What's Your Favorite Color and Other Questions.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford - Review and Interview

Book Details:
Genre: biography
Pages: 344
Publisher: Counter Point, Berkeley

Confession time - before I was introduced to this book, I had no idea who Jessica Mitford was. Having read the book, I am sad I have spent so long without knowing her. What an interesting, energetic and involved character she was! Leslie Brody has done an amazing job of capturing Jessica (or Decca, as she was called). There is nothing dry or boring about either the woman or the book. This biography is well written, easy to follow and read, and interesting. There are also pictures. I happen to love pictures in biographies. My favorite is at page 214. It is a picture of Decca at age 5 looking defiant, stubborn and immovable - a foreshadowing of the woman she would become.

Leslie has generously agreed to answer a few questions about herself and the book she has written. I hope you enjoy the interview and also pick up the book. Sometimes it's good to shake things up with a bit of good non-fiction; expand your horizons and meet a wonderful, new character. Now, on to the interview!

Let's start with an icebreaker. How about: what's your favorite colour and why?
Yellow: the brighter the better. I like the Yellow of Tibetan monk’s robes. Yellow just makes me happy. 

You have had a varied career in the book world as reporter, reviewer, writer, teacher, and so many more. What has been your favorite position?
Writer, everything springs from that. I’ve enjoyed my other roles, particularly as an adapter of other’s work for the stage, and I love teaching, but I’d rather be off somewhere with no responsibilities other than to the page I’m writing. I suppose I don’t really wish to have no obligations but I certainly enjoy vacations from them. I guess that’s why I like writer’s colonies which at least offer the illusion that all you need do is write.

What is it about Jessica Mitford that inspired you to want to write about her life?
She was funny and brave and a lifelong radical. She was also just really fun to be around, which I discovered is the essential element when you make the commitment to write a biography: It just really takes a long time and you need to choose someone who can live with. 

From the bibliography and notes at the end of the book, it is obvious that you did a lot of research for this project. Which was more enjoyable for you, the research or the writing?
Oh, the writing absolutely. Though I tended to complain about how hard it was, I did enjoyed a lot of the research, particularly reading great authors whom I’d never have encountered otherwise. But the organization necessary for such a big project often sent me up a wall. Mitford lived through such tumultuous times and I loved trying my hand at writing a social history.   

What do you hope readers take away from reading Jessica's story?
A sense of her courage and of how successful an investigative journalist she really was. Her work attacked the abusers of power. She was read widely and really had an effect. In the end, I think what strikes me as most important is how as both writer and activist she successfully practiced the elusive art of holding to the dreams of her youth.

Did you have the opportunity to meet Ms Mitford before her death? What was your strongest impression of her? (if yes) If you could meet her, what would you like to discuss with her? (if no)
I never met her, I wish I had.
When I first read Mitford’s memoir Hons and Rebels, I was charmed by her rebellious and funny voice, and delighted beyond measure to discover (having traveled the road she did) that she’d been a radical in her youth and remained one. I’d also left home at seventeen and set off to change the world on a utopian model. My escape was considerably less dramatic and I was fortunate to find a home in a counterculture that supported my initial wanderings and exercises in journalism. I also became passionately involved in a movement--for me the hippie arm of the new left and the movement against the war in Vietnam. I was at the time a serious young girl in an often-claustrophobic world of radicals and revolution. At times, the burden of the struggle seemed contingent on me selling enough underground newspapers for our commune to buy rice and beans for dinner.
By the early eighties, I had long since left commune life. I found work as a part-time Librarian at the same San Francisco College of Mortuary Science that Mitford had eviscerated in The American Way of Death (grateful for a job that demanded no credentials.) Four mornings a week, I would sit at a gigantic oak desk, inhaling formaldehyde and the must of unopened books, as I revised the plays I’d begun to write. I would filch announcements off the bulletin boards for week-end workshops in “head reconstruction,” and “grief counseling Bar-B-Ques,” and stash these away.  Nobody would visit my library for weeks on end, except one young mortician-in-training who desultorily flipped through some books, then finally asked me out. He thought I might enjoy a tour of the building and I did. I saw the classrooms, laboratories, embalming rooms, and in the back yard what looked like twenty plastic gasoline cans full of blood. Once as I was snooping on my own, amid the back issues of “Mortuary Management” and “Casket and Sunnyside,” I found a file folder marked Jessica Mitford. I wish I could tell you there were explosive secret documents inside but it was empty. I always thought she’d get a kick out that, but I never did write to her until I started this book, which I hope is part of an ongoing conversation about her legacy.

In the process of creating this work, was there anything you learned about 'the Life and Times of Jessica Mitford' that surprised you?
I think I was surprised by how much of her story is finally about friendship. She had a wide circle of friends, among them a group of women friends who remained close over their lifetime together. The story of these friends is one of dedication and love and heroism. They were all committed to making the world a better place and all of them risked quite a lot to put their beliefs into practice. Decca’s friends were remarkably brave women and I hope I did them justice in my book.
Another thing is just how funny she was. It’s hard to take some of her quips out of context but many of her funniest lines are associated with her work on The American way of Death. “Dissension has begun to spread in the ranks of the living.” She wrote, “Unfortunately for the undertakers, it would seem there is little popular support for the theory that a ‘fine funeral’ is America’s first line of defense and the highest expression of patriotism.” 

Do you have another book in the works? What is taking up your time now?
I am writing fiction for a change. My new book follows a family between 1923 and 1973 and roams the world with them from Russia to Amsterdam to Brooklyn to Chile. There’s still much to be done before it’s finished, but for the time being I’m calling it Is That Legal? A Novel of the Twentieth Century. I’m a full time professor these days so writing time is at a premium, but I keep plugging away.
Is there a web site or some other way readers can keep up with you? They can visit my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Leslie-Brody-and-IrrepressibleThe-Life-and-Times-of-Jessica-Mitford/151727748192189 and/or my website http://www.lesliebrodybooks.com/

Great answers! I want to thank Leslie for being willing to share and also for providing me with the book to review. I learned a lot and enjoyed the process. 

A Taste from page 306:
At the beginning of Christmas break, when an embarrassed dean appeared before Decca and her class (packed to the rafters) to announce that she had been "de-hired", the class erupted. Students shouted, We want Jessica! They thumped the tabletops and paraded around the lecture hall. At one point, Decca called for attention and declared, "They'll have to pick me up bodily and toss me out to keep me from teaching!"

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