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty,” in which the main character wears an ugly disguise to hide her extraordinary but impractical beauty.
JV: You have an MFA in creative writing. In your opinion, what of the discipline can be taught vs. what is intrinsic talent? How can tenacity influence success?
AF: I enjoyed my time at the Columbia graduate creative writing program, but not because I really learned anything about writing, but because I found it stimulating to be around people who were all striving for the same goal—to write the best fiction possible and to have it be appreciated and published. Also, I was lucky to meet a wonderful teacher (and editor at The New Yorker), Alice Quinn, who happened to love the novel I was writing (it became my first published novel, “Nude Men”). I took her class twice, and she asked me if I had an agent. When I said no, she recommended me to the agent Melanie Jackson. I was 24 when Melanie Jackson became my agent, and she has now been my agent for 24 years.
The French don’t believe that fiction writing can be taught. There are no creative writing classes in France—or at least there weren’t when I was in school there. But since I was usually in bilingual and international schools, I was able to find some creative writing classes in the English sections of those schools, and I took them every chance I got, because I loved being read and getting feedback on my work. My first creative writing class was at the age of 13 at The American School of Paris. I’d never written fiction before, but in that class you had to write one short story a week. The feedback I got was extremely positive, more positive than for anything I’d ever done in my life until then. This gave me a high that I wanted to experience again and again, and that’s when I decided I wanted to become a fiction writer.
Tenacity can hugely influence success. I’m stunned at the number of aspiring writer friends I have who just won’t submit their work to magazines, publishers, or agents because they’re afraid of rejection. Several years ago, I had a friend whom I’d met at the Columbia writing program and whose feedback I wanted on a novel I was writing. So I suggested we critique each other’s work. She gave me her unpublished novel to read, which she’d finished writing but had put in a drawer, saying she would never submit it to an agent or publisher because she feared rejections. I assumed her novel was perhaps not strong enough to be published, but as I started reading it I realized that was not the case, and I was sickened by the thought she would never give it a chance to find a publisher. I told her so, but she still refused to submit it. This drove me crazy, so I asked her if I could submit it to an agent friend of mine, on her behalf, as long as he promised to send his answer to me, not to her—this way she’d never need to hear about his possible rejection. She relented and allowed me to send it to my friend. After he read it, he contacted me to say he wanted to represent it. My author friend was thrilled. As a result, her novel was published by Crown. I’ve since had lots of other very talented friends who’ve written several novels but they refuse to send them out for fear of rejection. I plead with them to send them out, but they won’t budge. I can understand their impulse to protect themselves from rejection. Like most writers, I’ve experienced my fair share of rejections and I know they’re excruciatingly painful. But one has to be willing to endure that pain. There are so many examples of well-known writers who endured dozens of rejections before their novels got accepted. And in some cases those novels weren’t just published but became hugely successful.
JV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
AF: I was writing a novel I really liked. It was about a doofus—a ridiculous, ambitious, but unsuccessful entrepreneur who keeps doing embarrassing things without realizing it and getting humiliated as a result. I found him so funny that each time I’d sit down to write, I’d start snickering to myself. It was a very pleasant experience, and so I decided that perhaps I should write about this character for the rest of my life, in all my future novels. And then the Daesh/ISIS terror attacks happened in Paris and for two weeks I stopped writing and just read the news about the attacks. When I tried to get back to work on my novel, I didn’t find it funny or interesting anymore. I know that doubting one’s work after a tragedy is common and, for example, a lot of writers after 9/11 suddenly found their novels-in-progress irrelevant. As I’ve been getting back into my novel, I’ve been having an irresistible urge to introduce terrorism and religion into my novel. I’m not a religious person and have never been interested in religion, but when religion (or at least lunatics citing religion as their motive) rears its head in our daily lives and causes so much devastation, it’s hard not to turn some of our attention to it. So now I’m faced with the challenge of weaving the ridiculous embarrassments of my doofus character into a thought-provoking comedy about terrorism.
With thanks to Amanda Filipacchi for her generosity of time and thought and to Meg Walker, President/Director of Marketing at Tandem Literary, for helping to facilitate this interview.