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Interview: November 20, 2009

November 20, 2009

PAST IMPERFECT opens with its anonymous narrator, a member of the minor aristocracy, being contacted by Damian Baxter, an ex-friend from Cambridge whom he hasn’t seen in decades. Thus begins a journey that contrasts the naïve debutantes and would-be debonair beaux of the London Season of 1968 with their surprisingly altered (or not) selves 40 years later.

Reached by phone in Chicago on Halloween morning, Julian Fellowes observed to freelance writer Bella Stander that “Lake Michigan is like an enchanted sea around a fairy castle.” Later that day, From Time to Time, which he produced, directed and wrote, was screened at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Starring Maggie Smith, the picture went on to win the Best of Fest Award and two other prizes. What gave you the idea for PAST IMPERFECT?

Julian Fellowes: I was asked to do a TV program about the end of Presentation [in which debutantes appeared before the Queen] in 1958. When I watched the show, I realized that the people who made it didn’t know anything about the Season. They thought it had ended in 1958, when it had over 30 years left to run. I had the odd sensation of being part of something that everyone had forgotten about. I had been looking for a device that would allow me to write about time, and the structure of the Season allowed me to go back and forth between 1968 and 2008. As a kind of jeu d'esprit, I decided to use one of each of the elements that made up the Season --- tea party, drinks party, ball, Ascot, etc. --- in the book.

BRC: I was hooked from the very first sentence: “London is a haunted city for me now and I am the ghost that haunts it.” I feel that way whenever I return to New York. It’s like a dream, in which you know the city but it’s also strange.

JF: It’s that curious sensation of walking past a front door and knowing it, but it no longer welcomes you. You go past a restaurant that you used to go to all the time, but you can’t remember when you stopped going, or why. Time is more obvious in its strangeness when you are in the same location.

BRC: Why is the narrator nameless?

JF: It’s a literary convention, and not just in Proust. There is a bit of confusion as to whether the narrator is me. By making him nameless, I don’t make him into someone who’s not me. He isn’t me. But he isn’t not me, either.

BRC: You write, “When I was young I thought I had a marvelous instinct to tell good from bad, fine from shoddy, sacred from profane. Damian Baxter, by contrast, was an expert at assessment. He knew at once that I was a patsy.” Were you like the narrator?

JF: I think I vastly overestimated my powers of assessment and knowledge of what life was about. The older you get, the more bewildered you become. When you’re young, you need that certitude to get through life. If you had a real idea of how poor your judgment was, you’d be under the sofa until it was all over. We have God to thank for the braggadocio to get us through those years.

BRC: I found photos online that were reminiscent of scenes in the book, such as one of Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff at her 1968 Regency ball at the Dorchester Hotel. I thought you’d made up all the situations.

JF: Every party in the book is based on one that really took place. The Regency ball given for Olga Romanoff was the basis for Dagmar's ball in the book. But Dagmar is modeled on a different girl of the same year, and the ball didn’t involve someone getting into a fight and knocking over a breakfast table. There was a photograph of me in Tatler dressed as a Hussar, as the narrator is, talking to a girl. [See similar photo.]

In 1972 I went to a party in Estoril, Portugal, that gathered together various friends from the Season, as happens in the novel. After it came out, some of them said to me, “I didn’t know all that was going on there!” It wasn’t, of course. But when people find something that’s partly true, they think it’s all true. As a writer, I feel that if you get the details correct, there is a smell of authenticity.

BRC: There’s another photo that I recognized with surprise, because it was almost identical to a scene with your character Joanna. The caption reads: “18th June 1968: Race-goers in the enclosure on the first day of the Royal Ascot race meeting. In the centre is showjumper and debutante Jayne Harries, wearing a mini-dress.” And a Times story the next day had this: “One Mayfair debutante, Miss Jayne Harries, was turned away for wearing white crepe culottes. She ducked into her father’s car, changed into a supershort miniskirt with two sets of false eyelashes and cosmetic freckles --- and was allowed in.”

JF: The incident with Joanna removing her trousers in the Ascot enclosure is based on Jayne Harries's doing exactly the same thing. The Times got it wrong: Jayne left on the top but took off the trousers [in the car]. Joanna takes them off at the gate, which I suppose I felt was a little bit better.

BRC: When I was eight, I went to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's. I'll never forget the cases full of little models of medieval people being tortured, as you describe, or the cut-off heads of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and Robespierre, with blood streaming out their noses. Did you actually attend a party there?

