Q & A: Frank Deford
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This month sees the publication of award-winning author, commentator and Westport resident Frank Deford’s latest novel, Bliss, Remembered (Overlook Press). Framed as a memoir, it tells the story of Sydney Stringfellow, a young swimmer who discovers love, loss and deception against the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and World War II.
Deford recently was gracious enough to take a few minutes to chat with Connecticut Magazine about the book.
What was the inspiration for Bliss, Remembered?
I wanted to write a love story, and I like to work in the past, so I was thinking “when.” When you work in the past, it always helps if you have a good backdrop. In other words, it’s better to write a book that takes place in 1944 when the war is still on, as opposed to 1947, even if it’s the same story. Okay? Even if the story has nothing to do with the war, the fact that something is going on in the background, makes it a better piece.
I was thinking about this in 2008, and I thought, “No one has ever done a novel with the Olympics as a backdrop.” I thought that could be interesting because in addition to the sports, there’s so much going on, with the gaiety and the glamor and all that sort of thing. So then it became a question of which Olympics to choose. At first, I was reluctant to do 1936 because that’s the most famous one, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that one had the most potential, and specifically because two people, who are dead now, but were very important to those Olympics, I had interviewed. One was Eleanor Holm, the swimmer who was thrown out of the Olympics for bad behavior, and the other was Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial German filmmaker who made a movie called “Olympia” and filmed it during those Olympics. I made them characters in the book.
So that was how I got to the ‘36 Olympics. Then it was just a question of working on the characters. Because Eleanor Holm was a swimmer, I made my heroine Sydney Stringfellow into a swimmer. And by doing that, I made myself into a woman because most of the book is written in the first person by Sydney.
So that’s the way the process worked. I don’t know if you followed all that—love story first, go into the past, go with the Olympics, what Olympics, well, stay away from ‘36 because that’s so trite, no, do ‘36 because it has the most potential and it has Eleanor and Leni, and then all of a sudden, I’m a female backstroker writing about her love affair with the son of a Nazi diplomat.
How did you come decide on the style of writing? It’s partially a memoir, partially a narrative ...
Sydney is dying, and rather than me just writing it as Sydney Stringfellow, I thought it was a better, more compelling story, if she was telling the story to her son, particularly because what she’s going to reveal has a tremendous effect on her son, the surprise ending which comes in the last act. So rather than have her say, “I’m Sydney Stringfellow, I’m an old woman and I’m dying, so I’m going to write out my story ...” I thought it was more dramatic, more compelling to have her tell the story to her son. There is a large chunk of it—and again, I’d thought it’d be a little different—that she has written out. You’ll even see in the book that the type is different.
So she even says to her son at one point, “Okay, here, you can read the rest of it.” So she has written out some of it. Some of it she tells aloud, and because she’s telling it, it’s very colloquial. It’s not as if she’s sitting and writing her memoirs. She is talking to her son and occasionally she responds and they obviously like each other a lot, so there’s a certain amount of banter back and forth on occasion.
It was very interesting. I was pleased—we got a fabulous review in Publishers Weekly, one of the few reviews they starred. Whoever the unknown critic was—they don’t sign them—said that, “This is a gimmick, the telling of the memoir, and it usually doesn’t work, but it does in this case.” So I was very pleased.
I think it works because the son does speak up occasionally. He’s not just sitting there numb, in front of the fire listening. He’s says, every now and then, “Well, why was that, Mom?” or he makes a joke, or whatever. Obviously, they’re two people who love one another very much and have a lot in common. That’s why I did it that way—the son is important to the story, so it’s better to have him telling the story rather than just writing out the memoir.
It seems more natural. No one just tells a two-hour story. Someone will speak up and say, “Well, what happened here?” I’ve written stuff in the first person before, but I thought this was much more effective. So it’s about 85 to 90 percent me being a woman, but I enjoyed that. [Laughs]