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Meet the WritersImage of Alison Smith
Alison Smith
Good to Know
In our interview, Smith shared some fun facts about herself:

"I love oysters! I will only eat them raw. Last summer my friends and I rented a house for a week on Long Island. We bought an oyster knife and fresh oysters from the local fisherman and learned to shuck them ourselves. Then we had an oyster eating contest. I ate 30 in one sitting."

"The current song with which I am obsessed: Rod Stewart's Maggie May. Yes, you heard right, Rod Stewart. Listen to it -- it's a good song -- great lyrics. And the mandolin at the end -- lovely."

"When I am completely stuck with a piece of writing, I like to try standing on my head and talking myself through it. There is something about being upside down that can help me shift into a new mode."

"When I was in grade school I wanted to be a farmer so that I could hang out with the livestock. When I was in high school I wanted to be a cemeterologist so that I could hang out in Mount Hope Cemetery all day taking rubbings of gravestones. When I was in college, I though that I would be a teacher -- in order to do something useful with my life. I thought being a writer was too self-indulgent."



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Interview
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 Alison Smith had to say:

I love recommending books to people and I seem to have an endless supply of "favorites." I've divided the books into three sections:

1) Short books, because who wants to make a huge commitment? It's summer vacation after all.

  • Desperate Characters by Paula Fox -- I just found this book a couple of months ago and I cannot stop talking about it. It's set in Brooklyn Heights in the late sixties -- a woman feeds a stray cat. The cat bites her on the hand. This small incident slowly shifts the trajectory of the woman's life, and piece by piece, things begins to unravel. It's the closest to a thriller that you can get with literary fiction.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote -- Capote is a genius at setting a mood, at grasping a character, at serving up subtleties of tone with the sweetest, simplest sentences. He has a very light touch. The writing is spare and lean and the story leaps of the page.

  • Gigi by Colette -- I bet you've seen the movie with Leslie Caron; she is beautiful. I love the movie. But I also love this little book. Precise, understated, morally complex: perfect.

    2) Long books, because you want to get lost in a book and you want it to last throughout the entire vacation:

  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -- I just read this on the plane to England. To be honest I'd planned to sleep for the entire flight. I set up with my pillow and my eye mask I spread out across three seats and settled in. And then I started this book. It is gripping -- Waters has gone back in time, pillaged the best of the great gothic thrillers and brings it to us in this gorgeous period piece. (And it's really sexy.)

  • Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill -- The love story of Sarah and Gerald Murphy. Sarah and Gerald Murphy, born into wealth and privilege in late 19th century America -- they met, fell in love and skipped town. They set up house in the south of France. Basically, they "discovered" the south of France. And soon Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Jon Dos Pasos and a few movie stars followed. It's a beautifully drawn portrait of a marriage -- and it's filled with very juicy, very old gossip.

  • Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman --The biography of Colette, one of France's best and most prolific writers. It is rather amazing that Colette had any time to write considering the amount of love and trouble she kicked up in her lifetime. This biography is beautifully written and it is a smart, clear evocation of France, especially Paris, through the wars.

  • The Collected Stories of John Cheever -- Cheever is just so readable. He's such fun. And, together they give us a portrait of the American family from the ‘40s through the ‘60s. And this portrait is filled with all the things we were afraid to say at our own dinner tables. All that is taboo and strange that creeps into family life -- Cheever lays it bare.

    3) Happy memoirs, because there is nothing like a well-told happy life story:

  • Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham -- Cunningham was raised by her two uncles in an unorthodox, very loving household in the Bronx in the fifties. The portrait of these two men who took Laura in after her mother died and the strange and lovely life they build together is one of the most heartening books I've read in a long time.

  • A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel -- This is a book about a small life in a small town in the middle of America. But it's larger than it looks. Because with humor and with crackerjack story telling, Kimmel gives us a beautiful portrait of the American childhood.

  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (the other Durrell) -- I love this book. I love it so much that I've got to recommend it again. When Gerald was about 10, his mother decided to cart the family off the Greece for a year. Why? Just because. And there Gerald gets himself into all sorts of trouble -- the budding naturalist brings home live scorpions, goes fishing in the Mediterranean sea, and adopts countless little creatures and along the way, discovers his calling: he will grow up to be one of England's leading naturalists.

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    In the fall of 2003, Alison Smith took some time to talk with us 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 read voraciously as a kid -- anything I could get my hands on. No one in my family ever talked about books. I didn't really know anyone who read for pleasure the way I did. No one ever mentioned the word "author." I thought perhaps books grew on trees. In my grade school English classes we did not read books. Instead we diagrammed sentences and memorized prayers.

