2paragraphs: The jacket copy tells us that The Beautiful American is, among other things, a novel of “freedom and frailty.” Are these crucial elements of any great story?
Jeanne Mackin: Yes, freedom and frailty must be the basis of characters and plotting. Without freedom, i.e. free will, a character can’t make choices, and stories are about the choices we make. The closest thing I can think of to a novel based on a character without free will is Dostoevsky’s The Double, but even that character ends up making important choices, though they are responsive rather than active. In my novel, The Beautiful American, Lee Miller uses freedom as way to compensate for two situations that might have controlled her and limited her: being raped as a child, and being a woman in a profession dominated by men.
And without frailty, we can’t make mistakes, and who wants to read about a character who is never wrong or never weak? I think the best fictional characters, the most memorable ones, are those with flaws that both endear them to us and irritate the hell out of us. Jean Rhys‘s female characters, for instance: I want to shake them out of their pessimistic lethargy. Instead, I constantly reread her works, I’m so fascinated by those women. A character without frailty and flaws would have to be the most boring thing on the page. As for Lee, well. Her flaws are the obverse of her freedom, in real life and in the novel. One couldn’t exist without the other.
—Jeanne Mackin‘s new novel, The Beautiful American, is about Lee Miller, model and mistress of Man Ray. Mackin is also the author of The Sweet By and By, Dreams Of Empire, The Queen’s War, and The Frenchwoman.