Woman of Talents
Interviewed by Elizabeth Mosier ’84
The Last Nude (Riverhead, 2012), the second novel by Ellis Avery ’93, has attracted high praise from critics at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine. Here, Avery takes us behind her story about the creative and erotic relationship between Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and the muse for her 1927 painting La Belle Rafaela.
Elizabeth Mosier: At the end of her life, your character Tamara de Lempicka says, “I was painting to recover a lost world and to claim a place in it.” Your novel does the same thing in words; it’s full of authentic, vivid sensory detail that recreates the Paris art scene of the 1920s. How did you research the novel?
Ellis Avery: I was an independent major in performance studies at Bryn Mawr, and I’m interested in modeling and drawing as performance—as a ritual that unfolds in real time. I taught myself the art history I needed to write the novel: I read biographies of artists and sat in on an art history class at Columbia University. I’d modeled for artists a few times in the past, but to understand the artist’s point of view, I took a figure painting class at the Art Students’ League. I also read books written by people who lived through the period—Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, for example—which gave me details particular to Paris at the time.
EM: Your character Rafaela Fano is the subject of Tamara de Lempicka’s painting—and also the object of her desire. Her journey from artist’s subject to artist seems related to the female writer’s struggle to overcome objectification—to find and claim her “voice.”
EA: Rafaela’s journey can be encapsulated in two dresses she makes: the “lucky dress” that first catches Tamara’s eye and, toward the end of the book, a zipper dress that draws as much attention to its workmanship as to the body inside it.
At Bryn Mawr, I took a class called “Women of Talents” with the legendary Katrin Burlin, who invited us to begin from the premise that anything women create is art. That made me think: What if we considered the trivialized and demoted work that women do in fashion as art? Katrin’s premise helped me shape the story of Rafaela’s discovery that, behind her own back, she’s become an artist, too—and helped me resist narrating that discovery in a heavy-handed way.
EM: Was there a similar moment for you, when you claimed your writing “voice”?
EA: I wrote a first, autobiographical novel that was rejected soundly by agents and publishers. Then September 11 happened, and I wrote The Smoke Week (Gival Press, 2003), a distilled journal about that experience in New York. The book begins when my private life gets subsumed by this very public tragedy, and it ends when I’m able to take up my private life again. During that awful week, my private life wasn’t interesting to me. I wasn’t even “me;” I was a bubble in the wave of grief that swept the city. And I realized that my little life wasn’t novel-shaped—or if it was novel-shaped, I hadn’t lived long enough to see that shape clearly yet. The experience made me get over myself and get curious about the stories of others. Maybe I’m more like Rafaela than I imagined! When I moved my gaze from myself to other people—when I stopped being the object and started being the observer—I was able to move forward with my first published novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead, 2006).
More Books by Alumnae
THE HOUSESITTER, Cynthia Baxter ’75, Dark Corridors, 2012. This psychological thriller tells the story of a housesitting gig that turns into terror. Baxter is the author of two mystery series, Reigning Cats & Dogs and Murder Packs a Suitcase. More info.
RACIAL INNOCENCE: PERFORMING AMERICAN CHILDHOOD FROM SLAVERY TO CIVIL RIGHTS, Robin Bernstein ’91, NYU Press, 2011. Analyzing books, paintings, toys, and domestic goods from the 19th century, Bernstein traces the ways in which the concept of “childhood innocence” has been central to ideas about race in the United States, with popular culture portraying white children as innocent and vulnerable, while excluding black children from these characteristics. Bernstein is associate professor of African and African American Studies and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. More info.
THE NEXT AMERICAN REVOLUTION, Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. ’40, University of California Press, 2011. Veteran activist Boggs examines the current environmental, political, and economic crises in the United States. She discusses how she thinks hope and creativity are countering decay within the most devastated urban communities. More info.
