Thursday, September 24, 2015

Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman’s latest novel is The Poe Estate. She is also the author of The Grimm Legacy (a Bank Street Best Book and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Finalist), its companion The Wells Bequest, and Enthusiasm (a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice). She has worked as a magazine editor, a newspaper columnist, a library page, and a licensed private investigator. She has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Discover, Newsday, Salon, Slate, Scientific American, Archaeology, and The Village Voice. She majored in math at Yale and grew up in New York City, where she lives with her husband in a tall old building guarded by gargoyles.

I recently Shulman about what she was reading. Her reply:
My favorite recent novel is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I’d been longing for more of her Temeraire fantasy/alternate history series, which follow the fortunes of an English captain during the Napoleonic Wars. He’s not in the navy, but the Aerial Corps—his “ship” is a dragon named Temeraire, a brave, affectionate, rational soldier of a person who also happens to be a gigantic, scaly flying beast and something of a philosopher. Novik’s writing is even better than the premise: funny, touching, fast paced, and subtle. I was disappointed when I learned her new novel had nothing to do with Temeraire, but somewhat to my surprise, I loved Uprooted even more. Uprooted has a fairy-tale premise: Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a girl from the heroine’s village to work for him in his tower castle, and this time it’s the heroine’s turn. Unlike Temeraire, this dragon is a man—a wizard who’s trying to protect the region from the encroaching enchanted Wood. I wanted to read Uprooted slowly to savor the gorgeous writing, vivid characters and relationships, and magical atmosphere, but the story was so exciting I gobbled it down.

I recently read a batch of 20th century literary novels reissued by New York Review Books Classics—they have great taste. My favorites were Great Granny Webster, by Caroline Blackwood; Summer Will Show, by Sylvia Townsend Warner; and Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. (The novelist, not the actor.) Great-Granny Webster, first published in 1977, is a dark, semi-autobiographical comedy about upper-class eccentrics. Summer Will Show, first published in 1936, takes place in Paris during the revolution of 1849; the heroine falls in love with her husband’s mistress and joins the rebels. (Somebody needs to reissue Warner’s 1977 Kingdoms of Elfin, which ranks with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as one of the best books ever written about fairies for adults.) Angel, first published in 1957, tells the cringingly ironic story of an Edwardian popular novelist’s rise and fall; not everyone will love it, but I did.

I’m considering writing a historical novel set in the Gilded Age one of these days—or at least, the pile of books on my coffee table and in my tablet suggests that I might be. I just finished Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, published in 1912 but set some 40 years earlier, the story of a stockbroker who gets caught up in politics and corruption. Dreiser piles on the details—about everything from the protagonist’s financial transactions to his office furniture to his mistress’s ball gowns—and refrains from drawing any clear morals from the story, which fascinated me. His writing is strangely paced and full of verbal lumps, which I also found fascinating; it’s very different from the infelicities you find in less-than-great writing nowadays. I’ve downloaded the sequel, The Titan, but I haven’t started reading it yet.

When I was writing The Poe Estate I reread Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, looking for haunted houses and ghostly objects to borrow for my book. That set me off on a long Wharton kick; I dipped in and out of her collected works, reread The House of Mirth, her New York Stories, and various other stories and novellas. She’s a spectacular observer, her sentences are witty and perfectly balanced, and she knows how to make her readers want to know what happens next. But she likes to punish her characters, which can make the stories painful to read. This time through I paid a lot of attention to the descriptions and period details.

I’ve also been reading Hotel: An American History, by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz (very informative), and I’ve been accumulating a small collection of travel books from the 1870s or so, the best of which are Over the Ocean; or, Sights and Scenes in Foreign Lands and Abroad Again; or, Fresh Forays in Foreign Lands, both by Curtis Guild; my editions are from 1877. So maybe whatever historical novel I may or may not write might include some travel—possibly a Grand Tour of Europe.

I tend to read more genre fiction and classics (or just old books) than contemporary literary fiction, but right now I’m reading Make Your Home Among Strangers, an absorbing new novel by Jennine Capó Crucet, about a young Cuban-American woman who’s the first in her family to go to college. It’s beautifully written, and I’m loving it.
Visit Polly Shulman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue