READER INTERVIEW WITH LISA HOULIHAN
conducted January/February, 2015
Do you have reading habits you are willing to reveal?
My bad habits are legion and pervasive. In no order except as they occur to me: One, I will interrupt a Good or Grown-up book at the drop of a hat with a bit of trash or a juvenile book. Two, I count an audio book as read even if it’s been playing only while I’m in earshot but not actively listening. Three, I am not good at closing a book I hate if by accident I haven’t put it aside by page 20 or so. If I soldier on because I Ought to or think I owe it a solid effort, I’ll wind up wasting 680 pages of my life on Prince of Tides. Four, I danced with glee when I saw that the estate of V.C. Andrews recently cranked out yet another Flowers in the Attic sequel. Five, if you interrupt me when I’m reading I want to punch you in the throat. There will still be books when I am decrepit but I won’t have friends because all of their windpipes will have been shattered and then something like the Twilight Zone “Time Enough At Last” will happen and let me tell you how much less sympathetic I am than Burgess Meredith.
When I visit my father, I pack crossword puzzles. His non-reading companion figures anyone who is reading must be bored and in need of a chat. Last time, I gave her Ladies of Missalonghi from the nearby used book shop and that shut her up for a while but crossword puzzles can be interrupted without violence. Or so I tell myself.
What were your favorite books as a child?
If I had to pick one or eat lima beans, I’d say Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth: the power of imagination, playing with language, a dog. Happily, you allowed me a plural answer.
If a kid relies on herself and lives in a fort, then I loved it. Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins (despite the deaths of dogs), Iceberg Hermit, My Side of the Mountain, Secret Garden, Mandy, Pippi Longstocking, Bridge to Terabithia, Egypt Game, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
I was delighted when just a few years ago the author of a little known touchstone, Tread Softly, wrote to me. I had forgotten the book for years until I happened to reread the titular Yeats poem, whereupon it flooded back. I hunted down a copy and reread it, surprised as ever to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten.
Ghosts in old English houses are always fun, especially Joan Aiken’s Shadow Guests and Jane Louise Curry’s Bassumtyte Treasure. The latter also features Mary Queen of Scots, so maybe I should credit it with sparking my obsession with C16 England.
The Incredible Journey is one of the few animal books I could bear since none of them die. The Yearling is one of the few books I read where the animal does die. The illustration in King of the Wind of dear Sham being beaten gave me nightmares. Anthropomorphic animals are not as problematic. I love Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Watership Down. I adore both Cricket in Times Square and Tucker’s Countryside. Once when tooling around in Westport, Connecticut, I happened to spot a little park signposted Hedley’s or Hadley’s Meadow and my head exploded. I still have a story I wrote––or more accurately, stole from George Selden––starring my stuffed animals.
And oh, Dr. Dolittle. Animals! Sea voyages! A bridge made of monkeys and a floating island pushed by whales and dogs solving crimes! Hugh Lofting happens to be buried quite close to where I grew up, but by the time the Internet could tell me that I had moved away.
I loved the Little House books, the Great Brain and All-of-a-Kind Family series, Danny Champion of the World, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and The Westing Game. Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelssohn, the Boy from Mars is tragically overlooked. Jean Little’s Look Through My Window means a lot to me and her From Anna was helpful when I got glasses in elementary school.
Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis were my fantasy go-tos. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read Lloyd Alexander or Ursula Le Guin until much later. I read Wrinkle in Time and Swiftly Tilting Planet to tatters (but not Wind in the Door) and stole again from Planet for another of story. It was in pursuit of more L’Engle that I learned to use interlibrary loan. My two favorite Narnia books are Horse and His Boy and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I buck the norm by preferring Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone even to Grey King, because Merlin is in it.
And my most important time travel book! In fifth grade (taught by our mutual friend Judith), my friends and I discovered Tonke Dragt’s Towers of February. We lived on the beach and were clever and devoted, so we were sure that we could figure out the magic word by Leap Day 1980 and slip into an alternate world.
Being an adult is no reason not to read children’s books. Walk Two Moons, Holes, Graveyard Book, Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, and His Dark Materials are wonderful.
What type of book do you see yourself spending more time with in this new year?
I don’t think I read by type. I like narrative nonfiction and cultural or micro-histories by the likes of Simon Winchester and Steven Johnson, and novels with substance and bite. This might be the year for Gravity’s Rainbow. I want to read more Mary Renault.
How do you decide what to read?
I belong to two book clubs. Last year book club introduced me to Aminatta Forna’s amazing Hired Man, and how else would I have stumbled across that? Recent titles I would not have come across without a friend’s recommendation include Life Among Giants and Rules of Civility. The latter is especially good.
In 2000, various organizations developed lists of the century’s best books, and I have been plugging away at those sporadically. Without the lists I might not have discovered Graham Greene, whom I adore, or Tobacco Road, which slew me, or instant loves All the King’s Men and Angle of Repose. Without the lists I also wouldn’t have inflicted Tin Drum or Tropic of Cancer on myself, so they’ve been a mixed bag. I’ll never complete them because of Finnegans Wake, but they’re a good starting point.
At the library or bookstore, I’m a sucker for cover design and good titles. Sometimes that foible pays off: I plucked Little Bee off the shelf for the former and Shadow of the Wind and The Meaning of Night for the latter.
Many of my favorite authors are still writing. Not yet mentioned are Peter Ackroyd, who shows the underside of the knitting; Alice Hoffman, who seems to have but one string to her bow but which string I like very much – New England, water, and a bit of magic; and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. I hope not to outlive Michael Chabon, whose Kavalier & Clay I mentioned above but whose genius merits repetition. Jane Smiley is always a pleasure.
I’m not immune to hype (Gone Girl; Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, whose hype I wish I had resisted; and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Luddites and technogeeks both).
I make use of services that suggest your next book based on previous successes. Goodreads www.goodreads.com and www.gnooks.com are two I like.
If contemporary books stop working for me, I have Anthony Trollope in reserve. And everything to reread, like Robertson Davies.
Please tell us anything else you wish to about books and reading.
Note: Thanks Lisa for telling us about many good reads, so helpful in choosing what to read next. This interview makes my List of Books I Want To Read much longer. I join you in looking forward to Wolf Hall on television next April. Thanks too, for alerting readers to that opportunity. We all like finding kindred spirits among our fellow readers. Yes, cover design and titles are sometimes a joy, even without the story inside. And stories written for young readers are a delight at any age. Lisa reminds us of some of our favorites!