Celebrating Coco: An honest account of a most complicated character

This summer found me immersed in French — language, culture, and fashion — as I recorded one of the most challenging and captivating projects of my career. Voicing Rhonda Garelick’s Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History for HighBridge Audio demanded my most impeccable French pronunciation and lyrical story-telling, and I enjoyed every minute. While fashion has never been my particular passion, I could not help but see the world differently (and understand and appreciate couture far more) after producing the complicated narrative of one of the most complex women in world history. Coco Chanel was not often a likable character, but her razor sharp intelligence, immense talent, surprising generosity, unfailing resilience, and uncompromising personality cannot fail to intrigue listeners and readers.

Coco Chanel

In celebration of the publication of Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, HighBridge Audio is giving away one copy of the audiobook. Just comment below for your chance to be randomly selected as a winner of the remarkable story of a cultural icon. I’ll choose a winner on Tuesday, October 7th. And if you’re in New York this evening, consider attending the book launch event at The Museum of the City of New York, A Classic American Look: How New York Saved Coco Chanel, where Rhonda will be interviewed by New Yorker writer Judith Thurman. I can’t wait to meet Rhonda in person, and to celebrate this special book. 

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I wanted to learn more about Rhonda, who is impressively talented in her own right. Not only is she a very fine writer with a growing list of fascinating books, she’s a Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as the founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium at the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts. Rhonda was extremely generous with her time, answering my many questions about the inspiration for Mademoiselle, her writing process, and her own appreciation for couture. Rhonda is an inspiration. Read on!

What inspired you to write about Chanel?
 
Well several things: First, I have long studied and written about theater, and about big, ‘spectacle-people’ as I call them.  My first book, Rising Star, was about dandyism, and the dandyist movement was all about turning one’s own life into an art work. Chanel absolutely accomplished that, so I see her as a latter-day dandy, in a way.  And then, about nine years ago, I was invited to contribute an essay on Chanel for the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s catalog for their Chanel show. That started me researching her even more.
The more I studied, the more I saw that in Chanel’s case, her own ‘art work,’ her designs AND her persona, had the quality of  a contagion. We, the women of the developed world, all still bear her imprint–it is an uncanny level of influence, and one I wanted to understand better.How did you approach your research? Was there a point when you stopped researching and started writing, or did you do both simultaneously? How do you know when you know enough to write the story?

 
That’s such a good question.  My research took me all over the world. I decided I would not just research Chanel or just fashion, but instead try to weave Chanel into a larger political and cultural context. This meant studying the period she lived in and the lives of those who most influenced her.
I unearthed diaries and correspondence. I interviewed people who’d known her. I researched the films and ballets and plays she costumed, the art work of her collaborators.  I read vast amounts of European history; I studied fashion and design history; I read millions of articles. I did ‘hands-on’ research, trying on garments and jewelry, taking photos. I haunted libraries, archives, historical societies. I did research in five countries.
In addition to that, one big piece of the research involved gaining access to the very private archives of the House of Chanel in Paris.  It took me two and a half years just to be ALLOWED in. I was vetted like crazy and had to be interviewed finally in person.  Once I was in, though, they could not have been nicer to me.  The staff at the Chanel archives permitted me unfettered access over many years. I ‘commuted’ back and forth for quite a while, spending weeks at a time there, working in their offices.  I am very grateful for that.  Not only did I find wonderful materials in their archives, but I got the chance to “feel” what it is like working for this multi-billion dollar luxury goods company. I worked alongside staff members, heard them talk about their jobs and lives, and could interview them too about their own relationship to Chanel–the brand and the woman.  They all still refer to Coco Chanel as “Mademoiselle,” as if she might walk into the office at any moment.
 
As for when you know you “know enough”: You never know, exactly. But in truth, it’s not about “knowing facts” so much as it is developing a through-line, an interpretation that holds and that helps make sense of the large picture.  Once I could “see” all the vast quantities of information through the prism of my own historical and cultural interpretation, I knew I could start writing. Then, it’s a balancing act of continuing to learn and discover new information while also writing.  I have a lot of experience doing this with other books and articles I have done. My training as a scholar helps a lot here.Where did you feel most connected to Chanel? What was your favorite location in Chanel’s life? Is there anywhere you weren’t able to visit, because it was off-limits or no longer extant?

