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In our interview, Diliberto shared some interesting anecdotes with us:
"I was one of those dreamy children who spent all of her spare time alone in her room writing stories. My first story -- I long ago forgot what it was about -- was published in my school newspaper, when I was eight. The school was Burning Tree Elementary in suburban Maryland, and the paper, mimeographed in smelly purple ink, was The Burning Tree Ash. I was so looking forward to seeing my name in print, but when the paper came out, another girl's byline was on the story! My teacher was as horrified as I was, and couldn't understand how this tragedy had occurred. She collected all the papers from our class and throughout the school. My mother was called in, and at the end of the day she and I sat in the principal's office with stacks of The Burning Tree Ash, crossing out the other child's name and writing in mine. The following morning, the papers were redistributed to the children, and I had a lovely time receiving congratulations from my friends. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer."
"I have lots of interests -- I practice yoga regularly, and I get teased about it regularly from my family. For years I've struggled to learn French, which I speak very badly, though not as badly as I play the piano."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Gioia Giliberto had to say:
When I think of summer reading, I think of books enjoyed on a plane trip or at the beach, which means nothing too heavy, both in a physical sense -- no 800 page hardcover doorstops -- and in an intellectual/emotional sense -- no Dostoyevsky or W. G. Sebald.
Still, you want to read something intelligent, interesting and beautifully written. Some of the best summer books, I think, are those that allow the reader to escape into another world and to learn something about an exotic locale or time period. In this category I would put The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dei Sijie.
On a more serious note is Ian McEwan's Atonement, which is both an enthralling crime story and a profound exploration of the joys and perils of the imagination.
Also great for summer are clever, charming novels about contemporary life. Two of my recent favorites are The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. You could follow up Fowler's book with Emma and Pride and Prejudice, or any of Austen's other works.
And while you're in the classics mood, why not pick up The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, two of literature's most beautiful and satisfying novels.
In the spring of 2004, Gioia Diliberto took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
If I have to choose one, I'd pick F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I was gripped by Gatsby the first time I read it as a teenager, and I have returned to it many times since. For a period of about ten years, I read it at least once every year, and with each reading it was as if I had discovered it for the first time. To me, it is the perfect novel. The characters are so alive, the story so haunting and true, the themes so profound, and the language so gorgeous, that I feel deeply moved by it whenever I read it. There is not one false note in it; it is as authentic as real life.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Many of the classics I read as a child and young woman profoundly affected my understanding of human emotion and psychology and taught me how the world works. Among my favorites are Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov's short stories, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Also everything by Jane Austen.
As an adult, I've rarely had the experience, as I so often did as a child, of the book I was reading being the most compelling thing in my life at that moment. I remember being a kid and wishing the day would end so I could curl up in bed with, say, Pride and Prejudice.
The one exception would be Atonement by Ian McEwan. I was absolutely enchanted by it, couldn't wait to get to it at night and missed it terribly when I'd finished it. I found it rich and profound in a way that most contemporary fiction is not. What's more, I identified strongly with Briony Tallis, the novelist who is the book's protagonist. Though on its surface, Atonement is a crime story and an evocation of the horrors of war, on its deepest level it is about the writer's life -- about the joys and perils of the imagination.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I adore movies, everyone in our family does. When my son was little, he and I often went to the movies on Friday afternoons. So I've seen every good and bad kid movie made between 1990 and the millennium. My husband and I typically see one or two movies a week. Like millions of others, I'd put the Godfather films at the top of my list. In their articulation of human weakness, ambition, and family dynamics, they're the closest things we have to Shakespeare, and they represent one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled.
My favorite actress is Nicole Kidman. I thought she was brilliant in The Human Stain and Cold Mountain, and I don't understand the criticism that she was too regally beautiful for those roles. Isn't a movie star supposed to be gorgeous?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love all kinds of music -- jazz, rock, classical. I rely on my teenage son to keep me up-to-date on new music. But I rarely listen to music when I write. I find it too distracting.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
If I had my own personal book club, I'd read all the books I should have read in school -- like The Iliad, Moby-Dick, and Remembrance of Things Past.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
My friends and family tend to give me books related to whatever I'm writing. While I was working on I Am Madame X, I got a lot of books about 19th-century French art. I like to give books that I've read and enjoyed. Recently, I've given as gifts, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have a beautiful office overlooking the garden of our Victorian row house. Through the trees, I can see a little slice of the Chicago El train as it snakes along the tracks above a neighboring street. It is amazingly quiet and peaceful for a city house -- a fabulous place to write. On my desk I have pictures of my parents, my husband, and our son. On one wall is a poster from a 19th-century exhibition at the Palais de L'Industrie in Paris, where Sargent's Madame X was first exhibited. My husband gave it to me when I started working on my novel. He also commissioned an artist friend of his to make me my own Madame X -- it's a small watercolor copy of Sargent's painting, which sits on my desk, leaning on a narrow wall between the windows.
When I'm writing a book, I start very early in the morning, at 5:00 or 6:00. I brew a cup of tea and go right to my desk in my nightgown and stay there until I can't stand it another minute and have to take a break. Often that's around 10:00 or 11:00. I go for a run or grocery shopping. The neighbors see me in the park or at Whole Foods and probably think I've just gotten up and that I'm terribly lazy.
What are you working on now?
Another historical novel set in Paris, though it has nothing to do with art.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
For many years I worked as a newspaper reporter and a magazine writer, and my first three books were biographies. I got into writing fiction through the back door. In 1998, after I finished A Useful Woman, my book about the Chicago reformer Jane Addams, I was hunting around for something to do, and I started thinking about Sargent's Madame X. I'd been obsessed with the painting since I'd first seen it in the 1980s, and back then I'd considered writing a nonfiction book about it. But there was very little information available about Madame Gautreau herself. She'd left behind no letters or diaries that would give a sense of her character, her daily life, or her relationships. There was no biography lurking around that I wanted to write, so I decided to try my hand at an historical novel, just for fun. This was before Girl with a Pearl Earring. I thought I was very clever writing a novel about a painting. I had no idea there was about to be an epidemic of such books!
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
My hope is that every deserving new writer will be discovered. I'm amazed at how accomplished and assured so many 20-something novelists are. I couldn't have written a novel in my 20s if my life depended on it.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
You don't necessarily have to write what you know, but you have to write what you want to know, what you're passionately interested in. And what suits your talents and sensibilities. Never write for the marketplace. Trying to write a bestseller or a Pulitzer Prize winner is the kiss of death.
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