A Conversation with ‘The Correspondence Artist’

Written by Paulette Safdieh on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Greenwich Village resident Barbara Browning has her hands
full. The NYU professor of Performance Studies is a poet, dancer,
choreographer, academic writer and, most recently, a novelist. Her first work
of fiction, The Correspondence Artist was
just released last week, and the novel chronicles the narrator’s love affair
with an unnamed, celebrity paramour mainly through e-mail correspondence with
four separate, completely fictional characters—a 68-year-old Israeli novelist
and Nobel Prize winner, a legendary Basque Separatist, a Vietnamese video
artist and a dreadlocked, Malian rock star.

Browning took time to talk with New York Press about her crazy creative process behind the book and
her busy life. —  

How does it feel to have your first published novel?

It feels great. Previously, I’ve done a lot of academic
writing and poetry. I started writing fiction about six years ago and so that
took a while for me to figure out. It’s been a continuous experiment with style
and narrative.

What was your process for writing The Correspondence

I wrote the first draft in one month, in May 2008. I’m
neurotic; I just sort of sit in the chair and do it. I made a contract with
myself to write eight pages a day and I did.

The Correspondence Artist chronicles the narrator Vivian’s relationship
with a forbidden lover via four separate characters. How did you choose them?

I did the math and figured out a structural pattern to
repeat itself. I chose certain personality traits and developed characters from
them. Vivian is 45 years old; one lover is 22 years older, one 22 years
younger, one 10 years older, and one 10 years younger. Culturally, I wanted
them to be far flung from each other. I wanted one character whose politics
were extreme, one with lyricism. The process of research was also a lot of fun
for me—I didn’t know much about Basque Separatism before.

Vivian is a writer living in Downtown Manhattan with her
teenage son. Is her story based on your own life?

Vivian resembles me in a million ways and her son definitely
resembles my son. I’m an academic who does cultural criticism and she’s a
journalist, so she’s very close to me. My own feeling about writing is that
it’s always autobiographical and never autobiographical even when you think it

What drew you to live in New York?

I’ve been here since I started commuting to graduate school
(at Yale) 25 years ago. I love New York for all kinds of obvious reasons and I feel
really, really lucky to live here. If you’re interested in writing about people
from different places with different experiences, it’s the best place to be.

What are some of your favorite things to do in New York?

I teach in the department of Performance Studies at NYU. A lot
of my students and colleagues are performing artists so I enjoy a lot of downtown
experimental theater and music. Brooklyn also has an interesting music and
theater scene. The teachers joke if I go past 14th Street, I get a nosebleed.

Do you have a sophomore novel in the works?

I just finished a new novel, a murder mystery, to be
published next year. I’m a dancer (teaching dance ethnography at NYU) and the
novel is based on the choreography that I put up on Youtube. The kind of dance
I do is conceptual and idea-driven. I’ve taken class at Merce Cunningham, the
dance there is very fixated on structure.

What are you reading now?

I’ve been so preoccupied with my own projects that I haven’t
been reading as much, but I am Elijah Thrush by James Purdy is a really beautiful book.