Interview: "Turn Around. I'm Now Sensitive."

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"Shopgirl," the first work of longer fiction by comic-actor-writer Steve Martin, tells the story of Mirabelle Buttersfield, a shy young woman working behind a department-store glove counter, and the men in her life, especially Ray Porter, a wealthy entrepreneur in his 50s. TIMEís Richard Corliss talked with the novella-ist. Here are excerpts:

A WRITER PREPARES

TIME: What was the inspiration for this book?

Martin: It was from thinking about this subject, this romance, and not being able to quite figure it out. Thereís something in your mind thatís still resonating. Itís almost like you want to talk to a shrink, where ideas come tumbling out. I wanted to write about this because I didnít quite understand it. And in the writing, it would be understood. Somehow. Because there IS no figuring it out - except poetically, metaphorically, through language, through feeling. And that search serves the book.

TIME: Did you sit down to write a novel?

Martin: At first I thought, this might be 10 pages. Then as the pages began accumulating on the word processor, I thought, "Ohhhhh" (a sound of dawning resignation).

TIME: At 130 pages, itís a long short story, or a short long one.

Martin: Itís as long as it should be.

TIME: "Shopgirl" is subtitled "A Novella." Thatís a word that suggests both diminutive and old-fashioned.

Martin: "Old fashioned" runs through this book. Mirabelle sells gloves, which is out- of-it. She is slightly out of it, out of the center. And sheís not a dynamic heroine; a heroine has to act, and Mirabelle doesnítówhich made her infinitely more interesting to me than an exciting, vibrant girl."

TIME: Most novels are past-tense stories: Once upon a time. "Shopgirl" is written in the present tense, like a movie script or an anecdote told at a bar.

Martin: I wrote it in the past tense. Then I decided it would be better, more immediate, in the present tense.

TIME: Can you hire someone to do that? Or does your word processor have one key you push that changes all the "ed"s to "s"s?

Martin: I did it myself. Every single "s."

TIME: In this endless rewriting, does one ever get sick of oneís own prose?

Martin: No. Because it was in the honing of it that I was getting the enjoyment ó also the shock of my life that what one thinks is a coherent sentence isnít. But it was worth it, because I wanted every sentence to satisfy me. Is that arrogant? (Pause.) No, itís just relevant.

TIME: Your narrator is almost godlike in his omniscience. He not only knows what the characters know about themselves, he know what they donít know.

Martin: I wanted to be able to tell all, to say everything. And Iím not clever enough to figure out how to say it without saying it.

TIME: There is a phrase from the literary past, "shopgirl fiction."

Martin: Iíve never heard it. Does it mean fiction about shopgirls or fiction for them?

TIME: Not sure. But I am sure youíre familiar with "shopgirl movies" of the '30s and '40s: "Bachelor Mother" with Ginger Rogers, "Employeesí Entrance" with Loretta Young, "The Devil and Miss Jones" with Jean Arthur and "The Women," where Joan Crawford plays a character very much like the rapacious Lisa in "Shopgirl."

Martin: But those girls are bright, charming, active, undiscovered. This girl is probably more the real case: getting into a dead end. Those are romantic comedies. This is not.

FICTION AND REAL LIFE

TIME: This is a novel of observation, how people act, what they feel. Itís realistic, not fanciful. How do you research such a story? Did you "interview" people in galleries and restaurants? Perhaps you delicately stalked someone at the Neimanís glove counter?

Martin: A lot of people think that celebrities are isolated. But the truth is that every minute of their lives is as melodramatic as every minute of everybody elseís. So you can extrapolate from your own experience into almost anything. Itís really no different. The emotions are no different.

TIME: But unlike a lot of writers, who however famous arenít very visible, you canít observe without being observed. Youíre one of the 50 Most Noticeable People in America. You canít trail after people and secretly record their lives, the way the desperate producer did with Eddie Murphy in your movie "Bowfinger."

Martin: My friend Bruce McCall, whoís also a very good writer, wrote to me, saying, "Itís kind of surprising that a person from your world could observe this world." It doesnít surprise me at all, because Iím me, and Iíve observed that world.

