In Edward Hopper’s painting “Office at Night,” a smoky-eyed woman in a tight blue dress stands at the open drawer of a filing cabinet. She is looking at a man in a business suit who sits at a wooden desk, staring at a sheet of paper. There is a green lamp, a black telephone, a window with the shade half-drawn, an open door.
The flat light, the blue shadows, the angle of observation — from above, as though from a surveillance camera — all give the painting a mysterious, almost sinister air. Who is the woman? What is the man reading? What is their relationship? What is the story?
We are about to find out.
The story of the painting — one version, anyway, dreamed up by a couple of fiction writers — will be serialized on the Walker Art Center’s website throughout April.
“Office at Night,” a novella, was written by Laird Hunt (“Kind One”) and Kate Bernheimer (“Horse, Flower, Bird”) and is a joint project of the Walker and Coffee House Press, which will publish the novella as an e-book in June.
The idea came from Coffee House publisher Chris Fischbach and Walker curator of public practice Sarah Schultz, who were kicking around various plans for the two institutions to work on together. The Hopper exhibit, which runs through June 20, seemed a natural.
Any one of Hopper’s paintings could inspire a novella, Fischbach said. “Hopper lends himself to narrative possibilities with most of his paintings,” he said. But “Office at Night” is owned by the Walker, so it made sense to highlight that work.
Next up was choosing the writers. Fischbach began looking through the Coffee House list.
“We knew we wanted fiction writers, and we wanted writers who would be excited about the project, and who would really get it,” he said. “We chose Laird Hunt because he works in noir territory for a lot of his books, and so did Hopper. And Kate Bernheimer, whose specialty is fairy tales, because in a way there’s a lot of symbols and storytelling going on in the painting.”
He contacted the writers about three months ago. “To be invited to work on a project with Laird Hunt, the Walker Art Center, Coffee House Press — and Edward Hopper!” said Bernheimer, who lives and teaches in Arizona. “It was the easiest yes in the world.”
Fischbach and the authors swapped ideas for a couple of weeks, then he bowed out to let the writers work. He gave them no particular instruction, offered no preconceived notion of what the book should be or how it should be told.
“Both of them are very adventurous writers,” Fischbach said. “I really had no idea where they would go. They would tell me from time to time what was happening, which was exciting. As soon as I found that different pieces of furniture in the room were speaking, I thought, ‘Of course.’ ”
The mysterious Hester Chan
“We had quite an organic process,” said Hunt, who lives in Colorado. “Kate and I just started going after it, writing bits and sections that we would send back and forth. I initially imagined the scene was in San Francisco, but Kate saw New York, so I adjusted what I had written and we kept moving forward.”
The story is written from several perspectives — that of the characters in the painting (named by Bernheimer and Hunt as “Marge Quinn” and “Abraham Chelikowsky”), various pieces of furniture and office equipment (including the light on the wall) and a sort of unseen Greek chorus narrator, which might be the canvas of the painting itself or, perhaps, an imagined viewer.
It also includes a shadowy third character.
“One day, Laird sent me the first passage he’d written. It gave me an idea for a character [Hester Chan] who isn’t in the painting at all — and I sent those pages to him, and then he sent me more,” Bernheimer said. “I found the process very exciting, sort of seductive — artistically speaking, I mean.”
The finished e-book, said Fischbach, “is perfect for the painting. It’s unexpected. There are really beautiful, moving sections, and there’s also a lot that makes you think and leaves you puzzled. It’s not your traditional piece of fiction.”
Thinking outside the book
The collaboration fit well with Coffee House Press’ emerging “Books in Action” initiative, which has launched a series of projects meant to think beyond the pages of a traditional book.
Through earlier ventures with Walker Open Field, and through other innovations — giving poets residencies in libraries, or launching “Ring Ring Poetry,” a poems-by-telephone project — Coffee House searches out new ways for writers and readers to interact.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is find new audiences for our writers and their work,” Fischbach said. “At the same time, we’re reacting to audience willingness and eagerness to experience literature in ways that are more than just by reading a book.” The novella, he said, does both of those things, bringing together visual art and literary art.
Said Bernheimer, “I remember as a young girl staring and staring at paintings I loved, developing what seemed to me to be entirely real relationships with not only the character but the places, even the artists.
“I think our novella could be experienced along those lines by the reader — just as a painting welcomes the viewer into its space, so too can a novel.”
A new installment of “Office at Night” will appear every weekday from March 31 through May 2 at walkerart.org/officeatnight.