New York Times Staff Editor Anna North‘s second novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark has five different perspectives on the title character, none of which are from Sophie Stark herself.
Sophie is complicated, unknowable woman even to those who come close to her. From her lover, Allison; her university infatuation, Daniel; her brother, Robbie; producer, George; and husband, Jacob, each story and conversation we become privy to only inspire more curiosity about the filmmaker. Sophie begins her career as a Midwestern college student carrying around a camera to capture the daily goings-on of a popular basketball star that is also secretly her boyfriend. From there, she moves to New York and becomes enamored with a young woman (Allison) telling a partly-true story about being raped and stalked and then let’s Sophie make it into a film, and them both into stars. But their relationship is just as personal as it is professional, as Allison and Sophie are almost immediately sexually and romantically involved.
Anna said the character of Sophie came to her “whole-cloth.”
“When I imagined her, she really sort of came into my head with almost all the qualities she ends up having in the book, which includes her major relationships,” Anna said. “Right away, I thought of the character of Allison and thought of their relationship a lot. That really was sort of the foundational relationship of the book in a lot of ways.”
To put it kindly, Sophie is a user; a masterful manipulator who soaks up all of the story potential she sees in her partners and eventually discards them, though not always for good.
“Obviously, Sophie ends up having relationships with men also but I think it was a really important part of her character to me, and also just a really important part of her life story—you know that she’s with both women and with men,” Anna said. “I don’t want to give the other relationships short shrift, but in a lot of ways, I think the love of her life is Allison.”
Sophie enters back into Allison’s life for another film, one that has Hollywood producers and money attached. Sophie found eventual success after her documentary Daniel, her Allison-inspired indie Marianne and critical darling Woods (based on the tragic true story her musician husband Jacob shares with her), so she is asked to take on a big budget period piece called Isabella. She takes the production to New York, telling Allison (who is now happy as a barista with a live-in boyfriend) she can’t make the movie without her.
“I actually think if Allison gave interviews, she would say she was queer,” Anna said. “At least I think she’d be more open and forthcoming about her relationship and the way she thinks about her identity than Sophie is. I just think she’s more—she just seems more comfortable being known by other people and kind of being part of the world and politics and everything than Sophie is. So, I actually kind of see conducting a pretty good interesting, revealing interview with Allison about her sexuality in a way I can’t imagine anyone having with Sophie.”
Anna said that she doesn’t see Sophie as the kind of person who would want to identify as anything, whether it’s as queer, bisexual or even feminist.
“I kind of think, even though I’m always mad when public figures won’t—I kind of feel maybe she wouldn’t,” Anna said. “Sophie seems like someone who resists almost every attempt to characterize her in any way, even the most small. She is very recalcitrant in interviews—she likes to be thought of as mysterious. So almost, I feel like she would resist really identifying with any group in any ways. “
While not a bad person entirely, Sophie is a chameleon of sorts.
“Sophie takes on a lot of different roles and Sophie is a lot of things to a lot of different people. I don’t want to sort of essentialize her sexuality here, but I do think it’s interesting that she can maybe behave in a more masculine way with Allison and behave in a more traditionally feminine way with some of her male partners,” Anna said. “And it’s also interesting to me that for Allison, Sophie is the first woman that she’s been with and so there’s a level where this is like a totally new experience to Allison, and I think that really compounds, in a way, how foundational and how important Sophie ends up being in Allison’s life.”
Part of the inspiration for Sophie’s aesthetic was informed by Patti Smith and Anna’s reading of the legendary rock singer’s memoir, Just Kids.
“Mostly I started thinking of Patti Smith when I thought of what Sophie would look like. Because Patti Smith sort of famously had this androgynous quality and this particular striking quality in photographs,” Anna said. “I think her politics have involved over time but it’s interesting too because she’s not queer, or I don’t think she’s had relationships with women. She’s very clear about that in her book. Her statements about queer sexuality in general are kind of complicated in the book, so I don’t know that she would be—she’s not a model for Sophie’s sexuality, certainly, or how to think about that, but more like Sophie has a particular kind of image that go across different boundaries of gender expression, and I thought about Patti Smith when I thought about that.”
Patti Smith in 1974
Sophie Stark is enigmatic and has an intensity about her that draws people in, but she’s still, as Anna puts it, “a jerk.”
“I like her, I love her. I love all of the characters in the book. But, like I said, she kind of came to me fully-formed and I was drawn to the idea of her from the beginning,” Anna said. “But she’s a jerk. She’s really mean. As I was writing the book, I thought a lot about male artists over the course of history and all of them have been jerks—not all of them, but there is this kind of mythos or even this charisma around the really difficult male artists who sometimes treat people really badly, and female artists don’t always get to have that kind of mythos and that charisma. So I really wanted to write a female character that does get to have that. But the flip side of that is that person is going to be a jerk.”
To be fair, we never get Sophie’s side of the story as she doesn’t narrate any chapters of the book. Anna said she never considered trying to speak for Sophie because “the core of her is really kind of unknowable.”
“I say this at readings sometimes: She wouldn’t let me write from her point of view,” Anna said. “But it was really important to me to preserve that core. Like you can’t really know, and I think that would have been taken away if she were to speak for herself.”
As the title suggests, the book ends with Sophie’s death, although I won’t spoil the details. Anna said she considered letting her live in early drafts, but that it felt too necessary to see her through until her very end.
“I thought maybe I could have her disappear and no one hears from her ever again. Or maybe I could have her disappear and then every now and then, people think they see her having a drink in a remote place kind of thing,” Anna said. “But ultimately I felt like it didn’t make any sense. I just felt like the arc of her life needed to happen the way it did, both for the way the plot works but also kind of for the way she looks at the world and looks at her own self and her legacy and her art.”
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is the story of the legacy from those who were as close to knowing her as humanly possible, which sadly suggests Sophie is kind of a sociopath.
“She’s someone who kind of like takes a lot from people and occasionally she gives back, but she’s not a person who is finding a lot of ways to give back to the people that care about her,” Anna said. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is about queer woman character with mythos, charisma and a trail of broken hearts; a dark but rich read you will want to devour, Sophie Stark-style.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is available now.