After I finished the book, I did go to Neimanís. I found the glove section, and itís not a counter. Itís the corner of a shelf. Also after writing the book, Iím now much more aware of shopgirls. I look at them and I see almost what Iíve written ó what Iíve interpreted about their lives.

TIME: Do you feel squeamish about putting people youíve met into your fiction, especially if they are made fun of?

Martin: Hereís what I found: people donít recognize themselves. Their view of themselves is completely different from yours. For example, Lisa is a pastiche of a couple of characters Iíve met. You know her line about men who are interested in her? "If I like him, I fuck him a lot until he gets addicted. Then I cut him off. Thatís when Iíve got him." Well, someone actually said that, Verbatim. I told this woman that Iíd quoted her in the book, and repeated the line back to her. She said, "I said that?í"

TIME: Lisa, the predatory bitch behind the perfume counter, is wonderfully drawn; I loved hating her. She has a nicely articulated hatred of and dependence on men, and some strange fears.

Martin: About Lisaís phobias: I have met two women, both with a hostility toward men, who shared a syndrome. Neither could get on an airplane or use any kind of medication. When you meet two people like that, you know there are more.

TIME: If you organized your library as you might a party, where youíd bring together certain people you think might be congenial, what books would be next to this one?

Martin: People have compared it to the works on Ann Carlson, whom Iíve never read. And Martin Amisí "The Rachel Papers," which I didnít read until after writing this, has a more sordid love affair, but thereís still a one-on-one ó how the interest grows and diminishes.

TIME: John Irving said that in writing a novel you create the most lovable people and then imagine the absolute worst that can happen to them. But I have the feeling you limited yourself in the amount of hurt youíd allow your characters to feel. Is there a certain propriety on your part?

Martin: Yes, there is. Thereís a sequence where itís Thanksgiving Day, and people arenít calling her back, and thereís a half-eaten sandwich. It was such a relief to write, "The phone rings, and itís him." The same with the ending. This book could have had a sad ending. But I just couldnít do that to her.

TIME: I liked that you refused to manufacture sympathy for one character by making another one totally unsympathetic.

Martin: I think thatís the cheap and ugly way out. What I hate in movies ó I mean action movies ó is: "We need the audience to really hate the bad guy. So letís have him kill two six-year-olds."

GUY TALK

TIME: Ray, the older man in Mirabelleís life, is generous to her, emotionally and financially supportive. He seems like a decent guy; he just doesnít want the commitment she does. Yet you define his interest as being selfish.

Martin: Youíre the second person to think Iím too critical of Ray. Helen Fielding (author of "Bridget Jonesís Diary") said, "Youíre a little rough on yourself." Well, Rayís not me, and, no, I donít think so. Ray is behaving like a 20-year-old. But his quest is sincere. His quest is coming to terms with who he needs, what he needs. And sometimes you harm, sometimes you are harmed.

TIME: Whatís Mirabelleís reason for being with Ray?

Martin: She needs a companion, someone to talk to. I think that happens in life too. People get together, even if itís not right, to have someone to talk to.

TIME: You describe Rayís caring for Mirabelle as "a potion mixed with one part benevolent altruist and one part chimpanzee penis." Wonít some men always be part chimpanzee penis?

Martin: Maybe yes, maybe no. But itís a ratio. When youíre young itís 80/20, and when youíre older itís supposed to be 20/80.

TIME: At least the human male, and this is rare among mammals, does face the female when having sex.

Martin: Yeah. (In a different male voice:) "Turn around. Iím now sensitive."

TIME: Is that wrong -- that men are men?

Martin: No, I donít think so. But there has to be some qualification. And it all depends on what you pretend to be. If youíre a Hollywood producer who likes to fuck girls, and everybody knows it, they say, "Oh, itís just old Joe." But if you PRETEND to be sensitive and kind, then you have a problem ó an internal problem.

