What's in a Page: The Flight Portfolio author Julie Orringer writes best at other people's desks
Julie Orringer has written several New York Times best-selling novels, won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and taught several students who went on to become NYT best-sellers themselves (Yaa Gyasi among them). But one of the most impressive items on her résumé rarely makes it into her bios: She's written at the desk of Sylvia Plath herself.
In honor of the paperback release of her latest novel, The Flight Portfolio — a highly stimulating tale about a group of New Yorkers who set out to rescue artists and writers from Nazi Germany — Orringer answered EW's burning literary questions, revealing how she gets it all done and the highly enviable list of places in which she's worked on her books. Read her insights below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
JULIE ORRINGER: Starting when I was about 3 years old, my dad and I used to make these tiny books from index cards, stapled at the sides and illustrated in marker. About 20 of those books persist in a Ziploc bag in my daughter's room in Brooklyn. The best one involves a long, exhausting bowling party, at the end of which the little girl carries her very tall father up the stairs to the family's apartment.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, about a reform school in Florida where young Black men are regularly subjected to brutal whippings and other abuses, delivered at the school administrators' whims, with no mercy. The school is based on a real place, the Dozier School, which existed for more than a century before a series of investigations shut it down. I cried as I was teaching this book to my graduate students at NYU — teaching them how and why we have to learn to write about horrific acts perpetrated by human beings against one another, and particularly by white Americans against Black Americans.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
I'll take this opportunity to kvell about my former Iowa [Writers' Workshop] student Yaa Gyasi, whose new book, Transcendent Kingdom, will be out in September. The novel is about a young Ghanaian American neuroscientist whose brother died of a drug overdose and whose mother suffers from paralyzing depression. The neuroscientist, trying to understand the scientific underpinnings of her family's addiction and grief, does research on pleasure pathways in mice; I love books that hold the lens of science up to the grand mess of human emotion.
Where do you write?
This summer I'm writing at a writer friend's desk in Blue Hill, Maine. A few years ago I finished a draft of The Flight Portfolio at another friend's desk. I feel like I always do my best work at other people's desks. At the MacDowell Colony I wrote at a desk used by Richard Yates and Susan Minot. At Yaddo I wrote at Sylvia Plath's desk. I don't have a desk of my own at home. Before the pandemic, I worked at the Brooklyn Writers Space, 10 minutes' walk from my house, where there are about 30 desks in carrels; you get a different one each time. The Writers' Space has been closed for months but plans to reopen soon; can we still share desks in a pandemic? I have to hope so.
Which book made you a forever reader?
At the age of 4 or so, I remember falling down laughing at Wanda Gág's What's Gone Is Gone, in which a husband fails miserably when he takes on his wife's usual work. But I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, including the contents of my parents' bookshelves.
The book that unlocked the world of adult literary fiction for me was probably Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which I read when I was maybe 12. I'll never forget Fritz Eichenberg's haunting woodcut illustrations in my 1943 Random House edition: the child Jane in a plain black dress and pinafore, scrutinized by towering adults; Mrs. Rochester looming over Jane in the night; Mr. Rochester clasping Jane against him under dark wind-wrung trees.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Not a snack, because snacks aren't allowed at the Writers' Space desks, but a drink: LaCroix. Those tiny bubbles!
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I don't really yearn to go back and change those earlier books — more to write new and different ones now. But I wish I could have found a place for Varian Fry's dog, a standard poodle named Clovis, in The Flight Portfolio. Clovis was a nuisance — never fully house-trained, and prone to jumping up on people — but I think having that dog kept Varian sane through his 13-month struggle to save writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo.
What is your favorite part of The Flight Portfolio?
Maybe the dinner party where Varian and friends show up to find all the guests — including Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Victor Serge, and André Breton — starkly and gloriously naked. In the novel, Breton plans the dinner party as a tool of revenge upon Varian's rival, Jay Allen. I relished writing a scene of naked revenge. I wrote it at the Writers' Space, which has a strict rule of silence, and I fear I might have tee-heed audibly as I worked.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
I found it hard to write Marc Chagall, who appears in the novel's first scene and many times thereafter. What unlocked his character — apart from Jackie Wullschlager's marvelous biography — was taking a virtual tour of Gordes, the town in the south of France where he lived for a time during the war. As I imagined him walking those stone-paved streets and seeing the view from that hill and coming around that particular corner, a window opened into his mind.
Write a movie poster tag line for The Flight Portfolio:
The Flight Portfolio: What is human life really worth? (Okay, this is more or less the tagline that runs on the cover of the Hungarian translation of the book. But I think it's accurate.)