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Meet the WritersImage of Jennifer Lee Carrell
Jennifer Lee Carrell
Good to Know
In our interview, Carrell shared some interesting facts about her life with us:

"Writing should be an adventure, not just the stringing-together of other people's adventures. On the trail of stories, I have: rappelled from a six-story tower using an emergency hand-tied halter (while writing about the training of firefighters); tracked mountain lions on mule-back through the mountain range Geronimo used as home base and hideout; held Yo-Yo Ma's cello; ridden the roller-coaster ride of a professional cutting horse (herding cattle); and posed for David Hockney on a BBC set while stuffed into a medieval gown originally made for Star Trek with a red-velvet turban improvised from a set of men's pants perched on my head. From the sublime to the ridiculous -- and all of it wondrous."

"Paradise is:

  • Red wine sipped at sunset on a deck that seems to sail between mountains and city lights
  • The Diamondbacks on a winning streak
  • Dancing with my husband to big band, Latin music, blues -- any music that's sexy
  • Wild thunderstorms, thick stars
  • A world made mostly of sky."

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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 Jennifer Lee Carrell had to say:

    Because summer's a great time to go back to childhood:

  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (or anything else you loved as a child)

    Because summer's a great time to go back to someone else's extraordinary childhood:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    When else is there enough time to laze through long books of adventure, passion, and laugh-out-loud humor?:

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

    Instant vacation -- other places, other times:

  • The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
  • Shogun by James Clavell
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
  • I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles

    Because summer's perfect for strange magic:

  • Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

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    In the fall of 2003, Jennifer Lee Carrell took some time 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 -- and why?
    by J.R.R. Tolkien. The fine detail and vast scope of his world are astounding, but the greatest lesson The Lord of the Rings taught me is the paradoxical necessity of frayed threads, mysterious gaps, and unfinished edges. Like the real world, Middle-earth is deliberately, teasingly, seductively incomplete -- unknowable and therefore seemingly infinitely rich in its history, languages, geography, zoology, culture. The story at hand gives the sense of being no more than a brief exploration through a world whose horizons are endless: "All experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move," as Tennyson put it. Shakespeare teaches a similar lesson: Even his minor characters seem to have rich back-stories. The sense of full stories roiling in the shadows makes the plot at center stage shine all the brighter.

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

  • The Lord of the Rings -- See above.

  • The Laxdaela Saga: The greatest tragic love triangle ever written, even better for being based on historical events. Best in Old Norse, but still great in English.

  • The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett -- As good as historical fiction gets, with one of the genre's most intriguing and elusive heroes. Lymond's derring-do ranges from Scotland, England, and France to the Levant, Turkey, and Russia, in the early 16th century.

  • A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf -- Still the most inspiring call to action for women writers everywhere; all the more amazing for being delivered in gorgeous prose, not political jargon.

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- Possibly the literary masterpiece worst served by an off-putting title: It's an epic romantic comedy, tangled together with a detective story.

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry -- Epic romantic tragicomedy. Gus is high on my list of literary characters I wish I could meet; I expect he'd make me laugh till I cried.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner -- The pride and guilt of the American South.

  • Possession by A. S. Byatt -- A sensual treasure hunt, plus the astonishment of Victorian poetry as lush as the cycles of Tennyson and Browning, but a) written by a 20th-century novelist, and b) seductively readable by 20th-century audiences with no propensity to like poetry. A tour de force.

  • The Oz books by L. Frank Baum -- From an era that expected children to measure up to the cleverness, creativity, and morality of their books, rather than expecting writers to boil their books down to mush digestible by the average pumpkin. Plus, pumpkin-headed men and other quirky magic, verbal trickery, new worlds to explore, and children both lucky and plucky enough to exlore them.

  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje -- A beautiful book from the finest living maker of metaphor.

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- The title says it all. This book is as big as life.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    To my mind, the best films use every aspect of the medium -- acting, all the visuals (set, costume, lighting, props), camera work and shot framing, soundtrack and music, editing, and writing -- to build superbly crafted, enthralling and emotionally rich stories. In other words, I admire filmmakers who harness the capabilities of film to serve the art of story, rather than the other way around. I'm partial to epics -- scope for big passions played against big backgrounds, and time enough for luxuriant storytelling:

  • Romeo and Juliet (1968, dir. Zeffirelli). Romeo and Juliet are actually young, and hauntingly beautiful. The actors speak Shakespearean words, but make them sound like urgent and spontaneous English, not stilted poetry. Love, hatred, arch humor, bawdy slapstick, dangerous swordplay, epic passion, and Zeffirelli's trademark lush beauty: What more could one possibly want? I still hope she wakes up in time.
  • Henry V (dir. Kenneth Branagh) -- More of the above, only add war that devolves from idealized chivalry to ruthless stabbing in the muck.

