The lineup for Saturday’s packed Author Breakfast featured a diverse cast of characters, a few of them fictional, in fact, and yet each author’s story, at least the ones they told the rapt audience, shared a similar theme: loss.
Stage and screen actor Alan Cumming (currently starring in CBS’s The Good Wife) acted as a particularly genial emcee, and he warmed the audience with a few jokes at the expense of the Javits Center, which he singled out for its “warm and welcoming architecture” and its location: “I get to appreciate New Jersey.”
Cumming was at BEA to promote his memoir, Not My Father’s Son, coming in October from It Books. The book, he explained, stemmed out of his participation in a popular BBC show called Who Do You Think You Are, in which individuals seek out some mystery about their origins. Cumming was drawn to the project because he wanted to explain to his mother just what happened to her father, who died from a gunshot wound in Singapore in 1951, in murky circumstances. “This would be a wonderful story”—he thought. “It will be about dealing with fame and success and then being able to give my mom the gift of closure.” What he found out was this his grandfather died by his own hand, playing Russian roulette. This was followed by an assertion by his own father, whom he had not seen in 16 years, that he was not his son.
Cumming, who suffered from abuse as a child, was determined to write about the whole set of revelations. “To tell it, to expunge it, is good therapy,” he said. Along the way, he learned that perhaps some of his own traits—“a little reckless, doing handstands in a glass room”—were in the family line. “This is a story about redemption, in the end.”
Comedian and actor Martin Short followed and, like Cumming, remarked up the early hour appearance in front of an audience. “This is more than a thrill,” he said. “It’s an obligation.” He reminded the crowd that he was a Canadian—“we are the aliens you don’t deport.”
Short’s book is also a memoir—I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend (Harper, Nov.), a title that Short seemed to relish saying. He amused the crowd with the stories behind a few of his comic characters, falling into the roles and voices of Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick. Though Short enjoyed success early, with his writing and performing on Saturday Night Live and the hit movie ¡Three Amigos!, starring with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, he said his earlier years had been marked by significant losses—his brother died when Short was 12; his mother five years later, and his father, when Short was 20. And four years ago, his wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman, died of ovarian cancer. “It dawned on me,” he said, “that I became an orphan at 20 and a widower at 60. In between, I had a fabulous life. But now what?”
Short decided to write a book. “You have to pick yourself up—a horrible thing can teach you a great lesson.”
Creator and star of HBO’s hit series Girls, Lena Dunham followed, and spoke about her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl (Random House, Sept.). Though personal loss is hard to pinpoint for Dunham, she movingly and at times hilariously channels the sufferings of women everywhere and every day— “the effects of technology, misogyny, and media on our bodies.”
Dunham, amidst a flurry of bawdy remarks about sex organs and copulation, said “I love to go to bed with a book; it has always been my dream to write one.”
She then read an extended portion from the beginning of Not That Kind of Girl, recounting her fascination with Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All, an extremely dated guide for women on how to have “love, success, sex, and money” that Dunham nonetheless admires for its bold assertion that a woman is entitled to have what she wants. Her reading, delivered with verve and humor, was warmly received.
Finally, Irish writer Colm Tóibín took the podium to talk about his new novel, Nora Webster (Scribner, Nov.). Tóibín, author of the brilliant novel The Master, about Henry James, among other works, told some rambling and charming yarns about the Irish characters who are featured in much of his work. Nora Webster, it seems, is a book that emerged from his own childhood loss—of his father, when he was 12 years old. “After my father died people came over to the house. A young boy would listen. The men were all silent and the women were all talk. When someone who had come over left, the stories about that person would begin.” Nora Webster, the character, has two boys at home in Co. Wexford, and her husband, a teacher like Tóibín’s father, has recently died. “I work out of silence,” he said. “In that distance between speech and silence.”
At the end of the breakfast, the front of the stage was mobbed by fans of Lena Dunham, who obliged by signing autographs.