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In our interview, Steinbach shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:
"When I was 15 I took a summer job (after giving my age as 16) at a venetian-blind factory. I worked on an assembly line, stringing the cord that runs through the blind, opening and closing it. It was the hardest work I ever hope to do. Eight hours a day with two 15n-minute breaks from the line and a half hour for lunch. I hope one day to incorporate it into a story. The good part was that at the end of the summer, I quit, took the money and spent a week in Manhattan, visiting galleries, seeing plays, and writing down everything I saw."
"It seems as though my future as a ‘travel writer' was foretold. During the last weeks of my mother's life, when she was dying in the hospital, we talked of everything. And one day she told me this story: ‘Do you remember when you were eight years old, and your favorite game was to pretend you were going on a trip? She asked me. You would go to the basement and haul up an old suitcase, cut out a circle of white paper and write on it, PARIS, LONDON, ROME, then paste it on the side. Then you would go to your closet and take out all your clothes, remove them from the hangers and carefully pack the suitcase. You never tired of doing this.'
In the 20 years since my mother died, I have thought often of this, always with pleasure. What a gift to have time to say goodbye to my mother, and what a nice memory to have. If I close my eyes, I see myself again, an 8-year-old, removing my dresses from wire hangers and folding them into neat bundles, fitting them into an old striped suitcase."
"There are three things in life that have never let me down. I call them 'the three C's': children, cats, and coffee."
"I have no hobbies, really, but I do have interests. Collecting Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. Writing poetry. Traveling. Pursuing a project that entails writing biographies of a number of old passages in Paris. And, of course, my most intense interest and biggest fantasy: looking for an apartment in Paris."
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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 Alice Steinbach had to say:
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden -- When I first read this captivating tale tracing the life of a fictional geisha named Nitta Sayuri, I was stunned by the vastness of the novel's social canvas and moved by the obstacles presented in the love story between Sayuri and her powerful patron. It was as though Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had been combined into one writer. A big book in every way, Sayuri tells us the story of her life as a geisha, beginning in 1929 when at the age of nine she is taken from her tiny fishing village to Kyoto to a famous geisha house where she will learn the art of the geisha. I found the book impossible to put down, a gem of lyricism and suspense. The second time I read Memoirs I was in Kyoto, learning some of the same traditional Japanese arts and meeting real geisha for a chapter in my book, Educating Alice. Even though I was living in the actual setting of Memoirs and walked more than once over the bridge in Gion where Sayuri walked, the book still had the power to transport me to a world unlike any other: exotic, forbidden and on the verge of vanishing.
Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schissel -- Prepare to be stunned again by this book: a true-life account of the incredibly courageous (and usually anonymous) women who made the historic brutal trek on the Overland Trail to Oregon or California between 1840 and 1870. From diaries and letters written by these women -- who reluctantly left their families and traditional lives back East to accompany their husbands -- we get a clear picture of how strong women have always been. But be prepared to weep at the losses and unimaginable hardships they endured to settle the West.
The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett -- A charming, witty little book by one of Britain's most versatile writers. The idea is so basic and yet so often not addressed by either writers or readers that it seems almost startling. Who are we, without the things we spend a good deal of our lives acquiring? Bennett asks. The book also raises the question about the nature of possessions, and answers it by having a well-to-do British couple return one night from the opera to find all their things gone from their fancy flat. Suddenly, they must confront a world in which they own nothing. What would you do? Well, for one thing, I would have an extra copy of this book stashed in a separate, safe place.
Children and Gardens by Gertrude Jekyll -- Reader, you are in luck! This difficult-to-find book -- first published in 1908 -- has recently been reissued. Written by gardening legend Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), who changed the course of gardens from Italianate to English, the book is written in a clear, simple style. Purportedly a manual to teach children how to think about gardens (which it does with delightful prose and photos of the author's cats in the garden) it is really a memoir of Jekyll's own childhood. Enchanting from start to finish and sure to delight the child in every gardener and the gardener in every child.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka -- A brilliant first novel that chronicles one family's banishment to the Japanese internment camps of World War II. In just 144 pages of lyrical and lucid brilliance, Otsuka's voice on the page reminds us that identity can always be challenged, particularly in times of turmoil and fear. In five chapters we hear different points of view from each member of the interned family. A book as evocative and resonant as a Schubert concerto, particularly in these trying times.
