Good to Know
In our interview with Holman, she shared some fun facts with us:
"I have worked since I was 15 at a number of jobs, the most memorable ones are selling meat at the bottom of an escalator at Sears, selling Pendleton Suits to the fine ladies in the South, and working as a coin and currency teller in a bank vault."
"My writing is my job and now my career. I treat it as such. The most important things
in my life are my family and loved ones. Writing comes second."
"I love to teach. I have taught for years in community settings, at hospices, womens' centers, and as the writer-in-residence at Duke University Medical Center, where I worked with long-term pediatric patients and their families, using writing as a tool for managing stress and to facilitate healing. In 2003-2004 I will be the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC- Chapel Hill. One of the best things about writing is teaching and giving other folks ‘permission' to write their stories!"
"I unwind by painting watercolors, gardening, lifting weights, and collecting cowgirl memorabilia -- especially shirts. I'm also crazy about graphic novels -- Eric Drooker, Los Bros Hernandez, and Art Spiegelman being three of my favorites of the form."
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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 Virginia Holman had to say:
Summer in the south has always meant devouring the printed word. Everything here slows down and I find myself reading everything from The Pscyhoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard to Calvin and Hobbes (the comic strip) to the fine print on the pickle jar. Here are a few favorites, chosen because I remember reading them at the beach:
Robertson Davies' Cornish trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus -- These are smart, intellectual, bawdy, and desperately intriguing books. Davies' grand wit, empathy, and ability to spin a big-hearted satire that includes gypsies, monks, backstabbing academics is about the best times you can have. Davies is the J. K. Rowling for adults.
The Florence King Reader --Whipsmart and funny as hell, Florence King is a national treasure. I dare you, tell that to her face.
Sugar Among the Freaks by Lewis Nordan -- Anyone that has grown up and loved their mother and father will adore Lewis Nordan's writing. He writes of love and loss the way Bessie Smith sings the Blues, the way Elvis tells you He's so lonesome he could die. Nordan writes of Mississippi and the human heart with such style, such passion, that you will weep grateful tears.
The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser -- Millhauser's stories in this collection
are some of the best I have read in my life. He's a modern-day Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Mammoth Cheese -- Sheri Holman's (no relation) third and most dazzling accomplishment is a truly American story of independence, young love, a Thomas Jefferson impersonator and a bizarre recreation of a 1,500 pound wheel of cheese set in the fictional town of Thre chimneys, Virginia. Sound far-fetched? In Holman's hands you'll never want to leave Virginia. Holman's book is a worthy heir to Jane Smiley's early work. An absolute must-read.
The Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singelton -- The best thing next to seeing
George Singleton read one of his stories about Mendel Dawes set in Forty-Five, South Carolina,
is reading them. Singleton is bawdy, wicked-smart, compassionate and soulful.
Tin Can Art -- Wondering what to do with all those cool micro-brewery bottletops coffee and sardine cans. Recycle them in to beautiful and whimsical art. With a little imagination and a few supplies from the local hardware store, you'll soon contemplate giving up the real world to become an outsider artist!
The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart -- A cross between Ripley's Believe It or Not,
Darwin, and Barbara Kingsolver, Stewart writes with such awe of earthworms and the secret world beneath our feet that you may just venture in to your backyard with a shovel and start digging, just to see what's there.
The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagels -- Never read the book? Read it
in college? Take the time to read this lucid and lively translation. It's just about the best book you'll ever read.
In the summer of 2003, Virginia Holman took some time to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
After considerable thought I have to say the most influential book overall was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I read it throughout my childhood and adolescence, and it was just so delightful and captivating. And Marmee and Jo and Meg were all so capable and strong and lived life and took chances. It still just kills me every time the book ends.
As a young girl and adolescent -- utterly oblivious at that time how class and personal wealth really played and still plays a part in many artists' lives and education -- I thought I, too, could pursue art and writing. So -- against all sensible advice to the contrary and against my better judgment -- I did! However, instead of going off to writing camps or a year abroad, I wrote on lunch breaks from jobs in the bank vault, the local mall, and in stock rooms at Sears. It was good preparation for having a child, and writing in the wee hours before he awoke or in the car as he slept.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop -- Bishop's poems are some of the most beautiful in the English language. I identified with her need to transform loss into words, whimsy, and travel. She really was a cartographer of the soul and a truly brilliant poet.
C. S. Lewis's Narnia series -- Simply some of the best books ever written for children. Even now, as I reread them with my son, I am awed by how Lewis knows his way around a sentence and the artful way he tunnels straight in to our most primal fears and desires.
The complete works of James Baldwin -- Baldwin's fiction and nonfiction are perhaps the most important accounts we have of racism and civil rights and also happen to be superb works of literature.
Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswicks series. I find this trilogy of books about L'Engle's, childhood, married life, and grappling with age and death to be one of the finest guides we have on how to live.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson -- This is a truly gorgeous, perfect symphony of a book that belongs on the shelf with Moby-Dick. It is a beautiful and sometime hilarious rendering of loss on a community and family. It also happens to be the only novel I have ever seen so properly adapted into film by the masterful Bill Forsythe.
