Bibliophile isn’t the first description you might attach to Sarah Jessica Parker. “SJP” is better known for witty comic acting — gamely leading Sex and the City as the show wrapped its arms and legs around New York’s most nightmarish bachelors. She’s also a power producer, most recently on HBO’s fiftysomething break-up comedy Divorce, in which she stars. And there’s a sideline in stilettos, with SJP shoe stores in Manhattan, Dubai and Las Vegas.
To the teetering heights of her heels, Parker is introducing what may seem to some like a cultural antithesis: a stack of books. She already shares her personal reading list via her website — and she also has “SJP Picks” for the American Library Association’s Book Club Central. But this month she launches a new fiction imprint for US/UK publisher Hogarth, vying for manuscripts alongside sharper-elbowed editors.
Dressed in pencil-grey clothes, sitting in a Bloomsbury hotel library, Parker says: “I know that I’m not in a position to compete with other more experienced imprints that have big dollars, imprints that have certain reputations.” With a more watchful, attentive charm than her impulsive SATC alter ego Carrie Bradshaw, Parker describes a publishing-world economy in which decisions have to be made quickly, unlike the film and television industry, where “there isn’t quite the same clock”.
Everybody thought I wanted chick lit. I was like, ‘No, no, no, I never read that as a reader.’ Chick lit! I can’t stand saying it, I hate saying it, I think it’s so crazy
How, then, does she find the time? “Triage,” she says. “If a manuscript comes in on a Sunday and it’s from Molly Stern [publisher at Hogarth] and she’s saying, ‘I think we all need to read this’, then the scripts I’m reading to try to get our writers’ room up for Divorce season three, that goes, it drops for a minute.” Flights and subway rides are further page-turning opportunities: “I just bought WiFi on an airplane, which I’ve never done in my life because I’m so frugal. But I bought WiFi on a plane so I could write back to [Stern] and say to them, ‘Oh wow, this is a very exciting book.’” Same goes for film sets: “Every time that they call ‘cut’ on the camera, if I’m not carrying a bag as the character, I’ve hidden a book within arm’s length on the set, whether it’s under a bookshelf or a couch cushion.”
Parker’s preference for literary fiction guides the submissions she is sent by Hogarth editors. “I like the idea of global voices. I like the idea of stories that are unfamiliar. I like learning about people different than myself.”
Though it’s tempting to think an SJP imprint would keep screen translations in mind, Parker insists she doesn’t think of a book’s commercial potential. “But I don’t think of commercial value when I make choices as an actor either. I never have and some fault me for that, agents sometimes want to wring my neck for that.”
This month sees the publication of A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, the first novel to ship with the discreet moniker of “SJP for Hogarth” on the cover. By a debut author from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it is a sparely written portrait of an Indian Muslim family negotiating losses and longings in a new American life that is faintly hostile to their dreams.
Mirza has appeared with Parker on publicity rounds, but not every writer offered the chance to publish under the SJP brand has accepted: “[Writers] have every right and every reason to say no and it will get easier. But I don’t fault those writers or agents,” Parker says. “I’ve lost two books, the first one before Fatima’s, it was such a fricking gut punch...” Perhaps the bigger battle is dissuading agents from the idea she might be interested in what she shudders to call “chick lit”: “Everybody thought I wanted — I’m just going to say — chick lit — that’s what people were sending me and I was like, ‘No, no, no, I never read that as a reader.’ Chick lit! I can’t stand saying it, I hate saying it, I think it’s so crazy.”
In London to promote the UK publication of A Place for Us, Parker describes a no-television upbringing in Ohio, guided by her book-loving mother: “For her, reading was escape, it was comfort, it was curiosity.” Then came Parker’s introduction, aged eight, to the acting profession: “I was just always ready for my next book because there was time backstage where it would be quiet; waiting in a hallway to audition you have to be quiet.” The habit continued, and several times during our interview Parker magics manuscripts from her bag to show me: “I seriously plan meetings so that I can take the subway so that I can read.”
It was at a very New Yorkish-sounding literary “luncheon” that Parker met Stern, publisher at Crown and Hogarth, who later sent her a copy of one of her titles, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. “I emailed Molly and I said, ‘I’m reading this book and I think it’s very special... if there’s anything I can do to help, talk about it and support it in any way’, and thus began this book club.” A few years later, Stern suggested they go one better with a full imprint. (Hogarth itself is a joint renaissance of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press between Crown and Chatto & Windus.)
Reading may be in vogue, with celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey running book clubs, but SJP does not see herself as riding a bandwagon. “I don’t know if reading is fashionable in Hollywood — I don’t live there so I’m not part of that world at all. New Yorkers read, we’ve always read. In fact the saddest thing is to be on the subway now and not see books in people’s hands.”
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.