Two Lives by William Trevor -- Here the Irish-born writer -- who's been called "one of the finest writers of fiction now at work in the English language" -- offers two complementary novellas that explore the lives of two women who have been shaped by the loss or absence of love. The first narrative is "Reading Turgenev," the story of a country girl coerced into a loveless marriage. The second is "My House in Umbria," an unsettling story of a mysterious former madam who now runs a pensione in Italy. Made into a film, My House in Umbria featured Maggie Smith as the protagonist. Trevor's astonishing range and insight shines out from every page.
Natural Opium by Diane Johnson -- Yes, the Diane Johnson of Le Divorce fame wrote this book about traveling to far-flung places with her epidemiologist husband. In ten original pieces that are part memoir and part travel observations, she makes each chapter seem more like a short story than a non-fiction accounting of her travels. Refreshingly original and laced with sly wit, it can serve as a good antidote to the real thing if one is inclined to enjoy the world from a cozy chair at home.
Passionate Nomad by Jane Fletcher Geniesse -- A superb biography of Freya Stark, one of the world's legendary travelers about whom Laurence Durrell wrote: "A great traveler (in distinction to a merely good one) is a kind of introspective; as (Stark) covers the ground outwardly, so she advances toward fresh interpretations of herself inwardly." Geniesse has given us an insightful, detailed look at Freya Stark, one of the last "great" travelers who began her solo journeys in 1927 and traveled to such remote places as Persia, Syria and Baghdad, places seldom visited by women, much less those traveling alone. Fifty years later, the intrepid Stark was still embarking on rafting trips down the Euphrates River. It's fascinating to see how this part of the world, so prevalent in the news today, looked to this observant, insightful woman.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Why? Because it's one of the greatest love stories ever told. Set against a backdrop of Russian society and a social system about to change, it's all a reader can ask for in terms of story, characters, a great country about to change. And the tragic story of Anna who gave up everything for love -- only to find herself abandoned -- is not so foreign as perhaps it should be.
The Clue of the Tapping Heels by Carolyn Keene (a.k.a. Mildred Wirt Benson) -- Okay. Get yourself a pitcher of chilled lemonade, find a hammock in the shade and indulge the child inside, the one who still believes Nancy Drew is alive and well. There are dozens of books to choose from but my favorite is The Clue of the Tapping Heels. A tale of long-lost love, spooky tapping noises and a woman who has many cats, it's the book that inspired me (as a child, of course) to teach myself to tap dance in Morse code. Or what passed for Morse code. Happy summer!
In the spring of 2004, Alice Steinbach 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?
Well, if you really want to go back to the beginning, it was the Beatrix Potter series, particularly The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. It was read to me by my grandmother before I could read and I was enchanted by the story. My Scottish grandmother, who was herself a great storyteller, explained to me the difference between a "tale" and a "tail." From that moment on I wanted to create "tales." At first, of course, I made them up by telling them -- to Grandmother and anyone else who would listen. As I learned to read and write, that changed. The other influence that always comes to mind is E. B. White. From Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little I learned that words could be put together in a graceful, lucid way to tell a story, and that the power of simplicity and understatement were capable of evoking depths of feeling that were new to me. He is still my writing master, the one who continues to teach me.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Persuasion by Jane Austen -- Since the age of 12 when I first read Pride and Prejudice, I have been a "Janeite." After many rereadings I continue to love all of Austen's books, except Northanger Abbey, which is too gothic for my taste. But over the years, Persuasion -- Austen's last completed novel, published posthumously in 1818 -- has emerged as my favorite. Although the plot has the usual brilliant scenes of social comedy and a smashing story of love lost and then regained in the nick of time, it also tackles, like no other book I know, the morally ambiguous nature of persuasion in all its forms. It changed the way I tried to influence -- or more precisely, not influence -- the people in my life.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," is the way Woolf begins her brilliant stream-of-consciousness exploration of a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. An English society woman, Mrs. Dalloway travels into London to make her last-minute preparation for an evening party. The sights and sounds of the city and the people she encounters on the street summon up pieces of whole lives: hers and those of others in her life. So vivid is this book to me that on a recent lengthy stay in Paris, one during which I gave my first party, I felt as though I were following in Mrs. Dalloway's footsteps. As I walked through the area around the Luxembourg Gardens, making the rounds from florist to cheese shop to wine merchant to the small épicerie nearby, I became Mrs. Dalloway. It was a very strong feeling.
