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 Expectations.
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 drowning:
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 pleasure.
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 process.
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 creature.
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."
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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