TIME: Someone once said ó well, I did ó that civilization aspires to femininity; that men have become civilized by throwing away their clubs and becoming domesticated, learning manners. As they are less brutish, they are more feminine.

Martin: There IS an aspiration to femininity. Tantric sex is fantasic, but itís also feminizing when itís done according to plan: looking into each otherís eyes, etc. Itís like equalizing. And I donít think thatís what men or women want.

And now Iíll quote MYself. In my play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," Picasso says, "Men want and women are wanted." Ray wants Mirabelle - wants a specific part of her. But because he canít admit that, because he denies his desire, he has to include all of it. It leads to this big charade, and thatís where all the harm comes from. Ray is trying to deny his guyness, trying to be more of a soulmate to someone. Thereís a sincere part of Ray. Itís just qualified by his methodology!

TIME: Arenít women attracted to handsome men?

Martin: I think a woman is attracted to a man only after they start talking to him.

TIME: The book seems to aspire to a contemplative, feminine side. Itís more from Steve Martinís anima, less from his animus.

Martin: That could be. Iím just starting to watch the difference between men and women in responding to the book. The men are a little nervous about it, and the women are quite sympathetic to Ray and Mirabelle.

TIME: One of the nice things about the sexes is that you can generalize forever about them.

Martin: Look, the world obviously divides into men and women, but I think thereís a bigger category: restless and not restless. The not-restless are my friends who meet their wives when theyíre 22, they marry them, and theyíre happy. And the restless are unsettled, always looking around the corner, thinking too much. And that crosses the divide between men and women. Iíve met many women who are unmarried, 40s, adopting. I also have a friend whoís been married for a long, long time. He says, "I have no stake in being married for a long time. If itís not working, I will leave. But itís working." Thatís a fantastic thing to hear.

THE MOVIE VERSION

TIME: Can this story, and your treatment of it, exist only in a book?

Martin: I suppose it might be a play. But I donít see it translated into another medium, because the meaning is not in their actions; itís living within the paragraphs. The sadness is in the sentences. The process is somehow mysterious. It was the perfect way to solve the problem.

TIME: Could it be a movie? Has anyone suggested it?

Martin: Thereís a little interest. Maybe if someone else could write the screenplay. . . . But I couldnít do it. And because itís not defined by its action, itís probably not a film. If it is, itís a foreign film.

BEGINNING AND ENDINGS

TIME: Did you find yourself writing jokes, then excising them from the text?

Martin: I never led myself into jokes. Also, I worked very hard to establish the tone in the opening paragraphs. Carl Reiner says that in the first scene of your work you set up the audienceís expectations. I also like to think that after the first paragraphs you forget about searching for jokes.

TIME: And the "moral" is often a phrase that appears in the middle of a book and again at the end. For "Shopgirl," the phrase is "Itís pain that changes our lives."

Martin: I believe that. Happiness doesnít change your life. You think, "I like this. Iím going stay right here." Pain ó emotional pain ó teaches you something, changes you for the better.

TIME: All the characters have these growing pains, as they fit themselves for a new suit of ethics. But isnít Mirabelle in pain all the time? Or is this a difference between an ache and a pain?

Martin: Sheís in a continuum of low-level pain that even the Serzone just barely keeps at bay. But I think Rayís in pain too.

TIME: With Steve Martinís name on the dustjacket, some readers will be expecting comedy. Your shorter fiction is laugh-out-loud funny ó as I can testify, by citing complaints from people near me when Iíve read it. "Shopgirl" is different, of course. If you were to tape-record someone reading this book in an otherwise silent room, then play back the tape, what would you hear?

Martin: Maybe a little sniffle.

TIME: If readers arenít jarred by the change in tone, donít they have a right to be surprised by it?

Martin: No one knows my work better than me. I know every little thing Iíve done. And to me, Shopgirl is a logical conclusion to what Iíve been doing.

TIME: Okay, Iíll put it this way. I can imagine "Steve Martin" writing this sweet, sad novella, but I couldnít imagine him reading it on the audiocassette version.

Martin: Actually, I did the reading. It was a wonderful experience.