Growing up in Adams, Stacy Schiff rode her bike to the local library, where she was awarded a sticker for each book she read. Schiff, who lives in New York, has written four biographies, claiming a Pulitzer Prize for her book on Vera Nabokov and oodles of accolades for “Cleopatra.’’ She’s in town Wednesday for a sold-out lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts.
BOOKS: What are you reading now?
SCHIFF: I tend to subsist on a steady diet of fiction and memoir. Just finished Ian Brown’s raw and eloquent memoir about his son, “The Boy in the Moon,’’ paragraphs of which I read aloud to anyone I could collar. I feel every parent should read Clara Park’s “The Siege,’’ which is about dealing with her daughter’s autism before there was even a word for it. Last night I started Ben Lerner’s novel “Leaving the Atocha Station.’’ By page three it was clear I was either staying up all night or putting the novel away until the weekend. I’m still angry with myself for having slept.
BOOKS: Are you the kind of reader who stays up all night?
SCHIFF: A good novel can keep me from many things - dressing, eating, and certainly from my desk, but nothing can keep me from sleep these days.
BOOKS: Have you always read memoir and fiction, or did memoir come later?
SCHIFF: Fiction is my first and probably my true love.
BOOKS: Who are your favorite novelists?
SCHIFF: F. Scott Fitzgerald, for “The Great Gatsby,’’ which I adore, especially as it shimmers into a different form each time I reread it. Also Shirley Hazzard, especially for her “The Transit of Venus’’ and Julian Barnes for “Flaubert’s Parrot.’’ I will read anything by Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith. I’ve pressed copies of Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth’’ into more hands than I can count.
BOOKS: Can you keep up your reading when deep in writing a biography?
SCHIFF: Writing nonfiction does distract me from my fiction habit. Another thing that distracts, increasingly and incessantly, is e-mail. Wireless Wi-Fi on airplanes may be the end of me. When I see the little “Wi-Fi’’ sticker, I feel myself reel.
BOOKS: Were there biographies that inspired you to become a biographer?
SCHIFF: Early on Richard Ellman’s “Oscar Wilde,’’ Justin Kaplan’s “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,’’ and James Mellow’s “Charmed Circle,’’ about Gertrude Stein’s salon, set the gold standard. I go back to some less orthodox works regularly as well such as Richard Holmes’s “Footsteps’’ and Phyllis Rose’s “Parallel Lives,’’ which is about five Victorian marriages. And Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton’’ is unputdownable.
BOOKS: Any books you read for Cleopatra that you’d recommend?
SCHIFF: For standouts among modern works on the classical world, first place goes to Peter Green’s magnificent biography of “Alexander of Macedon.’’ Anthony Everitt’s “Cicero’’ is also beautifully crafted.
BOOKS: Was Cleopatra a reader?
SCHIFF: Cleopatra would have known her Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and surely had a good laugh over Herodotus’s outrageous description of Egypt. The premier library of the day was in her backyard. So it was possible for her to read all the major works in existence.
BOOKS: Of the people you’ve written about, who were the biggest readers?
SCHIFF: Ben Franklin read with the hunger you would expect from someone who spent his lunch money on books. Vera Nabokov read just as ferociously but also more critically. Whole passages of books stayed with her. When she met Edmund White, she recited a long section of his novel “Forgetting Elena’’ to him. She was also the woman who kept her 14-year-old son away from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’’
BOOKS: What did she have against it?
SCHIFF: According to Edmund Wilson, Mrs. Nabokov thought “Tom Sawyer’’ was an immoral book that teaches bad behavior and suggests to little boys the idea of taking an interest in little girls too young. Pretty funny in light of “Lolita.’’
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