Jesse Lee Kercheval's new novel My Life as a Silent Movie is a story about identity that poses provocative questions on the relationship of art to life. After losing her husband and daughter in an auto accident, 42-year-old Emma flies to Paris, discovers she has a twin brother whose existence she had not known about, and learns that her birth parents weren't the Americans who raised her, but a White Russian film star of the 1920s and a French Stalinist.
In this interview, Kercheval reveals how her love of silent film helped inspire the book and why family is so important in her writing.
Where did your interest with this era and culture—the 1920s and silent movies—begin?
My husband is a photographer who teaches history of photography. For years, he also taught a course where students made short silent movies using antique hand crank cameras. In 2000, he went to the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy where, along with classic films, they were showing a few of his student shorts. He didn’t really like being there alone, so he asked me to go with him next time. I imagined sitting in a cafe, drinking an espresso, writing, while he went to movies, but I fell in love with the lost world of silent film. At the festival, they show films from morning to night for eight days and I hate to leave the theater even long enough to eat (and this is Italy!). Since 2001, we’ve gone back to the festival every year. My most recent poetry collection, Cinema Muto, is about the festival and about silent film. It even has a long poem in it about Ivan Mosjoukine. After Cinema Muto, I kept writing about the film and Mosjoukine and my obsession with both grew into the novel My Life as a Silent Movie.
You share many similarities to your heroine, Emma (born in France, raised in Florida, a creative writing professor). Do you and Emma share personality traits as well? Are other characters in the novel personally reflected from your own life?
I think most people who know me would say I am not very much like Emma, though I have borrowed details from my life for hers. And I swear the other characters are all very much invented. Though I may be kidding myself! What is true, though, is that I do not have a brother, let alone a twin brother. So Ilya is pure fiction.
Did you have to do extensive research on French cinema and silent movies for this novel?
By the time I started writing the novel—after years of attending Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, reading about silent film, and writing poems about silent film—I had to struggle not to include everything I knew, rather than do more research. The trick was blending the information seamlessly into the narrative. For example, I went through several rounds of editing down the descriptions of Mosjoukine’s films and the number of films I describe.
What inspired you to write such an emotional story of self-discovery and grief?
I have always been drawn to explore in fiction what is difficult for me to face in life. My husband is the person who makes my life possible. And, as a mother, the loss of a child was and is unthinkable. So in a way, I make Emma suffer the losses I fear most. I felt guilty about that while I was writing the novel, but she survives.
Why Ivan Mosjoukine? When did you first learn about him, and why did you choose him to play such a prominent role in your novel?
In 2004, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto featured a retrospective of Mosjoukine’s films. I had only heard a passing mention of him before then (as the actor who turned down the role of Napoleon in Abel Gance’s six-hour epic silent film of the same name). From the first frame of the first film, I could not take my eyes off him. He is best known for is ability to convey emotion using his eyes but, in his French films in particularly, he also is a great physical comic. Over the course of the festival, I watched nearly all his extant films. It was the perfect introduction. It is still very hard to see his films outside of a few film archives. There are only bad bootleg DVDs and VHS tapes available whose muddy quality obscures the subtlety of his acting. Seeing all his films at once, I could not get over how their narratives echoed the story of his own life. Again and again, the films are about the choice of an artistic or free life over family and the price of that freedom. As I mentioned above, I wrote a long poem about his life. Then I felt I still had more to say. I considered a historical novel, but in the end I realized I was more interested in what Mosjoukine meant to me (and in the novel, to Emma) than in recreating the life of White Russians in Paris in the 1920s, so I altered history to bring Mosjoukine into the 21st century.
Family is one of the central themes of this novel. Could you explain what the unique bond between Emma and Ilya means to you, and how it goes along with your interest in the meaning of family?
The meaning of family is the central theme of all my fiction. My first novel, The Museum of Happiness, is an exploration of what it means to choose or create a family other than your birth family, and those themes reappear in My Life as a Silent Movie. Ivan is both part of Emma’s birth family and someone who becomes her chosen family. I have always felt the bond between siblings to be one of the strongest, and one that is not explored as often in contemporary American fiction as the parent-child relationship. Emma goes looking for her biological mother, but it is finding her brother that gives her a chance to be reborn. And I think Emma gives the same gift to Ilya.
Why did you choose to wait until much later in the novel to reveal the names of Emma’s husband and daughter?
Emma is the narrator. We see the world through her eyes and her not using her husband’s or daughter’s name in the early part of the novel is a form of distancing herself from her losses. She can’t bear to say their names. When she does use them, it is a sign that her grief is moving into more realistic, less manic, more accepting stage.
What was the most exciting part of the book for you to write?
The two scenes I enjoyed writing the most were the basement dance party that Emma goes to with Ilya and the scene where Emma meets Mosjoukine in the monastery. Both were complete fiction. I have never been to a rave in Paris or a Russian Orthodox monastery and that is probably what made them so fun to write. The joy of fiction!
Jesse Lee Kercheval is author of 12 books including Brazil, winner of the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Award; the poetry collection Cinema Muto, winner of the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; and The Alice Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin.
Read an excerpt from My Life as a Silent Movie: