Author Gregory Curtis talks about Paris, impressions, and the Venus de Milo.
In 1972, a new magazine called Texas Monthly hired Gregory Curtis as its first staff writer. He hadn’t spent much time in the publishing industry—Curtis began his writing and editing career with a small print shop called the Company and Sons after graduating from Rice University with a degree in English and from San Francisco State College with a master’s degree in English—but Curtis rose to the challenge, writing everything at Texas Monthly from restaurant reviews to investigative features. From 1981 until 2000, he served as the editor of Texas Monthly. This month his new book, Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo, which tells the history of the famous Venus de Milo statue, will hit bookstores.
texasmonthly.com: I heard that you read five newspapers a day and that you subscribe to twenty magazines. Which of these newspapers and magazines interest you the most?
Gregory Curtis: I read so many papers when I was editor of Texas Monthly, but now I don’t need to and read only the New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman. I don’t read so many magazines either, probably only eight or ten, and many of those are highly specialized. But I faithfully read and enjoy Texas Monthly.
texasmonthly.com: What qualities of a magazine or newspaper draw you in? What about fiction?
GC: About the only fiction I read are big, honking nineteenth-century novels, the kind of thing I will never write—Dickens, Hardy, Balzac, Tolstoy—or noir crime fiction. From time to time, I treat myself to a P. G. Wodehouse or Tom Sharpe.
texasmonthly.com: You began your writing career with a printing company called the Company and Sons, which published poetry. Do you still write poetry?
GC: The world is a better place because I don’t write poetry any more.
texasmonthly.com: What more did you discover about Paris after spending so much time there and delving into its history?
GC: I found I enjoyed Paris more when I was there with a purpose—research to do, appointments to keep, people to interview. I felt part of the life of the city.
texasmonthly.com: What was your physical reaction to seeing the Venus de Milo?
GC: The German poet Heinrich Heine used to talk to her. I never went that far, but if you let it, the statue does produce vivid emotions that draw you to her.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend with the statue while you were in Paris?
GC: I’ve seen the Venus de Milo many times over nearly twenty years. After I began working on the book, I made between twelve to fifteen visits to the Louvre, and each time I looked at her for two or three hours. I’ve been there in the midst of crowds but also when there wasn’t anyone about but me.
texasmonthly.com: Has learning so much about the Venus de Milo changed your impression of it?
GC: I spent a lot of time looking [at the statue] as I weighed the historical facts I had learned, and I spent a lot of time analyzing it as a work of art. And I spent a lot of time just looking, trying to see what was there without any preconceptions.
texasmonthly.com: In the preface to your book, you wrote: “And how old is she? She is not an adolescent, she is not a virgin, and she is not a crone. She could be twenty-five or thirty or fifty. Her children could be infants, or they could be old enough to have children of their own. So while most people would describe the statue as ‘realistic,’ the most obvious characteristics of a real person—height, weight, age—turn out to be elusive.” What role do you think this elusiveness has played in the statue’s fame?
GC: I never got over the feeling that there was something she was holding back and would never let you know. That elusiveness is fundamental to her fame. That and the statue’s sheer beauty.
texasmonthly.com: How much of the Venus de Milo’s fame is about its story? About its craftsmanship?
GC: The fame has little to do with the story since almost no one knows it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book.
texasmonthly.com: What’s next for you?
GC: I’m starting work on another book about certain works of art that are quite different from Venus.