Gabrielle Zevin, in her own words:
"Before I liked to write, I liked to type. I remember visiting my grandmother Adele in Ponce Inlet, Florida, when I was three years old, and she had an IBM electric typewriter. I thought that this electric typewriter was about the most fascinating toy in the world -- I liked the little bell and the sounds and the feel of the keys and especially the erase key. Grandma Adele would set me up with plenty of paper and I'd be entertained for hours. I would type pages and pages, mainly nonsense, but sometimes my name or lists of words I knew. I can't remember when the nonsense changed into something more organized and storylike, it just did. (Will the monkey eventually type Shakespeare? Not yet.) The first stories I wrote were autobiographies, because, at that age, I found myself a most intriguing subject. Still, the autobiographies were largely fictionalized. I'd sometimes leave space for illustrations and sew the pages together when I was done. And for many years, this was the extent of my fiction career.
"When I was around eight, I learned how to touch-type at school, and I received a computer as a present. I started writing plays, and for many years I thought I would be a playwright. Over the years, I had studiously managed to write everything but novels -- I had been a copious pen pal, a first-class transcriptionist, a professional screenwriter (still am, actually), a teen music reviewer, a mediocre research-paper writer, and, of course, a writer of plays. So, although I was not writing novels, I was always writing something. Actually, I hadn't ever felt any particular calling to be a novelist, and I clearly remember telling a friend of mine about six months before I started work on Elsewhere that I would NEVER write a novel. And then I thought of the idea for Elsewhere, which did not seem to want to be a play or a screenplay. It kept sounding awfully novelish in my head, and though I was a little scared, I just sat in front of my computer and started to type. So it was fortunate that I liked typing, because I would be typing Liz's story for many a moon. Although I still write screenplays, I've written two other novels since writing Elsewhere. And I'm happy to report that I still like the sound of the keys."
Gabrielle Zevin has had several screenplays optioned by film studios. Gabrielle is a 2000 graduate of Harvard with a degree in English and American literature. She was born in New York and lives there still with one pug dog, Mrs. DeWinter, and her partner of ten years, director Hans Canosa.
Author biography courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Zevin:
"I don't believe in writer's block."
"I own a pug dog, like the one in Elsewhere."
"My first novel, Elsewhere, was actually published three months after my second novel, Margarettown."
"For me, writing about the afterlife was really a way to discuss the important things about this life."
"I wish that the adults who are 'in power' cared more about what their children read. Books are incredibly powerful when we are young -- the books I read as a child have stayed with me my entire life -- and yet, the people who write about books, for the most part, completely ignore children's literature."
"One of my favorite book quotes is from The Unbearable Lightness of Being: 'We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.' "
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In the fall of 2005, Gabrielle Zevin took some time out to tell 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?
Quite honestly, there isn't a single book that influenced me more than any other -- and I feel like a liar whenever I'm asked this sort of thing because my answer always changes.
The first novel I can remember reading was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder -- my dad bought it for me at the mall when I was five, and I remember feeling really proud that he thought I was mature enough to read a book with chapters. I can't say much about that particular reading experience, but I must have liked it enough to keep reading more books with chapters.
My mother's favorite book is All This and Heaven, Too by Rachel Field. I mention this because she and my father both are such avid readers -- I doubt I would be a writer if not for their reverence and love of books.
Maybe the book that influenced me the most was a gift -- it came from my partner of ten years, Hans, the first holiday season I knew him. It was a beautiful hardcover version of the Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, and Hans and I had both gotten each other the exact same book.
Somehow the act of choosing the same book let me know that we were on the same page (so to speak). Eight years later, it was Hans, more than anyone else, who pushed me to write and finish my first novel -- that's why Elsewhere is dedicated to him. The funniest thing is that although Nabokov is one of my absolute favorite writers, I still haven't read the Stories of Vladimir Nabokov ten years later. I'm looking forward to it someday.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Since the answer changes on a fairly regular basis, I thought I'd mention my favorite books at different periods in my life:
Age 6: Charlotte's Web, because it was a gift from my best friend at the time, Wendy. I'm not in touch with Wendy anymore, but I still have the book.
Age 10: Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island. I was just about the same age as Anne at the time I read the Anne series, and I wanted to be a writer like she did (for the first four books at least), so I was probably the perfect audience.
Age 15-16: Completely embarrassing Ayn Rand kick. Very into The Fountainhead and Anthem. Sigh.
