Interview: Harrison Solow

Did you ever wish you could sit down and talk to an incredibly knowledgeable writer about the craft, getting published, and most importantly, getting paid? Now you can. Harrison Solow is a winner of the prestigious Pushcart Prize and passionate about reading and writing. Enjoy getting to know her! I certainly did.

You’re the 2008 winner of the prestigious Pushcart Prize. What a thrill for an author! Give us the details. Where were you when you found out?

As I said (paraphrased), not long after the award, in a BBC Interview: I was in Cambridge (Massachusetts) for a meeting at Harvard. William Pierce, the editor at AGNI, knew that I was coming and invited me to a little party at his house to meet the rest of the AGNI editorial staff who had worked with me on the story and cd. I’d only communicated by email with them until then. It was an absolutely charming literary party – intellectually and socially rich, unpretentious and companionable. I was particularly fond of one of the interns who had been assigned to Bendithion, Sumita Chakraborty, who always seemed to understand my writing and Timothy’s singing with particular insight.

Sumita had just graduated from Wellesley a couple of days before and William Pierce said she had an announcement to make. I was delighted because I thought she was going to announce that she was going on to graduate school or had secured a fabulous job (which she had) and I was really happy for her. William poured a glass of wine for everyone – they all raised their glasses and then Sumita said, very slowly and very simply, “I’d like to announce that Harrison has won a Pushcart Prize for Bendithion.”

I remember that those words didn’t really come into my brain. They went into my ears and just stayed there for a few seconds in a strange sort of time-lapse. And then they came back as an echo – more like remembering that they had just been said, rather than actually having heard them when they were spoken. I was stunned for a few minutes. It was just so unexpected. I have friends who are famous writers – some who have been nominated but never won – and they include the nomination in their bios. It means a great deal more to them than their enormously successful books. It is equivalent to an Oscar nomination or win. Anyway, that’s how I felt. Of course I ran to phone my husband, Herb, who was back in California. And my parents and my sons. It was too late with the time difference to call Timothy Evans, around whom the entire story of Bendithion revolves – but when I told him the next day, he was thrilled.

And just after the announcement, the legendary editor, Sven Birkerts who teaches writing at Harvard and Bennington (and who had originally made the decision to publish “Bendithion” in AGNI and who together with William Pierce had nominated it for Pushcart Prize consideration) arrived with his congratulations (which, to me meant almost as much as the prize!) and the joy (and the party) escalated. It was all done so thoughtfully and beautifully. One of the more memorable experiences of my writing life!”

Has it affected your take on writing at all since then?

My approach to writing? No, not at all. I wrote the same way before the prize as I do now. My views on writing are the same. Winning a prize, even one as prestigious as this one, shouldn’t really change the way one views or thinks about writing itself since one is clearly doing something right already (!), though I know that for some writers, it changes the way they think about themselves. It didn’t for me, however. I am enormously pleased, especially as this is an award that can only come from a nomination by editors and publishers, not from application from the writer him/herself, but it did not alter my path as a writer. It changed other things though. I just gave an interview on this for Alice Shapiro’s literary project, The Change Interviews. The entire project is on-site at Poets House in New York, so one can listen to the CDs in person there.

Tell us about your latest book, Felicity and Barbara Pym, which has just come out in the UK.

A lot of information can be found on the Felicity & Barbara Pym website and on the publisher’s and distributors websites, but I think the sentences that best describe the topics in the book come from the Introduction, written by Peter Miles, Emeritus Fellow of The English Association:

Harrison Solow’s creation Mallory Cooper, while constantly negotiating a constellation of identities that range between the American, the Catholic, the Jewish, the English and the Welsh has, notwithstanding, yet to find the fence on which she might be willing to sit. This is a book of strong opinions, valiant, forthright and elegant, laid out in defiance of yea-sayers, bet-hedgers, academic bureaucrats and bureaucratic academics. It will infuriate as well as stimulate (as Mallory Cooper, who is not short of self-knowledge, well knows), prompt both wry and outright laughter and stir deeper reflections. It should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate students of English Literature; no American students of English Literature should be allowed to set foot upon campus without having proved that they have read it….[an] unusual, charming and astringent piece of writing… both a practical and philosophical introduction to, and summing-up of, the nature and uses of literature and its discussion – and…a delightfully readable and comic drama of the generations, of cantankerous yet worldly-wise tutor and idealistic yet impatient young American student trying to set up lines of communication about the (highly) English novelist Barbara Pym — not to mention the strange pathways that lie between the cradle and the grave, linking even Tunbridge Wells, a West Wales butcher and Hollywood…

What do you hope readers take away from it?

