When I spoke to Anna North, the author of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, she pointed out that the Odyssey doesn’t really end with its hero’s dramatic, suitor-slaying return. In Book 11, while in the underworld, the dead seer Tiresias orders Odysseus to take one last trip before settling down. If he wants to appease the gods, Odysseus must take his oar and journey as far inland as he can. When people start to gawk, with no recognition, at the strange tool on his back, he’s travelled far enough.
In our conversation for this series, we discussed what North called “the oar moment”: the sudden, profound realization that you’ve gone too far from home. She explained, too, how writing a novel is a bit like taking advice from Tiresias—undertaking a long journey with no clear destination, for reasons you don’t fully understand.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark takes the form of a fictional oral history, one that explores the way cultural myths are made. The title character, a pioneering film director, never speaks to us directly: We learn about her only through a chorus of competing voices, plus a handful of journalistic reviews. We’re asked to consider a flawed cultural hero whose greatness stems from the fact that she can’t separate people from actors, life from art—and whose reputation rests on the biased narratives of people she inspired, manipulated and hurt.
Anna North is a staff editor at The New York Times. Her first novel was America Pacifica, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Brooklyn and spoke to me by phone.
Anna North: My grandfather first recommended the Odyssey to me. When he died a few years ago, I went looking for my original copy because I wanted to read from it at the funeral. I found it in my parents’ house, with the original receipt still inside. So I could date exactly when I first got the book: I was eleven years old.
I have strong memories of reading it for the first time. The Odyssey’s a great book for kids. A lot happens. There’s strangeness, magic, excitement. Of course, the names are very weird to a modern person, and I remember getting tripped up over that. But still, I loved it.