Christine Coulson, ONE WOMAN SHOW

Christine Coulson, ONE WOMAN SHOW

Author Christine Coulson joins Zibby to discuss ONE WOMAN SHOW, a sly, stylish, and incredibly innovative novel–remarkably told through museum wall labels–about a 20th-century woman who transforms herself from a precious object into an unforgettable protagonist. Christine, drawing inspiration from her 25-year tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, discusses the unique structure of her book, which mirrors museum labels. The conversation touches on the challenges of writing within constraints, character development, and humor. Christine also emphasizes the importance of breaking down the intimidation factor associated with museums, reveals what her life is like outside of writing (she is a mom, and yes, she collects art), and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, One Woman Show. Congrats.

Christine Coulson: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. This was so creative. This is the most original form of a novel I’ve read in I can’t even remember when. So awesome. Tell listeners how you came up with the structure for the story and all the rest and your whole background and how it relates. It’s just pretty genius, I have to say.

Christine: We’ll start at the beginning, which is that I worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for twenty-five years. My last project there was to write the museum wall labels for the new British Galleries that opened in 2020. It was during that time that I had the idea to apply that very strict form to write labels about people and treat them like intricate works of art. I didn’t know how I was going to do that or what it would become, but I liked that concept of using the form. It’s a very strict one, as I said. You only get seventy-five words per work of art. Every word has to work. That kind of constraint can yield tremendous creativity. I love limitations. Labels are also the kind of thing where they have to exist in their own place and not necessarily connect to another label because you don’t know the order that visitors in the museum are going to read them in. Each one has to work. You have to stick the landing each time. I applied that idea to distilling the moments in a woman’s life as they unfold over the course of a century and creating this kind of retrospective exhibition of a woman who, like works of art, is evaluated, critiqued, prized, and collected from her earliest childhood throughout her life.

Zibby: It’s so neat. For people who aren’t as familiar with museum life in general, does every individual piece of art — everything has to have a description underneath with the exact same formula? Is that across all museums? Is it just the Met? How does that work? Who writes those?

Christine: Most museums do it. Some are hardcore and only include — those first three lines in the description are what we call in museums, the tombstone information, so the artist and the dates and the medium, where it came from. Some museums are very limited, and they only include that. At the Met, you’ll see labels from across the last fifty years, at least. There are still some labels from the 1940s in those galleries. The limitations change. There are some very long labels in a certain collection. The new restrictions that I was writing under, seventy-five words. I got two hundred words per century. The galleries covered four centuries. I got two hundred words per century and seventy-five per object. It’s very unusual for an outside person to come in and write labels that’s not a curator. I was working with a group of seven curators on this huge project. The curator who was in charge of it really wanted to unify the voice of the galleries themselves so that visitors would feel a sense of continuity as they were walking through the galleries.

I was the galleries. I was a former speechwriter. The galleries were my client. I was creating a consistency in how the objects were approached and how we used that language. I was collaborating with people who knew everything about these objects and asking to pick just one story, seventy-five words, to share with the public. In crafting the novel, it was similar to that. I want the readers to eventually wonder what’s being left out. In the end, you’ve got seventy-five words. You’ve spanned this sprawling life. It’s action packed. A lot happens. I want there to be, a little bit, by the end, a little question about the reliability of this narrator, this curator in constructing this life, what we know, what we don’t know. I want the reader to be very active in connecting with those texts. It’s almost the opposite of in a museum where you see a work of art and then there’s a little description that explains it. Here, you’re getting the label, but the page opposite is blank. I want the reader to conjure what I’m describing, to make their own work of art, in a way. I love that kind of active reading, that participatory experience in a book.

Zibby: It’s so cool. As you said, so many things happen in this woman’s life. You also give us points of view from her friends. We kind of track a couple of the friends, which is also really fun. Did you start and say, “Okay, here are the things I want to happen to this woman over time. Oh, this time period is going to coincide with this war. I’m going to make this happen”? How did you do that? Did you plot it on some sort of timeline?

