Yesterday, I reviewed The Sinner’s Guide to Confession by Phyllis Schieber (read my review here). Today, Schieber generously offered to tell us a little about her own favorite books. First, though, here’s some information about her.
The first great irony of my life was that I was born in a Catholic hospital. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. My mother was apparently so nervous she barely slept the entire time she was in the hospital, fearing her fair-skinned, blue-eyed newborn would be switched with another baby. When my paternal grandfather, an observant Jew, came to see his newest granddaughter in the hospital, he was so uncertain of how to behave around the kindly nuns that he tipped his yarmulke to them each time one passed. It was in this haze of paranoia and neuroses, as well as black humor, that the makings of a writer were initiated.
In the mid-fifties, my family moved to Washington Heights, an enclave for German Jews, known as “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.” The area offered scenic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades, as well as access to Fort Tryon Park and the mysteries of the Cloisters. I graduated from George Washington High School. Among its famous graduates was Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State (my grandmother played cards with his mother at the YMWHA on Nagle Avenue).
I graduated from high school at sixteen, went on to Bronx Community College, transferred to and graduated from Herbert H. Lehman College with a B.A. in English and a New York State license to teach English. I earned my M.A. in Literature from New York University and later my M.S. as a developmental specialist from Yeshiva University. I have worked as a high school English teacher, a special education teacher, and as a learning disabilties specialist in several college programs.
Reading was the first line of defense against anything I did not want to do. “I’m reading,” was an excuse my parents never challenged. Education was paramount in our home. There were weekly trips to the library, and the greatly anticipated Friday afternoon story hour. Everything about words seemed interesting and important.. I could make sense of the world if I put it on paper. I could even make the world better; people could become smarter and more attractive, and I could make people laugh and cry at will. Writng was powerful. I thought in stories, answered questions in my head and added, “she said” at the end of a sentence. I still do.
My first novel, Strictly Personal, for young adults, was published by Fawcett-Juniper. Willing Spirits was published by William Morrow. My most recent novel, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, was released by Berkley Putnam on July 1, 2008. In March 2008, Berkley Putnam will issue the first paperback publication of Willing Spirits.
I live in Westchester County, New York where I work privately with students, teaching writing. I am currently working on a new novel.
And now, here is Ms. Schieber:
I do not think it is possible to be a writer and not be a reader. I have been a reader all my life. As a child, I never owned books. There was simply no money for books beyond the occasional selections I could make at a school book fair. I still have my tattered paperback copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is held together with rubber bands, but I cherish it because it was one of the only books I owned. Although I may not have owned books, my mother took me to the library every week. Over the long summer break, we were allowed to take out as many books as we wanted, and I can remember going to the library with a shopping cart to load up with wonderful thick books like Marjorie Morningstar, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brother Karamazov, David Copperfield. . . I remember them all. My taste in reading changed over the years, and I was drawn mostly to women writers. I love Fay Weldon. Her early books, Puffball, Down Among the Women, Praxis and one of my all time favorites, The Fat Woman’s Joke, are incredibly funny and sharp and almost relentlessly honest. Weldon is a keen observer of how women make their way in the world, and of how men can invariably bring despair of some sort even they do not mean to. Weldon makes me laugh. I never grow tired of her work.
I am also a great fan of Carol Shields. I have read all her work with great admiration, but I am most fond of Unless. There are lines in that novel that just sing. I am awed by her talent, her boldness, and her clarity. I have read and loved work by Rachel Ingalls, especially Mrs. Caliban. And I will never forget Dorothy Alison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. A book like that is a remarkable achievement. The story never leaves you. Anne Tyler’s work is so consistently good that even if the plot occasionally falters, the writing is just so clean, so disarmingly enough, that nothing else matters. I anticipate her books with joy. I have intermittently loved Alice Hoffman, particularly some of her earlier works like Turtle Moon, Second Nature and At Risk. I would be remiss if I did not admit that her work has influenced me. Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love and Good Will may be among the finest pieces I’ve ever read. And I enjoy Alison Lurie and Alice Adams as well. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard is a remarkable book. I love the short stories of Joyce Carol Oates and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They are flawless. Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand stories are beautiful, and I revisit them to remind myself of how less is more and of how difficult it can be to achieve that.
When I read, I want an “ah-ha” moment at least once. I want to close my eyes for a moment and say. “Yes, that is exactly how that feels.” It is what I strive for when I write. It is always my intention to be honest, to anticipate a reader’s connection with my words and to know that even if it is only once, I have achieved that goal.