25 April 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Elizabeth Winder

The following is the first of three guest posts by Annette Stevens.

Author Elizabeth Winder
My name is Annette Stevens, and I blog over at Mademoisellewomen.wordpress.com. (Yes, named after Sylvia Plath's internship!) Sylvia Plath has been a source of fascination to me for a while now; with all her biographers, there seems to be no limit on the amount of Sylvia-esque books. I have been lucky enough to speak to some of them-and as a blog series (thanks to Peter for re-printing all of these!), we'll be posting some interviews. This post is an interview with Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work:

Hello Elizabeth, thank you for agreeing to this interview. At what age did your 'Kinship' with Sylvia Plath begin?

I was fourteen. One day a girl who sat behind me in geometry was reading Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems before class started. I was struck by the way the book looked—it was the 1981 edition with that interesting brush-stroke font. And the name "Sylvia Plath" sort of bewitched me—I loved the way the letters looked together. Later that year a friend leant me her copy of The Bell Jar—the version with the very gothic cover—the velvet gloved hand holding an upside down rose. I'd never seen words used in such a vivid, visceral way. It was like reading in Technicolor.

Out of all her poetry, do you have a favourite poem?

"Fever 103". The "weak hothouse baby" the hot metal beads flying out—it's a poem you can feel on your skin.

In five words, what is The Bell Jar to you?

Cigarettes, aldehydes, Doreen, nylon, sticky

How did you come to the idea to write a book about Sylvia Plath?

My Sylvia Plath—the one you'll find in the Unabridged Journals—is full of bright red energy and joy takes a real sensual delight in life. You can see that in the poems too. I was sick of seeing her flattened out into the grey image of a depressed woman. Yes, she experienced spells of depression—but those spells made up such a small fraction of her life. People feel some sick compulsion to reduce women to their worst moments. Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide. But in our mind's eye he's banging on a typewriter in Paris or buying shots for an entire fishing village in Cuba. We remember him not just for his talent, but for his zest for life. We should do the same for Sylvia Plath.

The Magazine
Why did you focus specifically on Plath's time at Mademoiselle Magazine?

Those four weeks were so dramatic, dazzling, and densely packed. It always surprised me that other biographers seemed to kind of gloss over them. Sylvia loved fashion, she loved New York. And I've always love mid-century fashion and material culture, so it was fun to immerse myself in that.

In writing Pain, Parties, Work, you interviewed guest editors who had an editorship at the same time as Plath. How did you go about doing so?

That was the best part of the process—I was so lucky. The Guest Editors I reached out to were so generous and witty. I loved hearing all their stories—gossip in the hallways, scenes in the elevator, borrowed clothes and very, very late nights!

Whilst writing the book, did you compile any research?

Yes—I went through the Plath archives of the Lily Library. I practically buried myself fin research but it was all such great stuff—shopping lists, clothing budgets, diaries from junior high and stacks and stacks of letters from her numerous boyfriends.

The Book
How long did Pain, Parties, Work, take to write?

Maybe about a year and a half. It was total immersion.

Would you ever consider writing a follow-up to Pain, Parties, Work?

That's interesting—I hadn't thought of that! Actually, in a subtle sort of way I think the book I'm writing now is a follow up, even though it isn't about Sylvia Plath.

Overall, do you think that Plath was a victim of her time-"being an ambitious girl" in 1950's America?

Absolutely. We don't give the women of Plath's generation enough credit. Girls like Sylvia—and all the Guest Editors—were under tremendous pressure. "Get into the best school, keep your scholarship, win prizes and make sure you're invited to the Yale Spring Dance…" But women are always bombarded with mixed messages. That's why Sylvia's struggles are just as relevant today.

Previously, have you worked in the publishing industry?

Oh, not at all. It was completely new to me.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes—I think I was about five when I realized that and I haven't wavered since.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Words and images! Reading Anna Karenina for the 20th time, Anne Carson's amazing poetry, the scent of the shampoo I used when I was twelve, the name of a nail polish shade in the Ulta catalog, a 17th century French cookbook. Anything and everything.

Are there any more Sylvia Plath-inspired projects in the works?

Not at the moment, but I wouldn't rule it out.

For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any tips?

Read! Seek out the writers that resonate with you, and then seek out more. Read and re-read and re-read again and copy the sentences and phrases you like best in notebooks. Study the syntax your favourite writers use, the way they stick words together. Pay attention to what you like and why you like it.

And finally one random question, just in case you're bored of always being asked about Sylvia Plath:
What is your favourite black and white film, prior to the 1960's?

Great question! The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir (1939.) There's a hunting party in this French chateau, lots of banter and flirtation and sly looks. At night everyone is darting in and out of their rooms, running around in these silky ruffled robes, sneaking around with their lovers. There's an adorable pouty little French maid named Lisette who will make you want to wear white and black for the rest of your life. There's a count dressed up as a teddy bear, tons of drinking, lots of slinking around in wine cellars and china closets to kiss someone or make a crazed love confession. There's a real darkness there—sad marriages, broken hearts, death—but at the same time there's this dizzy pajama party vibe that always makes me smile.


Anonymous said...

Thank you I really enjoyed this interview and I couldn't agree more with Elizabeth Winder about how annoying Plath's posthumous reputation has become. All archival research I've done points to a woman who really loved and embraced life and who, according to her friend Elizabeth Sigmund, had a rich, hearty laugh which she used frequently.
Thanks for an interesting post.
Gail Crowther

Rach said...

I very much enjoyed Ms. Winder's book...It was a completely different perspective and observations from her fellow guest editors were pretty much unmined sources, or maybe its just I haven't come across any other interviews from them before though ive read a large amount of material by and about Sylvia Plath. I like very much having this book in my Plath collection. of

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.