Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In which I gallop across the horizon on a llama with Kim Novak

Share |
In which I gallop across the horizon on a llama with Kim Novak

I have come to talk with you about Kim Novak. I was a big fan of the iconic Hollywood actress even before I saw what would become my favourite film of all time, Vertigo. I consider that film the high point of Novak's career, as well as Alfred Hitchock's. And James Stewart's. I saw Vertigo for my first time in a class on Hitchcock and Brian De Palma I took at York University around 1980 with the brilliant film critic and teacher Robin Wood. Robin, who died in 2009, was an enormous influence on my life, and especially on my life as a writer. To the best of knowledge, I had never before met a radical gay Marxist Freudian. Certainly not one who had studied under F. R. Leavis.

But back to Kim Novak. Robin’s partner, Richard Lippe, also a film critic and one of the sweetest men alive, was a huge Kim fan, too. I think he was once president of the North American Kim Novak Fan Club (though my memory might be failing me). When I was over at their place once, Richard showed me a photo of Kim, autographed by her and inscribed to him. Sheesh!

When Robin screened Vertigo, I don't think any film had ever affected me so profoundly. And it was Kim I identified with, not Jimmy Stewart. When the credits had rolled by and Bernard Hermann's rich and magnificent score had faded to silence, Robin, who had seen the film dozens of times before, was choked up as he stood in front of the lecture hall to speak. I'm sure I've seen Vertigo a good dozen times by now, and I, too, still cry during those final harrowing moments.

I became so entranced by Kim Novak that I wrote this godawful little poem about her, which jwcurry originally published as a rubber-stamped leaflet:

DREAMS OF KIM NOVAK

Almost every night I have lousy dreams
and no one wakes me up.
The only time they wake me
is when I have dreams of Kim Novak.

While Vertigo, which was released in 1958, a year before I was born, is a landmark in film history, Kim was in a lot of other great films. The first I saw was likely the wonderful and complex Pal Joey, released just a year earlier, directed by George Sidney and co-starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth. Kim is often criticized for her slightly wooden, slightly restrained performances, but I think that tentativeness is what makes her so brilliant and so nuanced.

Kim was also great in Joshua Logan’s 1955 adaptation of Picnic, which put her in the company of William Holden, and in Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958), The Notorious Landlady (Quine again, the lucky duck, 1962), Of Human Bondage (Ken Hughes, Brian Forbes, Henry Hathaway, 1964), and one of my personal favourites — Robin told me I’d be shocked by it, and I was! — Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964), an enormously fascinating, vulgar movie also starring Dean Martin and Ray Walston (who played the Martian in a TV series I loved as a kid, My Favorite Martian).

Kim kept making movies — and doing some TV (Falcon Crest!) until 1991. Her own favourite Kim Novak film is apparently Delbert Mann’s 1959 noir, Middle of the Night, in which she played against Frederic March.

Kim truly shot to fame in 2013, when she appeared in a stanza of a collaborative poem I wrote with Tom Walmsley, “Nuzzling Parker Posey” (it's in my collection of collabs, Our Days in Vaudeville, from Mansfield Press). Tom suggested we write a rhyming poem together, and I expected him to send me a single line for me to rhyme in line two. But instead I received a full stanza:

I want to go to Paris
with my darling Anna Faris
sip Perrier beneath a silver moon
we’ll go shopping for a poodle
hide in doorways and canoodle
and we’ll stay in bed until it’s after noon.

I was stunned. It took me weeks to figure out how to make that rhyme pattern work. I’d never written anything like it. And then it hit me:

Or I’ll gallop somewhere Slovak
on a llama with Kim Novak
and we’ll join the Serb resistance just for fun
we’ll spark a national scandal
enacting scenes from Bell, Book and Candle
though she wishes she’d been in A Place in the Sun.

I should mention that after her retirement in 1992, Kim took up painting (surrealist apparently!) and raising llamas. She also writes poetry and takes photographs.

Perhaps Kim’s greatest role in my literary works is her pivotal appearances in my novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW Press, 2011). The protagonist, Ben, whose mother assassinates a neo-Nazi in a suburban strip mall in the north end of Toronto, is obsessed with the film Vertigo. It tears him apart. Ben finally meets Kim Novak, by chance, late at night in a doughnut shop. He has just arrived there after a performance-art piece in which he covered himself in ketchup and pulled his own hair out. If you’ve seen Vertigo, this scene will rip you to pieces and you’ll go out and buy dozens of copies of my book for all your friends and film professors.

So when I sat down beside Kim Novak in Billy-Billy Donuts and ordered a chamomile tea and a raised chocolate, I was sure she could smell me, but I took comfort in knowing that I probably didn’t smell as bad as her llamas.

“Your hair…” she said as she reached across the little square table towards my head. “It’s sticking out all over the place. You look like Einstein or Beethoven. Or like Mischa Auer!”

And then, after a bit more conversation:

She stroked my hair for just a second and I knew that I’d always remember the night that Kim Novak stroked my hair. She brought her fingertips to her nose and said quietly, “Ketchup.”

After some more conversation, and tips from Kim on steeping herbal tea properly, she says:

“You cry every time you see me fall out of the bell-tower window, don’t you, Ben?”

“It’s always a surprise,” I told her. “I always think it’s not going to happen this time, that this time he’s not going to be such an asshole. … My mother had a real sense of justice. She couldn’t believe that James Stewart, of all people, could be such a prick.”

And then Kim says a whole bunch of wise and empathetic things and then she “put her hand on mine and gave me a light squeeze.”

Hopefully Kim Novak, or one of her llamas, googles her name every day and she — or the llama — will find this. And hopefully she won’t sue me. She’ll be moved. She’ll send me one of her surrealist paintings and we’ll become pen pals and she’ll mention how she’s actually read a few of my books and all will be right in the world.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.


You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Stuart Ross’s Author Page