Occupation: English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing
Book: A Reunion of Ghosts
What’s it about: Meet the Alter sisters: Lady, Vee and Delph. These three mordantly witty, complex women share their family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They love each other fiercely, but being an Alter isn’t easy. Bad luck is in their genes, passed down through the generations. Yet no matter what life throws at these siblings, they always have a wisecrack – and each other.
In the waning days of 1999, the sisters decide it’s time to close the circle of the Alter curse. But first, as the world counts down to the dawn of a new millennium, Lady, Vee and Delph must write the final chapter of a saga generations in the making – one that is inexorably intertwined with that of the twentieth century itself. Unspooling threads of history, personal memory and family lore, they weave a mesmerising account of their lives that stretches back decades to their great-grandfather, a brilliant scientist whose professional triumph became the sinister legacy that defines them.
Why we’re excited: There’s simply no book like it. The 4th Estate team have sat around, meeting after meeting, desperately grappling for some sort of comparative title, our imprint or otherwise, but it just hasn’t happened, and we’re not sure it will. The strapline reads ‘How do three sisters write a single suicide note?’ Indeed. ‘How does one author make suicide so funny?’ we ask, feeling so sad, and so guilty at the same time.
What she’s reading: ‘The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.’
What she’s listening to: ‘I’m tempted to lie and name some super cool contemporary musician, but the truth is I tend to listen to Cole Porter and the Gershwins and classic Broadway musicals—that sort of thing. I don’t know—maybe my mother played this kind of music while I was in the womb. I also like anything Stephen Sondheim. I’ve been on a Company kick this week. Here’s to the ladies who lunch!’
What she’s watching: I don’t watch much TV, but I’ve succumbed to the 5th season of Downton Abbey and will watch the last season of Mad Men whenever it decides to return. Otherwise, it’s pretty much cat videos and clips from The Daily Show.
Favourite word: ‘In terms of its sound, I’m fond of pomplemousse, the French word for grapefruit. In terms of its meaning, I like the Yiddish word mensch.’
Favourite song: ‘“I’m Still Here.” Sondheim, from Follies. It’s sung by an older woman who was once a big star and is now coping with the anonymity that comes with aging. It’s specific to performers, but I hear it as a kind of feminist anthem. I like to belt it out when nobody’s home.’
Living person she most admires: ‘Marilynne Robinson. She was my teacher in grad school and she continues to inspire me through her novels and essays. She writes about the human capacity for goodness in a way that is profound and wise, but that also keeps the reader engaged with the plot and characters. I know my writing will never hold a candle to hers, but I do aspire to being as caring and generous a teacher to my students as she was to me.’
The trait she most deplores in herself: ‘My memory. My horrible, sieve-like memory. Do not get mugged in front of me. Unless we go to court within five minutes, I will be useless as an eye witness.’
The trait she most deplores in others: ‘Talking during movies.’
The book she wishes she’d written: ‘E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. When I first read it many, many years ago, I was struck by the blending of fictional and nonfictional characters, the beautifully-crafted yet accessible prose, the use of history to comment on the present, and the riveting plot that is at once specific to the characters and a broad examination of US culture. I think—I hope—you can see my own attempts to do similar things in A Reunion of Ghosts’
The book she thinks everyone should read: ‘Any book by Thich Nhat Hanh.’
The book she’d like republished: ‘I was about to say During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joan Chase’s 1983 debut about cousins growing up in Ohio, but when I looked it up I saw that The New York Review of Books has recently republished it. So now I don’t have an answer to this question. Thanks a lot, New York Review of Books.’
Writing ritual: ‘Is avoidance a ritual?’
Best advice ever received: ‘Best writing advice was from another teacher, Frank Conroy: “The project is nothing; the process is everything.” Best living advice was from Claire Mitchell, my mom: “Life is so full of sorrow and suffering that when the chance for happiness comes along, you should grab it with both fists.”’
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