SARAH JESSICA PARKER has a voice made for libraries, which is convenient because we are in one — specifically, the Amagansett Free Library on Long Island, a location Parker chose because she has always loved libraries and because it’s close to the beach house she owns with actor Matthew Broderick, to whom she has been married since 1997.
It’s late summer. She is wearing a seasonable, unfashionable tan under a white cotton dress with high espadrilles; and she has brought her glasses, her Blackberry, her jumper in case of air conditioning and a 350-page manuscript.
You’d be excused for guessing the manuscript is her own.
Parker, 51, has been acting for over four decades, which is plenty of justification for a memoir.
It’s been almost 20 years since the premiere of Sex and the City, the show that fixed her star in Manhattan’s sky and made her character, Carrie Bradshaw, the exemplar of self-serving womanhood.
Neither character nor actress has since known a day’s rest from inspiring other people’s personal style, and if Parker were to print an inventory of her wardrobe closet and bind it in her favourite colour, peacock blue, it would be a best seller.
Yet Parker would rather see her initials on the spine than her name on the cover, and next year she will.
Hogarth, the publishing house founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, is mounting SJP for Hogarth, where, as editorial director, Parker will help to find, edit and publish three or four new novels a year.
The head of Hogarth, Molly Stern, met Parker at a luncheon three years ago and offered her the role over dinner this past spring. Parker said yes in a second.
“I have always loved to read for the same reason I love to act,” she says, “which is that other people’s stories are more interesting to me than my own.”
Parker’s father was a poet and journalist, and she has “the greatest respect and love” for what writers, editors and even literary agents do.
What she is doing herself, for Hogarth, is an ode more to her mother, Barbara Forste, a retired nursery schoolteacher and lifelong, compulsive reader.
If Parker can be found reading in the makeup chair on a HBO set, it is because Forste used to drive the kids to school with a novel in her lap, and if Parker is excited to work with librarians — Hogarth is partnering with the American Library Association to get more books, and not just Hogarth books, into more hands — it is because Forste made sure a young Sarah Jessica was never without a library book in her schoolbag.
“What are you reading?” she asks me, picking up one of the two paperbacks I’ve brought with me, scanning the back cover and opening it at random to bury her nose in the crepey musk.
“People have tried to bottle the smell of old books, but it’s the most elusive thing, like trying to recreate a great story. You can’t, which is what makes it special,” she says.
A literary manuscript, she says, should come with a blank white cover — no title, no name — like a vial of perfume for a blind test, without a whiff of identity.
The manuscript she’s reading is a novel by Edan Lepucki, Woman No 17, to be published by Hogarth in May, and it is one of dozens she will read — for research, a sense of the landscape — before autumn, when SJP for Hogarth makes its first round of selections.
Criteria, says Parker, include “great stories” and “global voices,” which is another way of saying she can’t say too much.
However, we can take our clues from the qualities she has noted in recent literature. Our own Eimear McBride wields a language in her 2013 debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, that is as “brutal and mythic, almost familiar” as it is formally inventive, whereas Colson Whitehead takes a history of mass brutality and makes it “happen right in front of you” in his latest, The Underground Railroad.
Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, is magnificent in its sweep but also in its dusty particulars, like “the smell of dad’s wet wool in the back of a closet”, while Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World makes a trip to the grocery store unforgettable.
(Details, for Parker, are “the marrow that you suck out of the bone” of a story.)
From the Modernist period, her favourite novelist isn’t Virginia Woolf, who wanted to have no country, but rather Evelyn Waugh, whose characters are most in need of home.
Home is what draws Parker, too, to the origins of Hogarth.
“Because Virginia and Leonard Woolf were printing books out of their home, and because they were publishing work by their friends, they were telling exactly the stories they wanted to tell,” she says.
“I love most the idea of community here, and that the history of the imprint is personal. There was nothing mercenary about it. The Woolfs were storytellers.”