Nearly 40 years ago, when Megan Marshall hardly dared think about becoming a writer, she took one of the last classes that the poet Elizabeth Bishop taught. Marshall, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of 19th-century firebrand and intellectual Margaret Fuller, is now working on a biography of Bishop. Marshall teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
Marshall: I’ve gotten on a kick of reading 20th-century English novelists. Because I’m such an Americanist, I’m not well read in the English novel. I’ve been wanting to read Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which is supposed to be so wonderful, but I hadn’t read any of Fitzgerald’s novels. In the last three weeks I’ve read “Offshore”, which I thought was wonderful, and “The Blue Flower,” which I thought was a little less wonderful. That’s probably because I’m a biographer, and it is a biographical novel of the poet Novalis. I would prefer a real biography of Novalis.
Now I’m reading “Lolly Willowes” by the English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, a really fantastic book. It’s about a single woman in English polite society who refuses to take any part in getting married or playing the maiden aunt role.
BOOKS: When did your English novel reading phase start?
Marshall: I would say when I heard Hermione Lee speak about a month ago. Before that the last English novel I had read was A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” one of my all-time favorite books. I love the way it makes vivid the life of the researcher in the archives. Another favorite of all time is Rebecca Goldstein’s “The Mind-Body Problem.” If there’s a writer whose every book I want to read it’s her. I love “The Dark Sister,” too.
BOOKS: What are your all-time favorite biographies?
I also read a lot of memoirs. Family memoirs especially interest me. There are a few books that are memoirs of fathers I like. Janna Malamud Smith’s “My Father Is a Book” about her father the novelist Bernard Malamud is really good. Another is Bliss Broyard’s “One Drop.” After her father’s death she discovered that he was a black man passing as white. You feel a different way in your skin when you are reading that book.
BOOKS: Did you grow up going to the library?
Marshall: My grandmother was a children’s librarian where I grew up in Pasadena. Every Thursday I helped her shelve books. I became very bonded to that library. I vowed I would read every book in the children’s room. I didn’t but I found some books I wouldn’t have read otherwise such as this series of biographies on women written for children. I read about Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart. I also remember the day my grandmother handed me “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. With its great heroine, that book was very influential for me.
BOOKS: What is the most treasured book that you own?
Marshall: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Complete Poems.” I heard her read for the first time in Robert Lowell’s class at Harvard, and then bought this secondhand paperback of her poems at the Harvard Book Store where I worked in the used book annex. I ran the cash register. The best perk of working there was we each had a shelf in the basement where we could stack used books to buy with our employee discounts.
I was just down there because the store asked me to come in and sign some of my books. I was in the basement where I had hoarded Bishop’s poems about 40 years before, and I’m signing my own book, which says Pulitzer Prize on it. Who would have thought?Amy Sutherland is a writer who lives in Charlestown. She can be reached at email@example.com
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version misspelled Hermione Lee’s first name. Clarification: Marshall took one of the last classes taught by Elizabeth Bishop.