Elizabeth Winder is my favorite author, who wrote Pain Parties Work; Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. And luckily, she agreed to an interview-all with the help of Twitter. But was Sylvia really ‘ flattened out into the grey image of a depressed woman’, as to quote? You can buy the book by clicking here. Here, you can read what Elizabeth has to say:
At what age did your ‘Kinship’ with Sylvia Plath begin?
I was fourteen. One day a girl who sat behind me in geometry was reading Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems before class started. I was struck by the way the book looked—it was the 1981 edition with that interesting brush-stroke font. And the name “Sylvia Plath” sort of bewitched me—I loved the way the letters looked together. Later that year a friend leant me her copy of The Bell Jar—the version with the very gothic cover—the velvet gloved hand holding an upside down rose. I’d never seen words used in such a vivid, visceral way. It was like reading in Technicolor.
Out of all her poetry, do you have a favorite poem?
Fever 103. The “weak hothouse baby” the hot metal beads flying out—it’s a poem you can feel on your skin.
“The Guest Editors I reached out to were so generous and witty. I loved hearing all their stories—gossip in the hallways, scenes in the elevator, borrowed clothes and very, very late nights!”
In five words, what is The Bell Jar to you?
Cigarettes, aldehydes, Doreen, nylon, sticky
How did you come to the idea to write a book about Sylvia Plath?
My Sylvia Plath—the one you’ll find in the Unabridged Journals—is full of bright red energy and joy takes a real sensual delight in life. You can see that in the poems too. I was sick of seeing her flattened out into the grey image of a depressed woman. Yes, she experienced spells of depression—but those spells made up such a small fraction of her life. People feel some sick compulsion to reduce women to their worst moments. Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide. But in our mind’s eye he’s banging on a typewriter in Paris or buying shots for an entire fishing village in Cuba. We remember him not just for his talent, but for his zest for life. We should do the same for Sylvia Plath.
Why did you focus specifically on Plath’s time at Mademoiselle magazine?
Those four weeks were so dramatic, dazzling, and densely packed. It always surprised me that other biographers seemed to kind of gloss over them. Sylvia loved fashion, she loved New York. And I’ve always love mid-century fashion and material culture, so it was fun to immerse myself in that.
“We don’t give the women of Plath’s generation enough credit. Girls like Sylvia—and all the Guest Editors—were under tremendous pressure. “
In writing Pain, Parties, Work, you interviewed guest editors who had an editorship at the same time as Plath. How did you go about doing so?
That was the best part of the process—I was so lucky. The Guest Editors I reached out to were so generous and witty. I loved hearing all their stories—gossip in the hallways, scenes in the elevator, borrowed clothes and very, very late nights!
Whilst writing the book, did you compile any research?
Yes—I went through the Plath archives of the Lily Library. I practically buried myself fin research but it was all such great stuff—shopping lists, clothing budgets, diaries from junior high and stacks and stacks of letters from her numerous boyfriends.
How long did Pain, Parties, Work, take to write?
Maybe about a year and a half. It was total immersion.
Would you ever consider writing a follow-up to Pain, Parties, Work?
That’s interesting—I hadn’t thought of that! Actually, in a sublte sort of way I think the book I’m writing now is a follow up, even though it isn’t about Sylvia Plath.
Overall, do you think that Plath was a victim of her time-“being an ambitious girl” in 1950’s America?
Absolutely. We don’t give the women of Plath’s generation enough credit. Girls like Sylvia—and all the Guest Editors—were under tremendous pressure. “Get into the best school, keep your scholarship, win prizes and make sure you’re invited to the Yale Spring Dance…” But women are always bombarded with mixed messages. That’s why Sylvia’s struggles are just as relevant today.
“Read! Seek out the writers that resonate with you, and then seek out more.”
Previously, have you worked in the publishing industry?
Oh, not at all. It was completely new to me.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes—I think I was about five when I realized that and I haven’t wavered since.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Words and images! Reading Anna Karenina for the 20th time, Anne Carson’s amazing poetry, the scent of the shampoo I used when I was twelve, the name of a nail polish shade in the Ulta catalog, a 17th century French cookbook. Anything and everything.
Are there any more Sylvia Plath-inspired projects in the works?
Not at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any tips?
Read! Seek out the writers that resonate with you, and then seek out more. Read and re-read and re-read again and copy the sentences and phrases you like best in notebooks. Study the syntax your favorite writers use, the way they stick words together. Pay attention to what you like and why you like it.
And finally one random question, just in case you’re bored of always being asked about Sylvia Plath:
What is your favorite black and white film, prior to the 1960’s?
Great question! The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir (1939.) There’s a hunting party in this French chateau, lots of banter and flirtation and sly looks. At night everyone is darting in and out of their rooms, running around in these silky ruffled robes, sneaking around with their lovers. There’s an adorable pouty little French maid named Lisette who will make you want to wear white and black for the rest of your life. There’s a count dressed up as a teddy bear, tons of drinking, lots of slinking around in wine cellars and china closets to kiss someone or make a crazed love confession. There’s a real darkness there—sad marriages, broken hearts, death—but at the same time there’s this dizzy pajama party vibe that always makes me smile.
Thanks to Elizabeth Winder for agreeing to this interview. Don’t forget to buy Pain, Parties, Work by clicking here.
You can also read our review of The Bell Jar by clicking here. Also, you can read our other Plath interview, with Andrew Wilson, by clicking here.