Steve Martin's latest novel, An Object of Beauty, focuses on Lacey Yeager, an ambitious, fascinating, somewhat amoral art dealer and rising star in the New York City art world of the past couple of decades. The New York Times Book Review raved, "The expertise of Martin, himself a longtime collector...is dazzlingly in evidence here. The text is as useful an idiosyncratic art-history primer as it is a piece of fiction....As fiction, though, it is thoroughly delightful, evoking a vanished gilded age with impertinence but never contempt." Wide-ranging, insightful, funny, and moving, An Object of Beauty sets a new standard for Martin's captivating, accomplished fiction.
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Jill Owens: At the beginning of An Object of Beauty, Daniel says, "I'm so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, I will be unable to ever write about anything else." Was that how this book began for you, with a character you couldn't stop thinking about?
Steve Martin: No, but I have found that to be true about these kinds of characters. I've run into people in my life who were so dramatic; people who are so extreme and so frustrating to be around that you end up thinking about them and talking about them for literally years after your experience with them is over. I've had that happen to me, and I've seen it happen to other people. I find it fascinating. I've talked to other people who said that they're having an experience with a person, and I can see that they actually can't stop talking about them. I'm fascinated, so I don't mind that they can't stop. That is the source of that sentence. It comes from my own experience and listening to other people talk about other people.
Jill: Lacey is such a different kind of character than the main characters in your previous novels. She's almost the polar opposite of someone like Mirabelle, for example.
Martin: Yes, that's right. Really, in every case, with the exception of the character in The Pleasure of My Company, which is not based on a real character, it's only an extrapolation of "what if," if I exaggerated my own traits or traits I've seen in other people, if I enlarged them... It's like, what if these traits were extreme? They are loosely based on real people, but are composites of real people.
Jill: Why did you decide to let Daniel be the narrator instead of having Lacey herself or a third-person, fully omniscient narrator tell the story?
Martin: I thought about the point of view for about a year before I started writing. I knew the milieu and I knew the character. The reason I didn't make Lacey the narrator is that I didn't think the reader would want to spend that much time in her head. Another reason is that a lot of her actions are inexplicable, and if you were inside her head, they would have to be explicable. You can't really explain them, and I can't explain them, so someone has to be watching. And an omniscient narrator would also have to know why she was doing these things. So it really became perfect to have a human narrator who could observe and report. It took a year, but it finally made sense to me.
Jill: This book is almost as much a story of the art world, particularly in New York over the last couple of decades, as it is Lacey's story. It's fascinating to see you writing about New York as a character, much the way L.A. is a character in your earlier novels and movies. Is that part of the allure of this story for you?
Martin: Yes. I spend a lot of time in both cities, L.A. and New York. And New York has, at least up until now, really been the center of the art world, or at least my art world. I started in the art world in the late '60s, and New York was always the center of it. There was really almost no other place to set it. It's also like a home base for London, Paris, and L.A., in the art world.
Jill: Early in the book, you write that Lacey crossed "ground from which it is difficult to return. She started converting objects of beauty into objects of value." Do you think you've crossed that line at some point, and, if so, have you managed to return from it?
Martin: I say that there because Lacey's in the art business, so it's natural for her. She almost has to do it. For myself, I think I've managed to stay on both sides of the line. There's a period where it's very exciting to be in the financial art world, because you essentially get a bi-yearly report when auction season comes. But, when you're home alone or at a museum alone, it is possible to separate the financial world from the aesthetic world. It happens all the time even in the financial art world with dealers or collectors. One point, which I don't know if I made clear in the book, is thatwhen a lot of dealers get together, they become aestheticians. [Laughter]
There's a lot of very plain talk about art, which I deeply enjoy, because there's commingling between the aesthetic world and the financial world. Critics talk to dealers; writers talk to dealers; Sotheby's hires writers. There's a lot of cross feeding. Dealers have to check in with scholars to verify pictures. There's a lot of crosstalk from the two worlds. So, the answer is, yes, you can maintain your distance. But for that moment, you know, Lacey's on her way to becoming a dealer, so that's where she takes her step.
Jill: I love John Updike's answer to his own question, "How do rich people know about good paintings?" He says, "The paintings are Darwinian in a way. They make themselves necessary for survival."
Martin: Right. He gives a poetic answer. I think it is sort of poetically true that these pictures announce themselves.
Jill: Why did you cast John Updike as that character?
Martin: John Updike was a big writer on American art. He published books dedicated to American art, and he wrote essays in the New Yorker on American art. Not a lot of people know that, but he loved it, and he was good at it. So it seemed like the right scene at the right moment, for Lacey to brush up against that greatness. [Laughter]
Jill: What was the first piece of art that you ever bought?