Age 19: Golden Days by Carolyn See. It's a very intimate novel about the possibilities of a nuclear war, and I found it completely comforting in a weird way.
Age 20: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, because it was the first time I really comprehended the idea of the novel as personal expression. In my opinion, it has one of the most beautiful opening paragraphs of all time.
Age 22: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. That this was my favorite book at 22 should probably tell you something about the place I was in at the time. Not the happiest time for me.
Now, some of the books I go back to over and over again (usually because I want to figure out something about my own writing) are:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Persuasion by Jane Austen
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Invisble Man by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
The books I treasure the most are the ones that are also my best teachers.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Favorites are hard for me, so here are a few off the type of my head:
Harold and Maude
A Clockwork Orange
The Marriage of Maria Braun
The Muppet Movie
Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion
Leaving Las Vegas
Hannah and her Sisters
I also like that cartoon The Point with Ringo Starr as the narrator. But really, I watch all sorts of things. I don't censor myself in what I watch, read or listen to. For me, a great movie is one that moves me in some way. That's really my only requirement.
Oh, and my partner, Hans, just directed a movie from a script I wrote. It's called Conversations with Other Women and it stars Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart. I think it's brilliantly directed and acted, but of course, I'm prejudiced. The script's not too bad either.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
You know, when I first started writing, I used to listen to music all the time, because it would make time pass more quickly. And then I started to wonder if the music wasn't affecting my writing in ways that I didn't necessarily intend. Consequently, for both of my books, I made the conscious choice not to listen to anything while I was writing the first draft, which was sort of difficult at least in the beginning.
I like all kinds of music; my first job as a writer was as a teen music critic for a local newspaper. At that time, my favorite bands were Guns N' Roses and Nirvana. My favorite lyricist of all time is Bob Dylan -- one of his songs is excerpted in my other novel, Margarettown. He's up there with Rilke or T. S. Eliot or e. e. cummings for me. I also love Johnny Cash, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, Rilo Kiley, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and David Bowie. If I'm in the mood to weep, the second movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto does that for me. Same with the second movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (so romantic and smart) or The Character of Rain by Amelie Nothomb, or maybe My Little Blue Dress by Bruno Maddox, or The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. I think a great book club selection is a quick read, and something I'm dying to discuss out loud, and ideally, a book that can be interpreted in many ways. Oh, and also fun! All of the aforementioned titles are.
But, of course, it really depends on who's in the book club. For book clubs with teens or kids, maybe Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon or a book I just read called Conversations with the Fat Girl.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to give pop-up and picture and photography books as gifts. Poetry, too. I like to give people lovely books that they probably wouldn't buy themselves. I'm the least picky reader ever -- I read whatever is put in front of me (for at least the first 50 pages or so) -- so I don't care very much what people get me. I love to see what my friends think I would like to read. Actually, I sort of feel this way about all gifts, not just books.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I don't have a desk. I work on a sofa with an insistent pug dog wedged between my lap and my laptop. The reason I work on a sofa as supposed to a desk is because it's sort of a way of tricking myself into not really thinking I'm working. I also turn off the ringer on my phone and do a lot of usually unnecessary housework before I begin. I tend to work really late at night or really early in the morning, which, come to think of it, tends to be the same times varied only by the perspective of when I chose to sleep the night (or day) before. I'm a big believer in naps, also.
What are you working on now?
I tend to work on two writing projects concurrently -- that way when I get disgusted with one, I can turn to the other. At the moment, I guess you could say I'm writing two books.
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 sort of believe that it takes every writer her whole life to get where she is. You know, I was always writing, always reading. And although I don't write particularly autobiographical novels, everything, my whole life and all my mistakes, is in my work. In some form or other.
I'd been working at screenwriting and playwriting for about five years when I somewhat abruptly decided to shift gears and try my hand at writing a novel. I had enough money to work for about a month, so that's how long I gave myself to complete Elsewhere. Ha! Four months later, I had finished the book. Six months later, I had sold it.
About three months before I started writing Elsewhere, I distinctly remember having a conversation with an old friend. He wanted to know when I was going to write a novel. And I said, never, which I completely believed at the time. Sometimes, the most interesting things to do are those things you'd never thought you'd do.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Rebecca Schuman is a modern-day Dorothy Parker. She writes a blog and a column for the paper the L. (www.pankisseskafka.typepad.com).
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Everyone gives writers lots of advice, but the only honest advice is to do whatever works. The process is different for everyone. Write a lot. Read even more. But really, anything goes. And don't ever Google yourself.
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