Elizabeth Frank won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for her biography Louise Bogan: A Portrait. She is also the author of Jackson Pollock and Esteban Vicente. She has written many articles and book reviews on art and literature for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Art in America, among others. She is the Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Bard College.
Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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In our interview with Frank, she shared some fun and fascinating insights about herself with us:
"Writers live fairly dull, monotonous lives, because everything percolating within them goes into the work."
"My daughter, Annie, a senior in high school, keeps me on my toes. I like to swim but hate hot weather, and I am afraid of heights. I like bittersweet chocolate and Bulgarian rakiya. I like painting and go to galleries and museums often. I think my daughter wishes I were a more ‘outdoors' sort of person -- I'm basically not."
"Growing up in Hollywood was fun and interesting but I'm glad I don't live there anymore."
"I am absolutely opposed to the war in Iraq."
"I love my work and have no hobbies. Everything feeds my work and what I want most in the world is more time to do it. When I'm not writing, I'm either reading or talking with people who interest me and whom I care about."
"My dislikes: war, especially preemptive war, bigotry and prejudice, violence, the waste of lives and possibilities, political lies."
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In the Fall of 2004, Elizabeth Frank took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It's the greatest novel ever written. Its profound examination of Eros and error, its compassion, its minute depictions of every segment of 19th-century Russian society, and its unparalleled lucidity of voice and vision make it the most architectural of novels and, for me, the most inexhaustibly absorbing and moving.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- For the reasons stated above.
The plays of Shakespeare -- All of them. Reasons? Because he's great beyond any reasons one can give for his greatness.
Gogol's Dead Souls as well as his short stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat" -- He was a storyteller of uncanny genius and a genius of the uncanny.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- A perfect novel about the heart and soul of America.
William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf (as well as his So Long, See You Tomorrow) -- A pure and perfect American voice writing about ordinary human passion, despair, loss, and the will to grow and understand.
A. E. Housman, Collected Poems -- Lyrics poems of the utmost beauty and purity.
Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 -- Consummate wit and passion in poems of the utmost formal perfection.
Leslie Epstein, San Remo Drive (as well as his King of the Jews, Pandemonium, and The Steinway Quintet) -- Epstein has the imagination of a great comic master, the moral vision of a great tragic dramatist. His wit, heart, and inexhaustible narrative invention give his novels about the Holocaust, Hollywood, or an aging Jewish musician in New York a brilliance and originality found nowhere else in contemporary American writing.
Julie Hecht, Do the Windows Open? -- Another original American contemporary with a comic vision all her own.
I cannot live without the writing of: Primo Levi, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope; Turgenev, and Chekhov; Mark Twain, Henry James, Dawn Powell, Faulkner, and the poetry of Valery Petrov, Bulgaria's greatest living poet (born 1920).
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I have to admit that I love my father's [Melvin Frank] films, those he made with his writing-directing-and producing partner, Norman Panama: among them are: Monsieur Beaucaire, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Road to Utopia (which they wrote), Knock on Wood and The Court Jester (these two with Danny Kaye), That Certain Feeling, The Facts of Life, and The Road to Hong Kong. A Touch of Class, which my father wrote, produced, and directed, I can watch again and again.
There are many other films I love: To Be or Not to Be (an all-time favorite), The African Queen, Casablanca, High Noon, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Brief Encounter, a Russian film called The Lady with the Lapdog, a film with Joanne Woodward called Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams written by Stuart Stern.
Among recent films, The Barbarian Invasions, The Big Lebowski, Best in Show, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Jean-Paul Rappeneau's comedy-thriller, Bon Voyage, and a marvelous contemporary Bulgarian film called After the End of the World, which is, among other things, about Christians, Muslims, and Jews living in harmony in the city of Plovdiv just as the Communist era begins in postWorld War II Bulgaria.
Why are these films unforgettable? They just are! I love movies with well-constructed stories, movies that make me laugh or cry, that live in my memories, that take me into other worlds.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all types of music. Sometimes I listen to music when I'm writing and sometimes I don't. My favorite composer is Debussy. I love Fats Waller and Billie Holliday. I love classical, jazz, country, opera, rock, and Bulgarian folk music.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
At the moment I am reading -- when I have the time -- Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs. This is a great satirical work about early Soviet society. I am interested in Eastern European literature. I would also want my book club to read Joseph Roth's The Radetsky March, a great novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire on the eve of World War I. I would want them to read the great stories of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel.
But I believe that everyone should read our great 19th-century American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson. I would want them to read Washington Irving's two great American myths, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the first draft, as it were, of The Great Gatsby), and Herman Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener," and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, and all the books I listed under my ten favorites above, and all our great American poets as well. We would read Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth and Grace Paley, too. Luckily, I get to teach the writers I love.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give good books by new writers. For example, I'm giving my friends these days Roya Hakakian's fascinating memoir Journey from the Land of No, which is about growing up female and Jewish during the time of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, in the late ‘70s. I give friends as well Julie Hecht's haunting and beautiful novel, The Unprofessionals. And Leslie Epstein's San Remo Drive, an autobiographical novel, which I reviewed in The New York Times and loved, about the author's Hollywood childhood.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write first drafts in longhand, with a fountain pen, in a thick notebook, and often while propped up in bed. Almost always my cat Yankee is sitting nearby, approving or disapproving. When I work at the computer my other cat, Amaroq, sits in my lap, and he too offers editorial advice. I like to work when I am in Bulgaria during the summer. We live at the foot of Vitosha Mountain, outside of Sofia. Our three dogs bark at the sheep and goats passing by. The trees fill with ripening fruit and nuts -- cherries, wild plums, pears, walnuts, and hazelnuts. The quiet is absolute, the air fresh and cool, and work goes well, like a dream.
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?
My Louise Bogan biography took 11 years. Cheat and Charmer took 25. I guess I'm the proverbial tortoise. Once, when I was very discouraged with the novel, and thought it would never be finished, the late novelist William Maxwell wrote me a one-line letter: "Dear Elizabeth," he said. "Remember: novels grow in the dark." That was the greatest piece of encouragement I have ever received.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I strongly recommend Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No. But I know that there are many wonderful new writers out there. My problem is that I am so busy reading great classic works for the courses that I teach that I don't have enough time to read new writers!
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Forget being "discovered," forget your "career." There is one thing and one thing only to concentrate on: the quality of your work! If your work is as good as you can make it, then better even than that, and finally better than your best, everything else will fall into place.
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