One Man's Meat by E. B. White -- Although there are several other collections of essays by the incomparable E. B. White, this is the one written in the five-year period after White left The New Yorker and life as a city dweller to move to a saltwater farm in Maine. It was, in my opinion, a move that allowed the real E. B. White to emerge. Or as he put it: "Once in everyone's life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me." Since reading this I have made an effort to be "fully awake" in life instead of "half asleep." This collection includes one of the finest, most moving essays ever written, "Once More to the Lake."
Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro -- A modern-day Chekhov. Munro's stories astonish the reader with their ability to create whole lifetimes, often in less than 25 pages. In the title story, she begins by relating a woman's recurring dreams about her dead mother's lingering illness and the dreamer's attempts to alter the outcome. In the course of this short story we see the arc of the entire relationship between mother and daughter. This particular story echoes the death of my own mother, about whom I still have dreams that for a few minutes restore her back into my life.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Subtitled "A Study of English Provincial Life," Eliot's brilliant work is hugely ambitious in its breadth and scope -- and hugely successful. It creates a whole tapestry of interconnected themes and characters who may never meet in the novel but affect each other's lives -- just as people do in real life. But it is the character or Dorothea Brooke, a young, idealistic woman who longs to find a way to serve and bring about social change, who makes this book special to me. She represents all the unsung women (and men) who quietly go through each day adding one small act of goodness to a mainly indifferent world. And I would like to point out that it was George Eliot who observed something I try always to keep in mind: "It is never too late to be what you might have been."
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy -- When this book was published in 1994, I was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. After reading it I immediately called up the publisher and lined up an interview to profile Lucy Grealy. I was dumbstruck by the intensity and powerful beauty of Grealy's memoir about coming to terms with her appearance after cancer surgery at the age of 9 left her face disfigured. Written when Grealy was 31, the book could as well be titled Autobiography of a Soul as it recounts an extraordinary child fighting her way through loneliness and confusion to a spiritual place, a place free of judgments based on physical appearance. Sadly, the author died in 2002 at age 39.
Victory over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist -- When I first read this book of stories published in 1983 by a southern writer, I thought of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. But it didn't take too many pages before I realized Gilchrist had her own unique voice, one that that could be laugh-out loud funny, poignant, tragic and always mesmerizing. You be the judge. Here is the opening sentence in the title story about a precocious girl named Rhoda: "When I was in the third grade I knew a boy who had to have fourteen shots in the stomach as the result of a squirrel bite." It is a voice that has resonated in my own writing.
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin -- Quite simply, this book of stories contains some of the most gorgeous, moving, and brilliant writing I've ever read.
Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 -- For anyone who loves Paris, as I do, this is the book to read. Written from Paris fortnightly by the great New Yorker journalist, Janet Flanner (signed with her nom de correspondence, Genet), this dazzling collection of vignettes and essays transports the reader back to the Paris that most of us envision when we think of that great golden era. For the reader who wants to know about the art, politics, gossip, social and cultural life of the city during those years, this is the book for you.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- I have loved this book since I discovered it when I was 13. Jane, along with Elizabeth Bennet and Nancy Drew, were my companions throughout my early teens. I was mesmerized by the romance, mostly unspoken, between Jane and Mr. Rochester and still get chills when I read of the rainy night the orphaned ten-year-old Jane is delivered by carriage alone and frightened to the austere Lowood School and the stern woman who meets her: " 'Is there a little girl called Jane Eyre here?' she asked. I answered, ‘Yes,' and was then lifted out, my trunk was handed down, and the coach instantly drove away." As someone who lost a parent at an early age (my father), I identify strongly with the young Jane.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins -- I really set out to write poetry and for years did so, and still do, for my own pleasure. Whitman and Hopkins, along with Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Spires are among my favorite poets. I turn to them for the deepest pleasure that words put together on a piece of paper can offer.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Garden of the Finzi-Continis -- Set in Ferrara, Italy, this exquisite film about an aristocratic Italian-American family begins in 1938, a time when the fascist regime of Mussolini was beginning its alliance with Hitler. It is a story of self-deception, of wishful thinking, as the family continues to believe that hostility against Italian Jews will never enter their idyllic estate and that their wealth and position will keep them safe. And for a while it does. We see the disintegration of a whole way of life and the brutal truths awaiting all Italian Jews, including the Finzi-Continis. I saw in this film the loss of innocence, not only for the family but for a country and a time. Sadly, I see this same loss of innocence occurring in the world today.
