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Meet the WritersImage of Elizabeth Hickey
Elizabeth Hickey
From the author's official web site:

I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. My father is a retired lawyer, my mother a Presbyterian minister. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I used to give my mother stories I had written as Christmas presents, but during childhood and adolescence I was more interested in becoming an Olympic swimmer. Unfortunately, I was stymied by a lack of athletic talent. In high school, my art teacher had us paint copies of famous paintings. I attempted to replicate a painting by Vuillard that I found in the Armand Hammer exhibition catalog, and I wrote an essay about the artist's life. That was my first real introduction to art.

I went to Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where I majored in art history. I knew before I got there that the class I most wanted to take was a writing workshop with Jim Shepard, but I was very intimidated. I applied as a freshman and didn't get in (few freshmen did) and then waited until I was a senior to reapply. Jim turned out to be an amazing teacher and mentor, and once I became serious about writing there was no going back.

After graduation I went back to Louisville and worked at a publishing company and an independent bookstore while I prepared my graduate school applications. I was rejected by many writing programs and was wait-listed at both Indiana University and Columbia. I was considering moving to England and other radical life changes when I got the call from Columbia in August 1995. I was, I swear, the last person they took off of the waiting list. I had about two weeks to pack myself up and get to New York. While at Columbia I was able to regularly visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, The Museum of Modern Art -- all of the great museums in New York. I received my degree from Columbia in 1999 and moved to Portland, Oregon, where I worked as a secretary at a law firm. After a year, I quit and lived off of my savings while I worked on The Painted Kiss.

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Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Hickey:

"My mother is a Presbyterian minister whose specialty is funerals."

My favorite food is marzipan."

"When I was four years old my ambition was to be in the Olympics. It stayed my ambition well into high school, when I was a serious competitive swimmer. To this day I despise water so much I dislike taking showers, and I have recurring nightmares about practices and meets."

"My current hobbies are yoga, hiking, and travel. In 1997, my then-boyfriend, now husband and I went on a seven-week trek through Central America, riding local buses and staying in dives that in some cases were no more than stapled-together cardboard boxes. I had never been farther from the U.S. at that point than Halifax, Nova Scotia. We saw Mayan ruins in Belize, volcanoes and truckloads of soldiers in Guatemala and El Salvador, colonial architecture and coffee fields in Nicaragua, toucans and howler monkeys in Costa Rica. Since that first wildly adventurous trip, I have been to Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, Portugal, and England. I never want to stop traveling!"

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In the spring of 2005, Elizabeth Hickey took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and pastimes.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The books I read in childhood influenced me tremendously, none more so than Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I read it for the first time at age nine and read it again and again through adolescence and into adulthood. How many times have I read it? Forty? Fifty? Probably more.

Though it is not a perfect book, the characters in the book are alive and indelible. The world they inhabit, Boston around the time of the Civil War, is fully drawn and realized. I could dive into that book and be there, on the thinly iced pond that Amy fell into or at the Gardiners' party with Meg. I could join them and stay for hours at a time.

I spent nearly as much time with the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon series, both by L. M. Montgomery.

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

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- Though the work is 200 years old, it still seems modern and relevant. The writing is crisp and clear and very, very funny.

  • Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Eliot weaves complex themes and ideas into the book while still being incredibly entertaining.

  • Possession by A. S. Byatt -- An engrossing literary mystery with two love stories that intertwine past and present.

  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje -- After I read it for the first time, I remembered the language as being beautiful and very flowery. The next time I read it I realized that Ondaatje achieves the maximum effect with plain, well-chosen words. It is a poetic, atmospheric book, and probably the book I modeled most closely when I was writing The Painted Kiss.

  • Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- I have been a huge fan of Lorrie Moore's since college, and have always admired her ability to combine incredible humor with pathos. In this short story collection she is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

  • Howard's End by E. M. Forster -- For his insight into the human psyche.

  • A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter -- For the sheer gorgeousness of his language.

  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson -- It's a funny, sad book that nearly impossible to put down once you start.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner -- He is the master of atmosphere.

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- Lovely, impressionistic, beautifully written.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    I'm a big fan of comedy, at least the smart and dark kind. I saw Heathers in 1989, and for the first time in my life felt that I wasn't alone, that there were people out there like me, if I could just find them.

    Other comedies I like: Harold and Maude, Clueless, The Jerk, Young Frankenstein, and Grosse Point Blank. I don't have much skill myself writing comedy, but I admire it intensely.

    In another vein, I have a soft spot for English period movies, especially literary adaptations: Sense and Sensibility, Cold Comfort Farm, A Room With a View. Visually they are lovely, and because the script is taken from E. M. Forster or Jane Austen or Stella Gibbons, they have good writing.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I can't listen to music and write at the same time, but I listen to music when I'm sitting at my desk getting mentally prepared (also known as procrastinating).

    I listen to Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann, Beth Orton, Belle and Sebastian, Wilco, and Gillian Welch. Old favorites include Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading and Van Morrison. I like early music, especially the baroque period. And I'm very fond of the hymns I grew up singing as a child in church.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. Because for some reason I've never been able to get through the books on my own, and I feel really guilty about it. I have a feeling if I was pushed a little I would love them.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I love big beautiful art books -- books on Asian textiles, Pre-Raphaelite painting, British decorative arts, Islamic art, monographs on Vuillard and Rodin. I find them a continual source of inspiration. I usually give people fiction I've read and liked. For instance, last Christmas I gave both my husband and my mother-in-law The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I usually find that it's easier to work if my desk is neat and nicely decorated with flowers or candles or a beautiful textile. At the moment, however, my desk is littered with books on William Morris and scribbled notes from my recent trip to England to do research (though it is covered with a red and orange wool Syrian cloth). Other than that, the only ritual is that I have to write in the morning. If I put it off, the odds are good I won't make it to my desk.

    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 be a writer at a very young age, so I feel like I've been working toward this all of my life. I began The Painted Kiss in early 1996, quite a few years ago now. It was my thesis at Columbia, where it was referred to as "fictionalized art history" (not a compliment!). I went through one round with agents in 1999-2000, when a few showed interest but no one took me as a client. That was discouraging and it took a little while to recover, but after another revision I got an agent in 2003 and it sold soon thereafter.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    Jonathan Selwood, who in addition to being my husband is a darkly comic genius.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Keep writing, keep sending your work out and don't get discouraged. I have talked to many people who queried three agents and then gave up, assuming they weren't any good. So much of the time the rejection has nothing to do with you or your ability. The seventy-fifth agent might be the one to spot your promise, and if you quit after three you will never find her.

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  • About the Writer
    *Elizabeth Hickey Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *The Painted Kiss, 2005