Jun 7, 2010

An Interview With Harrison Solow

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Harrison Solow’s writing awards include the Pushcart Prize for Literature (2008). She is published by Simon & Schuster, The University of California Press, Harper Collins, Cinnamon Press, AGNI, The Pushcart Press and several others in the USA, Wales, Canada and England. AmeriCymru spoke to Harrison about her latest work 'Felicity And Barbara Pym' which is published in Wales by Cinnamon Press. Read our review of 'Felicity And Barbara Pym' here.


felicity and barbara pym by harrison solow
Ceri: Would you say that Felicity & Barbara Pym is for the serious student of literature or simply for anyone who loves reading? Who is your target audience here?



Harrison: Regarding students, as Emeritus Fellow of the English Association, Peter Miles, said in the Introduction to the book, "It should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate students of English Literature..."

He also said: "... no American students of English Literature should be allowed to set foot upon campus without having proved that they have read it..." He specified American here because there is a built-in lexicon/concordance to the culture of Barbara Pym's world, which many (though not all) English, perhaps even British, readers would know as a legacy or as an oppressor and which many Americans without knowledge or experience of this era and society would not, thus buttressing the significance of context in reading literature.



I think the serious student of literature, if she or he has not been warped by the more ridiculous aspects of academia, or is not too immature, would already know much of what is in Felicity and Barbara Pym. Perhaps not about Barbara Pym's work specifically, but about reading literature. On the other hand, it is appalling how little serious students of literature are required to know in many universities these days, so I would say that those students who are attached to literature by obligation or inclination and whose experience with the teaching of it has to date left something unfulfilled would find something helpful in it.

Regarding the general audience, well, all I can say is that a number of people read the manuscript prior to publication – many asked to see it - others were given it to review - others were colleagues of whom I asked a favour, and still others were those friends on whom I could count to give me as critical and dispassionate review as if they were strangers. These were English, Welsh, Canadian, Australian and American speakers of English. I purposely gave the manuscript to people of varying ages, genders, occupations and levels of education – to academics and to scholars (they are not always the same thing) in English and in other fields, to fellow writers and artists, to people under 30 and to people over 55.

People with undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees and no degrees read it. East Coast literati and West Coast businessmen read it. People who knew Barbara Pym's work and people who had never heard of her read it. I also gave it to people who did not like Barbara Pym. And my publisher, Cinnamon Press, distributed the manuscript to people I had never met. All in all, about 40 people – and the pre-publication feedback was phenomenal - not one disparaging remark - even from strangers – and universal (and very unexpected) praise. I am sure that won’t last!

But everyone who has read it to date seems to have found something in it that was significant to his personal experience of reading and meaningful literary analysis. The most frequent remark from readers was how much they "got into" the book - kept reading it beyond bedtime, beyond other obligations and despite being what they considered “intellectual” how “accessible” its message was.

So I think the target audience - the one that seems to have emerged from this experience, is anyone who both loves to read and would spend time reading a book about reading!

Ceri: What was your inspiration for this book, what brought it about?

Harrison: I'm not sure that inspiration is the term for what brought it about. I tend to think that inspiration visits the poet (or rather the poem) and the novelist (or the novel) and I'm not sure that this odd hybrid of fiction and non-fiction attracted any Muses. And on that subject, if you have a look at some of the places where Felicity and Barbara Pym is advertised, you may see it called "Non-Fiction." That is not true. Or rather, that is not the whole truth: It is non-fiction. It is also fiction.

The character of Felicity is entirely fictional. Mallory Cooper, her tutor, whose background and experience are firmly based on mine, is also a fictional character. We share a lot of DNA but we are not at all identical. For example, as I said to Hazel Holt, Barbara Pym's biographer and Literary Executor, when she asked which bits were fiction and which were not, "I don't have four sons - I have two, but I like them so much that I wish that there were two of each of them so gave myself that little indulgence in the book...” I am not Writer in Residence at Brinley College. There is no Brinley College - I made up this rather ideal college and named it after Brinley Jones, whom I adore. Brinley was the head of the Llyfyrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (The National Library of Wales) and a dear, lovely man. Beautifully educated, very courteous and very Welsh.

It is true that I (like Mallory) was Writer in Residence at more than one university though. The Hollywood bits are all true. Mallory’s experience in Hollywood is mine. In fact, everything in Felicity and Barbara Pym pertaining to the entertainment industry is true. The facts about Barbara Pym are true. The universities are not. Apart from the ones that are actually named (Harvard, Mills, USC, etc), they are made up of a number of institutions I have attended as a student, at which I lectured as an author, or in which I worked. Some characters are entirely fictional. Some are not. The Butcher is absolutely true – he exists – and I adore him as well. But the unfolding dialogue between the two fictional characters and the setting and circumstances in which it occurs, are entirely fictional. I would urge readers not to think in terms of fiction and nonfiction. Truth is not the purview of nonfiction and a lot of so-called nonfiction is highly interpreted and interpretable. You could call Felicity and Barbara Pym an allegory or a tale. But basically, it’s just a book.

