Review: ‘Heat: an Interview with Jean Seberg’ by Stephanie Dickinson 1 Comment

Review: ‘Heat: an Interview with Jean Seberg’ by Stephanie Dickinson

Sometimes the places that captivate our imaginations most are those that we are most eager to get away from. This is true of Stephanie Dickinson’s novella Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, which paints the life of Iowa-born actress Jean Seberg through a series of ficto-poetic interviews. Discovered at seventeen, Seberg was hailed as the last all-American girl in cinema, though her biography was at odds with this image. A Hollywood expat in Paris, thrice divorced, and hounded by the FBI for her involvement with the Black Panthers, Seberg struggled with mental illness and committed suicide at the age of forty.

Dickinson herself was born and raised in Iowa, on a farm a few miles from the town where Seberg grew up. This lends an astounding vividness to her descriptions of Seberg’s Midwestern upbringing, which is a blend of overabundant nature – chokeberries, ditch lilies, civet cats, manure and mud – and the kind of Protestant morality that “keeps the skies grey…and sex layers deep under the homespun dress” (p50). Even when writing about Seberg’s later experiences, it is with a sense of oppressiveness and heat, which recalls the buried longings of the dreamy, churchgoing teenager. Of filming on location in Mexico, Dickinson-Seberg declares

Location is paradise. It’s hell. Azaleas burst their blooms. Corpus Christi bay, the thorny body of Christos…You eat thorns if the scripts tell you to do it. Location is a stranger taking your sun-drenched breast in his mouth and your nipple not objecting. (p41)

Dickinson’s prose is impressionistic, with the rapid-fire imagery of a closed-eye hallucination. Life doesn’t merely unfold; it hurtles toward the foregone conclusion of the actress’s nervous breakdown and death by barbiturates. Because the interviews are nonlinear, however, and occurring at an unspecified point in time, Seberg doesn’t end where her life does. Rather, she seems to float back and forth through space and time, a spiritual presence as much as a woman of flesh and blood. One of my favorite things about Dickinson’s writing is her ability to breathe life into that which is not strictly living – something she does as well in her first novel Half Girl (largely told from the perspective of a girl in a coma).

It isn’t necessary to know much about Jean Seberg before reading Heat, as the interviewer(s)’s questions provide a frame of reference for her poetic ruminations. If you are a fan of Seberg’s, however, you’ll no doubt appreciate the extent to which Dickinson inhabits her subject, capturing not only her on-screen persona but the clamor of a whole world beyond it.

“Tears grow in my eyes like weeds. The taste of blood is from where the close-up bit my tongue. A sidewalk preacher wanders about inside me shouting purple words, ‘Scourge the wench!’ But I say, ‘Raise the fallen!’ ”

Tears grow in my eyes like weeds. The taste of blood is from where the close-up bit my tongue. A sidewalk preacher wanders about inside me shouting purple words, ‘Scourge the wench!’ But I say, ‘Raise the fallen!’ 

 

 

Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a fiction editor at Voiceworks. She likes butterflies, lace, tarot cards and true crime. Find her here.

  • CallahanRobert

    I hate falling in love with beautiful woman in older films, like Jean Seberg in Breathless, only to find out they have grown older than the character I knew them from, or worse…

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