From Julie Myerson to Marja Pruis: 'The kindness women can show towards one another'

In ILFU Corresponding Stories, we ask authors and thinkers from across the globe to engage in email conversations about the great themes of our times. In January 2024, our designated pen pals are Julie Myerson and Marja Pruis. A Dutch version of this letter is also available.

Een illustratie van Julie Myerson en Marja Pruis. Ze praten met elkaar, aan tafel.
Illustration: Twinkel Achterberg
From: Julie Myerson
To: Marja Pruis
Date: 25 Jan 2024
Subject: RE: RE: RE: Corresponding Stories

Dearest Marja,

First, I couldn’t believe it when you started your last letter by writing about HACKS! Seriously? But I adore it! Jonathan and I both do. It’s a while since we watched it but I thought it was exceptional – so incisive and funny and, yes, extremely moving in places. The younger woman, Hannah Einbinder, is actually hilariously like our daughter – that deadpan millennial comic timing! – we laughed so much the first time we heard her. And Jean Smart, such a complex and complicated performance. Have you got to the end yet? If not I won’t spoil it, but there’s a scene at a funeral (don’t worry that gives nothing away) – I think it’s the end of the third series – that blew me away. Very sad and very funny and at its heart about (I think) the generosity of women towards one another. You could even say the whole series is sort of about that? It’s a theme that isn’t explored enough I think – the kindness women can show towards one another. In the movies we’re always seen competing or scheming! 

It's so nice to be talking to you, dear Marja. Even though our friendship is so new – and I suppose untested – still very often in my day I’ll find myself thinking something or having something happen and thinking ‘Marja would definitely get that.’ This week I had a really terrible – I mean, stinkingly terrible! – review for my novel Nonfiction in The Washington Post. So cool to be in that paper – I was excited at first – and it was a huge review too, big photo all of that! But it was one of those pieces – and I know you’ve been there – which is so incredibly scathing and all of it in such a personal way. You just know it’s been written by someone who’s already decided they don’t like you.

I judge myself and my work quite hard and, especially as I get older, that’s enough.

The headline was ‘Accused of Oversharing About Her Kids, She Tried Fiction. Sort of.’ You see? Not only unkind but – doesn’t she get it? – this idea is even something I address in the book! So frustrating to be accused of something you’ve already accused yourself of (yes, I can tell, you are already fuming for me – thank you!).

Anyway I won’t quote any more because I don’t want this writer’s words to have any power over me. In fact with almost all reviews, good and bad, I try to read them just once then put them out of my mind. Even the great ones, it can be dangerous to dwell on them. I judge myself and my work quite hard and, especially as I get older, that’s enough.

But, I wonder, how do you deal with this stuff? I’m so sorry I can’t read what the press have written about you, but on that stage where we met and bonded in Utrecht you implied that you’ve been criticized for the same sorts of things and in the same sorts of ways that I’ve been criticized. It’s tough. But I just think you have to keep your head down and not care what people think or say and make the work you make for the right reasons and with – I was going to say ‘love’ but it’s not quite love – with as much TRUTH as possible in your heart. The ‘true story’ in fact, exactly like the thing you say you read about James Salter. (My god I love his work. A Sport and A Pastime: there is a moment in that slender perfect novel where the girl he’s with goes into the bathroom to pee and lets out a little fart and says ‘pardon’. Somehow it tells you everything. He’s one of those writers who, however many times I read his books, I can’t quite see how he does it. The best.)

Sort of on the same subject, I read a wonderful interview with the artist Tracey Emin (do you know her work? It just gets better and better) and she said this:

‘I can do what I call a very good Tracey painting, and I know someone’s going to want it and hang it on their wall, but I don’t want it and I don’t want to hang it on my wall. I can do a really bad, crappy, shitty, crazy, mad Tracey painting and no one will want it on their wall, but I want it because it’s the most interesting thing that I’ve done for years.’

Tracey Emin

I loved that. Because isn’t that what it’s all about, keeping OURSELVES interested. I don’t mean to provoke people, or I don’t think I do, but I DO know that I must keep on making choices that feel new and interesting and provocative to ME. I think I want – in fact I need – to test and provoke myself!

