Good to Know
In our interview with Holman, she shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:
"Before publishing my first book, I spent five years working for the literary agent Molly Friedrich (she represents Jane Smiley, Terry McMillan, Frank McCourt, and Sue Grafton, among others). I started as her assistant and now she's my agent!"
"I know how to say, ‘I'm a hot chick, kiss me,' in Russian. "
"My husband and I have way too many pets: four indoor cats, four outdoor cats, a parrot, a baby, and now twins on the way. I think of myself as a country girl, though I've lived 15 years in New York City. I love to cook and I watch way too much baseball on TV (the Yankees, of course). I feel incredibly fortunate that I can make my living reading a bunch of obscure books and turning them into stories. "
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In the summer of 2003, Sheri Holman took some time out to talk to us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
If I had to choose, I'd say the D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, which I read when I was about seven or eight years old. It's a gorgeously illustrated book that gives a great overview of the major Greek mythological stories. I think that book cemented my love of narrative; it was just gross enough to keep me going, (Kronos swallows his children and vomits them out again??? -- I loved it!), and it satisfied a child's love of lists and genealogy (I'm convinced that is why Pokémon is so popular -- it has simply provided another pantheon).
Having a pretty solid overview of Greek mythology at that age gave me an appreciation for allusion when I later found it in Shakespeare and others who drew on mythological parallels. I remember reading Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra when I was about nine years old -- not understanding half of it -- but being mightily pleased with myself for getting all the Orestes/Agamemnon allusions. And I am completely convinced the D'Aulieres' book influenced my future marriage partner. My husband got his Ph.D. in classics as a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin.
What are your ten favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?It took me forever to get to it, but when I finally read Tolstoy's War and Peace, I never wanted it to end. It is rich, dramatic, exceptionally funny, and absolutely compelling. I still laugh to myself over Bezuhov trying to torture the numerology of his name into the prophesied "666" who would defeat Napoleon.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I think this is his best and most human work. It's quite suspenseful and very funny. When I was trying to begin The Dress Lodger, I looked at his opening image of the fog moving through London. That was the inspiration for my collective, wide-ranging narrator, moving like a miasma through the streets of Sunderland.
Middlemarch by George Elliot. Another perfect novel. Like War and Peace, it's both political and personal, and for any girl who, like Dorothea, is a do-gooder at heart, it's a great cautionary tale.
Anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium, Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War). This Polish journalist is my favorite writer of nonfiction. Again, he completely personalizes the political and illuminates complex world events through the lives of those on the ground. Hmm...the marriage of political and personal -- I seem to see a theme developing here....
London Labor and the London Poor. A huge, four-volume catalogue of the mid-19th-century working classes, complied by Henry Mayhew, a friend of Dickens's. He breaks Londoners down into three categories: Those Who Work, Those Who Cannot Work, and Those Who Will Not Work. He provides fascinating portraits of such street types as the Watercress Girl, the Baked Potato Man, and the Exhibitor of Happy Families (a "happy family" being several animals of different temperaments all in one cage -- i.e., a hawk, a dove, a cat, a dog, a rat, and a monkey -- all living peaceably and not devouring one another). Mayhew was obsessed with prostitutes, and it was in my reading of him that I discovered a type of prostitute called a dress lodger....
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. I am obviously very addicted to humor in my 19th-century novelists, and Vanity Fair is one of the funniest books I've read. I love heroines like Becky Sharp (and her later counterpart, Scarlett O'Hara) -- determined women who cannot be sidetracked from the goals they set for themselves. So often in modern literature, there is a hole at the center of a novel where the protagonist should be. As writers, we are by nature observers, but protagonists must be "actors" in the truest sense of the word. Whenever I find my characters getting passive, I go back to books like Vanity Fair and reproach myself with someone as single-minded as Becky.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. A wonderful work wherein one of our Founding Fathers lets us in on his early struggles with perfection. He has a fantastic line about trying to become more humble but soon giving that up, for he found himself becoming proud of his own humility!
Flannery O'Connor's short stories. She is one of my very favorite writers, and someone who grappled with the human desire for moral perfection. A committed Catholic, and deeply concerned with issues of faith, she was yet a trenchant and ironic observer of southern culture. If I could write one sentence on par with Flannery O'Connor, I would die a happy woman.
The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine. Speaking of Catholicism -- I used this 13th-century encyclopedia of saints' lives as research for my first novel, A Stolen Tongue. It gives every gruesome detail of martyrdom, and every bizarre etymology of saints' names possible. Next to the Bible, it was the most popular book of its day.
Shelley: The Pursuit (and Footsteps) by Richard Holmes. My favorite biographer's award-winning book about Percy Bysshe Shelley. Before I read this, I never knew just what free-love hippies the Romantics were. It is scholarly, sexy, and spooky. I also loved Footsteps, his personal account of tracking his subjects across Europe and the past. Of everything I've read, he most perfectly describes the sort of obsessive love a writer must feel towards his or her subject and how easily one might lose oneself in the pursuit.
Yikes! I hardly ever go to the movies -- my husband considers my lack of cinematic curiosity one of my biggest character flaws! Whenever Gone with the Wind is on TV, I always watch it....
I love the Qawwali singers -- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, etc. This is sort of trance-inducing, ecstatic Sufi music with a lead singer playing on the harmonium and others backing him up on the tabla, sitar, by clapping, etc. I never had the opportunity to see Nusrat perform live, but I once had a cabdriver who had driven the singer's limousine right before he died. The cabdriver told me Nusrat was larger than life, just like his music.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I have personally recommended to many book clubs The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. It's the nonfiction story of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents' battle with an arrogant Western medical establishment. I it read from cover to cover on my last book tour three years ago, and I'm still thinking about it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to give books that moved me as a child (D'Aulaire's Greek Myths, Water Babies, an old Monroe Leaf title, Gordon the Goat!). I love to get arcane, out-of-print books on whatever subject I'm currently researching for a novel.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Besides the above mentioned, I am especially partial to the Russians -- Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov. I wish I could read them in the original. I don't know why the Russians seem to understand human nature better than anyone else, but they do.
What are you working on now?
I am just outlining a new novel about the ways we pass along fear, and how we use scary stories as a type of currency. It begins with a WPA writer who disappears while collecting folktales during the Depression in Appalachia and ends two generations later with his granddaughter, who now works for a CNN-style news organization invested in keeping America afraid (think anthrax, terrorism, SARS). The outline is really in its infancy, so I can't say a whole lot more.
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