The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is the compelling story of an enigmatic film director, told by the six people who loved her most. Here, author Anna North tell us about the actress who helped to shape the character of Sophie.
I wasn’t thinking of writing a new novel when I saw the movie Silent Light. It was the spring semester of my second and final year of graduate school — I was trying hard to finish what would become my first novel, America Pacifica, so I could turn it in and graduate. I was also trying to figure out what came next. I had a part-time journalism job that I thought might become full-time, but I had no guarantees, and I spent a lot of my time worrying about what would happen, personally and professionally, once school was out.
Silent Light is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. It’s mostly in Plattdeutsch, a German dialect spoken by some Mennonites. It tells the story of a father, Johan, who has an affair with a woman named Marianne. Johan’s wife, Esther, is played by Miriam Toews. Marianne is played by Maria Pankratz.
The movie is beautiful — a miracle happens near the end, and feels neither forced nor sentimental. But what stuck with me was Maria Pankratz’s face — wide brow, long nose, huge eyes like a hawk. I thought she was beautiful but not in the harmonious way that most actresses are beautiful. Something about her face was harsh, even when her character was being sweet and soft. She looked like no one else I’d ever seen.
I filed her face away for years. And then when I was coming back to Sophie Stark, a character I’d conceived of a while before but abandoned, that face came back to me.
I don’t know if having Marianne in my mind helped me write The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. She wasn’t the only person I thought of when I thought of Sophie’s looks — sometimes I thought of photos of Patti Smith in the seventies, wearing men’s shirts, with that cool gaze. And Sophie Stark was nothing like Marianne.
But I do know that after I saw Silent Light I never had trouble picturing Sophie again. And once I could picture her I felt I knew her — I knew how she was in the world, what she could and couldn’t do, what came easily to her and what wouldn’t come at all. Once I knew that I knew I could write her story, even if it took a while to figure out how to write it.
After I finished the book I learned more about Silent Light. I learned that Miriam Toews grew up in a Mennonite community, and that in addition to being an actress she is also an acclaimed author. One of her novels, Irma Voth, is about the filming of a movie in a Mennonite community in Mexico. I believe it was inspired by her experience working on the movie. Last year, after Sophie Stark was already finished and published in the United States, I read Irma Voth and I loved it.
I still haven’t re-watched Silent Light. Part of me thinks I already got what I needed from it and I don’t need to see it again. Part of me thinks Marianne’s face will disappoint me somehow, the way readers are sometimes disappointed when the actor playing their favorite character doesn’t look the way they imagined. Part of me feels like I’d rather have the movie the way it is, a memory that stayed dormant in my mind until it became the germ of something else.
That memory isn’t static, though. Bits of it are still coming alive. While I was writing this essay I remembered how much I loved the way Johan said Marianne’s name. “Marianne is the better woman for me,” he told someone (at least in my memory). I’d never made the connection before, but the first full-length movie Sophie Stark makes in the book is called Marianne.
The movie has nothing to do with the plot of Silent Light; it’s about a character named Allison and something that happened to her when she was a teenager. But it isn’t called Allison. And the reason for the name Marianne is never explained. In an earlier draft I included an explanation, but I took it out. I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. Maybe deep down I wanted the book to contain a tribute to Maria Pankratz and to her face that was so important to me. In any case, I’m glad it does.