Christine: I have to say I did not set out to write a book about this woman at all. This is an interesting instance where the character kind of took over. I wrote a label about this woman — I call her Kitty — as an experiment. It was the first experiment in writing a label about a person. I just picked this woman standing in the Met’s galleries, a kind of typical Park Avenue lady. I wrote a label about her. I liked it. That label is still in the book. It’s about three quarters of the way in. I thought, huh, I’m going to try and write twenty labels about that woman. It was a way of stretching the form and seeing if it was possible, testing its capacity. As I was doing that, I was coming up with things that could happen to her. The last label in the book is probably the third one I wrote. I was always writing to that ending, kind of a speechwriter-y thing to do. I had a destination, in a way. Then the story itself spread more like an ink blot than a linear timeline. I would think of things like — at the Met, during World War II, all of the important objects went into storage in a house in Pennsylvania. I thought, oh, maybe Kitty goes into storage. I like that idea.

I was working a little bit with ideas I would have. Then I’d have to fill it in so that the reader was going to buy that, the reader is going to be ready for what I want to happen to her. Some of it was very traditional novel writing, character development, plot, emotional engagement, all those standard traditional modes of storytelling, but within this restricted form. When I write a label, I tape it to the wall, so the whole book is actually on a wall in my writing studio. I was just populating that wall with moments distilled in this form. She was revealing the story to me, in a way. It was very complicit. It’s an interesting thing that sounds hokey, but it was really happening in real time. Kitty’s complicated. She’s not always likable. She understands her own limitations and restrictions and resists them at times. Kitty never wanted to be a CEO, but she certainly understood how she was being evaluated and compared to her friends. That dynamic with her friends is an interesting one to explore. I loved being introduced to these characteristics of her personality as we went.

Zibby: Isn’t it funny — this sounds ridiculous. When you look at the cover of the book, you don’t know, necessarily, the structure and how unique it is. I love your cover, by the way. Love it, and your website design. The whole package is just so sleek and cool. It’s evocative and amazing.

Christine: I was very deliberate in a lot of that, though. The cover is meant to evoke a museum banner on the museum’s façade. The font that we use is the font that the Met uses for its labels. You’ll note that there’s no page numbers because labels don’t have page numbers. You see these three porcelain figures on the cover, mainly because I wanted to use the language of porcelain to describe Kitty. I think it’s a very human kind of medium. It’s hard but fragile. It’s made of fire. In Kitty’s case, it has limited utility, like her. It’s easily moved and grouped with other things. It’s very hard to hide its damage. In museums, when something has a flaw, we say it has condition issues. I feel like that’s such a human term. What are we if not filled with condition issues? That idea of our own flaws and their visibility or their invisibility and how those appear and how they get critiqued and what we hide versus what we reveal I thought was really interesting to explore in this language. I love how the art language — whether you know all the terminology or not, I think the way that it’s used, you figure it out.

Zibby: It’s amazing, even the different color pages.

Christine: As I’m writing label after label about Kitty, I needed there to be a signal when it was not Kitty and it was what we would call in a museum, comparative material. That’s her parents and her friends. Creating some sense of a shift in tone there. I also really wanted it to be funny because I think that humor and struggle, the darker moments in life, those two things combined are what make it really feel authentic to the way that we experience life. If you’re talking about the entire expanse of a life, there’s joy, and there’s darkness. I think it’s important to keep those things pushing against one another.

Zibby: Wow. Can I just read one of these so people know what I’m even talking about?

Christine: Sure.

Zibby: Here’s an example of — this was hilarious because I love William Poll. That’s why I turned this one down. This is one of the gray pages. This is all caps. “TUNA SALAD ON WHITE TOAST WITH CARROT STICKS.” Then the next line is italicized. “Lunch, $19.50.” Then not italics, “Collection of William Poll’s Specialty Foods & Catering. 1051 Lexington Avenue, New York City.” Then below it, you say, “A rectilinear composition of four diminutive sandwich triangles punctuates circular porcelain plate in an abstract portrait of caloric constraint. Three orange stripes; peeled carrots of limited dimension add to the Mondrian rigor drawing the eye without tempting the palate. Kitty eats this still life alone and with the quiet resolve of a squirrel unable to temper the determined lust of its consumption. A cigarette follows.”