JF: At the end of the Sixties, my late mother was Chairman --- you didn't have “Chairwoman” in those days --- of the committee for an annual ball to raise funds for a prominent charity. The ball I remember most was thrown at Madame Tussaud's, and the discotheque was in the Chamber of Horrors. This is the ball described in the book, as far as its workings and layout are concerned. Although the ball where we were innocently given hashish-laced brownies [which in the book creates mayhem at the waxworks] was somewhere on the King's Road, at the coming-out party of an American girl who was doing the London Season.

BRC: I'm amazed at the highly detailed descriptions you give of the 1968 parties, people's clothing, the former facilities at Ascot, etc. Did you look at old photos and news stories, rely on memory, or what?

JF: There are lots of photographs of those parties in various yellowing magazines --- many with me in them --- but I rely on memory. Once you start to recall a particular evening, or even a time in your life, more and more detail floats back to the top of your brain. Until finally you can remember where you parked the car and whom you first talked to when you walked into the ballroom. I suppose this is the basis of much psychoanalysis: that you begin slowly and then the recall gathers momentum.

BRC: I kept hearing the Kinks' Dedicated Follower of Fashion in my head when I was reading descriptions of an outlandishly dressed designer, and A Well Respected Man in several other passages. Did you listen to any Sixties music while you were writing, or as you were preparing to write?

JF: I never listen to music when I work, as I find it incredibly distracting. But of course I do remember the songs of that time, and refer to quite a few of them in the book: Flowers in the Rain, Simple Simon Says, and so on. For me, the Kinks were part of the Rolling Stones, Animals, Amen Corner --- the other 1960s. I tended to favor the more melodic, retrograde singers, whose work was swept away and forgotten as the Sixties Revolution took root.

BRC: You write that “the primal job of an aristocrat is to stay on top. Bourbon or Bonaparte, king or president, the real aristocrat understands who is in power and who should be bowed to, next.”

JF: At the end of the war, aristocrats knew the old way was gone, but couldn’t see there was a new way of living. Often in these families there was the thought of après moi le déluge. In those days you’d go into old houses where the upstairs were empty, the stables were empty, the kitchen blocked off and a horrid kitchen made in the anteroom. The younger ones figured out how to survive: they got good financial advice and didn’t sell off all the paintings in the drawing room. Some even became celebrated figures in the new world. The Earl of Lichfield [a celebrity photographer] was very much part of the new way of doing things. He was very modern.

BRC: The narrator’s father sums it all up: “You’ve been made to go back into your own past and to compare it with your present. You’ve been forced to remember what you wanted from life at nineteen, forty years ago, before you knew what life was. Indeed you must face what you all wanted from life, all those silly, over-made-up girls and the vain self-important young men you ran around with then. Now, thanks to Damian, you must bear witness to what happened to them. To what happened to you.”

JF: I guess that is the book. The father is a kind of deus ex machina. He has a hold on the narrator more than anyone else, and is far more important than the girlfriend [who gets dumped].


JF: As the father says, everyone has to come to terms with life. There’s a melancholic side of me that has a voice in this book. The best we can hope for in life is a reasonable compromise. The adolescent dream of perfect happiness has ruined more lives than it’s improved. At the end of SNOBS, the narrator asks Edith if she’s happy, and she says she’s “happy enough.” There’s a cynical acceptance in my philosophy, which is that there are two things you have to do in life: one is to know yourself; two is to grow up. People aren’t encouraged by society to do the second, which encourages them to stay in a state of paralyzed adolescence.

BRC: You say PAST IMPERFECT isn’t a social commentary, but you dissect the British upper class even more than you did in SNOBS. Was there any blowback?

JF: To a certain extent they’ve got used to me now. I think this book is fairer to them in a way, because they’re not trivialized. And there’s a desire to present a true period truthfully. I’m reasonably sympathetic, but I try not to regret its passing. PAST IMPERFECT has done better in England than SNOBS, which surprised me, because I thought it was harder and less immediately accessible. But it seems to have garnered a following; so people can't find it too alienating.

BRC: I think it goes deeper than SNOBS.

JF: SNOBS was about someone trying to get into a group that doesn’t want them, then finding it wasn’t worth the effort. This book is about growing older and looking back at a world as it once was. Whether you’re familiar with that actual world doesn’t matter. There’s an emotional center that’s common to everyone.

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