Sunday, May 13, 2007

Michael Lowenthal's "Charity Girl"

Michael Lowenthal is the author of, most recently, Charity Girl.

Here's how he responded when I asked him about the casting for a film adaptation of his novel:
The thought of Charity Girl being made into a movie prompts me to confess two dirty little secrets:

1) Although I'm a novelist, I like movies better than books. I'm simply an unreconstructed sucker for sitting in a dark room with light flickering on a screen. Indeed, I love movies so much, and would be so beyond overjoyed for my novel to be adapted for the screen, that I can't bring myself to name potential actors to play my characters, for fear of jinxing the possibility.
2) I am such a non-visual thinker that when I'm writing a novel, I rarely remember to describe my characters' physical appearance. I only go back and fill this in when my friends remind me that it's important. So I can't honestly say that I "pictured so-and-so in the role of Frieda (my main character)," because in truth I never particularly pictured what Frieda (or any of my other characters) looks like.

Frieda is a bundle wrapper at the old Jordan Marsh department store (it's Boston, 1918) who gets caught up the U.S. government's World War I anti-vice campaign and incarcerated (as were 15,000 such women) for the “crime” of having venereal disease. When pressed to, I described her in the novel as being (in contrast to the refined girls in her magazine pinups) “the raw, unmilled grain: brown hair that ripened in the sun with red highlights, cheeks that went to freckles after June.” She's seventeen years old, the daughter of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia. My hunch, then, is that she'd be played by a relative newcomer. Fantasy: the role of Frieda is the vehicle that turns an unknown into a star. (Think Natalie Portman, pre-Star Wars?)

Felix, the soldier Frieda falls for, is “tall and fidget-thin, with forceful features and an agitated poise. His uniform, a quarter-inch short at every cuff, made her think of bursting seams, magic beanstalks.” (See how I avoided - or was incapable of - tying him down to precise physical characteristics? I'd like to think of this vagueness as my little gift to casting directors: Do what you will!)

I can't be so presumptuous as to say that I can imagine the following writers and directors reading my novel, but here are some folks whose movies I greatly admire: Lynne Ramsay, Tim Blake Nelson, Tony Kushner, Atom Egoyan, Sarah Polley, Ang Lee, Bill Condon. Oh, I could go on and on ....
In addition to Charity Girl, Michael Lowenthal is the author of the novels Avoidance and The Same Embrace. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in many of the best places.

Charity Girl was inspired by a line in Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, in which she likens the incarceration of American women during World War I to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Lowenthal says, “The latter historical episode I had, of course, heard about, but not the first ... I immediately had two thoughts: (1) how awful, and (2) what a great basis for a novel.”

Visit Lowenthal's website and learn about his other writing.

The Page 69 Test: Charity Girl.

--Marshal Zeringue