"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. TIMEs 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. Theres something in your mind thats still resonating. Its almost like you want to talk to a shrink, where ideas come tumbling out. I wanted to write about this because I didnt 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, its a long short story, or a short long one.
Martin: Its as long as it should be.
TIME: "Shopgirl" is subtitled "A Novella." Thats 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 shes not a dynamic heroine; a heroine has to act, and Mirabelle doesntwhich 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 ones own prose?
Martin: No. Because it was in the honing of it that I was getting the enjoyment also the shock of my life that what one thinks is a coherent sentence isnt. But it was worth it, because I wanted every sentence to satisfy me. Is that arrogant? (Pause.) No, its 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 dont know.
Martin: I wanted to be able to tell all, to say everything. And Im 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: Ive never heard it. Does it mean fiction about shopgirls or fiction for them?
TIME: Not sure. But I am sure youre familiar with "shopgirl movies" of the '30s and '40s: "Bachelor Mother" with Ginger Rogers, "Employees 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. Its 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 Neimans 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 elses. So you can extrapolate from your own experience into almost anything. Its really no different. The emotions are no different.
TIME: But unlike a lot of writers, who however famous arent very visible, you cant observe without being observed. Youre one of the 50 Most Noticeable People in America. You cant 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, whos also a very good writer, wrote to me, saying, "Its kind of surprising that a person from your world could observe this world." It doesnt surprise me at all, because Im me, and Ive observed that world.
After I finished the book, I did go to Neimans. I found the glove section, and its not a counter. Its the corner of a shelf. Also after writing the book, Im now much more aware of shopgirls. I look at them and I see almost what Ive written what Ive interpreted about their lives.
TIME: Do you feel squeamish about putting people youve met into your fiction, especially if they are made fun of?
Martin: Heres what I found: people dont recognize themselves. Their view of themselves is completely different from yours. For example, Lisa is a pastiche of a couple of characters Ive 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. Thats when Ive got him." Well, someone actually said that, Verbatim. I told this woman that Id quoted her in the book, and repeated the line back to her. She said, "I said that?"
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 Lisas 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 youd 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 Ive never read. And Martin Amis "The Rachel Papers," which I didnt read until after writing this, has a more sordid love affair, but theres still a one-on-one 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 youd allow your characters to feel. Is there a certain propriety on your part?
Martin: Yes, there is. Theres a sequence where its Thanksgiving Day, and people arent calling her back, and theres a half-eaten sandwich. It was such a relief to write, "The phone rings, and its him." The same with the ending. This book could have had a sad ending. But I just couldnt 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 thats the cheap and ugly way out. What I hate in movies I mean action movies is: "We need the audience to really hate the bad guy. So lets have him kill two six-year-olds."
TIME: Ray, the older man in Mirabelles life, is generous to her, emotionally and financially supportive. He seems like a decent guy; he just doesnt want the commitment she does. Yet you define his interest as being selfish.
Martin: Youre the second person to think Im too critical of Ray. Helen Fielding (author of "Bridget Joness Diary") said, "Youre a little rough on yourself." Well, Rays not me, and, no, I dont 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: Whats Mirabelles 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 its not right, to have someone to talk to.
TIME: You describe Rays caring for Mirabelle as "a potion mixed with one part benevolent altruist and one part chimpanzee penis." Wont some men always be part chimpanzee penis?
Martin: Maybe yes, maybe no. But its a ratio. When youre young its 80/20, and when youre older its 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. Im now sensitive."
TIME: Is that wrong -- that men are men?
Martin: No, I dont think so. But there has to be some qualification. And it all depends on what you pretend to be. If youre a Hollywood producer who likes to fuck girls, and everybody knows it, they say, "Oh, its just old Joe." But if you PRETEND to be sensitive and kind, then you have a problem an internal problem.
TIME: Someone once said well, I did 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 its also feminizing when its done according to plan: looking into each others eyes, etc. Its like equalizing. And I dont think thats what men or women want.
And now Ill 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 cant admit that, because he denies his desire, he has to include all of it. It leads to this big charade, and thats where all the harm comes from. Ray is trying to deny his guyness, trying to be more of a soulmate to someone. Theres a sincere part of Ray. Its just qualified by his methodology!
TIME: Arent 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. Its more from Steve Martins anima, less from his animus.
Martin: That could be. Im 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 theres a bigger category: restless and not restless. The not-restless are my friends who meet their wives when theyre 22, they marry them, and theyre happy. And the restless are unsettled, always looking around the corner, thinking too much. And that crosses the divide between men and women. Ive met many women who are unmarried, 40s, adopting. I also have a friend whos been married for a long, long time. He says, "I have no stake in being married for a long time. If its not working, I will leave. But its working." Thats 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 dont see it translated into another medium, because the meaning is not in their actions; its 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: Theres a little interest. Maybe if someone else could write the screenplay. . . . But I couldnt do it. And because its not defined by its action, its probably not a film. If it is, its 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 audiences 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 "Its pain that changes our lives."
Martin: I believe that. Happiness doesnt change your life. You think, "I like this. Im going stay right here." Pain emotional pain 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 isnt Mirabelle in pain all the time? Or is this a difference between an ache and a pain?
Martin: Shes in a continuum of low-level pain that even the Serzone just barely keeps at bay. But I think Rays in pain too.
TIME: With Steve Martins name on the dustjacket, some readers will be expecting comedy. Your shorter fiction is laugh-out-loud funny as I can testify, by citing complaints from people near me when Ive 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 arent jarred by the change in tone, dont they have a right to be surprised by it?
Martin: No one knows my work better than me. I know every little thing Ive done. And to me, Shopgirl is a logical conclusion to what Ive been doing.
TIME: Okay, Ill put it this way. I can imagine "Steve Martin" writing this sweet, sad novella, but I couldnt imagine him reading it on the audiocassette version.
Martin: Actually, I did the reading. It was a wonderful experience.