Christine: You know that lunch, but you also know that woman. It was fun to think about things like that. Some of that was also challenging myself to say, can I write a label about a lunch? That’s stretching the form as much as I could. I also write about a miscarriage. I wanted to write about — I’m going to give something away, but more as a tease. Kitty has sex with Picasso. Writing that label was like, what if she does have sex with Picasso? How do I write that? That kind of challenge I think really comes across in the writing because I really enjoyed it.

Zibby: How many labels are there?

Christine: In the end, I think the whole thing is 206 pages. Those aren’t all labels, but I don’t really know how many actual labels there are. There’s those interruptions that happen too. There was a point at which the labels — I had written probably about fifty of them. The architecture of it was all very stable but maybe getting a little bit rigid, and so I thought, it’s time to kind of blow it up and disrupt it a little bit. I thought about when you’re standing in a museum and there are other people in the gallery. You’re reading the label, but they’re talking behind you. They have their own opinions about what you’re looking at. You can kind of hear them. We called those pages the chatter. Often, that chatter, those bits of dialogue that interrupt the labels, first, they allowed Kitty to have a voice, but often, they undermine the authority of those labels. They go against what you’re reading. Again, there’s that idea of, where is the truth in this? Whose story is being told? By whom? How does it get a little bit slippery? I like label as catalyst rather label as explanation.

Zibby: I haven’t read Metropolitan Diaries. Metropolitan Diaries or Metropolitan Stories?

Christine: Metropolitan Stories.

Zibby: Stories. I knew I got it wrong. Tell me about that. That was your first novel. Now of course, I have to go back and read that. Tell me about that.

Christine: That was my first novel. I was still at the Met at that time. They gave me a year-long sabbatical to write that book, which had been cooking inside of me for twenty-three years and then just came pouring out of me. I had exactly a year. It took exactly a year to write. It is really a love letter to that place. It really focuses on my first ten years there. I started there in 1994. I’m kind of wide-eyed. There are incredible, larger-than-life characters then. It’s a completely analog world, so a lot of our time there was spent navigating that building. It’s four blocks long and two blocks deep. A lot of your cred came from your ability to physically move around there. Because of that, you were put in rooms with very important people. You got to be sort of a fly on the wall to a lot of things. That just takes on this surreal nature. There was a very familial aspect to that institution and a kind of family lore, stories we repeated over and over again. I use a lot of that. I also really wanted to write from the point of view of the works of art themselves. There are whole chapters devoted to that.

The third chapter in the book is from the point of view of a chair in the eighteenth-century French period rooms and its lament about how it will never be sat in again. It arrived in this very lavish retirement home but longs for human contact. I think that too came from the great privilege of being able to live in that building for twenty-five years. You start to see things differently when you have that kind of access. You just really relax around those works of art in a way that they feel like they’re, again, revealing themselves to you. I wanted to put that down on paper, that sensibility, if only to model to visitors how they too can stop worrying about what they don’t know and just really enjoy looking and thinking about the path that these objects have traveled. We really isolate them in a museum when we put spotlights on them. You feel like this is where they’ve always been. That chair spent decades in storage and started in some furniture makers in Paris. I love the idea of moving it to the upholsterer and then that whole process. I think it’s nice to remind people of the lives that objects have lived.

Zibby: It’s amazing. What’s your next project going to be?

Christine: I’m not sure yet, but like that first book — that book was in my head. I never wrote anything down, never took notes, kept a journal, nothing, and just let it cook. Then same thing for this book. I had an idea. I had this idea when I was working on the British Galleries, so that was spring of 2019, and didn’t start writing for another two years. I like to have an idea and go sort of visit it from time to time and let it cook. I think withholding it actually is a very active thing, to distinctly not write it down, to let it stew a little bit. Now I have, similarly, another bad idea that’s impossible to do that I visit from time to time. I feel it cooking. It’s nice. I love that. There’s something very special about that time to just let it gestate and have it. That’s there, but I find it difficult — I’m very disciplined as a writer, so when I start writing, I’m almost superstitious about how I write. I eat the same breakfast at the same place in the same chair every single day. I write from ten to three, never get out of my seat. No breaks. I’m really rigorous about it. It works. When I get into that mode, I sacrifice everything else for it. Both books, because of that, took exactly a year to write, mainly because of that time before of letting it do its thing.

