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Friday, July 8, 2011

Suzanne Vega talks about Carson McCullers

Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers
Photo: Sandra Coudert
Earlier this year singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega drew on a lifelong fascination with the work of Carson McCullers to create, with Duncan Sheik, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, a one-woman show Vega performed at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village. The play ranged across McCullers's many friendships, loves and infatuations; her successes and illnesses; the characters she created, the writer she aspired to be and became. Vega talked about what McCullers has meant to her in an exclusive interview with The Library of America.
LOA: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned discovering Carson McCullers as a teenager and, at Barnard College, adapting some of her short stories into songs for an undergraduate thesis. Now, some thirty years later, you’ve just finished a month-long run of Carson McCullers Talks About Love. What is it about Carson McCullers’s work that has kept her such a presence in your life all this time? 
Vega: It’s really more like four years spread out over thirty. There were years when the project had to take a back seat to raising my daughter and being on tour. The things I find compelling about Carson McCullers are: First, her character. Brilliant, funny, droll, compassionate, bitchy, needy, but never pathetic. Second, her work itself. Her social vision—so unusual in a girl her age when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—beautifully and humanely rendered in language and imagery. And yet odd and unique at the same time. Her details resonate with me. For example, Mick Kelly takes an art program sponsored by the government—I was that kind of child.
Vega and Sheik wrote fourteen songs for the show and one of the evening’s most entertaining moments comes when everything McCullers ever felt or thought about other writers seems to get poured into the song “Harper Lee” (see YouTube video below).Vega talked about her research for the song:
LOA: The McCullers in your play has a winning feistiness but she’s not always entirely likable. In “Harper Lee” she sings:
Virginia Woolf, she leaves me cold.
I recognize the genius, but I’m twice as bold.
I have more to say than Hemingway.
Lord knows, compared to Faulkner,
I say it in a better way.
She goes on to sing that her Ballad of the Sad Café is better than The Great Gatsby and pokes fun at Harper Lee because she “only wrote the one book” compared with McCullers’s “more than three.” Did all of these sentiments really come from her writings?

Vega: Her actual phrase about Virginia Woolf comes from a transcript of a lecture she gave at the 92nd Street Y with Tennessee Williams. She says that she is a genius, but doesn’t “send her, as they say in the theater, the way Katherine Mansfield does.” She did actually say “I have more to say than Hemingway,” and “Lord knows, I say it better than Faulkner.” The quote about Ballad of the Sad Café—I found it on Amazon, written in a review by a reader. She didn’t say it about herself, but I thought she would have liked it. Of course she actually was a Fitzgerald fan. I made up that line about Harper Lee and the “one book.” However, she did say that Harper Lee was “poaching on my literary preserves.” The whole verse about Truman Capote “plagiarizing her cadences” is taken verbatim from the biography The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr.
Read the entire interview

Watch Suzanne Vega perform "Harper Lee" on WNYC's Soundcheck

Related LOA works: Carson McCullers: Complete Novels

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