Well, the book is a little tongue in cheek – I look at the topics I cover with some amusement as well as serious analysis, but I would hope that above all, readers will enjoy following the relationship between Felicity the student and Mallory Cooper, the tutor and their wrangles over reading and writing, studying and “getting by” and what it means to be an educated person as opposed to a person who has a degree.

I especially hope my book elevates the level of respect that people hold for those who do not have university degrees – people who may be far wiser, far more astute, deeper, kinder, more developed, more responsible and more interesting human beings than many who do – and puts into context the many academics who so often enjoy a reputation for all these things that they do not necessarily deserve I also hope that readers examine assumptions we all make – for example, using the word “Hollywood” as a synonym for tawdry and cheap when they have absolutely no idea what “Hollywood” is and there is equal reason to use the word to mean generous, creative, loyal and charitable. I would hope that people who have never worked in, lived in, or even visited Hollywood, would think twice about pronouncing judgment on it after reading my book. This is a particular cause of vexation which is, I think succinctly summed up in this short article I wrote some time ago: http://www.redroom.com/blog/harrison-solow/out-town-visitor

Above all, I hope they take away from it a sense of autonomy and worth as readers of both “literature” and “books” and, for those readers who are also writers, a sense of direction.

For your readers information, although Felicity and Barbara Pym can only be purchased in bookstores in the UK, it can be bought online from the publisher, distributor,(urls above) amazon.co.uk and The Book Depository which offers Free International Shipping.

You’ve got a book slated for 2011 called Bendithion, which is also the name of your Pushcart essay. Give us some background on the book.

I think the entire background can be gleaned from the essay and since I am in the middle of writing this book, I can’t talk about it. Something disappears when a work in progress is discussed publicly, so I apologise – but I think any sensitive reader will be able to see where the book is going by reading the essay.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Among the dozens (literally) tied for first place in the “most interesting” category, I would include Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman, AS Byatt’s short story collection Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice in which the story Cold is probably my favourite short story ever, Isaac Asimov’s Robots series, Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph, Phd, Old School by Tobias Wolff, Sacred Space, Chosen People (about Wales) by Dorian Llywelyn, SJ, PhD, The Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas, A Matter of Wales, by Jan Morris, Frost in May by Antonia White, The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Les Grandes Amites by Raissa Maritain, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore, God and the New Physics, by Paul Davies, Winnie The Pooh by AA Milne, Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen, The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts, The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye, Mary Poppins, by PL Travers, The Dictionary of Etymology, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, Aristotle’s Poetics, The Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, The Tempest, for some reason, As a Driven Leaf, by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and Somebody Else’s Shoes, which is an out of print children’s book about a young girl who goes to the cobbler to get her shoes repaired and while waiting, tries on the shoes of people she knows that are on the shelf waiting to be picked up, and she becomes them – experiences their lives from their points of view while retaining her own separate mind – and she never looks at them the same way again. There are so many others which are as interesting or were in other stages of life, but clearly this is far more than you asked already!

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

My opinion is very conventional and very American. The measure of a successful writer is a published writer who gets paid for her/his work. A writer of “prosperous achievement.”I know there are other opinions, but this is mine. When I was teaching a course called Writing to Pay the Rent which I created and developed to help my students answer the question “What can you do with an English Degree?”, I heard from my students that there was a local poet in the area who kept advising students not to take it! It was hailed by the Head of Department as the single most innovative course the department had ever taught; it brought attention to the university from the external assessors during their examination of the department and the university that was extremely positive; (I was told by them that the university was being given extra positive reviews as a result of my course and that they wanted to make it a model for other universities in Great Britain); the students loved it – it was oversubscribed when it was first offered and the students asked for an extra class every week, in addition to the two classes already scheduled just because they loved it; and this crackpot (not even a member of the university) decided to launch a little mini-campaign against it.

It seems, as it turns out that she encourages her half dozen or so followers not to get paid for their work, because, she purports, if one is paid for one’s work, one cannot possibly be any good, which is really too idiotic to be believable, condemning, as it does, the judgment and professional evaluation of every book, magazine, journal, chapbook editor, agent, publisher, critic, on the entire planet, with the exception of the “poet” herself. Not to mention every writer who has ever been compensated in the history of letters. But there is that attitude out there apparently. I suspect the rationale is that as long as you keep your work to yourself and a few misguided local groupies, you will be assured of a very high self regard no matter what rubbish you turn out and will never have to face public or professional opinion.

