Former Pitt teacher to talk about new novel

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 8:17 p.m.

To copy or not to copy?

Not quite Shakespeare, but the central characters in Allison Amend's novel, “A Nearly Perfect Copy,” are faced with an ethical quandary worthy of the Bard: “What is the most important thing to you and what are you willing to sacrifice,” says Amend of Elm and Gabriel, the central figures in the novel.

Amend appears Sept. 5 as a guest of Writers LIVE at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch in Oakland. The 6 p.m. event is free, but registration is required.

Amend, a Chicago native, taught in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh from 2005-11. Most of “A Nearly Perfect Copy” was written while she lived in Pittsburgh.

The book tells the stories of Elm, an appraiser working for a staid auction house in Manhattan, and Gabriel, a struggling Spanish artist in his early 40s eking out a living in Paris. Elm is trying to recover from the death of her son, lost in a tsunami in Asia. Gabriel is given the opportunity to make more money on one project than he's made in his entire artistic career when he's asked to create forgeries of notable artists, including pieces derived from the work of an ancestor, Marcel Connois.

Gabriel's frustration with the art world, according to Amend, is loosely based on David Hubbard, a frustrated painter who became an infamous art forger in London and Rome in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

“All of us who are artists, writers, performers, live in a world where we are sort of jockeying for position in that world,” Amend says. “Lamenting the fact that we don't have more success or wishing we won that prize. Certainly, as a writer, I feel that very acutely at its ugly side: it's jealousy. But its good side is ambition. I thought it was worth exploring the rivalries that happen, or when you don't fulfill the potential you think you have.”

Elm feels a similar frustration working at the auction house founded by her great-grandfather, where she's viewed by some as interloper, trading off her family name. Her dissatisfaction with her career is exacerbated by the loss of her son, and when she learns about a company that claims to be able to clone humans, she makes an appointment.

Elm knows this is an impractical course, not to mention the illegality of cloning humans. But her motivation — to relieve the unbearable grief that constantly haunts her — overwhelms any questions of morality.

“You read about people who are caught up in these schemes sometimes that involve illegal activities, and you wonder how a suburban mom could end up committing a bank robbery,” Amend says. “How a regular normal person ends up doing unthinkable things.”

Eventually, Elm and Gabriel's lives intersect when she is asked to evaluate his work for the auction house. Elm faces another moral dilemma at this point (not to be revealed lest it give away a plot element). These characters represent a larger question: What is of value, in art and in life?

“There's no inherent value in a canvas,” Amend says. “The materials used are only worth a few dollars. The only thing that is of real value is what a person puts into these things.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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