Whatever happened to Guy Somerset? As long-serving books editor of the Listener, he was a knowledgeable, alert presence on the literary scene. He fled the magazine a year or so ago and has fished up as PR trout – actually, contents editor – for the New Zealand Festival, in Wellington. He’s continuing to apply his keen intelligence to literary matters at the festival’s quite spiffing online magazine Article .
This week he interviewed Louise Wareham Leonard, the New Zealand-born writer now living upstate New York, about her new book 52 Men, a sort of true, sort of made-up collection of 52 vignettes about men who she has known and who happen to include Lou Reed, Michael Stipe and Jonathan Franzen.
The following is an edited version of the longer interview at Article, which also features good stuff on Joan Didion, James K Baxter, and other authors.
The memories of them you present in the book are very distilled, sometimes to a single incident. Did you have to dig deep to find those memories again or were they near the surface?
Always in my mind is a certain British naval officer I met in the Virgin Islands, a police officer in Manhattan handing me his gun, a gangster throwing me down his stoop at dawn on New Year’s Day. Every story is a man and a memory that lives with me all the time. When I moved from New Zealand to the Australian outback in 2011, however, the memories got stronger….I had a sudden sense of urgency to write these stories down, to tell these men’s stories and give them permanence – as if I might never otherwise get back to the world of my youth.
Each of the vignettes is brief and beautifully honed: is there much material pared away or were you focused from the outset on the things you wanted to capture?
I was focused. The childhood story in part two of the book is the bomb, the cause of all the other stories, and the 52 men are the fallout. Luckily, humour came to me – that little godsend – and I wrote all the men not as dire or dark but with affection and lightness. So the worst things ever said to me – “You remind me of everything I hate about women” (Michael Stipe) – or the saddest – “I care, but not as much as most” – and the sweetest – “you saved me from the jaws of despair” (from the gangster about to toss me down the stoop) – are also written in a way that makes people laugh.
Have any of your 52 men been in contact since the book appeared? Would they recognise themselves? Not Michael the “rock star” or Jonathan “the world’s most famous North American novelist” – they’re outed on the back cover. But the others.
I contacted many men before publication to see they were okay with the stories: Sergio, who at 15 wrote lists of ways to say sexual intercourse; Fazal, who tortured us schoolgirls with his beauty; Oli the naval officer who lifted me up in a sea pool. They were happy with their stories, it was fantastic, we all felt great.
Man #52, who called himself the “most jaded man you will ever meet”, was angry at my story, genuinely wild. He remembered us having a much gentler time than I portrayed… He had always been someone I slightly feared and now he had surprised me and showed me, once again, that how we find others to be is often a reflection of our own generosity or fear or expectation.