Yes, I visited a number of her haunts. I think I felt the most connected to her paging through the yellowed, dog-eared log books of the Maison Chanel from the late teens or 1920 or so–where handwritten notes in fountain pen listed the names and addresses of her staff, including her own younger sister, Antoinette (who later, tragically, committed suicide, as did Chanel’s older sister, Julia), along with the salaries paid, etc. (Antoinette earned 10% commission on sales.) I could see which models were paid more than the others (often the Russian girls, at the time, some of whom were exiled aristocracy who’d fled the Bolshevik Revolution). I could see who was fired and the reasons listed. Oh, and I also felt a weird moment of connection to her when I was allowed a private tour of her apartment and given her glasses to try on for myself. I am near-sighted, but boy, her vision must have been awful! They were so thick and heavy, and the world just went all liquid and blurry when I tried them on.Did you grow up with an awareness or and a passion for fashion in general? For Chanel in particular?

I have loved fashion since I was a toddler.  Family photos show me wearing inappropriately elaborate outfits for every occasion.  I carried a small, circular velvet pocketbook every day to kindergarten. My mother was an influence in this definitely. She loved fashion, and shopping with her was a favorite part of my childhood and teenaged years.  I think fashion functions for women much the way sports does for men: as a way to bond and talk easily.
How did you avoid the mysterious pull you described in your book — the overtaking of biographers by Chanel’s voice? Did you feel it? Was it an effort to resist?
Well, it was like the undertow in an ocean–I could feel it and had to try to resist it consciously–to dig my toes into the sand beneath the water.  Chanel had a genius for allure.  And even though I was trying to be objective, to be ‘critical’ in the best sense, the pull of the beauty of her clothes, the glamour of her life, the seductions of working amid the Maison Chanel–with its glorious scents and sights–it was a challenge! But as I often tell my students, you can enjoy the pleasures of a subject while still asking yourself *why* you feel that pleasure.  That is what I tried to do myself. And in fact, my book is precisely about how those seductive pleasures operate, and why.How did you choose what to wear when going to an interview for this book? What did you wear?

Tavia, you are perceptive! It’s impossible not to worry about that, especially when summoned for an interview with a high-level executive at the Maison Chanel. I cannot afford most haute couture. However, I love clothes and am very respectful and mindful of their power to communicate.  I have a wonderful, dark navy, fitted Lagerfeld suit (bought at a consignment store, his own line, not designed for Chanel) that I wore for some occasions at Chanel, which I hope people recognized or appreciated at some level. I have a great red Balenciaga suit (Balenciaga was one of the few fellow couturiers Chanel ever praised). I like to buy couture at consignment stores, and mix it up with pieces of all kinds–from H&M (which does tons of Chanel-like clothes),Trina Turk, Elie Tahari…I got a little thrill one day when a coat I had bought at H&M (really!) was praised by a Chanel staff member known for her unforgiving and discerning eye!
Was there anyone you were not able to interview that you would have liked to (i.e., Lagerfeld)?
I did try to interview Mr. Lagerfeld, and while I think he would have been open to it personally–he is clearly someone eloquent and interested in ideas–he is guarded quite closely by a cadre of ‘minders’ who work very hard to keep people like me (writers, journalists, scholars) from him. In the end though, for me, that’s *part* of the story, not an impediment to it. If Mr. Lagerfeld is set apart from the world and guarded like a kind of religious idol, well, that’s meaningful in its own right. And I do write about the cult-like atmosphere that reigns at Chanel Inc.
What surprised you most about Chanel? 
I think the most surprising thing about Chanel was her tragic vulnerability.  Not just in old age, or even in her sad childhood, but when she was already very famous and successful and at the top of her game.  In letters and diaries of one of her lovers, Duke Dmitri Romanov, which I had unlocked and translated by a Russian scholar, I learned that Coco was always very insecure around Dmitri, afraid he didn’t love her enough, worried about pleasing him. This was true even though she was gaining world fame and even supporting him with an allowance at the time. She was very fragile in some ways–and grew more and more defensive to cover that up.How do you feel about Chanel, after everything you learned about her? I admit that while I find her a sympathetic character, I don’t find her to be likable. What’s your feeling about her, after spending so much time with her?

No, I think I know too much to “like” Chanel. But I have compassion for her and I suppose the strongest feeling I have is one of marvelment. Her story is almost not to be believed–that someone with her background–a rural, 19th century peasant orphan, a girl, no less!–could found an empire based on her own aesthetic, an empire that lives on even decades after her death, for about a century of business and counting, that’s astounding. I have said it before: I think she remains the 20th century’s most influential woman of the Western world.

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Thank you to Rhonda for her graciousness in answering my many questions, and to HighBridge for their kindness in offering the title to a lucky listener! Remember, just leave a comment below to be entered into a random drawing for the audiobook.

Speaking of THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS . . .

I recently had the opportunity to interview the talented TaraShea Nesbit, author of THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS,  about the story and her writing process. She gives some wonderful insights into the origins of the book and her historical research of these women and their culture.

 

AudioFile Magazine Review of THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS

THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS
by TaraShea Nesbit
Read by Tavia Gilbert

Nesbit’s well-researched novel looking back to the years 1943-45 and the creation of the A-bomb is made even better by Tavia Gilbert’s energetic, upbeat narration. The author takes a risk by making her narrator a collective “we.” Having no individual character to connect to, the “we” proves distancing rather than inviting. However, thanks to Gilbert’s performance, relationships become clear. As the wives give up their lives and careers to follow their scientist husbands to the desert, Gilbert makes their sense of helplessness apparent. Moments of fun and growing camaraderie mingle with moments of snobbery, jealousy, boredom, and booze. Gilbert enlivens all the details–from the expectations for women of the era to the cataclysmic dropping of the bomb. S.J.H. © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine

We Are Water Interview on Sirius XM Radio

Last fall, I was privileged to be part of an award-winning cast of actors who narrated We Are Water by Wally Lamb, an ensemble performance that subsequently received an Earphones Award from AudioFile Magazine. To promote the book, the cast was invited to a public reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn in October, and in November, we were interviewed live by Judith Regan on her Sirius XM radio show.

This flurry of press and enthusiasm for a beautiful novel was exciting, but what meant the most to me was that Wally is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, the school where I earned an MFA in creative non-fiction just a little over a year ago. It was an honor to get to know a fellow VCFA alum, especially one who represents the integrity, artistry, and devotion to craft as well as Wally does, and a great start to my new New York narrating and writing life.

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Sirius XM Radio interview with Judith Regan on November 16, 2013, with Richard Ferrone, Wally Lamb, Cynthia Darlow, Therese Plummer, and Tavia Gilbert.

Sirius XM Radio Interview with Judith Regan, Part 1

On-Air Readings on Sirius XM Radio

Sirius XM Radio Interview with Judith Regan, Part 2

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Public reading at Book Court in Brooklyn on October 26, 2013, with Robin Miles, George Guidall, Wally Lamb, Richard Ferrone, and Tavia Gilbert (back row), and Therese Plummer, Sandy Rustin, Maggi-Meg Reed, and Cynthia Darlow (front row).

Let Me Stand Alone

LET ME STAND ALONE The Journals of Rachel Corrie
Rachel Corrie, Read by Tavia Gilbert, Edward Asner • Unabridged • JUNE 2013
Blackstone Audiobooks • Trade Ed.
Blackstone Audiobooks • Library Ed.