    When I was fourteen, I graduated from grade school and moved on to high school. I enrolled at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls. I was put in a Regents track English class. On the first day of class, Mrs. Moore, a tired-looking southern woman, handed us each a sheet of paper with a list of books on it. "What's this for?" I asked. "It's the syllabus," Mrs. Moore said. "But it's just a list of novels," I said. Mrs. Moore told me that we would read the books and talk about them in class. I had never heard of this kind of class. It had not occurred to me that you could talk to other people about the books you read. I was so excited that I read the entire syllabus in the first week. By the second week of high school I had set up a routine. I would arrive at English class ten minutes early, sit in the front row and my hand would be raised throughout the period. This eagerness for discussion did not gain me any popularity. The other girls dismissed me as a brown-noser or just a freak -- can you blame them? Every time my hand went up Mrs. Moore's entire body would slowly slump downward as if she were wilting. She would sink back into her desk chair and say, "What is it now, Alison?"

    At the end of the second week, she kept me after class. "I don't think this is the right place for you," she said. I panicked. "But why?" I asked. "I'm doing all my homework." She sighed and nodded. Then she wrote me a pink slip, walked me down the hall to room 215 knocked and ushered me through the door. I found myself in another a class full of girls, like the one I had just come from. And like Mrs. Moore's class, these girls each had a novel on their desk. But things were different here.

    Here, everybody raised their hand, more than that, they really didn't wait to be called on, even more than that, they were yelling over each other. Two girls half-stood, half-sat on their chairs and called to each other across the desks. "She spooked the horse," the first said. "She had supernatural powers." The other called back, "No, the point is there was nothing supernatural about Jane Eyre. She was completely ordinary." The teacher, Mrs. Brown, stood at the font of the room her hand raised to the chalk board. She was scribbling furiously. She wrote down everything the girls said. Mrs. Moore introduced me. Mrs. Brown set down her chalk, wiped her hands on her wool slacks and shook my hand. She stood back and gave me an appraising look. "What do you say, Smith?" she asked. "Was Jane ordinary or supernatural?" "Ordinary," I whispered. "What?" Mrs. Brown said. "Speak up." "Ordinary," I said. And this time I said it a bit too loudly. The girls stopped talking and turned to look at the three of us. Mrs. Moore ducked out. "Good," Mrs. Brown said. "Another vote for ordinary." She pointed down the middle row. "There's a seat behind Marion, I believe."

    That day, I began my literary education. I became a nerd among nerds. I never diagrammed another sentence. With Mrs. Brown and the girls in the freshman honors English class at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls I learned what an author was. I learned about voice and narrative structure and tone and atmosphere. I learned how to talk about literature and then how to organize my opinions and write them down. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Brown, the five-paragraph essay was practically a work of great art. And Jane Eyre was the one that started it all.

    What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff -- This brilliant, touching memoir about a boy coming of age in the wake of his parent's divorce was practically my Bible while writing Animals. Everything you need to know about memoir is in the book -- voice, narrative structure, chapter shape, subtext, theme. Sentence by sentence -- it is exquisite.

  • Herculine Barbin -- Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite, Introduced by Michel Foucault -- I first came across this book in a bargain book bin at the one bookstore in the outlet mall near my childhood home. I was eighteen. I had never heard of Foucault or hermaphrodites. Still, I bought it and read it and I was gripped. This is an amazingly touching diary written by a girl in convent school in France who, when she reaches adolescence, develops the secondary sex characteristics of a man. It is interesting in its construction of gender. That year, in my senior English class, we were discussing the issue of gender -- and is there a definitively male or definitively female style of writing? This book really set that discussion in a new light. It is also just a brilliant account of sexual awakening, of adolescent alienation. Although the writing is, at times, flowery and unpolished, there is something universal in this small, heart-wrenching, girl/boy's diary.

  • Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel -- I was quite late in coming to contemporary writers. Anything written after 1930, I would not go near it. The first time I was at a writers' colony (MacDowell in 1994) I was 23 and the second youngest resident. The youngest was a brilliant poet named Kirsten Smith. She was from LA. At 22 she had already been published in numerous anthologies. She liked to stay up late and drink vodka tonics. She knew how to submit to literary journals (a procedure that was quite beyond me), could write a sonnet faster than I could compose a single sentence, and could list every public appearance River Phoenix had ever made. She was quick and sharp, funny and thoroughly modern. One night she asked me what my favorite books were. I listed them. She said -- so you only read crusty dead people, is that your thing? The next morning, she arrived in the breakfast room with a stack of books -- all contemporary women authors. She slid the pile across the table and said, "Welcome to the twentieth century."

