For her latest novel, Francine Prose found inspiration in a 1932 Brassaï photo of a lesbian couple in Paris, specifically the glum-looking, manly-dressed woman. The award-winning writer reads from “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” at noon tomorrow at the Boston Athenaeum and then at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. Both events are free.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
PROSE: I just finished the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” It’s extraordinary. I’m kind of bereft. Now I’m reading Barbara Pym’s novels, which I first read 10 or 15 years ago. They are about British women who are the kind to decorate local churches with flowers, but the books are very funny, ironic, very well observed. I’m reading them one after the other, like eating candy.
BOOKS: Did you need something like that after “My Struggle”?
PROSE: That may be. Knausgaard is doing something that no one has exactly done, essentially writing down everything that has ever happened to him. The second volume, which so far is my favorite, is about his marriage and raising his kids. I’ve never read a book by a male about changing diapers. It’s so beautifully written and mixed with lyrical, metaphysical speculations about life.
‘I’m really a sentence freak. If it’s not well written I’m out of there. I’m not going to hang in just for the plot.’
BOOKS: What kind of fiction are you drawn to.
PROSE: I’m really a sentence freak. If it’s not well written I’m out of there. I’m not going to hang in just for the plot. On the other hand I read British murder mysteries, and those I read to find out whodunit. I like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Donna Leon, Jo Nesbo. I went through a huge phase, like everyone, of reading Agatha Christie. Then I could never remember which one I had read so I had to quit. There’s this marvelous Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. You kind of find out who did it 50 pages into the novel, and it doesn’t matter. Patricia Highsmith is such a nervy writer. I learned a lot from reading her books about writing evil characters.
BOOKS: How do you feel about difficult endings?
PROSE: I like inconclusive endings a lot. The first YA novel I wrote apparently had an inconclusive ending because I keep getting letters from eighth-graders saying they loved my book until the end. It never occurred to me when I was in eighth grade to write a complaining letter to an author. Apparently it’s OK now.
BOOKS: How do you pick your books?
PROSE: Somebody tells me I have to read it, and I do. Or it comes in the house, and I read the first page and then can’t put it down. My husband is a good reader. He’s got a knack of picking great ones. He found “My Struggle.” He also found “Parallel Stories” by Péter Nádas, a Hungarian writer. My husband is a painter, and painters can have a bad rep for not being readers, but he’s drawn to these big, complicated foreign books in translation.
BOOKS: What did you read as research for your new novel?
PROSE: I read Brassaï’s letters home to his parents in Hungary. They are touching, often barely disguised boasts about his career and barely disguised requests for money. I also read “And the Show Went On” by Alan Riding. It’s about what artists and entertainers did as far as resistance or collaboration in France during the Nazi occupation.
BOOKS: Do you read about art?
PROSE: Yes. There’s an amazing book about Lucian Freud, “Man with a Blue Scarf,” by the British art critic Martin Gayford. Gayford had his portrait painted by Freud and wrote down what the artist said during the sittings. It’s so fascinating to be inside Freud’s mind.
BOOKS: What will you read next?
PROSE: For about a month I’ve been meaning to get to Rosemary Mahoney’s “For the Benefit of Those Who See” about living with blindness. I’m dying to read it but just the idea of reading something for pure pleasure, not because I have to, seems so exotic.