Narrator Tavia Gilbert captures every facet of Rachel Corrie’s journey from middle school in Olympia, Washington, to her death at 23 beneath a bulldozer blade in Palestine. Rachel’s parents released this collection of their daughter’s poems and journal entries to fulfill her wish to be a published author and to let the world know her for more than her tragic death. The family’s poignant introduction is movingly presented in Edward Asner’s deep tones and measured delivery. From the adolescent’s wonder at life to the young adult’s tears of anger and frustration at the world’s injustices, Gilbert’s talented shadings of tone and intensity convey all the passion and talent of this remarkable young woman. Rachel gives us herself through her words; Tavia Gilbert gives us her voice. M.O.B. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

 

One foot in front of the other

In 1995, after enduring more than a dozen corrective foot surgeries starting when I was just seven months old, I was referred to and met with a young foot surgeon, newly in practice. He glanced at my sheaf of x-rays, holding them up against the light-box mounted on the wall, flipped through my thick file of medical records, held each of my feet in his hand and tested my range of motion, pressed his thumbs into my arches and across the bridge to determine how thick the scar tissue from so many procedures had become, had me walk across the room and back to judge the healthiness of my gait. When I told him I was going to be an actress, he shook his head no. “You can’t do that. Find a desk job,” he said. “You need to stay off your feet.”

In spring 1996, I was wrapping up my sophomore year at the University of Washington as a drama major. A relationship that had started out strong and mutually-respectful with the head of the undergraduate theater department had recently soured, and the tension between us was thick and furious. On a humid April afternoon, as we stood in the lobby of the Drama Department, this award-winning, highly-respected actress, producer, director, and professor told me that I would never be allowed to enroll into any upper-level acting courses at UW, and, in fact, that I had no acting talent whatsoever and no future in the theater. She told me to find a different career.

In 2005, after submitting audiobook samples to a publisher, I received a very generous, typed response from the casting director. My breathing had serious issues, as did my diction, she said. My pacing and phrasing were very poor, my mic technique was problematic, and overall, she was not convinced that I had an emotional connection to the material or the ability to tell an authentic, intimate story. She thanked me for giving it a shot, but added, gently though without reservation, that she was not interested in hearing from me again, and suggested that audiobooks might not be the best place to focus my attention.

Yesterday I sat in the office of my agent, Shari Hoffman, at Innovative Artists. Shari and I met three years ago, when I first told her I was interested in her representation. Shari had been very kind, and said that there was a small possibility that she’d be interested in working with me, but only if I lived in New York. I remember sitting in the chair next to her window looking out on Park Avenue near Union Square, struck with the absurdity of what I was hoping for. I felt suddenly that I was too heavy, not pretty enough, my clothes and my hair were all wrong, I was too unsophisticated to make it as an actress, I would never be able to convince anyone to give me a chance, I would be unable to overcome my humble beginnings or my inherent unworthiness to be successful, especially in New York.

I still feel sometimes too heavy, not pretty enough, unsophisticated, unworthy, absurd, that what I hope for is unreasonable and silly. But looking back over the course of my life, at all these points along the path when I could have stopped, and didn’t, when I felt overwhelmed with fear and shame and smallness, but persisted anyway, helps me remember to keep moving forward, because who knows what will happen next?

Shari is still as kind as ever, and she’s fair, and yesterday, when we met, she cautioned me, reasonably. “We’ll start small. Nothing is going to happen quickly. It will grow slowly. We’ll get to know you, clients will get to know you, you’ll get acclimated, we’ll see how it goes. We’ll just see what happens.” I love that.

The acceptance of failure

Ever since I voiced the magnificently written Little Century, the story of a young woman making her way in turn-of-the-century Oregon, I’ve wanted to highlight the debut novelist Anna Keesey. I deeply admire Anna’s writing — her clearly drawn characters, the undercurrent of tension and yearning throughout the narrative, the richly realized sense of place that is so familiar to me, a child of the American West.

My Little Century recording days moved far more slowly than usual, as I laid down a scene with dialogue between characters, and then re-recorded the lines, then took yet another turn at getting them just right. I very rarely work with such careful deliberation and fretting — I’ve found that my first impulse is, more often than not, the best one to follow in this work — but Anna’s writing was demanding. Not only did the dialogue on the page vibrate with subtext, necessitating that at least two layers of thought and feeling be simultaneously realized, but it was clear that, more than ever before, my job was to get out of the way of the text. It took very careful rendering of the work to not insinuate myself into the recording, but to do my best to disappear and allow Anna’s words to be all.

