Monday, August 28, 2006

On Writing and Writers

Marie Arana, ed.
The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work
PublicAffairs, 2003. 404 p.
ISBN 1-58648-149-5 ($16.00)

One topic of which writers seldom weary is writing. The hows, the whys, the inspirations and the obstacles -- all combine to shape a writer's stories and, often, career. The pieces gathered by Marie Arana, editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, reflect the frustrations and pleasures a writer's life entails. The contributors list is impressive: Umberto Eco, Jane Smiley, Wendy Wasserstein, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, Julia Alvarez and, along with numerous others, Julian Barnes.

Barnes's essay "Literary Executions" explores his friendship with Dodie Smith, author of I Capture the Castle and 101 Dalmatians. In 1987, three years before Smith's death, Barnes became her literary executor, and the essay details the responsibilities involved in promoting and protecting another author's work and reputation. Of particular interest is Barnes's inner-struggle with "being Dodie" as he attempted to place her archive and decide whether to authorize a biography -- ensuring that he acted in her best interest, but also according to her character and wishes.

Dealings with Disney are only briefly touched upon by Barnes, who refers to "the notoriously rebarbative business of negotiating with the Disney corporation". These negotiations, and Barnes's brilliance in handling them, is only now coming to light. As Sue Summers writes in a recent Guardian article, shortly after the publication of Smith's I Capture the Castle in 1949, Disney purchased the film rights, intending to develop a movie for their famous child star, Hayley Mills. The movie was never made, however, and Disney refused to return the rights. When Disney approached the Smith estate seeking permission for its live-action remake of The Hundred and One Dalmatians in the mid-Nineties, Barnes negotiated the return of film rights for I Capture the Castle as part of the deal. After fifty years, the movie is scheduled to premiere in May 2003. It will star Romola Garai as Cassandra, Bill Nighy, and Henry Thomas.

As she does with all the authors in The Writing Life, Marie Arana prefaces Barnes's wonderful essay with a lengthy biographical statement. The collection contains dozens of other enjoyable works and is highly recommended for anyone interested in writers or writing.

For more information on the film adaptation of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, read Sue Summers's "Her Castle Was Her Home" (Guardian, 6 April 2003).

-- Ryan Roberts, April 2003

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