Roman Holiday -- The film that introduced the incomparable Audrey Hepburn to me and the rest of the world. I fell completely under her spell and went right out and had my hair cut like hers. (A terrible mistake, for me, that is.) A completely joyous film that deepened in me a desire to travel and see the rest of the world. And, who knew, perhaps meet Gregory Peck along the way.
Rashomon -- From this Japanese film by legendary director Akira Kurosawa comes one of life's most valuable lessons: Given the varying nature of each person's view of the world, no two people ever share the same view of what they have seen or heard. A brilliant film and one whose message is, I believe, a critical part of any writer's education.
Don't Look Now -- Based on a Daphne du Maurier ghost story and set in Venice, this film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, remains one of the most mysterious, chilling and unforgettable movies I've ever seen. I'm constantly amazed by how many people who remember this film by Nicolas Roeg share the same passionate feelings. The last scene is terrifying and disturbing and no one ever forgets it.
Midnight Cowboy -- After seeing this film directed by John Schlesinger, I left the theatre stunned and disturbed by its power and brutal honesty. I had never seen anything like it before. The story of how these two outcast loners played by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight find one another in a world that has discarded them has always seemed like a great love story.
Casablanca -- Another great love story, although of a different sort. Does it really need to be explained to anyone why Casablanca is a great film? Bogart and Bergman, Paris and Rick's Place, love lost and love regained, nobility placed ahead of personal feelings. It's a film that stays as fresh and inspiring as the first time I saw it.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never listen to music when I'm writing. The power of music would, I fear, add an unearned heightening of emotion to whatever I was writing. But when I do listen to music, it's often jazz -- I particularly love the late Bill Evans on piano and the young Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. I also love music with a salsa beat, especially the way Cuban musicians combine it with other influences from Africa and South America. And I'm a sucker for classical piano performances by the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Yevgeny Kissin, and Leon Fleisher -- particularly his rendering of Schubert's Sonata in B-flat. Sublime!
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
The new translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way by Lydia Davis. I have read it, and it gives a whole new cast to this first volume of Proust's classic In Search of Lost Time, the title that now replaces the former Rembrance of Things Past. For one thing, I never tire of Proust; for another I'm extremely interested in literary translation. Who are we reading when we read Proust or Tolstoy or any of the great translated authors? Are we reading the original authors, or are we reading their translators? This new translation by Lydia Davis is the perfect book to open up a discussion of such issues.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I try to give books that I love and that, after considering the tastes of the recipient, a book I think they'll enjoy. Of course, what I really want when I give a book that I treasure to a friend is for them to love it as much as I do.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No rituals, although I do occasionally read a few lines from E. B. White before starting to write; it's my way of hearing his lucid, graceful voice. And, oh yes, I keep two pieces of advice about writing tacked to the wall behind my computer. One is Elmore Leonard's advice to "Leave out the parts readers skip." And the other is from Dorothy Parker, although it wasn't necessarily about writing, just about sudden difficulties that can arise in any endeavor: "What fresh hell is this?"
What are you working on now?
My first fiction, a novel set in Paris and Venice. Without telling too much of the plot -- talking about a book-in-progress, I think, is fraught with peril -- the book is about a mother and her two daughters, who are half sisters, each with a different father. The working title is Before Paris.
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?
A long time. First, as a newspaper journalist for over 20 years and now for the last 4 years as a book author. Over the years, I've had too many rejection slips to even attempt to count up.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be – and why?
Although British writer Sybille Bedford, now just over 90 years old, is not an "undiscovered writer" -- she's written several books, won a number of honors, and is well known in Britain and elsewhere -- I think she has yet to be discovered by the mainstream American reader. I have myself just "discovered" her and am devouring her books, one by one.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't wait to be discovered. Don't even think about being discovered. Discover yourself in the act of writing.
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