Once the book was complete, I had the honor of having an extended conversation with Anna, during an exclusive interview for Blackstone Audio. Talking as an emerging writer with a skilled and knowledgeable writer was a great pleasure, and it was meaningful to discuss our shared love of the area in Oregon in which the book is set, the writing communities we have in common, and the particularly gorgeous passages that continued to resonate for me, weeks after the completion of the recording.*

So, why has it taken me so long to feature this book, one of my absolute favorite projects? In many ways, for a very long time, I felt like I had failed utterly. I uploaded my tracks for Blackstone, and made the corrections, and sent off my invoice. At that point I am usually long into other projects that capture my attention and energy. But this book nagged at me. I wanted to start again, redo it, do better by it, and by Anna. I worried that it was not right, that instead of making the work sing, I had stifled something beautiful in it, that rather than bringing the words to life, I had diminished them, dampened their power somehow.

And then I read the review from Publishers Weekly, and it wasn’t devastating, by any means — there were many kind things said about the strengths of the performance —  but it troubled my heart. This book that I believed in and cared so deeply for, for that reviewer, at least, fell flat. For a few days I felt heartsick, and sorry.

And then Anna sent me the kindest message, thanking me for my work, and telling me how much she loved the recording, how she heard in my voice the lines she’d written, the voices of the characters, and they sounded new, and still real and true and right to her. And then I went back to the recording, and I listened to it, and I, too, believed in it. It’s not perfect — no performance is ever perfect — but even to my critical, anxious ear, the work sounded real and true and right to me, too. Anna’s story was beautiful, and powerful, and rich, and I got out of the way of it, so that the gorgeous prose stood alone, without interference.

So was the reviewer wrong? No. My performance just didn’t fully work for that listener. Was I wrong to worry so much, through the entire process, about failure, second-guessing myself and finessing the recording line by line? Absolutely not. It’s when a book is as good as Anna’s Little Century that the work of narrating becomes so challenging, requiring subtlety and nuance which may not work for everyone. Had I not cared so much about it, I would have sat down, pounded it out, sent it off, and not learned anything new about the craft of writing or the craft of narrating. So this book was a great gift, so much so that more than six months later, I’m still thinking about it. My fear of failure — failing the life of the book, failing a writer I deeply respect, failing my own expectations and standards — kept me committed through the process, and even to evaluating the recording more deeply after the project’s completion. The discovery that I didn’t profoundly fail or ruin anything was only made possible by my humble desire to do my very best possible work.

Anna continues to inspire me, to make me think about writing, and love, and devotion, and hope. She has just published a wonderful essay on the literary site Bloom, called “Keyhole,” about the acceptance of failure, which prompted me to think about her novel, and considerations of grief and failure, and acceptance. I am grateful for Anna, for Little Century, for “Keyhole,” and for the opportunity to try and fail and try and fail, and to accept imperfection as a part of the story. So that’s why, today, I share this extraordinary book with you, even with an imperfect review of my performance of it. Like Anna says in her essay, it’s time that I no longer choose “avoidance and delay over the fear of…possible humiliations.” I wish that the review had been positive without reservation, but it’s no excuse to delay calling attention to this most beautiful of stories.

 

Little Century

WRITTEN BY ANNA KEESEY, READ BY TAVIA GILBERT

Listen to samples:

 

* Passages like this one:
The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.

What’s your most outrageous job?

It’s high time I start giving away some free audiobooks, don’t you think? Here’s the start. I have two free copies of my narration of Some Girls, by Jillian Lauren, on CD. Jillian’s memoir is a fascinating account of her experience working as a harem girl for the Sultan of Brunei. Jillian is intrepid and funny and brave and a little outrageous. Now I want your to tell me about your most outrageous job. It can be a job you loved or a job you hated or one you found hilarious or infuriating. Tell your outrageous story in the comments below, in 250 words or less, for your chance to win a copy of Jillian’s story! I’ll post the lucky recipients on Friday, February 1st.