The Momus Questionnaire — Sarah Manvel

Sarah Manvel was born in the USA and now lives in London. She is a film and book critic. Her first book, You Ruin It When You Talk, is out next week with Open Pen.

The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.

Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?

The fact that becoming something unexpected is seen as a rebellion says a lot about how we frame society and the ways in which people are allowed to operate in it. I got married in Belfast when I was 21 and then almost immediately returned to the USA to finish my university degree (which is not how I’d recommend spending the first year of married life, but we made it work). Being married at that age was considered so strange and shocking that it passed almost without comment. This was fine; I missed him so much that dwelling on our separation was too painful. I preferred going about my business knowing that once we were back together it would be fine, which it was. Our later divorce had nothing to do with that year. But the point I’m getting to is this: whenever someone asked about my wedding ring, I would say that my husband was in the UK. Posh people would frown and ask what he was studying. Working-class people would frown and ask “Is he in the army?” Not one single American imagined for a second that he wasn’t also American. When I would smugly correct them on this, I went from being strange and shocking into something so unexpected they had almost no language for it. The additional fact that we settled in the UK instead of the US has put me on the dark side of the moon from an American perspective. The further fact that I’ve stayed in London since our divorce has flummoxed everybody. I wouldn’t say this is a rebellion, though. This is just what I wanted to do. 

What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?

I’ve always been a very independent person, so there are too many examples to mention. The most impactful would probably be when I went to France as an exchange student for six months when I was sixteen. Learning fluent French has been the most valuable skill of my life, while being placed with a Breton-speaking family and being immersed in a culture of preserving minority languages permanently altered my worldview (regardless of how mean that family was to me). It’s important to learn to examine the world from perspectives that you weren’t born with and to boost voices that have been unfairly marginalised.

What creative achievements are you most proud of?

I directed “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard for a military amateur dramatic group when I was seventeen. I convinced the literary estate of the late Jean Rhys to let me adapt her novel “Good Morning, Midnight” into a play which I then also directed for my senior thesis. In my barmaid days I once stunned the entire pub into silence on karaoke night with my rendition of “Bad Babysitter” by Princess Superstar. I called out the fascism of JJ Abrams in a review of “Star Trek Into Darkness.” I have written three novels awaiting discovery, and a comic novelette, You Ruin It When You Talk, that will actually shortly be in the world. The other achievements are to come.

If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?

Having my name misspelled in the local newspaper when I came second in the county spelling bee when I was twelve.

If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and brilliance, how would you describe yourself?

My friend Alex Reed (now a professor of music, formerly of bands including Seeming and ThouShaltNot) wrote a song for me once; it is possibly the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I am not sure a second song about me is entirely necessary, especially since we all already know my best quality is how modest I am. 

Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?

Lol. It’s a mistake to think that prioritising your integrity over material comforts is a sacrifice. Every time I have sacrificed my integrity, I’ve regretted it.

Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.

It’s also a mistake for an adult to expect public personalities to incarnate aspects of yourself. That said, as a child I had posters of Bo Jackson – the finest athlete of our lifetimes – on my wall, so he can exemplify the good stuff. Latrell Sprewell, the basketball player who ruined his own life by strangling his coach, can exemplify the bad.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

A pack of cards, needles, the Irish language primers that will finally get me fluent without having to study too hard, one of the Swedish royal family’s emerald tiaras, and pennies for the ferryman.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

“I’ve had a man, I’ve had a woman. There must be something better.” – Tallulah Bankhead

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor, which is a collection of comic strips.