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Real Photos Inspire A Fictional Life In 'Feast Your Eyes'

Feast Your Eyes is the name of a new book that tells the story of a young woman — Lillian Preston — who ventures to New York City in the 1950s, absolutely determined to be a photographer. The book is set up as if it's a catalogue accompanying her posthumous show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The supposed catalogue describes 118 photos — but we don't see a single one, because Lillian Preston is fictional, and entirely believable. She's the creation of author Myla Goldberg, who says that while Lillian is fictional, a lot of her photos are real. "The wonderful thing about describing a photograph is you don't need the rights to it, because you're not putting the actual picture in the book," she says. "And so I actually lived with street photographers for five, six years, and I had five or six books of street photography on my desk at any given time. So some of these photos, they're just, I just took them. The work of Vivian Maier is in here, the work of Garry Winogrand is in here, the work of Diane Arbus is in here, the work of Louis Faurer is in here."

Interview Highlights

On picking the photos for Lillian's catalogue

I was looking through these books constantly for inspiration. Occasionally, there'd be a photograph that was just, like, this photograph is perfect, I want to use it. So the description you're getting in the book is the description of an actual street photograph. Other times, I would see a photograph, and one corner of it would be what I wanted my photograph to be. So in my mind, I would enlarge it, and that would become my photograph ... other times, I would see a setting, and I would sub out one kind of person for another kind of person, or put my own people in the setting and that became my photograph, and other times, yes, I did just make it up. So it's a combination of all those things.

On the photograph at the center of the story

That would be a photograph called "Mommy is Sick," and what ends up happening is, Lillian ends up taking twin, or dual, nude and partially clothed portraits of herself and her daughter. It comes at a time when she needs to be taking care of her daughter, and her daughter doesn't want to go outside all the time to take street photography, so they're in the house a lot together. And this particular photograph, she is suffering the aftereffects of an illegal abortion, and it's a picture that she had taken with a timed camera, of her in bed while her daughter is trying to help her as best she can, and in the picture she's offering her a glass of milk. And that one is an entirely made-up photo — kind of the most essential, central photos of this novel are the ones that I just made up out of whole cloth.

On where the book began

The book began with this idea of, how do you be both? How do you be both an artist and a parent? And so I looked at, I was reading a lot of biographies of artists ... I was reading about all of these choices, and so I guess the photograph started from that idea. Also started from the idea that I knew I wanted to write about abortion. We're talking the '50s, that's pre-Roe v. Wade, and I'm a child of the post-Roe v. Wade era. I read a book called The Choices We Made that the first half of it was personal essays by famous, successful women, who gave their names, they were not anonymous, talking about their illegal abortions. And basically, if you were an ambitious woman of that era, you had an abortion, and so reading about that, I knew that this was a huge part of the story.

This story was edited for radio by Justine Kenin and Jolie Myers and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.