xoBook Club: Elizabeth Winder Talks Lyricism, Poetry, and the Scent of Sylvia Plath's Shampoo

The luminous Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, gave me a luminous interview. Let's talk about it.
Publish date:
August 29, 2015
books, reading, poetry, nonfiction, biographies, book club, Sylvia Plath

On the last page of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, I was left with a sense of Winder's devotion to her subject. This is a love letter, I thought, not just to Plath, but to beauty and to the women who sought it out in the 1950's.

I closed the book. Then I read it again.

This time, I read with highlighters in hand -- yellow for Sylvia Plath, pink for the fashion and magazines industries, and blue for the poetry woven through the language. I realized that Pain, Parties, Work isn't a love letter. Rather, it's a love poem -- its language, form, and style finely attuned to its beloved.

As a writer, I was enamored with Winder's craft. As a reader, I was fascinated with the book's form. A straight-forward chronological biography, it is most certainly not.

I reached out to Elizabeth, all awe-filled and full of questions. She not only agreed to an interview, (despite working fervently on a second book) but gave such graceful, illuminating answers that I've included them all, in full, below.

Were any of my questions akin to the thoughts that wandered through your head as well? Let's talk about it. This is a book club, after all.

What initially drew you to Plath and this time in her life?

From the very beginning, it was always Plath's college years that interest me the most. I love everything she wrote but I love her journals the most-- she writes about these years so vividly and with such immediacy.

I wrote about her Mademoiselle summer because I simply wanted to know more about it. In every Plath biography I've read (and I think I've read most) her month at Mademoiselle has been treated as a catalyst for her first breakdown, sort of like a stepping stone to a crisis. I wanted to explore it in more detail.

You bring an incredible exactitude to the details of Plath's time in New York City while maintaining a lyrical intensity that I didn't expect in a biography. Was lyricism important to you or did it develop as you wrote?

I read tons of biographies -- I love them. But I'm always frustrated at the lack of detail! I'll keep stopping and googling pictures to find out what someone's hair looked like while they were going through a divorce or filming a movie.

If I'm reading about a dinner party, I'll think "Okay, but what was served?"

Or I'll be wondering if anyone got drunk, or who stayed the latest, or who accidentally took home someone else's coat. If I'm reading about a person, I want to see her interacting in a human, touchable way.

I love lyrical nonfiction -- like Norman Mailer's Marilyn, MFK Fisher's writing, Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet. I have a poetry background. So for me, Pain, Parties, Work is kind of like a poem too.

How did you blend the interviews, diary entries, and letters into the overall narrative?

That was probably the hardest part for me. I was so lucky to get such great interviews from the women who lived and worked with Sylvia that month. I didn't want to dilute their voices, so I tried to set them apart a little.

You have an MFA from George Mason. What was your preferred genre during your time there? How did a background in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction impact the way you approached the writing a biography?

I studied poetry. I don't even think I took a class in fiction or nonfiction while I was there. My poems are short fragmented little bursts -- that's how I think. That was definitely a challenge when I sat down to write a book. I was sitting there, counting the syllables in each sentence, trying out different words and phrases and all kinds of things the way you do when you write a poem.

Like many poets, I'm an image based writer -- it's a physical image that I always find the most compelling rather than a narrative event. Like Plath's starfish sunglasses, or the nylons she wore or the caviar she binged on. Or the scent of her shampoo. But I had a story to tell, and the real work was weaving the two together.

I was most moved by two types separateness in this book -- the vignettes in their little frames and the narrative breaks into litany. How did you choose what to place into boxes and lists like Vitals (p. 62), A Dictionary of Adolescence (p.64), and Boyfriends (p.161)?

The little boxes are full of material that (to me at least) really illuminates Sylvia Plath's character. When you think about what it's like to really get to know someone -- it happens by watching them interact or handle certain situations, or learning little stories from their past, or learning about what they love and what they dislike.

If I ask you, "Tell me about X," I don't want to hear, "X was born here, X went to school there, X worked here then there then moved to this city then that city."

I want to know what X reads, how she behaves at parties, what repels and attracts her. But these little fact-lets don't always slide easily into a narrative arc.

I'd love to hear more about the Dictionary of Adolescence chapter. What was the thought process behind the dictionary?

When I was combing through the Plath archives in the Lilly Library, I discovered the journals and scrapbooks she made as young teenager. It was fantastic stuff-- she was so witty and funny. I was really touched by those early (unpublished) journals, and I wanted to share some tidbits and highlights with my readers.

On one level there's this girl who's clearly a genius at fourteen, and on another there's incidents we can all relate to -- sneaking a cigarette on the school bus to impress your crush, that sort of thing. I also wanted to show that Sylvia thought like a poet years before she ever became one -- the way she loved the weird beauty of a honeycomb -- things like that.

In Pain, Parties, Work, the fashion and print media industries are just as vivid as twenty-year old Plath. Were you equally interested in the fashion and beauty industries or were they secondary?

I've been interested in the history of fashion since I was very young. My particular interest in mid century fashion and beauty grew as I wrote the book.

1950's makeup ads are so gorgeous-- I could stare at them for hours. My new book is set in the mid-fifties too.

Do you read fashion magazines?

Oh yes. I think my "Golden Age" of fashion magazines was the late 90s. I remember the first issue of Jane I ever bought-- Robin Wright was on the cover. I like that style photo-- a close up of a woman's face-- I think close up shots like that make celebrities look more interesting an relatable. I associate that with the 90's for some reason.

I miss the days when fashion magazines weren't so celebrity focused. In the fifties fashion magazines didn't really feature celebrities. And even better, they'd have stories by Truman Capote in them!

What further reading you recommend to someone just discovering Plath?

Obviously you can't go wrong with anything Sylvia Plath wrote. I love it all, but I love the journals the most. I always come back to them. And read The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm.

So, what next? I vote for any one of Elizabeth Winder's incredible recommendations. Cast your vote in the comments and keep reading forever and always.

Follow Elizabeth Winder on Twitter. You can follow @amberdeexterous too, but she's nowhere near as cool as @elizawinder.