    Amongst the pile was a slim volume of stories called Reasons to Live. Hempel's work was a revelation. Brilliantly constructed, stark, biting, funny, strange -- the stories were about me, about girls I knew, about our lives. And the tenor of the prose --- she hit a chord in me that was both entirely new and entirely familiar.

  • Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster -- Forster is one of my favorite writers. He takes on big themes -- faith, family, romantic love, class division, women's role in society, foreignness -- with deft humor, with deep compassion. His characters are complex yet immediately recognizable and compulsively lovable. His wit is cutting and gentle at the same moment. I had trouble choosing just one of his books. Angels is his first. It was published when he was in his early twenties and it is an astonishing accomplishment for such a young writer.

  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh -- This novel is considered the most sentimental and perhaps sloppiest of Waugh's books. I'm not sure what it says about me that it is my favorite of Waugh's novels. I read it repeatedly in late high school and early college. I was caught up with Charles and Sebastian and their early infatuation at Oxford between the wars. The thing is, I usually only read the first 100 pages of this book. I know that is bad form, but it just breaks my heart when Sebastian leaves Charles and his family, runs off and destroys himself with alcoholism.

  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell -- This small gem of a memoir is about a year Gerald and his family spent on the Greek island of Corfu. Why they go there? No reason really? What does Gerald, the ten-year-old budding naturalist do there? Nothing and everything. He discovers scorpions, swims in the phosphorescence, collects many-legged, unsavory pets and watches the antics of his mother two brothers (including the novelist Lawrence Durrell) and his sister. It's a riotous, loving, delicately wrought portrait of the strangest of species -- the happy family.

  • Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin -- This slender, sharp, finely wrought little novel will break your heart. And when you finish it you will return to page one and start the heartbreak all over again. It's that good. One of the best things about the book is how well Baldwin captures the atmosphere, the landscape of expatriate Paris. He keeps these existential questions well-grounded by returning again and again to the physical world. So, while the story is very sad, the detail is so beautifully evoked that you will be completely drawn in.

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami -- Murakami is on of my favorite contemporary novelists. And this is my favorite of his novels. It's almost impossible to describe Murakami. He is subtle, engrossing, haunting, timely and completely contemporary. It's sort of a quest story -- a weird, quiet, beautiful oddysey. A man's wife leaves him and this fissure, this mysterious loss, forces him to open to more and more unexpected things. It sounds like a small book, but this book is huge, vast, deeply ambitious -- and it's gripping. For me, it captures something essential about the act of grief.

  • The Camera My Mother Gave Me -- Susanna Kaysen's second memoir is all about her vagina. She gets an illness that causes unremitting genital pain. This book -- searching, heartbreaking, funny and disarmingly frank -- I love it. She takes on a taboo subject and she does not once falter or shy away from it. The account of this small patch of pain become a huge piece about love and alienation in our modern culture.

  • A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom -- Her second collection. I did not think it possible after Come to Me, but she has outdone herself. Reading Amy Bloom is like visiting another country -- everything is cast in a new light -- everything is brilliant and new, and at the same time strangely familiar. She takes daily life, ordinary love and sickness and hope and irritation and washes it all in her particular brand of deep perception. Read this book. You will not regret it.

  • Barrel Fever by David Sedaris -- This is Sedaris' first collection. A series of brave, hysterical, impossible, essays and stories. They're so wrong and they're so good. They're like a box of perfect chocolates -- you never know what you're going to find when you bite in -- and there's not a dud in the bunch.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Notorious with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant -- When they kiss while Grant is on the phone (and the kiss actually goes on for several minutes), despite the interruptions -- perhaps because of the interruption -- breaking the blue code. It's very sexy.

  • His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Russell is a revelation. This movie is so much fun. It's so brilliantly directed. The dialogue is so perfectly timed, it seems more like a piece of music than a film.

