Good to Know
A large portion of McPhee's family all had books published in the fall of 2002. McPhee reports, "Of all of them I am in awe. The list includes my husband, Mark Svenvold's Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Strange Afterlife of an American Outlaw (Basic Books), my sister Jenny McPhee's paperback of her first novel The Center of Things (Ballantine Books); my half-sister Joan Sullivan's memoir An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics (Bloomsbury); my father John McPhee's 25th book of nonfiction, The Founding Fish (FSG); my sister Sarah McPhee's work of art historical research, Bernini and the Belltowers: Architecture and Politics of the Vatican (Yale University Press).
While McPhee's father John is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, McPhee told us that "my mother has always wanted to be a writer, and indeed believes the gene is hers. When my little sister, Joan, product of my mother and stepfather, finished her first and beautiful book, my mother declared it proof the gene was hers."
One of McPhee's first jobs was as a caterer for wealthy Park Avenue New Yorkers. "I could write a sort of Nanny Diaries about the famous literati that I fed and served," she confides, "but for the meantime I'll be silent."
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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 Martha McPhee had to say:
For summer reading I love sinking into a long twisty novel, one with many characters and many subplots, one that keeps me up late and night, one I can enjoy for days of long hours on a beach, one which fills those hours by taking me to a world very far away....
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- It can be reread every ten years or so and seem entirely new.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- I read this first on a trip across Europe with a friend. We were seventeen and shared the paperback. As I finished pages I tore them from the book to give to her, tormenting her by threatening to reveal what had happened.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- My mother, an extreme optimist and someone who doesn't like conflict, always said she loved this novel though she skipped the war parts.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell -- I came to this book through the movie which I started watching as a child on television. It was the Million Dollar Movie and I fell in love with Scarlet -- and wanted to be her. By the time I was fifteen I'd seen the movie so many times I knew it by heart. Then my mother gave me the book.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
-- Those long twisty social novels that I adore aren't being written today by Americans, it seems. At 1474 pages it took me two summers to read Seth's book. So alive are all his characters, however, that even when I had to put the book down for a winter of writing and teaching, they were inhabiting my imagination like family I wanted to get back to.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry -- So heartbreakingly beautiful you need the long lazy summer as a buffer.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- I love Italy.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry -- I was nine months pregnant with my first child when I was well into this 900 page book. Toward the end I started getting emotional, I threw the book across the room and screamed, "No, you can't do that. Not fair." I was crying. My husband thought I was going into labor, but I was just finishing the book.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer -- This is simply riveting. The only problem is that it takes a nanosecond to read, it is such a page turner.
Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson -- This novel takes me back to those long days of childhood, the dreams for what a life could be. This novel made me want to write, made me feel I had to write.
In the fall of 2002, Martha McPhee answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O'Brien was a pivotal book. It is the story of an Irish girl's youth and when I read it, it made it want to write. I was 20 years old and had always wanted to write but did not trust that I had stories to tell. When I read the first in O'Brien's trilogy, I realized that stories can be written from the point of view of a child and also be for grown ups. Also, her style was deceptively simple -- writing a book seemed possible. Though I learned while writing my first book that the key word is "deceptive." Writing is difficult and writing from the point of view of a child while retaining the distance and perspective of an adult is downright grueling. As a result I kept rereading O'Brien's book, studying it, taking it apart to see how it was made. In that way, I also taught myself a lot about writing -- noticing the small details, using them to illuminate the big ones.
The interest sparked by O'Brien's child narrator lead me to many other works using a child's voice: This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff; Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson; Stop Time by Frank Conroy; Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Monkeys by Susan Minot; What Maisie Knew by Henry James. I studied them as carefully as I studied O'Brien, discovering that there was no doubt in my mind that I would be a writer. My first novel was Bright Angel Time narrated by eight-year-old Kate Cooper. Edna O'Brien remains one of my favorite writers.
What are your favorite books -- and why?
These are in no particular order, just the order in which they came to mind.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. He is a deeply emotional writer who moves every bone in one's body. I read this book in graduate school and when I understood that it was about Vietnam, I dreaded it. But from the first sentence I fell in love with the language and thus the writer for creating the language. The precision with which he sees the world is devastatingly beautiful. It seemed in the first page alone, which describes a man in Vietnam carrying a letter from a girl he hopes is in love with him, O'Brien captured every nuance of desire. The book is also about the dance between the real and the imagined, how fiction blossoms forth at that intersection. It is a question that all writers and readers contemplate and he addressed it magnificently head on.
- Any book by Thomas Hardy -- Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of The Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He creates such vivid worlds with landscape, it seems, is his primary passion. Landscape is as strong a character in his books as any of the characters. Also his stories are just so good with strong female characters as well as male, and through them -- their plights -- Hardy brings to life the historic period. I would much prefer to read a novel to learn the essence of history than a work of nonfiction.
- Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien. Again, O'Brien. I love everything by him but I single this one out as well for the pure imagination of it. Most of the story is an extended fantasy, a Vietnam soldier imagining, as he's keeping watch, what would happen if one in his battalion went AWOL. He imagines that Cacciato leaves, that he heads off to Paris for the Peace Talks, and that his entire battalion follows him west in pursuit. The imagined is so real, so believable, so well studied it becomes the truth -- which of course is the power of great fiction.
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I love this book for its characters, the brilliance of the language, and again for giving me a history of India in the 1970s through fiction. Every character is heartbreaking and alive, real, breathing. And each one illuminates a shade of Indian culture and politics as their stories intertwine and unfold. Though the specifics are Indian the emotion is universal.
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell because of Scarlett. I love her character and her strength. And this was the first novel I ever read. I read it when I was thirteen. Whenever I was in a difficult situation my sister Sarah would say to me, "Just pretend that you're Scarlett."
- Emma by Jane Austin -- and everything else by her -- but especially Emma because Austin is brilliant and because secretly I aspire to being a matchmaker.
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I love the writing and especially the character Lily Bart. Wharton's story describes a woman's plight in early 20th century New York. Since then only superficially have things changed. I also love Lily's finances, how the intricate architecture of her financial plight combined with her fabulous will and determination creates her doom.
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I say more about this novel below.
- That Night by Alice McDemott. She brings to life an entire suburban town through the story of a teenage romance in breathless prose. It's a gem of a novel, so complete and tight it can be devoured in a single breath.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I'm not sure I need to say anything here. This is a favorite of everyone's. When I was seventeen traveling through Europe with a girlfriend we both read it. I started first and as I read I ripped out the chunks and gave them to my friend. It was a race. Neither one of us could put the novel down. When she caught up with me we simply lay together and read, oblivious to the countries we were traveling through. The book introduced both of us to love. And that friend, Kate, is still one of my best.
Gone with the Wind, because I love Vivian Leigh as Scarlett and Clark Gable as Rhett and because Scarlett is so strong. I started watching that movie when I was five and by the time I was ten I had seen it thirty times and knew Scarlett's best lines by heart.
- Towns van Zandt
- Emmylou Harris
- Lucinda Williams
- Hank Williams
- The Louvin Brothers
- Willie Nelson
I'm sure this list could be longer. I love "good" country music. It's romantic and tough at the same time and always makes me feel like telling a story. I suppose because the songs always do. This sort of music also reminds me of Texas and I have a special thing for that state. Texans are proud. It's independent like its own little country and the people I have known from Texas are always ready to tell a good dramatic tale. As it happens, I also married a Texan.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth for the reasons I mention below. And if for some bizarre reason people in the group hadn't read The Things They Carried that would certainly be top priority.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Again, Tim O'Brien -- his work moves the deepest parts of me in ways that little else does. I guess now that I put it that way, two other writers and books come to mind. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and so many of Wallace Stegner's books. I threw both Lonesome Dove and Crossing to Safety across the room when I was finishing them, crying with everything I had -- furious at the inevitability of the books' endings. Doing this questionnaire I realize that there are just so many favorite books, favorite writers. If at any given time I'm reading a book I love it becomes a favorite book. Right now I've just finished A Suitable Boy. It is a brilliant book -- Tolstoyian in a way that few books are today. Broad, deep, long, a literary saga that describes a culture, a country, written by a fearless writer so deeply smart and penetrating he can go inside any heart he chooses and know it as he knows his own. In the end, the reader can't help but fall in love with all the characters. Seth is an incredibly generous writer. He loves his characters, loves watching them move through history.
What are you working on now?
A love story -- a cross-cultural love story about an American woman and an Italian man and the hazards of such an affair. The question that interests me here is: can a great love transcend culture -- and if not, what happens to that love? Though I don't mind talking about what I'm working on, I've discovered that when the novel is finished it may be something completely different. When I was writing Bright Angel Time I sent my characters west for what I thought would be one chapter. They never came home. I kept saying to myself, This is all wrong. You must bring them back to New Jersey. When I started Gorgeous Lies I thought it was about a girl who goes to India to escape the fact of her father's fatal illness. In India I thought she might disappear from her family and become a Bollywood film star. She was in India for only three days. I could never get her back there. Again, I berated myself until the book was finished and it became so clear that India was not its destination.
What else do you want your readers to know?
Reading and cooking are my favorite ways to unwind. I love to cook. I love to read cookbooks. When I was a child I dreamed that someday I'd be a chef. I started cooking when I was six and have been cooking ever since. I started early because I come from a big a family -- fourteen kids, a few different marriages. There were ten of us in one house. Each child had a before dinner or after dinner chore. Dinner was always late. In order to eat earlier -- so that I could go to bed earlier -- I chose before dinner, which meant cooking, and I loved it. I loved creating something that others could enjoy and then I loved the praise -- all those faces of my brothers and sisters savoring my concoction.
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