A Conversation with Elizabeth D. Samet, author of Soldier's Heart
Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?
I don't believe so. Many good writers start out as good readers; others I know
have had to work hard to become better readers. At some stage in almost every
writer's quest to improve reading becomes a central pursuit.
Have you ever belonged to a reading group?
I have never belonged to a reading group per se, but for as long as I can
remember I have been involved in more or less formal communities of readers--at
home and at school. At first it was my mother, who constantly read books with
and to me. Now my reading community consists largely of students and former
students, whose insights enrich my perspective on new and familiar books.
What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?
I usually have several books going at once. Just now the list includes
The Letters of Noël Coward, edited by Barry Day; Félix Fénéon's Novels in
Three Lines; Jonathan Spence's new history, Return to Dragon Mountain:
Memories of a Late Ming Man; and, yet again, Charles Dickens's Great
If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you
to read, what would it be and why?
The collected Shakespeare, which would sustain my love of beautiful
language, quench my thirst for travel to distant places, and indulge my
fascination with the way people behave in extremis. And whenever I started to
feel sorry for myself, wandering alone on my island, I would open Richard III to
read the Duke of Clarence's hauntingly lyrical dream about the horrors of
O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears!
What sights of ugly death within my eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.
If you could have dinner with 3 writers (dead or alive) who would they be
I'll choose dead authors to indulge the fantasy. I would want to dine with
authors I admire but who also, I could be sure, liked to eat. The first
invitation would go out to Horace, the ancient Roman poet who wrote so often
about the pleasures of dining with friends at his Sabine Farm. His poetry
explores with matchless elegance so many of the ideas that preoccupy me. Next, I
would invite A. J. Liebling, the New Yorker columnist, boxing enthusiast, and
champion eaterwhat's not to like? Liebling's World War II dispatches are
riveting, and I find myself as spellbound by his accounts of Sugar Ray Robinson
as I am by his descriptions of the heaping dinner tables of Paris. My last
guestthis is dinner, after allwould be Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author
of The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, a
unique meditation on food and life. And I would do the cooking, by the way:
that's the least I could do for three authors who have given me so much
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Josephine Ross's Kings & Queens of Britain. My mother gave me this book. I
used to pore over it whenever I was home from school with a childhood illness.
It gave me a love of history and narrative, and the full-color plates introduced
me to many portraits I would later be fortunate enough to see in person at the
National Portrait Gallery in London and elsewhere.
Your favorite heroine in literature and why?
Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: she grows up over the
course of the novel, and it is always useful to have models for that particular
Your favorite hero in literature and why?
Homer's Odysseus, the master of cool. He never bores you with his twists and
turns, and he outfoxes everyone. Odysseus has restraint, but he can also lose
his composure on occasion. He is an epic hero yet somehow a recognizably human
Your favorite first line from a book?
Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble one another, each
unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Your favorite last line from a book?
Virginia Woolf's Orlando: "And the twelfth stroke of midnight
sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October,
Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight."
How about the book that changed your life?
Hamlet: It showed me a character unafraid to think even when the results
proved unpalatable and disorienting.
Words to live by?
Wallace Stevens: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."