Good to Know
In our exclusive interview, Shattuck shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:
"My first job was, honest to God, walking around this big dilapidated public playing field/ park area in Cambridge, MA, picking up garbage with one of those sticks with a little grabber at the end of it. I was in eighth grade and the job was through some sort of city summer jobs program that I'm not sure how I ended up in."
"I have a terrible phobia of birds, and no, I've never seen the movie. Oddly birds do seem to work their way into my fiction in strange ways though."
"I love dogs and have a crazy three year old border collie mix named Winnie who is my daily writing companion."
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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 made Jessica Shattuck's list:
An Almost Perfect Moment by Binnie Kirshenbaum -- A 15-year-old Jewish girl growing up in 1970's Canarsie, Brooklyn, obsessed with Ave Maria and The Lives of Saints, gets pregnant -- without ever having had sex! No other writer could tell this story with the grace, humor, insight and true depth that Kirshenbaum does.
So Far by Deborah Eisenberg -- This is a great collection of stories and the beauty and accuracy of Eisenberg's writing always leaves me breathless.
The Rope Eater by Ben Jones -- An old fashioned adventure-at-sea story told in a fabulously inventive and compelling new voice.
Clearing the Aisle by Karen Schwartz -- A great read for anyone who is getting married, or has gotten married, and can appreciate Schwartz's comic -- and serious -- insights into the beast of a coming-of-age-ritual that planning a wedding has become.
Howard's End by E.M. Forster -- I cannot say enough good things about this book. It's good summer reading, and good winter reading, and good anytime reading.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- This is a whole world of characters and ideas and social intrigues—rich and plotted enough to keep even the most restless of landlubbers happy at the beach.
Le Mariage by Diane Johnson -- Everyone gets called a modern day Jane Austen these days, but Johnson really is.
Unless by Carol Shields -- Totally engrossing -- and great for discussing. What a wise woman Carol Shields was!
A Kiss from Maddelena by Christopher Castellani -- Haven't read this one yet, but it's top of my list. A good Italian romance set during and after WWII in a capable and imaginative writer's hands.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis -- If Martin Amis does "summer reading" this is it. This book just makes me laugh.
In the spring of 2004, Jessica Shattuck 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 -- and why?
So hard to choose only one! The first book that really took over my life was Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which I read when I was twelve and which triggered a near fanatical Camelot obsession in me. This is the book that taught me that a good book feels like just the tip of the iceberg -- one little piece of a whole world that exists outside its pages.
In my adult life, I'd have to say Howard's End by E. M. Forster has been a great inspiration to me. I read this book for the first time in college and absolutely loved it for its engaging plot, its humor and its wonderful, vivid, and eccentric characters. When I reread it a few years after college I loved it, if possible, even more -- for all the same things that had drawn me to it the first time around, but also for the craftsmanship with which Forster wrote it. I was impressed by how many complex plot threads he weaves together in it, and how naturally he turns a suspenseful and entertaining story into a larger cultural metaphor. This book is such a pleasure to read that each time I've finished it the world feels a little lonelier to me because it's over.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Howard's End by E. M. Forster -- For everything I've described above.
Open Secrets by Alice Munro -- I love Munro's stories for their feeling of utter completeness -- and I love the title story of this collection for the overwhelming sense of uneasiness it inspires, and the fact that you finish reading with the sense that ah, you finally understand exactly what happened when Heather Bell went missing. It's on the tip of your tongue, only you still can't say it.
All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren -- I avoided this book for years, thinking a political novel loosely based on the career of southern politician Huey Long was not up my alley. But when I finally cracked it open, I could not put it down. Penn Warren's prose is so intense, so driven, and so incredibly evocative that beginning this book feels like climbing onto a train thundering, nonstop, down a long mountain. I don't know any other book that tells such a compelling and human story about idealism colliding with the realities of politics and power.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad -- Conrad paints such an incredibly bleak and cynical picture of human morality and connection in the post industrial world in this book, but what I love about it is that even so, maybe despite himself, he can't help but to write some of the saddest, most touching scenes I've ever read about human love and kindness.
