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Q&A with Elaine Dundy

TOWARD THE END of "The Dud Avocado," Elaine Dundy's semi-autobiographical 1958 novel about a young American's misadventures in Paris, Sally Jay Gorce starts to lose interest in a particularly ho-hum kiss. But true to form, she figures out how to make the best of things.

"At first I couldn't seem to keep my mind on it," Sally Jay confesses, "but then I thought of what a picturesque and alluring spectacle we must be making, locked in each others' arms high on a mountaintop in the moonlight. . .and how I might be kissing a future famous movie star, and it just worked wonders."

There's something very "chick lit" about Sally Jay's talent for self-dramatization. And indeed, in his introduction to the new edition of the novel -- just republished as part of the New York Review of Books' classics series-- the critic Terry Teachout predicts that someone is bound to proclaim Sally Jay "the spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones." And yet her sheer, unstoppable love for life imbues her with an exuberant self-possession that her imitators today would be lucky to channel.

"The Dud Avocado" opens with our beautiful and hapless heroine -- imagine the panache of Holly Golightly (coincidentally, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" came out the same year) crossed with the naive knowingness of Holden Caulfield -- wandering one September morning through Paris in an evening dress. From there it tumbles on through a mishmash of ill-considered lovers, boozy late nights, and a lost passport. Heady with freedom, Sally Jay is also graced with a deliciously wry self-absorption: "One of the things -- one of the many, many, many things that fascinate me about myself. . ." is a quintessential aside.

I called Dundy last week at her home in Los Angeles, and I'm happy to report that she's every bit as animated and garrulous as her protagonist. Nearly 50 years have passed since "The Dud Avocado" -- her first of four books -- became a surprise bestseller in England and America, yet at 85 she talks about the novel as if the ink just dried. Her vibrant, theatrical voice (she was an actress before she became a writer) rang out across the telephone wire, one moment describing how her first husband, the late drama critic Kenneth Tynan, had come up with the title, the next asking if I was aware that Groucho Marx had written a fan letter: the book, Groucho said, made him "laugh, scream, and guffaw."

Dundy cracked jokes, demanded that I talk louder -- "project as if you're on a stage!" -- and even turned the microphone around, as it were, and asked me questions. In fact, Dundy is so like her heroine that speaking with her inspires the uncanny sensation that the book itself has come to life.

IDEAS: How did you come to write the novel?

DUNDY: It was a very optimistic time in England. The British were the moral heroes of World War II; they were left without any money, but they had moral certitude, and the renaissance of arts was incredible. Ken and I used to go to this theatrical club with Richard Burton and Peter Finch and Albert Finney -- actors all on their way to becoming great. They were so optimistic; everything seemed so easy. You just made up your mind to do something, and you did it. My acting career wasn't going anywhere, so I said to Ken, "What should I do?" He said, "Why don't you try writing a novel? But I'm not going to read it until it's finished." And I said, "Fair enough."

IDEAS: You were in your 30s at the time, right?

DUNDY: Yes, and I'm 85 now. I don't know where it all went. But I'm still going strong. I think I could be described as persistent.

IDEAS: How do you account for the enduring appeal of "The Dud Avocado"?

DUNDY: I have wondered. It comes and goes. Once or twice a year somebody wants to buy it for a film, but nothing ever happens. I thought it was because it has so many French words in it.

IDEAS: In his intro to the current reissue, Terry Teachout says it's because it's funny.

DUNDY: What I think I really had going for me -- besides Paris, which never gets bad press -- was the tradition of writing about innocents abroad. Henry James did it, and Edith Wharton did it, but I was the first to tell the reader, in a first-person narrative, exactly what was really going on in the heroine's head.

IDEAS: Teachout also predicts that you'll be proclaimed the spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones. Have you read any chick lit?

DUNDY: No. But I saw "Bridget Jones's Diary" and I thought that it was absolutely enchanting. Of course, we're nothing alike.

IDEAS: Really? It seems your heroines have some things in common.

DUNDY: Well, yes, a sense of adventure. The funny makeovers. Bad things happening to them all the time: 1, 2, 3, 4. They're what we call picaresque.

IDEAS: Teachout also compares you to Dawn Powell. Was she an inspiration?

DUNDY: I know, it's lovely that he said that. But no, I didn't even know her. Gore Vidal introduced us. He said, "Here are the two funniest women writers around." We just looked at each other. What are you going to say? It was a real conversation stopper.

IDEAS: You've written that the flappers of the '20s and the screwball heroines of the '30s gave you license to become who you really are.

DUNDY: Yes, because I kept making these mistakes. I mean, how many mistakes can you make? The mistakes piled up, really. People are always asking me how much is autobiographical. I like to say that the outrageous and stupid things Sally Jay does, I did, and the sensible things she does, I made up. But if you asked me if I could find a heroine today, I don't know if I could.

IDEAS: Well, what do you think about the evolution of available heroines over the course of your lifetime?

DUNDY: In 1964, I said to my friend Emma Tennant, a novelist, "Have you noticed that we're having a really bad time? Doris Lessing and everyone always write heroines that are passive and put-upon." Emma said, "Absolutely. Why don't we do a whole magazine about it?" We published it in what you would call menstrual red, and I got all kinds of people, like Kingsley Amis and R.D. Laing, to write. So I think I was ahead of everyone in saying that women are getting a very bad deal. In "The Dud Avocado" I have Sally Jay saying, "It isn't our century."

IDEAS: So what do you think of women's culture now?

DUNDY: I'd like to ask you. When were you born?

IDEAS: The 1970s.

DUNDY: So you came of age in the '90s. What do you think, does it all seem irrelevant, women's rights and stuff?

IDEAS: No it doesn't, actually.

DUNDY: But the men -- we know all their tricks already, don't we?

Kate Bolick is senior editor of Domino magazine. Her interviews appear monthly in Ideas. E-mail kbolick@globe.com.

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