Martin: It's a little vague. The first good artwork I ever bought was an Ed Ruscha print called Hollywood. I bought it from Irving Blum, the great dealer in Los Angeles, who gave Andy Warhol his first show, with the Campbell's Soup cans. I was a Hollywood writer. I was writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour then. The painting was $125.
Martin: It would have been about 1968, I'm guessing.
Jill: Have you ever bought a painting that you regretted later?
Martin: Oh, hundreds of times. [Laughter]
Jill: Do you usually sell them, or...?
Martin: You trade it around, or look at it for a while. It's not a big deal. It's all in learning about paintings. You learn as much from a bad painting as you do from a good painting.
Jill: In Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, you describe how much work and practice you put into your stand-up and your magic tricks, all of your work in those years. Do you do anything like that in terms of your writing?
Martin: I've been writing for a long time, since the late '60s. But it hasn't been in the same form. I used to write scripts for television. I wrote for my comedy act. Then I wrote screenplays, and then I started writing New Yorker essays, and then I started writing plays. I didn't start writing prose, really, until the New Yorker essays, but they were comic. I didn't start writing prose, really, until the '90s. In my head, there was a link between everything. One thing led to another.
In that sense, I've been practicing. Nora Ephron once said, "I don't care who you are. When you sit down and you write the first page of your screenplay, you're also writing your Oscar acceptance speech in your head." [Laughter]
I don't think anyone is ever writing so that you can throw it away. You're always writing it to be something. Later, you decide whether it'll ever see the light of day. But at the moment of its writing, it's always meant to be something. So, to me, there's no practicing; there's only editing and publishing or not publishing.
Jill: What prompted you to start writing fiction in the first place? What do you enjoy about writing fiction that you don't get from writing essays or plays, or even music or movies?
Martin: Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings. Looking back, here's what I think I learned from each of them. From e. e. cummings, I learned about the rhythm of words. From T. S. Eliot, I learned about the intelligence of words. And from Dylan Thomas, I learned about the beauty of words. I try to bring all three of those elements into writing. Then, of course, you have to tell a story at the same time.I really enjoy finding the right word, creating a good, flowing sentence. I enjoy the rhythm of the words. I haven't said this in a long time, but it's so true for me. When I was in college, I really liked poetry. I don't read much anymore. But my favorite early 20th-century poets were
So those are my goals in prose. [Laughter] Prose should be, unless you're writing an instruction manual, a kind of poetry.
Jill: I think you've preempted my next question, which was to ask how you think about the way you use language — it's so clean and lovely and almost fine-boned, I think.
Martin: Well, thank you. I do try to pare it down. I'm always trying to pare it down. I take editing seriously. It's a joy to edit. I always hand a manuscript to several editors and can't wait to get back their notes and see what they've said. I don't criticize myself for making blunders here and there, because it's just natural. You write in chunks, and you may not remember that that sentence you wrote yesterday had the same word repeated three times. [Laughter] I do enjoy that. I love the feeling of repairing. Repairing is really nice.
Jill: I was reading Cruel Shoes yesterday.
Martin: Oy. [Laughter] I don't disavow it, but I know it's an immature thing. I actually wrote it 10 years before it was published.
Jill: In the piece called "The Stephen Martin Collection of American Art: The Man behind the Genius," you describe Stephen Martin as a character who is convinced that smell is all too often ignored in evaluating works of art. That image has a sort of echo in the new book, with the character of Hinton Alberg, the collector.
Martin: That's right!
Jill: I was wondering if that was a conscious reference.
Martin: No, that's unconscious. I didn't even think about that. One is supposed to just be a non sequitur, silly thing. In the novel, it's supposed to be an actual anecdote. But I never put that together. Never did. [Laughter]
Jill: What made you decide to turn one of your songs into the children's book, Late for School?
Martin: There was no big thought process behind it. I thought it would be a good children's book. I thought it'd be good illustrated. It's a karaoke book. There's a CD in the back, and there's the track without me singing it. I thought it'd be really fun for kids, because the words are complicated. I can just imagine a kid setting out to learn them and then presenting it at school, or something. When I was a kid, I learned The Music Man. The whole opening is just this chatter, that sort of recitative thing, and it was very hard to learn. So I just thought it might be a good book.
Jill: The illustrations are beautiful.
Martin: Yes. C. F. Payne did a great job. John Lithgow turned me on to him. He illustrated John's books, too.
Jill: What are you reading and enjoying these days?
Martin: Let's see. It's funny. It's nothing monumental. I just finished Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, because I knew her a little bit. And I started reading Russell Brand's My Booky Wook. [Laughter]
But one of the best books I read this year was volume three of John Richardson's A Life of Picasso. I thought it was fantastic, so vivid. I mentioned Richardson in my book as being one of the premier writers about art. It's really good. You can breeze through it, it's so well done.
I spoke to Steve Martin by phone on November 15, 2010.
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Books mentioned in this post