Sarah Jessica Parker on her new book imprint, and why she's not in it for the TV rights
Sarah Jessica Parker doesn’t exactly need another job. Currently the star and executive producer of HBO’s Divorce, which recently wrapped its second season, the 52-year-old actress and advocate (and to millions, eternally tutued icon) already has a stacked dance card between her production company, fragrance and footwear lines, long-running UNICEF ambassadorship, and three young children at home with Matthew Broderick, her husband of more than 20 years.
But a lifelong passion for reading recently led her to her first professional foray into the literary world — both as honorary chair of the American Library Association, for which she chose this month’s official Book Club pick (Jonathan Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle) and with her own imprint at vaunted publishing house Hogarth, launching in June with the release of Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us.
Parker spoke to EW about her abiding love for librarians, her hopes for her imprint, and how being photographed with a copy of Gone Girl helped lead to a new side career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve talked about how much you enjoy public libraries, but with such a recognizable face, can you really walk into one in New York City and not be bothered?
SARAH JESSICA PARKER: I was just there yesterday! [Laughs] Sure was. I went in to get a book for one my daughters, who is deeply, deeply committed to the Harry Potter series. So I was trying to check out Book Three for her and two other books for myself, and we had time, so I just sat down with a bunch of other readers and read scripts for half an hour. And I do it all the time.
I always talk about reading on the subway because it’s just a perfect place to read, I sort of pretend that wi-fi doesn’t exist and you can’t use a phone and I just find it enormously relaxing. But more people recognize me on the subway and that takes some effort on my part, you know, to be alone in ways that are gracious. But libraries, people have their heads down. Nobody was interested in me, everybody was far more interested in what they were reading. [Laughs]
It’s a wonderful place, I think, for everybody to disappear. And also because it insists on boundaries. There’s almost no place I can think of, with the exception of a church or a temple or a mosque, that demands that kind of solitiude and quiet and respect for others. And librarians are so great, I just think they are a rare and wonderful bird.
What led you to make the leap from book fandom, which is clearly a huge part of your life but also a private one, to actually becoming an active part of the publishing world?
It sort of happened just by virtue of authentic love for the experience — my own experience as a reader and the great necessity in my life for books. I was at a luncheon and [Hogarth Publisher] Molly Stern was there with [Gone Girl author and former EW television critic] Gillian Flynn.
I had been photographed walking around the street with Gillian’s last book when it came out so they came by to say hello, and somehow Molly mentioned a book that I had coincidentally been looking for that had yet to be published in the States, Herman Koch’s The Dinner. I had been reading about it on different blogs and [with] weird little pockets of people who talk about books, and I had been calling bookstores asking for advance copies and trying every kind of clever ploy to get it. She mentioned that she was publishing it, and the next day a parcel of books arrived.
Among them was a book that was three or four months away from publishing called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra’s debut novel, and for some reason I actually read that first, even though I’d been waiting so desperately for The Dinner. I didn’t know Molly well, but about halfway through the book I emailed her and I said, “I don’t know what I can do and I’d never done this before, and I’m not pretending that I have any great influence, but I think this may be one of the most important new American novels and maybe the greatest new discovery of an American voice that I’ve come across in years, and if I can be helpful in any way at all in talking about this book, I’ll do any interview, whatever you want! I just want to get this book in people’s hands.”
It’s an important book for a variety of reasons, but just saying “It’s about a small handful of people in a village in Chechnya in a constant state of conflict” might not sell it. [Laughs] And from that grew this book club. Molly said, “Let’s start a club where we read yet-to-be published books so we can support emerging writers, established writers, fringey writers, culty writers.”
But in particular I was interested in the literary fiction space, which I always feel is a smaller space, you know? And in doing so, also support our independent booksellers and our libraries. And we did that for two years in a really committed way, a really wonderfully, interesting, diverse group of people from all sorts of walks of life. And about two years in they came to me and said, “Would you be interested in an imprint?”
At first I really demurred. I said, “No, I don’t have any business, and I have too much respect for people who’ve been publishing their whole adult lives,” and they really talked me into it. They said, “You will be surrounded by experienced people, people you value and trust who are interested in the same kind of storytelling that you are.”
I didn’t want to be a line editor, I don’t have that experience. I also didn’t want any writer to think I was going to inject myself where I shouldn’t be. As an actor, you know, I’m sensitive to where your notes and adjustments come from, what the provenance is. So I started working with [Constellation and Gone Girl editor] Lindsay Sagnette, who I have enormous admiration for.
I also liked that I would be able to really focus on global voices and stories of places and people whose lives are unfamiliar, fresh perspectives, and Hogarth really had a long and storied history doing that.
How did you come to Jonathan Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle for the ALA’s book club? Were you a fan of his last novel, Dear American Airlines?
I had not read it, no. But we were all in a minivan last June at the ALA convention, discussing books as usual, and Lindsay was talking about a bunch of stuff that everyone was excited about. She started describing Anatomy of a Miracle and I just was really intrigued by how interesting he was, what a surprising person.
When we got back to New York I emailed her and was like, “Can you get a copy of that book?” I just thought it was a great, great read and I loved being introduced to him as a writer.
With projects like The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies, all these book-to-TV adaptations just blowing up this past year, does your mind jump to that at all when you’re reading, to possibly optioning a story for a project of your own?
No, it’s a completely pure read for me — I haven’t considered any vertical business at all. I think the only difference is that I’m reading with a different eye. You know, before I began this endeavor I wasn’t asking questions like, “Is this a story that feels original and important and authentic? Is it talking about a a part of the world that we haven’t discovered enough about or people that need more of a spotlight on their lives, their culture, their background, their religion, their history?”
But the experience is not mercenary, there’s nothing in it except, “Can I be good for this book, will this writer allow me the opportunity to shepherd them through this process?” The only times I’ve entered into those conversations [about book adaptations] are unrelated to anything I’ve read as a submission.
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut, A Place for Us, will be your first official release in June. In a dream world, where would your imprint go from here? For you and for your authors, how would you like to grow it? Or maybe not grow it.
In a perfect world it stays the same, in terms of my intentions. Having an opportunity to support Fatima, to help introduce her story to readers, that’s all I really want. I love that we have the humble goal of perhaps four books a year. I think literary fiction holds a very special place inside publishing because there are books that need caretaking, they need attention and support because they’re not always stories that are obvious to readers, but I think they are deeply important and compelling.
And my experience has been that. Introduced to an Anthony Marra for instance, [readers] immediately connect with the writer even if the story is not familiar, and there is a deep understanding about who they are and their life and the lives of the people in the story. I think my goal is to help share these stories, whether it’s an Indian-American Muslim family like Fatima’s or some of our other acquisitions that are about people and places that are very different from our lives here in New York and many lives in this country.
I would imagine some people’s estimation of me might be that I’m untested, that I don’t naturally belong in this world, I haven’t earned a place in it. But I think the more people know the titles and the writers and the stories that we’re publishing, the more my intentions will be clear, and perhaps I’ll have opportunities that I might have missed this year as I’ve been in bid for books and lost them, for reasons that I really understand.
So my hope is that I just get to continue to do the same thing — which is find great books that move me, that cultivate empathy and curiosity, and let us get to know strangers better.