Great Expectations By Charles Dickens -- I had no idea Dickens could be so funny. Not in a proper, witty, chuckle, chuckle sense, but in a real laugh out loud in surprise way. I will never forget the scene of Pip stomping around Miss Havisham's bedroom pretending to ride a hobby horse in involuntary response to her frightening command that he "play". It may not be his most ambitious book, but is endlessly satisfying, and somehow very comforting reading.
Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- This to me is the ultimate story within a story. The narrator's own unremarkable day-to-day life as a young lodger in a Brooklyn boarding house manages, amazingly, to hold its own against the sweeping epic of WWII persecution and betrayal that his fellow tenant, Sophie, reveals to him.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- This is not an original choice, I know! But how could it not be on my top ten list?
Into That Darkness by Gita Seveny -- This is a chilling and amazing book: the story (nonfiction) of her months-long interview with Franz Stangl, chief commandant of Treblinka during the "Final Solution" days of the holocaust. She succeeds somehow in revealing both the utterly monstrous consequences of this man's actions and the terrifying fact of his humanity.
Le Mariage by Diane Johnson -- On a totally different note, I loved reading this book and have "gifted" it many times over. Johnson is such a sharp, insightful, and witty writer and she puts her talents to use on formally constructed novels that (I think) would make E. M.Forster proud.
The Collected Stories of John Cheever -- I love Cheever for his never-ending sense of wonder at being alive, and his unique and amazing way of articulating it. The story "Goodbye, My Brother" is one of my favorite short stories ever.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Rushmore -- Because it's just so incredibly funny and fresh and touching at the same time, and how could you not love a movie that ends with a school play full of explosives and ridiculous, jury-rigged Hollywood violence and a magical dance to that song by Rod Stewart?
You Can Count on Me -- Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo felt like my own brother and sister by the end of it, and I loved every minute of the dialogue between them.
Hannah and Her Sisters -- To me, this is the quintessential Woody Allen movie.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like different types of music at different times -- at home cooking dinner I listen to a lot of Nick Drake, Billy Bragg and Wilco. And in the car, I can't get enough of Bruce Springsteen. At a party I always like to hear Led Zeppelin, or disco, or The Cars. Plus I have a soft spot for really schlocky eighties stuff like Hall and Oates and Bryan Ferry.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I do have a book group and we're currently reading Iris Murdoch's The Sea The Sea. Generally we try to read classic, or at least critically acclaimed, non-contemporary books that we all haven't read yet, so that that the whole enterprise feels kind of virtuous and edifying.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
My favorite kind of books to give are, well, my favorite books. And while I know not all my friends' favorites books will become my own, I'd much rather get a novel someone loved as a gift than a random gifty book they thought looked "cute." I also think art books always make nice presents because they're the kind of thing people rarely buy for themselves, but like having.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Mmmm, I probably should have some special writing rituals, but I don't really. Unless you count getting up to pluck my eyebrows or check the weather get a cookie every fifteen minutes when I'm stuck as ritualistic. I try to sit down and write for four hours a day, not counting breaks or email, and I feel terribly guilty and wasteful and somewhat terrified of failure if I don't, which is really what keeps me at it. My desk is covered with little post it notes of things I have to do and calls I have to return -- which is really, actually, very unhelpful.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a novel set in rural Vermont in the aftermath of murder that has set the community on edge. I have also been hired to write the screenplay of my first book, The Hazards of Good Breeding.
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?
I knew I wanted to write from at least second grade on, so I suppose you could say it took 25 years. I wrote stories in high school and college and kept it up when I was working full time for the first several years after college by coming home to write at least three or four nights a week. Much of my early writing I wouldn't want to show anyone, but I think I learned a lot from it and the discipline this required helped me recognize that this was what I wanted to do, come hell or high water.
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