Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Bad Marie: A Talk With Marcy Dermansky

By Levi Asher on Monday, June 21, 2010 11:44 am

Bad Marie is a funny yet strangely haunting new novel by Marcy Dermansky. The hero of the book swipes the husband and young child of one of her only friends for a romp in Paris. She meets several movie stars, stays in very fancy hotels, and ends up flying back across the ocean to barge in on a family that hates her in one of the poorest sections of Mexico. Despite the fun Marie's having, the narrative dwells hilariously on everything she encounters that annoys her. Through it all, though, she never neglects to change a diaper that needs changing, and by the end of the book Marie seems to have even grown up a bit herself. I had a chance to ask the author of this enigmatic new hit novel a few questions. Off we go:

Levi: Bad Marie certainly is "bad", at least by any rational standard. She gets fired from her nanny job and then steals the baby, along with clothes, a husband or two and some credit cards. And yet, she is clearly a sympathetic and likable character. Are you trying to deliver a philosophical message about the relativity of good and evil, or what?

Marcy: I often worry what this book must say about me. I love Marie. I am surprised when I hear that there are readers who don't. Who find her unsympathetic. She has been referred to as "slothful" and a "sociopath" and I don't see that. The whole point of the title is that, of course, Marie is also good. She just does bad things. I think that's true about all people. There is also wholesale evil out there, like the BP oil executives. Marie helps herself to a kimono, a husband. A baby. She takes good care of that little girl.

Which means, I must have ideas about good and evil. When I write, however, I am not trying to deliver a philosophical message. If I started out with such grand notions, I don't think I would ever write a word. I try to tell a story. I try to entertain myself. And then, in the end, I am glad that it seems like I have something to say. I am full of opinions.

Levi: I'm trying to figure out the literary origin of this novel. During the early chapters I thought of Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair as a model for the character of Bad Marie, since Becky Sharp also transforms her jealousy of her wealthier and luckier friends into a barrage of inexcusable behavior. As I proceeded further, though, I noticed that the syntax and the sensibility of the narrative seemed to point to certain beloved children's books, such as Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest, as an influence. Am I onto something with either of these guesses?

Marcy: You credit me for being smart and I genuinely appreciate that. As far as literary references go, I am definitely giving a nod to Goodnight, Moon in the last scene of Bad Marie. Which is funny -- and relates to your next question -- because I was given that book after my daughter Nina was born. I read it to her before she goes to sleep, every night, one because I think it is wonderful, and also, because I haven't gotten around to buying any other books. She has a stack of German books from the German side of the family which I am supposed to read to her.

Really, the main influences on Bad Marie are films. I write movie reviews and for a while, I went on a real French film binge. In A Tout de Suite, Isild le Besco does a Marie: she runs off with her brand new boyfriend -- also a bank robber -- and finds herself traveling to places unknown. The film startled me; I could not believe that she left with him. Maybe I wrote my book, in part, to understand why. I also envision Isild le Besco in scenes from my book. She's the inspiration for Lili Gaudet, with her ferret-like eyes and long blond hair, screaming "Comprends? Comprends?"

There are other films, too. Lots of them. Marie's repetition of the name Benoit Doniel, Benoit Doniel, Benoit Doniel, pays direct homage to Francois Truffaut's Stolen Kisses.

Levi: I think that this is a novel about parenthood, even though Marie is not a parent. The one constant through the entire story is Marie's relationship with her diaper-wearing sidekick, Caitlin, who she clearly cherishes. The book also dwells on some very lifelike exchanges between Marie and Caitlin ("Hi Marie." "Hi Caitlin." etc. etc.). If you don't mind a personal angle to this question: I know that you only became a parent yourself in the past year. You must have been writing this book for more than a year. How did you become so attuned to parenthood before you became a parent?

