Who would you like to sit across from?

Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a guy who gets to talk to a famous celebrity unbuttoned and unguarded (relatively-speaking) in a casual environment. They have the kinds of conversations one never hears from famous people when they’re interviewed by the media. If you could spend a lunch or two with some famous person, who would it be? I’m going to limit the options to living people. If I included everyone in history, the list could get ridiculously long. These are people you realistically could actually sit across the table from. My own list would be fairly short, actually. (Dead people would change that.) Not that there aren’t a lot of people I like and admire, and would like to meet, but I wouldn’t have enough to talk about with them to make it a profitable conversation, I don’t think. Maybe I would—I wouldn’t know until I sat down with them—but I wouldn’t want to waste their time.

And there are people who would have been on my list some years ago but who I now feel I know enough about to feel content.

Stephen Sondheim would be one of those people. At one time I would have loved to hear him discuss the meaning of his magnificent lyrics, but although the lyrics are still magnificent, I think I have penetrated some of his mysteries just through growing older and experiencing some pain and disappointment, which is where his songs live. Plus, with the publication of some writings of his he has become, in recent years, somewhat more of an open book. And I will always treasure the time I got to hear him speak at a rare appearance in Santa Rosa. So while I’m still a huge admirer, Stephen Sondheim is off my list.

It should be no surprise, however, to read that Deborah Eisenberg would occupy a very high spot. Easily my favorite contemporary writer, until recently she hasn’t been in the spotlight, so she’s still somewhat of a mystery, presumably filled with surprises, just like her stories. Her early life inparticular isn’t well-documented, yet so many of her pieces deal with young women emerging from controlling situations and finding their legs, so I often find myself wondering what in her own experiences inspired these stories. Her writing is unique and yet she doesn’t seem to try—a most amazing combination. Other authors may be better-known now, but I think her works will stand the test of time better than most.

Tilda Swinton would make my list. Why? She’s unusual, to say the least—in looks, acting style, and lifestyle. Tilda’s current partner and her former partner are friends and she manages to have a close relationship with both without the expected jealousy. Tilda manages to eat her cake and have it too, making unusual films while remaining fairly anonymous to the world at large. And she has a very strange and very special beauty—not conventional (it borders on androgynous) but nothing is conventional about Tilda Swinton.

Claire Danes would be another actress I would love to talk to. (Actually I did once, briefly, but it scarcely counts.) Claire is brainer than most actresses, and throughout writing Welsey Shaw, when I wonder if I’ve made Ms. Shaw a little too articulate and cerebral, I remind myself of some of the things Danes has said over the years. (In fact, one key quote in the novel is lifted pretty literally from a comment she made.) She’s delightfully grounded even as she goes to fashion shows and Oscar parties. Check out this introspective interview with her on Charlie Rose, made when she was only 19 or 20, starting around the 28:00 mark. How many 19-year-olds are this thoughtful?

Most people, if given the chance to nosh about movies with a famous critic, would pick Roger Ebert. I’d choose Stephanie Zacharek. Ms. Zacharek used to write for Salon before moving to Movieline, and she’s one of the few critics I take seriously. She is more perceptive and sure of her opinions than Ebert, whom I often view as going with the flow, especially when action and special effects movies are concerned, so as not to seem like a wet blanket. Zacharek tells it as she sees it, and fills her reviews with small, poignant observations that are nonetheless lacking that “aren’t-I-observant-for-noticing-this” quality many others’ reviews have. It doesn’t hurt that her favorite film is Holiday, which I think is both Cary Grant’s and Katharine Hepburn’s most underrated film. (Not sure I’d want to meet either Mr. Grant or Ms. Hepburn, however, as I hear neither of them managed to live up to their personas.)

There’s Ingmar Bergman, whose intellectual depth and wide range of films is pretty unique. (I think we’d need a translator, though.) Though controversial to say the least, sitting across from Gore Vidal would surely be unforgettable. And Simon Schama would be another choice, because of his wide-ranging mind. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and New York Magazine columnist Frank Rich—definitely. There’s travel writer and philosopher Alain de Botton. Travel writer and pot smoker Rick Steves. Novelist and philosopher Milan Kundera, whose meditations on the politics of existence still blow me away. Oh, and I may enjoy meeting Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, even though I doubt I’d understand much of what he talks about.

Of course, most of these people would probably find me boring, as I probably am. And I’m sure I’ve missed many people as well. But that’s enough. How about you? Who would you like to have lunch with, if you could? Who have you always wanted to meet?

2 responses

  1. maureen owen

    John, not the Dalai Lama?

    Seriously. Big omission. And James Randi?


    March 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm

  2. maureen owen

    I have to admit I don’t know that much about the Dalai Lama and wouldn’t know what to say other than hello. And I’m not going to say Hello, Dalai.

    Randi, true true. One of my heroes. But I did say that I no doubt forgot some people, and I did.


    March 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm

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