Meet-Up: Melissa James Gibson

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Melissa James Gibson

It’s a privilege to be paid to take the world of make-believe seriously.

The award-winning playwright (her plays include What Rhymes with America, This, and [sic]) also writes for the movies (All is Bright starring Paul Giamatti) and TV (she’s part of the team that’s crafting Season 3 of Netflix’s fantastically addictive House of Cards). Not surprisingly, she has little time in her reading life for…trash.

Gibson’s first job out of grad school was at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, where she worked full time, mostly as a college counselor, until leaving two years ago to write for TV. TSAR’s Books Blog talked with Gibson about reading and writing.

What are you reading right now, and why? Will you finish it?
I’m reading a bunch of stuff at once, at different speeds: House of Mirth, because I was helping my son transcribe an interview with Elise Meslow1, who mentioned that it was on her high school syllabus (I’d only ever read Ethan Frome and was happy for the sideways reminder to read more Wharton); The Evolution of God, because I heard an intriguing radio conversation with Robert Wright2; Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, for fun; What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer, The Unwinding, by George Packer, and The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti for work research; and Daniel C. Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, just ‘cause I’m interested (I read him in college and enjoyed a recent TED talk of his). I’ll finish all of these, eventually.

What is the best book you’ve read recently?
Two, by Nabokov: I read Lolita and Pnin for the first time this past summer! I’d read Speak, Memory, years ago and was blown away by it. What a wry genius—ridiculously observant, subversive, funny, a painfully accurate word-wielder.

Who is your favorite writer—someone whose work you return to again and again?
Hard question, but one of my very favorites is Lydia Davis. I read and reread her Collected Stories (the volume with the fetching orange book jacket)3 It’s always on my bedside table. Her stories have titles like “A Few Things Wrong With Me,”  “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant,” “Collaboration With Fly,” and “How Shall I Mourn Them.” Some of the stories are a sentence long, some are like poems—all of them are a miraculous combination of stark, funny, humble and humane. Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is another go-to volume.

Do you read plays for pleasure? What makes a play a good read? Which are the best plays for reading?
I do read plays for pleasure. And for inspiration. And in the way an architect studies the blueprints of the buildings of other architects, past and present. But, as blueprints, plays can be hard to read. Acting Editions, in particular, are not pleasing to the eye, since you constantly have to double-check who’s speaking. The best way to read them, of course, is aloud; I find it’s very hard to understand the rhythms of a play without hearing it.

Before House of Cards, you spent two years writing for The Americans, the FX network series about KGB spies posing as a typical American couple in the D.C. suburbs. What did you read to get yourself into the minds of these characters—or the Americans they encounter?
I read a range of books, everything from Tim Weiner’s Enemies, a history of the FBI, to Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan (Chris Mellon’s4 recommendation ), to parts of The Mitrokhin Archive to Spyology, borrowed from an eleven-year-old friend of my son.

Your play Current Nobody is a version of the Iliad. Is there any other book or classic work you’ve thought about using as the jumping-off point for a play?
Current Nobody was based on the Odyssey, actually. [Books Blog is blushing.] In the play it’s the Penelope character that leaves home while the Odysseus figure holds down the home front. I’d definitely use a classic work as a jumping off point again. It was a humbling and thrilling challenge to be “in conversation” with such a remarkable work.

You write amazing, quirky dialog. What writers of dialog—novelists, playwrights, or other—do you admire?
Too many to name, but to stick to a handful of playwrights: Samuel Beckett; Wallace Shawn; Harry Kondoleon; Kenny Lonergan; Harold Pinter; Suzan-Lori Parks; Richard Foreman; Jenny Schwartz; Tom Stoppard; Caryl Churchill…

You’re a playwright, which seems like a solitary calling. TV screenwriting is more collaborative. Discuss.
It’s fun. It’s fun to brainstorm story ideas with a diverse group of people. It’s fun to work with characters over time, a luxury to have thirteen hours as opposed to two in which to explore their psyches, steps and missteps. There’s no time to be precious in TV, which I love. The deadlines are real and the motion is ever forward. And I like the job-ness of it. We convene in an office and have a lunch hour and a schedule and individual assignments. It’s a privilege to be paid to take the world of make-believe seriously.

When you write a play, do you imagine people reading it—or just seeing it performed? (Or, do you not think of an audience at all…)
I try to just concentrate on creating a specific world in which I’m actively grappling with something as a human being via art.5

Will you write a novel?
I’ve never felt the urge, which probably means I don’t possess that particular muscle.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid? Did you have a literary hero?
The Beatrix Potter books and then James and the Giant Peach and The Secret Garden.

Do you feel Canadian pride for Alice Munro, who just won the Nobel Prize?  Any favorite Canadian writer? What is a Canadian anyway? Is there a Great Canadian Novel?
Alice Munro rocks.  Another genius!  How is it possible to see things so clearly?  I don’t know what a Canadian is, but I don’t know what an American is, either (and I’m both).  I’m not well read enough to speak to the Great Canadian Novel, but I recently read a terrific short novel (from 1947) by Ethel Wilson called Hetty Dorval.

Do you ever read books that could be classified as trash—i.e. low brow, genre novels, etc.? If so, what have been your favorites?
Not really, but only because I’m a very slow reader and I always have a pile of research to get through.

Anything you think you should read but somehow haven’t?
Again, the list is long, but I regret that I still haven’t tackled War and Peace and Don Quixote.

If you could meet any writer—living or dead—who would it be? What would you ask?
Samuel Beckett. No agenda—I would just enjoy the privilege of sharing a beer and a laugh.

What one piece of writing should almost everybody read?
The complete works of Dr. Seuss.  If that’s cheating, then, for starters, Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!

Notes

  1. An English teacher at Saint Ann’s School.
  2. Listen to Krista Tippet’s 2010 “On Being” radio interview with Robert Wright, or watch a PBS “Bill Moyers Journal” interview from 2009
  3. At the NPR web site, read an excerpt from The Collected Stories, which NPR named a best book of 2009.
  4. A history teacher at Saint Ann’s School.
  5. Read about Gibson’s upcoming play Placebo at the New York Times ArtsBeat blog.
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