Zibby: It’s so neat. Have you ever done — I should have looked. I bet you have. Patrick — what’s his name? Who wrote the other book about working as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Christine: Oh, yes. All The Beauty in the World?

Zibby: All the Beauty that Lies Within or something like that.

Christine: Yeah, something like that. It’s a beautiful story of how the museum and the galleries can really provide a sort of solace for people. I really wanted to write about that too. In Metropolitan Stories, there’s a chapter in there that tries to capture that as well. It’s a guy who changes the light bulbs. They’re called lampers. I wrote about the lampers because I think they’re rockstars at the museum. I created a lamper who’s afraid of the dark. I love the idea of a museum as a place — it’s how it works for me — as a place to go and feel some kind of solace. For me, it’s a very spiritual place. It’s a place where you can experience great beauty but also contemplate survival. I feel like the presence of that in a world like what we’re living through now is really important as a touchstone. I also think the museum can be fun and funny. I think people should relax there as much as possible. I feel like the more people write about it, the more we break down some of that intimidation that exists when you walk through the door.

Zibby: What is the rest of your life like when you’re not writing? I read your essay about your son and his field trip, so I know there’s that aspect. There’s the motherhood aspect of your life as well. What do you do when you’re not intensely writing?

Christine: It’s funny because I am a collector. I do collect art. I have a real relationship with objects. The most soothing thing I can possibly imagine is moving objects around and making conversations with them. It’s my version of meditation. I’m an incredibly visual person. I think that’s why I do write on the wall, is because I was able to see the book, in a way. The gray pages started as that kind of visual queue to me so I could actually see the cadence of the pages as they unfolded and the rhythm of the book. As each label got either interrupted with those bits of dialogue or a new outside person would come in, I wanted to see that. I had to see it visually. I’m an intensely visual person. Even when I write, I write visually rather than having a pile of paper on the desk. I find that incredibly overwhelming. I think it’s an issue of control or the ability to wrestle with the whole book rather than feel like I’m just — there’s a part of writing that’s about, you write a sentence; it becomes a paragraph; it becomes a chapter. Sometimes it’s great to break those things down and feel that. I also feel like there’s a point in every book where it starts to get unwieldy. You get a little bit like, whoa, what is this thing? You’re trying to kind of hold it all. I think visualizing that is the easiest way to manage it and feel like you can get in there and wrestle with it.

Zibby: I love that, oh, my gosh. Any advice for aspiring authors?

Christine: I think the best thing you can do is be disciplined about your writing. I know plenty of writers who write on post-it notes on the subway. I’m incredibly impressed by that. If you really want to dig in and get what’s in your head onto the page, I think there’s nothing more important than rigor. I think creativity is like waiting for a bus. It’s going to come. You can either be at the bus stop and be there and get on board, or if you get distracted and you’re not there, the bus passes you by. I really believe that just allowing yourself the discipline to be there — some days are great. Some days are totally not productive. I think the rigor of it is what yields what you need, even though it doesn’t seem so day after day after day. I think in the aggregate, there’s nothing better than discipline.

Zibby: I love that bus analogy. That’s fabulous. Don’t miss the bus.

Christine: I know. Don’t miss the bus because it does show up. We live in a city with busses that are not particularly reliable. Creativity is not always reliable either, but it does come. I think there’s a moment that you got to be there. You got to be willing to then take that and really wring it dry.

Zibby: Amazing. Christine, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I hope to meet you in person very soon. I’m going to have to invite you for something. We’ll do something together. Thank you. Bravo. Really creative and inspirational. Very cool.

Christine: Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

Zibby: I really did. Take care.

Christine: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

ONE WOMAN SHOW by Christine Coulson

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