The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker -- Truly one of the most riveting accounts of WWI and the effects of trauma, hatred, and the early, flawed art of psychiatry that has been written.
The Grass Harp and early stories of Truman Capote -- Capote's early work is astoundingly beautiful in the way that he evokes the loss of innocence and childhood mere seconds after it has passed. He captured nostalgia at the precise second it occurred.
Maus by Art Spiegelman -- This book is so good, so painful, frank, and brilliant in its recounting of Spiegelman's inquiry into his parent's lives as Holocaust survivors that I spent several years reading oral histories and testimonies of those who survived. Highly recommended, along with Lawrence Langer's collections of Holocaust survivor testimonies.
Collected letters of Flannery O'Connor -- O'Connor's letters are a fascinating document of her short but prolific literary life, her faith, and her endearing oddness, and wicked sense of humor. Her letters should be required reading, along with her fiction.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison -- I had the pleasure of being led through a literature class one semester by Skip Gates and will never forget reading this book in Richmond, Virginia, and how it was one of the first books that opened my eyes to all of the racial polarities that existed (and still exist) in our country and in my backyard. This is a devastating and necessary book.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Double Life of Veronique -- This film perfectly captures the magnificent sense of loss experienced by a young girl, when her (unknown to her) doppelgänger dies suddenly.
Chinatown -- What's not to love about this movie? Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and the best "nose job" since Nicole Kidman's turn as Virginia Woolf.
Bonnie & Clyde -- The opening scene between Beatty and Dunaway is worth the
price of admission. And Shelly Duvall in one of her first roles is a revelation.
All About Eve -- First off, one the best movies ever made about a powerful, successful woman and her complex, resilient relationships with her ego, her friends, and her lover. Bette Davis's was of the most emotionally complex characters ever brought to the big screen.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers -- Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful in any film. But this one is a strange dark tale of politics and intrigue in a small town is worthy of ten Oscars.
The Ten Commandments -- Every time we watch this, my husband stomps around the house like Yul Brynner, saying, "So let it be written, so let it be done!" Great camp fun. Anne Baxter also does a marvelous turn at making Charlton Heston seem more than a prop of a leading man.
Far from Heaven -- I thought this most recent film by Todd Haynes was brilliant and deeply moving. The cinematography, the story of a marriage unraveling was beautifully and affectingly told.
All the Sean Connery James Bond flicks -- Connery at any age is a thinking woman's confection, don't you think?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like a lot of different things. Ray Charles, Etta James, Bill Frisell, old Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Gillian Welch, Hank Williams (Sr.), Patsy Cline, Mark Knopfler, Al Green, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Superchunk. I adore the Oxford American Music issue CD that comes out every year! I tend to write in silence, though.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. Gornick's story of a feminist daughter coming to terms with her failures and those of her mother is riveting. She is just one of the smartest, most engaging writers out there. Every time I recommend one of her books to a friend, they come back saying, "She's WONDERFUL! Why haven't I heard of her?" Good question.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
My husband and I love reference books of any kind with a passion. My favorite gift was a complete OED from my husband several years back. We get it out at almost every meal. I gave him the old collection of Encyclopedia Brittanicas -- the ones written by scholars pre-WWI. They are splendid reference guides, though the pages are tissue thin and our dog likes to lick the crumbling leather on the spines.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I tend to treat my writing like work. I just get up and do the job. If I knew of something
other than simply writing regularly that would facilitate the process, I'd be game to try it.
Sometimes, I clean up my study before I work only to mess it up again, but I wouldn't call
that a ritual -- it's procrastination.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on two novels. One is a western, which is a big stretch for a gal who had never been past Missouri until a few weeks ago. And then several months ago I started hearing a voice, not in the way my mother hears voices but the way fiction writers hear voices, and it has taken over my life. It's still too green and tender a bud to talk about more than that. I am, however, having a great deal of fun!
I also write articles, essays, and book reviews and will be teaching at the University of North Carolina next year as their Kenan Visiting Writer, so I have plenty on my plate.
Many writers in the Discover program 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?
Oh, my. I have been rejected for years upon years. I started sending out stories in the mid-'80s and had one thing published in 1990 and then didn't get anything published again until 1996. Except for a two-year dry period, I was writing all that time. I think you really have to be tenacious, to write about what really interests you, to read like mad, and to never, ever let the editors at magazines and publishing houses get you down. You can save yourself a lot of heartache by learning never to take rejection personally.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
He's not a new writer, but he hasn't gotten the acclaim he deserves, and that is Eric Larsen, who wrote a wonderful diptych of novels called An American Memory and I Am Zoe Handke, published by Algonquin Books in the early '90s. These books contain some of the best writing and understanding of American family, culture, repression, rage, and love that I have ever read.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Work daily at your writing, but when it comes to trying to send out your material, try to detach yourself from it and think in terms of business, which is, after all, what publishing is. In fact, I recommend that writers spend a little time working in publishing not only as a way of learning the ropes but as a form of community service.
I worked at Algonquin Books for several years, and it was humbling to see how many people write books and try to get published and also to see how a book is made. It's a tremendous team effort.
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