    Two epic romances aimed at the heartstrings of writers -- Shakespeare in Love and Out of Africa.

  • Lawrence of Arabia -- Epic passion, the desert as a force, plus Peter O'Toole's burning eyes.
  • Gone with the Wind -- More epic, plus a ruthless and spoiled heroine, pursued by a ruthless hero. I'm fascinated by this movie's heroes, whom I dislike.
  • The Godfather -- More epic, more questionable heroes.
  • Roman Holiday -- A perfect fairy-tale plot, with a perfect fairy-tale princess. Love, loss, Rome, Audrey Hepburn, and Gregory Peck.
  • The Shawshank Redemption -- A perfect fairy-tale plot set in a prison, which somehow -- against all odds -- works brilliantly. Sublime acting.
  • My Fair Lady -- Cinderella, incarnated by Audrey Hepburn singing like an angel. I know it's not Audrey Hepburn singing, but who cares?
  • Big -- Hanks is still hilarious. Director Penny Marshall gave him a playpen of a movie, scattered with just enough poignant pinpricks to keep sentimentality at bay.
  • The Usual Suspects -- All about the art of storytelling, with a vengeance.

    Because I find certain stars riveting:

  • Casablanca and To Have and Have Not (Bogie & Bergman, Bogie & Bacall)
  • Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly)
  • The Philadelphia Story (Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant)
  • All About Eve and Now, Voyager (Bette Davis)

    And finally, because I adore the surprises of magic realism, done with a light touch:

  • Like Water for Chocolate
  • Amelie
  • Antonia's Line
  • Chocolat

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    Classical: whatever fits the mood or period of my writing at hand. Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Bach, Brahms, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky are among my favorites. However, sometimes, they demand attention: They engage the mind as well the mood. When that's distracting, I go to:

    Film soundtracks, which are written as mood-enhancing background music -- and the best of it is brilliant. Again, whatever fits the mood I'm working on: suspenseful, triumphant, romantic, or mysterious.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    I like books -- both fiction and nonfiction -- that bring a historical place and time alive in the thoughts and deeds of remarkable people. You get intriguing, quirky, heroic characters battling through huge events, or slipping quietly through small ones: which serves up a lot to talk about. Best among these are those that are also of exquisite literary value, especially when set against very fine films. Then you can talk about the difference between what makes a novel or history great vs. what makes a film great, with reference to the same basic story (Cunningham, Ondaatje). A list that fits this bill:

  • Michael Ondaatje -- Anything and everything -- but especially Running in the Family and The English Patient
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
  • The Devil in the White City Erik Larson
  • Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Books that surprise me because I would never have thought to give them a chance. Beautifully illustrated books, especially children's classics.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I write best in the morning, before the clutter of the day muddies my thinking. On my desk, I keep a silver-toned photograph of my great-grandmother as a young woman, in a heavy Mexican silver frame. She came west in a covered wagon, grew up in Montana and Arizona, and lived to see men circle the moon in spaceships -- and she lived a life adventurous enough to bridge that gap. Needless to say, she is my idol.

    I usually begin by listening to music, staring at the mountains, and toying with the cat: until something stirs. I start writing longhand -- I think most creatively with pen and paper in hand: I feel connected, somehow, to the words.

    Only later do I transfer my writing to the computer: when it already seems to have some life and soul.

    Many writers in the Discover program 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?
    Hmmm. Forty-one years? I went to graduate school in English literature, so that being a professor could finance my writing habit. I loved the scholarship and the teaching, but hated academic politics. As it became clear that a quest for tenure would feed my life whole to academic research, writing, and teaching, and postpone writing of a more creative kind for at least a decade, I decided it was time to jump ship. While I was home in Arizona and doing some backpacking in old Chiricahua Apache territory, I came across David Roberts's book Once They Moved like the Wind. I noticed from the book jacket that he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- and found him in the phone book when I returned there. For the first (and so far, the last) time, I wrote a piece of fan mail: just to say I had loved his book, which had made me see the place I grew up in a very different light. David answered -- and we eventually became friends. He helped me sell my first non-academic piece of writing to Smithsonian magazine: and so an escape route opened up.

    I took it.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    I don't know too many new unknowns. I would like to jump-start the rediscovery of a little-known but superb genre written mostly by "anonymous" -- the Icelandic sagas. Spare prose, intense drama.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Keep writing. Try all different kinds of writing: if you are driven to write the next great American novel, don't limit yourself to novels, or even to fiction. Storytelling has many different branches, all of which teach you different aspects of the art. Try drama, screenwriting, article writing, review writing, poetry, epigrams, songs -- anything and everything.



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  • About the Writer
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    *The Speckled Monster: Historic Tale of Battling Smallpox, 2003
    Photo by Lyn Sims