  • The Crying Game -- I can't remember any of the actors' names. They are all quite good, but it is the story here that really gets me. It works on so many levels, a political thriller, a revenge piece, a meditation on identity, on devotion.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I have a habit of finding one song and listening to it repeatedly for a month or so. Last month, it was Johnny Cash singing "I See A Darkness." Before that it was Leonard Cohen's "In my Secret Life." I don't usually listen to music while I'm writing. I find it distracting. However, when I was finishing Animals, I was house-sitting for friends who had an extensive collection of opera CDs. I knew nothing about opera and I decided to educate myself. I put in La Boheme -- with Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu -- and I never looked back. Meaning, I still know nothing about opera. I only listen to La Boheme. It turns out to be the only piece of music I can listen to when I am writing. Especially Musetta's aria at the end of act two -- Quando me n'vo. I would put that in on repeat play and sit up all night writing a draft of a chapter.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    We would be reading the complete works of Henry James. I like the idea of reading one author in his/her entirety. I think you get a much deeper sense of the writer's themes and development this way. Lately, every other person I meet is reading The Portrait of a Lady. I read this novel about ten years ago and I did not like it. Isabel's situation was too desolate for me. I was frustrated by how James portrayed her. I felt like he was keeping things from the reader. However, after the fourth good-friend-whose-taste-I-admire said to me, "I think you're missing the point." I've decided that I'd best give James another try.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like books of strange facts. I have a book of "lasts" -- the last public hanging, the last square piano, the last steam-powered flight. I love finding strange old books in thrift shops -- books on etiquette from the 19th century or how-to manuals for obsolete machines. There is something about entering the past through these very mundane descriptions that feels more authentic to me. Any catalog of obscure, useless, outdated trivia -- I'm there.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I don't have any writing rituals. I don't have a set schedule. I believe in deadlines. Deadlines can be very inspiring. I try to meet them. Sometimes I succeed.

    My desk is, more often than not, covered in papers -- old drafts, notes-to-self, journals opened and folded back to a certain page, and several dog-eared novels. When it gets too crowded, I move the drafts to the floor. I spread them out around my chair. They usually end up covered with dust and footprints. Sooner or later I wind up crouching on the floor in the middle off this mess, reading and editing. I don't like to throw out old drafts. I'm superstitious about them. If I cut a passage, I always save it. You never know when you might need it again. Of course the trouble arrives when I try to file all these drafts. I am constantly embarking on some self-improving plan. They usually involve tricking myself into getting organized. I buy Post-Its and file folders. I am drawn to items with names like "vertical literature organizer". And still my desk is littered with paper.

    What are you working on now?
    A few articles. A novel. I don't like to say too much about new projects. I am superstitious about them too.

    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?
    It took me six years to write this book. It is the hardest thing I have ever willingly signed up for in my life. When I started it in 1996, I was quite naïve. I had no idea what writing a memoir entailed. First, there is so much one has forgotten. In my case I had not forgotten as much as locked away certain memories. They were too painful to remember and too precious to forget. So they hovered inside me just below my conscience mind -- waiting. When I started writing, I realized how much I had to retrieve. Much of writing this book was about the act of remembering.

    When the memories started to come back, they were so intense, so vivid and visceral that I could not manage them easily. I cried almost every day I worked on the book. I spent a lot of time just slogging through the intense images that were coming to me. Creating a narrative structure out of all these disparate and powerful images was my biggest challenge. Most of the time I was pretty sure that I would never figure it out. But I had made a promise to Roy that I would finish this book. And so I kept going. I became obsessed. As the years rolled by and it seemed I was getting more and more mired in the past, I just got more determined.

    By the end, I had lost my waitressing job and been evicted from my apartment, but I just could not stop working on this book. I put all my belongings in storage and was living my car, driving up and down the east coast house-sitting and staying with friends who offered to put me up while I wrote. I finally finished the book while house-sitting in Ithaca, New York. I did not know what to do next. I moved back to Northampton, Massachusetts, got a job writing how-to articles for a trade sales magazine and asked some friends what I should do now that the book was done. One of them offered to show the book to his literary agent. I mailed him a manuscript. He liked it and asked if he could represent me.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    There is a novel that came out last year that I quite like. It is called The Gangster We Are All Looking For. It is by a Vietnamese American named Le Thi Diem Thui. I think she's done very well with this book, so she's pretty much "discovered." But it's a beautifully drawn portrait of a lost childhood -- the imagery is distilled, stark, just gorgeous. It's worth discovering all over again.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    I don't know if you're goal should be to be "discovered." That seems too outward -- too much about things beyond your control. So much of writing is about your relationship with yourself. It is a lot of hours alone at the desk. Your only tools are memory and imagination. Discovery will come out of developing and nurturing this relationship. Even if it is simply that you discover yourself.



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    Photo by Jerry Bauer