However, you asked what brought the book about. In its inception, it was my MFA Thesis at Mills College in California, one of the few remaining Liberal Arts Colleges for Women in the country. (This country). In order to get a Master of Fine Arts (which is a terminal degree in the creative or fine arts) at Mills, one must both study literature and create original material. One's thesis must give evidence of accomplishment in both and I thought that this was a way to demonstrate that. I suppose the impetus came from thinking about what that directive meant. In studying 20th century British Female Authors at the postgraduate level, I started to think of how I had been taught by my undergraduate professors, lecturers, advisors, mentor and I began to see that I had inherited a great deal of literary philosophy from one professor in particular, my own tutor (tutor in the British sense), Dr. C J Terry, who was a student of FR Leavis at Cambridge and a literary exemplar to me. I thought about his greatest pedagogical/literary gift to me - the interrelatedness of all periods of literature, the context and the history I hold in my head - and I began to explore how I would teach a student to read literature. Felicity and Barbara Pym is what evolved. "Evolved" meaning that the original thesis was a little different - shorter and without those passages generated by subsequent experience. The manuscript sat in my computer(s) for about ten years until I won an award for a short story competition at Cinnamon Press and the publisher asked if I had any other material she could see - so I resurrected it, revised it, sent it to her - and here we are!

Ceri: This is an unusual book in terms of its structure. Can you tell us a little about the 'epistolary' form and what attracted you to it?

Harrison:
I actually can't tell you much about epistolary form beyond the fact that I like it because it is immediate, communicative and draws on a long, peculiarly British, tradition of interpretative exploration and reportage, which suits the era, the people and works about which I write. The epistle (whether material or digital) has an intimacy, a natural subjectivity, and a fluctuation of subtext (as occurs in dialogue) that other forms of prose do not. As a scholar, I am riveted by form, but as a writer, I am nervous about becoming too aware of form and consequently not writing authentically. It is like examining one's own charm (meaning both appeal and talisman) and by that act, reducing it.

I've read many works on the epistolary form for my Phd, but I don't understand why most of them were written. Almost all of them have worthy insights and excellent passages, but I'm not sure we need a thousand books on why people write letters. I think it is fairly obvious. But I will give you a short answer: I like conversation. I like dialectics. I like civilized dialogue. I respect what occurs in an I-Thou encounter. As the renowned professor of linguistics, Deborah Tannen said once "…conversation, like literature, seeks primarily to move an audience by means of involvement, as opposed to (typically) expository prose . . . which seeks to convince an audience while maintaining distance between speaker/writer and audience." I think this is why people to date have reacted so favourably to the book - it is a conversation, not just between Felicity and her tutor, but between the author and the reader - between me and you.

One unusual aspect of this book is that one never reads Felicity’s letters/emails. We learn who Felicity is by her tutor’s response to her. There is a lot of space in this text for the reader to find a place of her own – to sympathise with Felicity, perhaps, or to support Mallory’s views. Or, preferably to pause between one letter and the next, to think, imagine or construct a reaction, response or viewpoint of one’s own.

Ceri: Felicity complains that 'nothing happens' in Barbara Pym's novels. How common a reaction is this to 'canonical' literature amongst contemporary students in your experience? Do you feel that television and movies have played a role in 'dulling' students literary sensibilities?

Harrison:
Well, unfortunately, my students no longer have to read canonical literature. At least not much of it – and not in sequence. This is what I deplore about many English programmes. And again, it is what I discuss in Felicity and Barbara Pym. So many universities tend to grovel for the approbation (and the dollars) of the inexperienced and in doing so, allow the most ignorant to determine what is necessary to become educated in their fields. This is why I love St. John's College in Annapolis. I keep sending people to their website to watch their admissions videos. Intellectual prowess has nothing inherently to do with cool, popular and fun subjects. It has to do with reaching a level of development in which subjects become relevant and absorbing because the mind is capable of understanding, exploring and analyzing them and they end up being “cool and fun” (though by that point, one hopes other adjectives would be employed). Popularity is irrelevant.

However, having said that, there is absolutely no reason why both traditional canon (to which I append a number of works by women over the centuries which were never included) and innovation cannot co-exist. I think it makes as much sense to introduce new courses and innovative approaches to learning within reason, as it does to study the classics for all the reasons St. John's gives on its website. But the canon comes first. Also, I think it is the responsibility of the professor or tutor to make her subject, the canon included, compelling - to convey the depth, beauty and relevance of texts that have been esteemed for centuries by minds a little more developed than those of most freshmen/freshwomen undergraduates.