And while I know that many publishers and agents do not choose books on the basis of their quality but rather on what will sell well to the largest audience, there are many who think and act otherwise. I had a manuscript rejected by a first class agent who “loved it” – thought was “wonderful” but felt that s/he could not sell to a publisher because it was “too smart”. That agency had a specific set of criteria that my manuscript didn’t fit. But there is always another agent or another publisher. That manuscript is now a book. And I have absolutely no hard feelings whatsoever. In fact, I like and admire this agent greatly.

One has to realise that all agents have a specialty and a circle of publishers/contacts and a mandate – and only those manuscripts that fit those parameters will be chosen, no matter how good they are. A successful writer, by definition, at least my definition, will simply move on.

Obviously this is not to say that people who have not yet or ever been published are not good, excellent or even brilliant. They may be. They may often be. But brilliant and successful are not the same thing. (And equally, there are those who have never been published who are not good writers and never will be.) For, when good, excellent or brilliant writers are published, even posthumously, there will inevitably be a sentence in their biographic details which will describe them as having been unsuccessful in their early years or during their lifetimes, etc. Publication (from the Latin, publicare: to make public) by which I mean here, compensated publication, is by definition intrinsic to the definition of writing success, since writing is communication – making one’s thoughts public. And success, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, means “prosperous achievement.”
Advice for other writers?

I take very little advice and so I am loathe to dispense any. People pretty much do what they want to, in the end. Or rather what they think they want to. (Knowing the difference would be my only exhortation!) And I am not sure most general advice is useful. If any of your readers has a specific question about which I feel qualified by education or experience to answer, I most certainly will.

Where can we learn more about you?

Several places. First, The Red Room, as it is an incomparable site for writers on which I have a webpage and blog.

And by the way, I would urge your readers who are also writers to think about joining The Red Room themselves. One need not have been published. Many are just beginning their writing careers. But many well known and highly respected writers, like two of my old favourites, Beverly Cleary and Tobias Wolff are Author members – as are Amy Tan and Elizabeth Eslami and Gina Collia-Suzuki – so many wonderful writers. It’s a great community unlike any other I have come across. It is a serious, professional community of authors, publishers, editors and writers, both well published and aspiring – with a great deal of warmth and extremely interesting interactions. I was not originally a very “club-friendly” person but I really value my membership ( and friends) there.

Also on Academia.edu and my page at Academi (The Welsh Academy, to which I belong as Writer of Wales).

I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn and Americymru. I have two interviews on Americymru, one on my latest book.

I also just won First Prize in the Carpe Articulum Literary Review International Fiction Competition, for my story, Mater Amabilis, so I can be found in the current edition (June, 2010) of the magazine in bookstores like Barnes and Noble, or on the Carpe Articulum website.

And various other places, but that’s enough.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes: Thank you for these stimulating questions! I appreciate being your guest on Working Writers.

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1 Comment on "Interview: Harrison Solow"

  1. charles e. killeen | November 9, 2013 at 9:50 pm |

    I only discovered Harrison Solow tonight — 9-10-13. She is quite intimidating. It reminds me of when I took an honest look at Sugar Ray Robinson and a few other fighters of the ’50,s and realized how much I had been kidding myself back then. I had dreams of being like them when I was young and at somewhere around 70 I said to myself, Charlie, you never had a prayer. I wasn’t even a good amateur but I refused to give up the dream. I heard Truman Capote say, in talking about hopelessly untalented writers, “it’s like an oyster trying to become a pearl.” As a writer I hope I’m not that hopeless — I know I’m a much better writer than I ever was as a fighter. But I find myself dumbfounded at Harrison Solow’s chops. It’s like when Art Blakey heard Erroll Garner play piano at a local Pittsburgh theater. Garner was seventeen and Blakey, I think, was a little older. Blakey at the time was a pianist. That day he gave up the piano and turned completely to drums. He did very well and was a lifelong success by Solow’s definition — as a drummer and bandleader. Some of the writers who influenced me are on Solow’s list but she seems to have absorbed more of their true essence than I have. I am also a member of Red Room which is where I discovered her. At this moment I am, simply, stunned. ———– Charlie Killeen

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