Good to Know
In our exclusive interview, Hustvedt shared some fascinating facts about herself with us:
"In the last eight years, my interest in art has become more than a hobby. I've been writing about painting off and on for the last eight years for art magazines."
"American mass media culture, with its celebrities, shopping hysteria, sound bites, formulaic plots, received ideas, and nauseating repetitions, depresses me. I like to watch movies on DVD but on the whole stay away from television and big Hollywood movies, although occasionally something good comes along and I go to see it. I liked both Groundhog Day and The Sixth Sense, for example."
"I enjoy domestic life. Cooking gives me great pleasure, especially if I can chop vegetables slowly and think about what I'm doing and dream a little about this and that. I always have flowers in my house and it makes me happy to arrange them and then look at them when I walk into a room. I love the little garden in the back of my family's brownstone in Brooklyn. Digging out there in the dirt is a joy for me, although by the time August rolls around and my roses have black spot, I need the break winter provides."
"I must say that I also like clothes and always have. When I was younger, I paid more attention to the quirks of fashion. Now I like well-made clothes that suit me and will last beyond a season."
"My greatest pleasure is spending time with my family: my husband and daughter, but also my mother, my three sisters and their families. My father died this year, and I have a growing need to enjoy the people I love most as much as possible."
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In the summer of 2004, Siri Hustvedt 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?
When I was 13 I started reading grown-up books. Among the many I read then were Charles Dickens's David Copperfield and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I loved both of these books so much, they made me want to become a writer.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I have hundreds of beloved books, so it is difficult to pick ten, but among them are:
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë because it is a brilliantly written book about the mysteries of human passion.
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, a writer who articulates subtle truths about human psychology that I recognized only once I had read him.
Crime and Punishment is probably Fodor Dostoevsky's most perfect book in terms of structure, and its portrait of the lonely, perverse, and impoverished student, Raskolnikov, continues to make my heart ache.
I love George Eliot's Middlemarch for its expansive intelligence and delicate depictions of relations among people.
Henry James's ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, is diabolical, clever, and terrifying because its phantoms conjure hidden human appetites and formless desires.
Charles Dickens's Bleak House is the best of Dickens -- funny, deep, complex, and written in a prose as vigorous and original as anything in English.
Cervantes' Don Quixote is the whole novel and all its possibilities in a single volume.
I read Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems over and over because nobody ever used the English language as she did, and every time I read her, I feel very alive to the world.
Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams made a lasting impression on me as a great work of art and a glimpse into a rigorous and skeptical mind.
Finally, I have read The Great Gatsby four times, and every time I read it, it gets better. To my mind, it is one of the best books about American banality, a banality made grand by the sympathetic voice of its narrator who penetrates the beauty of all human longing.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love Luis Buñuel's Diary of Chambermaid. I think it's the best movie about femininity I've ever seen. Another prodigious movie about sexual identity and sexual blur is Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, another film with "diary" in the title, has images so strong they have never left me. I didn't understand a thing when I saw Werner Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small, but pictures from that film have stayed with me as if I dreamed them. I'm also crazy about Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown with Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer, a movie that to my mind is a perfect comedy. It has wit, feeling, great pacing, and a plumbing metaphor that's hilarious. Carl Dryer's Joan of Arc is as strong and stark a film as I've ever seen. Also, Satjajit Ray's Apu Trilogy has the extraordinary density of a novel in film. The list could go on and on.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love music -- everything from the Supremes to Mozart operas, especially Don Giovanni, but I never listen when I am writing. That would be impossible because the sounds would distract me from the words.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
If I had a book club, I would concentrate on reading works in translation. I think it would be interesting to spend a year reading Japanese writers, for example, and then a year on Egyptian writers, and so on. This would give me pleasure because I feel that there is great literature out there that I know very little about and would like to discover.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
When I give books as presents to young people, I often give classic books in hard cover. To adults, I like to give monographs on painters full of beautiful illustrations or photography books I admire. I like to get books on art and books I haven't read that come with a recommendation from the giver.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My only ritual is that I must do a little walking while I write. The act of walking seems to jog loose sentences that have defied me.
What are you working on now?
I am at the very end of a long essay that was commissioned by a group of sister magazines in Europe -- an intellectual autobiography or a private history of the ideas I've entertained over the years. I will then start writing an introduction for Henry James's The Bostonians that is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series. I am also doing research, taking notes on and mulling over my next novel: The Sorrows of an American.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My first piece of advice is read, read, read, and keep reading. Nobody becomes a writer without loving books. My other tip to young writers is: write only what you must write, not what you think you,should write. People who simply want to turn out a poem, a story, or a novel end up writing badly and their prose resembles the prose of other mediocre books. Good books are a product of necessity, a burning need to say something. They have an urgency that the reader can feel from the start.
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 Siri Hustvedt had to say:
For me summer reading means time. On a vacation, it is possible to read for hours without disturbance, and I've chosen ten books I love that I read in one place or another under the sun. There are of course many more, but these are all wonderful.
Pamela by Samuel Richardson -- I read this 18th-century epistolary novel sunbathing on the balcony of my parents' house. I was still a teenager. I found the story of Mr. B. threatening the poor virtuous servant girl Pamela both absorbing and titillating. The latter quality would be taken up and ridiculed in Shamela, Henry Fielding's wonderful parody of Pamela that was a huge success in its time. There is a far deeper aspect to the story, however, and that is the power and dignity a young woman gains for herself through the act of writing.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. This is a wild, hilarious, scary, and fascinating book that was first published in 1824. It's now in print again and available from New York Review Books. It is definitely a story for our time -- its subject is religious fanaticism.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- I read Jane Eyre for the first time the summer after I turned 13 and then again as an adult. It remains one of the most exciting, deep, and romantic gothic novels ever written.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens -- Dickens's last finished novel is a masterpiece sometimes overlooked even by those who have loved other books by the master. The book's dense and exciting plot about changing identities and mysterious corpses dragged from the river is also a meditation on what it means to be a human being. This is a great novel.
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope -- Trollope doesn't have the depth or brilliance of Dickens or Thackeray, but this book is a lot of fun to read in the summertime as a pure entertainment.
The Awkward Age by Henry James -- I found this novel on the shelf in a house my husband and I once rented in Vermont. I've read a lot of James's books but had never read this one, and I've discovered that many other people who know the author's work have for one reason or another missed The Awkward Age. I read it cover to cover in a single day and found myself rapt. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the story is as psychologically subtle and tender as anything in literature. I fell in love with its heroine, Nanda, and recommend her story to all people who have ever felt the pangs of love.
The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel -- Babel is one of the greatest story writers of the last century. These are works so vivid, so fierce you will never forget them.
Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo -- I read this book flat on my back in bed one summer and loved every word. It is now in a new translation from the Italian by William Weaver. Like all great books, it feels new. The narrator's journey of self-examination and self-deception is ironic, humorous and true. The man is forever smoking his "last cigarette."
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov -- This novel wasn't published until after its author's death and was suppressed by the Soviet authorities for many years. It is a novel of astounding energy -- a magical, satirical carnival of a book that won't let you go until you've finished it.
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien -- I joyfully ate up this book on a beach in Guadeloupe many years ago. It is brilliant, funny, and terribly alive. It also received what is perhaps the best blurb in the history of the world. Dylan Thomas wrote, "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl."
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