The acclaimed fiction writer and former film director discusses her new novel, Mary Coin—based on one of history’s most iconic photographs—and whom she’d cast in the movie version.
Zola: They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” you decided it was worth tens of thousands. What about the photo compelled you to base a novel around it?
Marisa Silver: A few years ago, I went to an exhibit focusing on photography of the West at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Lange’s famous photo was part of the exhibition. I had seen the image many, many times and was always drawn to the woman’s face, which seems to me such a mixture of strength and resignation, as well as to the curious composition of the photograph—the way the children face away from the camera.
But what struck me seeing the photo this time was not the image itself but what was written on the curatorial label next to the image. The description noted that the woman in the photograph did not reveal who she was until she was sick and dying, when she appealed for help from the public in order to pay for her medical care. This fact struck me powerfully. Here was a woman who was the subject of arguably one of the most famous images of the twentieth century and who, for the better part of her life, did not lay claim to this legacy.
I was immediately filled with questions. Did she choose her anonymity or was it chosen for her? Was there something about the taking of the photograph, and its subsequent ubiquity, that troubled her? And what must it have meant to her, nearing the end of her life and in a time of physical duress, to have made the decision to finally reveal herself? For me, every story or novel starts with a mystery, and this photograph, coupled with the information that accompanied it, was a mystery I wanted to unravel.
Zola: Did you get a chance to see the original negatives of the photo? How much other research did you do? When writing fiction based on real people, do you find knowing too much about them is a bad thing—an impediment to your imagination?
MS: I never saw the original negative of the photograph, but I did an enormous amount of research both about the era covered in the book—the early part of the last century and the Depression years—and about the real people on whom my characters are based. There is a lot of information about the life of Dorothea Lange in biographies, scholarly articles, and interviews. There are also some wonderful filmed interviews of her that I watched that really enriched my sense of her. I found much about her life both fascinating and resonant—her childhood illness, how she parented, her decision to stop photographing society women and focus on the world around her—and I used many of these details to form a kind of framework for the life of Vera Dare.
There is less information to be found about Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the photograph, but what I did learn—that she was born in eastern Oklahoma, that she was either part or full-blooded Cherokee, that she moved to California and worked first in the timber mills and then as a migrant farmer, that she had many children—was useful in constructing the character of Mary Coin. Once I began to imagine Vera and Mary’s interiority, though—their feelings and thoughts—they became a pure inventions for me.
One of the central ideas that I deal with in Mary Coin is how history is made, how it is preserved, and how it is interpreted. The photograph taken by Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” was rooted in time and place. Then the photo began its journey. It became an inadvertent icon and made its way down through the generations in all sorts of forms—as an exhibit in museums, as a document in textbooks, even as a U.S. postage stamp. The life of the original object was interpreted and reinterpreted, and, as a piece of history, it adopted meanings and values that were different from those in play at the moment of its making. I based the characters of Mary Coin and Vera Dare on Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, actual people in history. But I was less interested in trying to document the real and verifiable facts of those women’s lives than I was in exploring the nature of interpretation. The characters might have started out as Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, but as I wrote them and invented their interiorities and brought my own subjectivity to the fictionalization, they became Vera Dare and Mary Coin.
A novel cannot be simply a compendium of a writer’s research. In order for fiction to work, a writer has to find that strange in-between place that “feels” real but that isn’t strictly real. Then the story and the emotion take flight and, paradoxically, a reader can have the experience of feeling as though characters and situations are real. Research has to serve the invention, not the other way around.
Zola: Before writing, you were a successful director of feature films, including one of Keanu Reeves’s first movies. What prompted the career change? Is there anything you miss about film work?
MS: I loved making films, but the more I worked on them, the more I felt that the sorts of stories I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell them—with close attention to character and detail, to the very smallest interactions between people, to insignificant pieces of behavior that actually tell the whole subterranean story of a life—well, that isn’t, by and large, the stuff of films. It turned out that writing fiction was the form of expression that matched the things I was most fascinated by.
I don’t miss making films at all. Filmmaking is hugely collaborative, and I think, finally, I am a solo player. I like sitting in my room at my desk making up stories. I like not talking to anyone practically all day long. I like the privacy and the way I have only to rely on myself to sort through the challenges of making a story work.
Zola: In the movie version of Mary Coin, who would you cast in the lead roles?
MS: The movie of Mary Coin. Hmm… How about Jessica Chastain as Mary Coin and Mia Wasikowska as Vera Dare? That works for me!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.