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Meet the WritersImage of Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery. which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.

Author biograpy courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

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In the winter of 2005, Stacy Schiff took some time out to answer some of our questions:

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Well there's education and then there's sustenance. For the first, Justin Kaplan and Leon Edel head the list of household gods, in Edel's case for Writing Lives, which is essentially Biography 101 in 270 pages. Harold Nicolson's Some People has exerted more influence than I care to admit; I would reread it any day of the week. The same goes for any page Nancy Mitford or Jane Kramer ever wrote or has written. Generally I wouldn't want to live in a house without Richard Holmes's Footsteps, Geoffrey Woolf's Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Scott's Portrait of Zelide, and Nabokov's Gogol, oddball books all in their way, also some of the best life-writing I can think of.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Nearly every year I reread Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, and every year it gets better. Also in the perfect novel category I'd put, in no particular order:

  • The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
  • A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
  • The Leopard by Lampedusa
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • On the Black Hill Chatwin,
  • Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I can't write a line without music -- it provides just the right amount of distraction to keep me focused. Clearly I still miss the noisy roommates. In any event, until recently it was primarily Mozart and Chopin and Hadyn, concertos and sonatas and things. A Great Improvisation had a large cast and somehow required lyric drama. Its first chapters were written to The Marriage of Figaro, its last to The Barber of Seville. I do my best (and only) thinking when I'm running in the park, where the soundtrack is more likely Springsteen or Elvis Costello.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    An interesting thing about book groups, it seems to me, is that there is no correlation between a brilliant book and a brilliant discussion. The first seems sometimes even to undermine the second. That said, I'd go the Bleak House and Middlemarch route, if only because I have the attention span of a flea and appreciate peer pressure. Or I'd be indulgent and head toward those gems of semi-biography, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage or Nicholson Baker's U and I. Despite the corrosive envy, I've always had great respect for anyone who can get a book out of not doing his homework.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I have pressed Adam Haslett's stories, Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, and Bruce Wagner's L.A. novels on everyone I know. I would have done the same with Philip Roth's American Pastoral and The Human Stain, but everyone else had got there first. As for gifts, cookbooks, hands down. They're something I never allow myself to buy. I am a glutton as well for memoir. (After Joyce Carol Oates's Them and Jeannette Walls'sThe Glass Castle, this summer my l3-year-old asked, "Are you on an abusive parent binge?")

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    The desk thing is a problem for me. The ideal one would be vast and perfectly clear. Yet the bane of the biographical existence is paper; if you're "an artist under oath" you're writing from a mountain of documentation. What you mean to do always is to levitate slightly above the materials, which brings up the other thing that is always on my desk. If you squeeze any page I have written, coffee drips out.

    Recently a study proved that working from a larger, less cluttered computer screen increases concentration. I could have told them that. And yes, I write first drafts with a mechanical pencil and a yellow legal pad. There's good reason for this primitive behavior: I am a crackerjack typist. My hand moves far more quickly than my brain.

    What are you working on now?
    Extricating myself from Franklin, who was at all times more beguiling, and now harder to shake, than I would ever have thought. And I was in many ways at home in the l8th century, though I do wish they had used typewriters then.

    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?
    I would love to know where I am today, as I haven't the foggiest idea. Generally my horror stories are of the research variety; unwilling sources and irascible archivists have slammed unnumerable doors in my face. It was terrifying to leave a job (in publishing) in order to write my first book for every possible reason. It felt presumptuous. And I'd never written anything other than corporate annual reports, to pay the rent. When finally I mustered the courage to tell a novelist friend that I was talking to editors about a biography, her reply was, "Oh that's okay. That's not a real book."

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Remember that publishers are as eager to find an enthralling new writer as you are eager to find an enthralled publisher. They wouldn't be in business if it weren't for you. I truly still believe a good book will always, eventually find an editor. On what happens next there are no guarantees, however. That's when it helps to remember all over again what you should never forget in the first place: the only thing that matters is what you've done on the page.

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  • About the Writer
    *Stacy Schiff Home
    * Biography
    * Interview
    *Saint-Exupery, 1994
    *Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), 1999
    *A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, 2005