FASHIONING CELEBRITY: EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH ACTRESSES AND STRATEGIES FOR IMAGE MAKING, Laura Engel ’90, The Ohio State University Press, 2011. In the 18th century, the idea of celebrity was cultivated and manicured in much the same manner as it is today. Engel uses portraiture, theatrical roles, and personal memoirs to rebuild a picture of the lives, fame, and identities of four 18th-century British actresses. Engel is an associate professor of English at Duquesne University. More info.
TRANSLATING EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, Brett Jocelyn Epstein ’01, Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2012. In a new approach to translation studies that addresses the challenges of translating children’s literature, Epstein discusses strategies for translating nonsense words, idioms, and expressive phrases into other languages. Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. More info.
OPEN WINTER, Rae Gouirand ’99, Bellday Books, 2011. Winner of the 2011 Bellday Poetry Prize, this volume is the latest from Gouirand, who has received the Avery Jules Hopwood Award, the Meijer Fellowship, fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Santa Fe Art Institute, and an award from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation for outstanding work by emerging poets. She lives in Davis, California, and serves as writer-in-residence for the Cache Creek Conservancy. More info.
SEARCHING FOR UTOPIA: UNIVERSITIES AND THEIR HISTORIES, Hanna Holborn Gray ’50, University of California Press, 2012. Gray examines the historic role of utopian thinking in higher education and its relevance in today’s world. Focusing on the writings of two former university presidents, she identifies two seemingly opposed points of view—the realist and the idealist—that, she argues, are ultimately utopian. Gray, president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993, is presently Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the history department there. More info.
SOUTHWESTERN PITHOUSE COMMUNITIES, AD 200-900, Lisa C. Young and Sarah Herr ’91 (editors), University of Arizona Press, 2012. Focusing on pithouse communities of the American Southwest, this volume enhances archeologists’ understanding of the civilizations that emerged there by exploring their economic, agricultural, and social development. Herr is a senior project director at Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Arizona. More info.
CATCHING TIGERS IN RED WEATHER: IMAGINATIVE WRITING AND STUDENT CHOICE IN HIGH SCHOOL, Judith Rowe Michaels Ph.D. ’74, National Council of Teachers of English, 2011. Longtime teacher-poet Michaels discusses how to encourage great reading and writing skills among high school students. Michaels uses her own classroom success story as an example of how to inspire imaginative writing, no matter the assignment or genre. More info.
ROSEMARY VEREY: THE LIFE AND LESSONS OF A LEGENDARY GARDENER, Barbara Paul Robinson ’62, David R. Godine, 2012. In this biography, Robinson explores the life of Rosemary Verey, who specialized in English-style gardens and advised celebrities from Prince Charles to Elton John. Robinson worked as a gardener for Verey at Barnsley House during a sabbatical from Debevoise & Plimpton, where she was the first woman partner. She has published articles in the New York Times, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, and Hortus. More info.
ALBRIGHT-KNOX ART GALLERY: HIGHLIGHTS OF THE COLLECTION, Mariann W. Smith ’81, Scala Publishers, 2011. Smith, curator of education at the Albright-Knox Gallery, offers a glimpse into the Albright-Knox collection and provides insight into the development and progression of contemporary art since the gallery’s opening. More info.
PERVERSION: A LACANIAN APPROACH TO THE SUBJECT, Stephanie Swales ’04, Routledge, 2012. A close reading of Lacan’s theories about perversion, this book presents two qualitative clinical case studies—one of a neurotic sex offender and the other of a perverse sex offender—to offer treatment recommendations for both forensic and private practice contexts. Swales received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duquesne University and maintains a private practice. More info.
JOHN EMERSON ROBERTS: KANSAS CITY’S “UP-TO-DATE” FREETHOUGHT PREACHER, Ellen Roberts Young, Ph.D. ’72, Xlibris, 2011. This book follows the life of late-19th-century-preacher-turned-outspoken-freethinker, John Emerson Roberts. With connections to both Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll, he played an important role in religious and intellectual movements in the late 1800s. Young is the author of two poetry chapbooks and co-editor of Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders. More info.