Good to Know
In our interview, Lederer shared some fascinating facts with us:
"I used to think the devil lived on one side of my bedroom and God on the other."
"My first job was working in the records department of the local city hospital, which meant I knew about all of the private medical histories of my neighbors."
"I swear a lot."
"As far as my readers are concerned (as in people who have read either my memoir and/or my poetry): I have tried to be as honest as possible, but I doubt I've succeeded."
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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 Katy Lederer had to say:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion -- She captures her time insuch exquisite prose in this book. A road trip of a book.
A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin -- He writes such lovely, feeling-infused prose. A great enthusiast of childhood.
Manhattan When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell -- Something about the summer
always instigates nostalgia for me, and this is a memoir of rueful, always cosmopolitan nostalgia.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras -- The prose is so literary and yet so steamy -- an easy yet profound summer read.
The Bell by Iris Murdoch -- The story of a quasi-religious community trying to come to terms with both itself and religion's implications written in typical Murdochian style -- lucid, entertaining, and laced with thoughtful observations.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth -- A masterpiece of a book that exposes the dark underbelly of the American dream in prose so bright and brilliant you almost don't notice it working the nerves.
The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck -- A lyrical imagining of a garden in bloom. Gluck is so good at using simple forms to expose what is most complicated about human relationships.
Happily by Lyn Hejinian -- A beautiful book about happiness and thought. Hejinian, more than any other poet working today, is able to make pleasure of the writing process itself - and to allow her reader to partake of this pleasure.
Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails by D. A. Powell -- An incisive poetic exploration of love and eroticism in the time of AIDS, Powell's trilogy is a major poetic achievement. By leavening the eternal with the funny and quotidian, Powell manages to make poetry both profound and a pleasure to read for even those typically allergic to poetry.
Collected Poems by George Oppen -- A classic collection by a poet whose work never fails to remind me of standing in a dust-strewn lot, sucking on an ice-cream cone, dreaming of dipping my body in water.
In the fall of 2003, Katy Lederer took some time to answer 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?
I'm not even sure which book it was -- whether it was an old edition of her unabridged diaries, her collected poems, or a biography about her; whatever it was, it described Sylvia Plath's submission regimen, the way she made sure to keep her poems circulating among the editors of various magazines. It was an important thing for me to read at that time, because I was timid and unsure of myself, and Plath was this great example of a woman who wouldn't let anything get in her way. Her ambition was incredibly inspiring to me.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Washington Square by Henry James (I also love his story "The Beast in the Jungle" for the same reasons) -- James is such a genius at making action of even the most subtle emotions. And in this early work, before he achieved the incredibly graceful and intimidating smoothness of his late period, it is possible for the reader to make out the technical choices he was making as he wrote -- like watching a great magician do a trick and being able to discern the outlines of the illusion.
Ficciones by Jorge Louis Borges -- Such a graceful writer! His stories live and breathe in an atmosphere at once alien and canny to the contemporary reader.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- I love not only the read but also the story behind it: that Fitzgerald, who had always had such an incredible complex about being lazy -- for "wasting his talent" (something for which Hemingway in A Moveable Feast would posthumously excoriate him) -- had determined that this would be his canonical book, his highest contribution, and that, in spite of the book's current status, it was met with mixed reviews in its time, and he felt like a failure.
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald -- A real mess of a novel, I love her descriptions. She was such a strange writer –- so off in her sense of proportion in narrative, yet so on in her intuitive sense of the world and its impact on human emotions.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates -- God, what a devastating book! In the end, a book all about intimate lies.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen -- Her sense of paragraph is uncanny -- each one like a little poem. She wrote when it was still possible (perhaps even fashionable) to lard one's prose with metaphors and similes, and yet her style is never cloying.
Xenogenesis by Octavia Butler -- This trilogy is so brilliant; I have never read any sci-fi or fantasy writer better able to create aliens at once so, well, alien, and yet so human.
Three Poems by John Ashbery -- I remember sitting on a stoop on the Upper West Side one night, waiting for a friend who was late in arriving, reading Ashbery and being taken in whole. I have never seen the second person better done -- in any genre.
The Bible (particularly the books of Job and Revelation) -- What an incredible compendium! Such breadth and incredible strangeness and beauty.
Mimesis by Erich Auerbach -- The greatest book of literary criticism I have ever read -- perhaps because the author wrote it without access to his library. Finely written, brilliant in its insights, and incredibly profound in its respect for the power of literature to change the way readers look at the world.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love Orpheus by Cocteau -- a very beautiful meditation on the extraordinarily selfish nature of the poet. For the very same reason, I love 8 ½ by Fellini and the original of Solaris.
The Matrix helped me when I was writing my memoir; I would watch it every night before I went to sleep.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I write in silence. As far as music, I love (or might be trying to emulate or imitate in my writing), I would say Beethoven's Late Quartets, 50 Cent, My Bloody Valentine, Chopin.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Lying by Lauren Slater. As a genre, memoir has gotten short shrift. It has never been taken seriously as something that might have its own literary history, its own artistic integrity. In Lying, Slater really nails the nature of the memoir on the head -- creating a narrative that is at once literal and highly figurative, incredibly conscious without being self-conscious, and technically brilliant in its execution.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like giving and receiving coffee table type books -- the kinds of books you would never buy for yourself.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in bed. One major ritual is that I feel I need to reread what I've written before writing anything new so I can be sure the writing is "flowing" properly.
What are you working on now?
A novel and a nonfiction project. Of course, poetry.
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?
I have been writing seriously for about ten years. I think the only real "horror" of being a writer is realizing that, no matter what you've done or may do, each project you work on may or may not work out as you would like. Writing is a very time-intensive and often emotionally trying thing to do, and if you don't love it for its own sake, then it's just not worth it.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Though Lauren Slater has achieved a good deal of success, I think she is not taken seriously enough by the literary community, in large part because she works in the genre of memoir.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write what you love and then really push it. Feel no shame in pushing your work if you believe in it.
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