OK, enough about art. Husbands! Hmm, interesting that you’re not married. I didn’t marry mine for years and years actually – and in the end the reasons that we did get married were personal and complicated. At first I wasn’t sure it had changed anything – my mother was married three times and I didn’t want to be like her! But actually I like it now, that we’re married. And just like yours he’s the mocking kind! (Why am I not surprised, that we both have husbands who laugh at us?!) Remember when I sent you a picture of my computer screen with your email on it and you immediately sent me back a picture of yours with my email? Well, he found me gazing at my phone and smiling so happily and said ‘What are you looking at?’ and I said ‘Marja just sent me a picture of her computer!’ – no, I don’t think he got it and yes, I was teased. Sometimes I find him so maddening. Though interestingly he still maddens me in exactly the same ways that he did when we met, both aged 26. The only difference is I love him a lot more now, I like him too – more even than I did when I first fell in love with him. I think it is a great luxury in life, to spend your time, every day, with someone you actually like. Forget about love, he’s always the first person I want to sit down and talk to at the end of every day. That’s quite a thing to have!

That’s an interesting idea, by the way, to just write one sentence a day in a diary. A way of calibrating time. A writer friend of mine and her husband take one photograph a day, just one, every single day and have done for years. Can you imagine? How strange to see yourself changing – growing older – almost in real time like that! I wonder whether your face would stay the same for photos and photos and then – suddenly, scarily! – change? Or would it be impossible to discern? It’s not exactly the same but have you seen the film Boyhood by Richard Linklater? Unbearably moving, to see all the actors growing actually, literally, older. 

When I was 37, my husband commissioned a wonderful artist to paint a full length portrait of me for my birthday. I wasn’t that keen – and felt shy about sitting (though in the end she did it all from one photograph and actually I was lying on the floor!). I said I’d rather have a painting of the children – and at the time that was true. And even when the picture was delivered, though I could see it was good (she’s a great artist, has even won prizes) I still wasn’t sure about it – I suppose I just didn’t love what I saw. But now (of course!) I look at it and think oh wow, I was only 37 and I was so pretty! So young, though I didn’t know it then! I am so delighted to have it – what an imaginative present it was. I also still have two breasts in the picture and there’s something oddly touching about that, too.

Fascinating about Marlene Dumas. I’d never heard of her though I clearly should have now I’ve read a little about her. Have you been meeting with her and talking to her? And I wondered, what does your husband feel about you moving your mutual books to your work room? We are very both ferociously possessive of our books and if we both happen to read a book and both like it there’s a kind of low-key gentle fight about who gets to have it in their room. I have a stack of books on my desk – the stack changes but some of them stay there for a very long time – these are the ones that really inspire me. (Glancing to my right just now I can see books by Domenico Starnone, Leonard Michaels, Jo Ann Beard, Helen Garner, Emma Cline …) These are my current darlings that, when I find myself stuck, I can pick up and just handling them – seriously almost without having to read a word – can unstick me again! Do you have books like that?

Speaking of keeping and throwing things away, today – because we really are, I hope, moving house in about 2 weeks – Jonathan paid a student (very sweet boy with bright red hair and spectacles!) to come and help empty our loft. 

Two things emerged which I immediately felt excited about. First, a little blue desk which I was given when I was five years old. You know, the old-fashioned type with an inkwell and a lift up lid. My very first writing desk!! I was obsessed with this desk and would never part with it. I used to take a pile of my mother’s magazine and, before I could even write, scribble all over them as if I was signing my name the way I’d seen grownups do! Later our three kids used it – at one point it was covered with Pokemon stickers – and then it was painted and repainted, it looks pretty horrible now and to be honest it never was a very beautiful thing (a fact which Jonathan reminds me of constantly!). But it’s MY desk and I love it and I feel so happy to have it out of the loft again.

The second thing is my dolls house. Now this IS beautiful! Or it once was. A grand pink-bricked mansion with pillars by the front door and a red tiled roof (OK, made of cardboard) and blue delphiniums in the garden. It’s dirty and tired now and the roof has collapsed – though I still have the pieces and intend to repair it. But Marja, just seeing it brings back the most intense feelings! I used to get my face down level with it and look into those rooms and they were all so real and alive to me. And something very extraordinary struck me the other day: it looks almost eerily like the house that we’re moving to. Isn’t that amazing? As if the spell the house has been whispering to me all these years is finally about to come true.

OK, I have to take the dog out. The rain has finally stopped here. After days and weeks and months of rain, the last few days have been bright blue and sunny and exceptionally cold – the best weather! I hope it’s the same for you in Amsterdam and that you can go around on your bike in the sunshine. Sending you so much love my dear new friend. I want that dirty martini with you very soon! (And yes, I agree, dark places are the best)…