Marcy: I wonder if writing this book was my way of telling myself I wanted a baby. I sort of think it has to be, but Bad Marie was finished before I became a parent. The final edits were approved two days before I gave birth. I was busy writing that scene in Nice where Marie eats escargots for the first time (a late addition to the novel) when I was supposed to be getting the nursery ready.

It felt like a risk, creating a character who was only two years old. I was more than halfway through the book when I realized I had to pay closer attention to my niece Emma. I borrowed an impassioned monologue delivered by Emma about a favorite cup with a cow on it. I thank her in the acknowledgments. I also think that I must communicate like a toddler. Hi Levi, hi Marcy. This comes from my own speech patterns.

Levi: Another thing I like about this novel is the pacing. It moves pretty quickly -- from friendship to enemy-hood, from New York to Paris to Mexico, from love to hate and back again. As a writer, did you have to work hard to make this fast paced narrative scan?

Marcy: Thanks. The pacing came naturally. I've talked to several writers who say that they hate plot. I don't understand that. Hating plot. I don't know how to write the next scene unless the next thing happens. For my next scene, I jump to the next place. That's the only way I know how to write.

I remember worrying about getting Caitlin's voice right, but maybe an even bigger fear was taking Marie to places I have never been. I spent one weekend in Paris, once, more than ten years ago. I have never been to Mexico, but I did spend a year in the Dominican Republic, and I used that experience to describe some of Marie's discomfort in Mexico, like the long drive in a crowded publico.

Levi: Finally: what impact do you want this very funny and unusual story to have on readers? That is, why did you choose to write this particular story?

Marcy: I am in love with the impact Bad Marie seems to have on you, actually. That you asked me about the relativity of good and evil; that you feel sympathy for Marie despite or maybe because of everything she does. This feels like the perfect reaction. It pleases me. Because I'm not sure why I wrote it. I started Bad Marie not long after the publication of Twins and somewhere in the writing of it, I got stuck, abandoned the book. Two years later, I came back to the story and I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to go to Paris. I knew the perfect ending, what would happen to Marie. It was not a story I wanted to let go.

7 Responses to "Bad Marie: A Talk With Marcy Dermansky"

by Mayowa on

This sounds like a great read and I got some great foreign film recommendations too. Marcy automatically gets bonus points for being a fan of plotting in literary novels.

Thanks for the great interview.

by Shelley on

Sorry. Can't like a character who hurts a kid.

How does Marie hurt Caitlin, Shelley? Have you read the book? Or is this uninformed moralizing on your part?

EZduzzit, Ed,

I'd like to suggest that perhaps if you were to read Shelley's work, which is extraordinary, and a rare privilege, you might have more of an understanding of her comment.

by Shelley on

Hey, I really enjoy Levi Asher's writing, especially that Gatsby piece. And of course an interesting and valuable novel could be written exploring a character who would take a baby from its mom.

But, for me, "likable"? Nope. Crossed a line. Just my personal opinion, nothing more.

Madelyn, as we say in Texas, you are somethin' else! Thanks.

by Levi Asher on

It's worth pointing out, though, that while several adults get their feelings or their bank accounts hurt in Marcy Dermansky's novel, nothing at all bad happens to the child. The importance of the adult-child relationship is really, as I mentioned above, one of the key points of the book.

by tolmsted on

I just finished reading Bad Marie (is it alright to say that my review will be up tomorrow?) and I just want to add my reassurance that nothing bad happens to Caitlin. And while I, personally, never expected anyone to find Marie a likable character - she is indeed sympathetic. She's actually hard to dislike, probably because she is very childlike herself.

What I found so interesting about this novel is that Marcy Dermansky has created a character who really is unique. Marie is unlike anyone I've come across in literature (though, Levi, I agree your Becky Sharp comparison is a good one). Everyone has been talking about Lisbeth Salander and how she is so original - but I could name 10 other characters off the top of my head just like her. Marie is the real deal. And I think part of that is because she inspires such mixed feelings.

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