NEW YORK — Writers are always the main attraction at The Paris Review’s Spring Revel, but their less-photogenic days at the desk took a backseat on Tuesday night.
Even after 30 years, Lydia Davis said she has her off days. In accepting this year’s Hadada Award at this year’s annual gala at Cipriani 42nd Street, the author admitted throwing out the written version of her speech was a big mistake, and one that left her “scrawling little notes in very small handwriting on a jiggling train” en route to New York. Replaying the scene, Davis told the crowd how her husband had said, “’You know, Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the train.’ And I told him, ‘Yes, that was probably easier.’”
David Szalay and Chris Bachelder, respective winners of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the Terry Southern Prize for Humor, also didn’t exactly sugarcoat their career choice. In fact, pretty much every table had a writer in the midst of a one-person battle with the printed page. For novelist Adam Wilson, that means having a safe to lock up his cell phone in his Brooklyn home office. And to crank up the productivity he has secured an upcoming residency in Finland not far from the Russian border.
Editor in chief and emcee Lorin Stein addressed writers including Sam Lipsyte, Mona Simpson, Leanne Shapton, Rachel Kushner, Louis Begley, John Guare, Erica Jong, Katie Roiphe, Jeffrey Eugenides, Sarah Plimpton and Jay McInerney. Several made sure to have a word with the Oscar-winning filmmaker and writer Errol Morris, who has his own share of projects in development. Before honoring Davis, his friend of 50 years and former Putney School classmate, Morris talked shop.
“If you ask me to name one of the things that excites me, it seems like the predictable thing to say, but among the things that excite is writing,” he said.
His working life guarantees that, having done documentaries about former Secretary of State Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War, as well as one about Donald Rumsfeld and “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” the former Green Beret accused of killing his wife and daughters in 1970. Long-form journalism, essays and books are also in the mix for Morris, who is now at work on a film about his photographer friend Elsa Dorfman. The Long Island native is also finishing up a yet-to-be-announced six-part series for Netflix about a murder. Having addressed several in his previous work, Morris wouldn’t say which, if any, will be the focus for the Netflix one, which he has been working on for some time.
Even though he has created more than 1,000 commercials for clients such as Apple, Nike, Adidas and Reebok, Morris said of upcoming artistic projects. “I’m eager to get to so many things. I’ve been writing books. I have a book coming out from the University of Chicago Press called ‘The Ashtray’ based on a series of essays for The New York Times, the first of which was published four years ago. There was an ashtray thrown at my head at the Institute for Advanced Study 40 years ago.” (Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, hurled it.)
As for whether Morris will settle the score with his new book he said, “Maybe, I would certainly like to.”
He’s also just signed a deal to write a book about murderers he’s known. Having “no idea” why criminals confide in him, Morris shrugged,”I’m a good listener? I don’t know. I don’t know what makes a good interviewer or a good listener. Maybe it’s being empathetic. Maybe it’s being empathetic in a place where no one’s ever been empathetic before. Who knows.”
He continued, “I just try to keep working. I always wanted to write or to make movies, so it’s kind of turned out that way.”
Morris doesn’t really rely on any well-worn advice, if he is ever unsure of what he’s doing. “I’ve benefited from a lot of really good female psychologists,” he said.
Asked if he hears from his subjects once the films are released, Morris said, “Usually very little.”
But that was not the case in 2003 after “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara” hit theaters. “McNamara, I remain friends with,” he said. “Rumsfeld, not so much,” referring to the 2013 documentary “The Unknown Known.”
Somehow the creative process doesn’t ever even out. “It’s all hard. It’s hard making art. It never gets easier,” he said. “I think I’m the kind of guy who figures it out as he goes along.”
One matter that was recently ironed out is Morris’ legal dispute with Joyce McKinney, who sued him for his portrayal of her being a rapist in the 2011 film “Tabloid.” A former beauty queen with an off-the-charts IQ, McKinney was arrested in 1977 for kidnapping her Mormon lover. “The judge dismissed the case with prejudice against her. I was surprised the thing went on as long as it did. To call her litigious is an understatement. I always liked the movie and I always thought the movie was, if anything, favorable of her. I mean there were so many ways she could have been portrayed. She didn’t like it. She pursued me for years and years and years. But I never really understood what the case was.”
Regarding her fixation, Morris said, “It’s her life. She also has a history of litigation. She’s sued airports, rent-a-car companies, cities. It’s a lifestyle choice…but it’s over with. There’s no celebration. I’m just glad that I don’t have to deal with her anymore.”