About television and movies - well, it isn’t television and movies that are the issue. It is bad television and bad movies. There is nothing wrong with the writing on House or The West Wing or Foyle’s War or any number of shows. And there is nothing wrong with the writing in many movies. What dulls sensibilities are dumb choices. Every television has an off button and every movie requires the deliberate decision to buy a ticket. I think the stupidity precedes the actual watching of the show.

Ceri: In the book you attempt to provide an answer to the question 'Why should we read literature?' Do you think that question can ever be fully or satisfactorily answered?

Harrison:
Fully, no. Satisfactorily, yes. I think that was a lazy question on Felicity’s part. She was asking her tutor to provide an answer that could only be gleaned from her own deep and committed involvement in literature and up to that point, she hadn’t wanted to put in the effort. Mallory’s stance (and mine) is that if you don’t want to put in the effort, then do something else. Neither Mallory nor I feel that our primary commitment is (initially) to our students. Our primary commitment is to the subjects we teach. When the students enter into that subject with sincere intent, then that commitment extends to them in that context. And only then, do answers about the value of literature emerge. Not an answer. But answers.

Ceri: Barbara Pym's novels provide a fascinating insight into English provincial society in the 40's and 50's (and perhaps much later). You have lived in both the English and Welsh cultures. What are the most salient differences in outlook and attitude that you detected between the two cultures?

Harrison
: This is such a difficult question to answer. Or rather the answer is very easy (though not at all PC) but the explanation is difficult. There are things inherent in most cultures that are noble and beauteous and things that are reprehensible. I find the historic English repression of the Welsh culture and language reprehensible. I find the almost pathological sense of superiority with which a certain class was infused, completely ridiculous. My American and Canadian students whose encounters with the English were often both droll and distasteful, used to come to me and say, "What's the deal with these guys? They think they're important!" They were more amused than anything else. But these students were from countries, which, in the case of the United States, fought and won a war against, and rejected the English and in the case of Canada, incorporated and subsequently evolved away from the English to form a distinctly Canadian culture. This attitude is not amusing to the Irish, the Scottish and the Welsh peoples who have had to battle constantly for centuries against the suppression of their Celtic identities by a political authority, with very grave cultural consequences. As an example, which almost everyone on Americymru knows, at one time the Welsh people were forbidden to speak their own language by the English and children were humiliated and severely punished in Welsh schools for speaking the language of their mothers and fathers and their own land in their own land. As a result, the Welsh language nearly disappeared, for no other reason than a misguided sense of superiority (and, as likely, the inability to master the indigenous language) on the part of the English..

There is much to admire and respect about the England of Barbara Pym – and the England I knew thirty years ago - and I say so emphatically in Felicity and Barbara Pym. I knew it well and lived in that culture, albeit largely ex-patriot, for a very long time. I was married then to an Englishman and our sons are half-English. I have many and dear English relatives and friends. I do not include them in a sweeping condemnation of English policies – anymore than I appreciated bearing the stigma of a president I did not vote for and policies I opposed during the Bush Administration when I lived in the UK. Such a condemnation would be foolish anyway, considering the beautiful and significant literary and cultural heritage I am celebrating in Felicity and Barbara Pym.

Every culturally sensitive person regardless of country of origin, has the discernment to distinguish between a policy and a person – a government and a citizen, official and private ideologies, and so many of my English colleagues feel the same as I do about the demise of standards in universities, a certain class of twits, and other issues addressed in my book. And what has been a constant surprise to me is that the highest accolades and the best reviews of this book have come from English reviewers!

My own experience with the English has been (overall) reasonably cordial . But my experience with the Welsh has been passionate, familial and joyous. And I condemn anyone who seeks to destroy a culture – England, America or any other nation, whether by intent or ignorance - and in that context, I abhor the historical and some current English policies regarding Wales – as do  many of my English friends in Wales. I detest people who move into Wales, never learn the language, never participate in the culture, never make an attempt at any kind of respect for the nation they are inhabiting whether they are English, American, or a citizen or an immigrant from any other country.

I am all for multi-culturalism - I think diversity is essential. But not at the expense of the language, culture, and people whose land and heritage you are inhabiting. That is not multiculturalism. That is invasion. I know I have not answered your question directly, so I will now: If you read Mike Parker's Neighbours from Hell? English Attitudes to the Welsh, you will have your answer.

Ceri: Where can our readers purchase copies of Felicity and Barbara Pym?

Harrison:
Currently via amazon.co.uk - http://tinyurl.com/amuksolowpym and Cinnamon Press - http://www.cinnamonpress.com/titles-fiction.htm#fabp ; It is also in bookstores - in fact it is one of Waterstone's core books in the UK and it can be ordered from Inpress, the distributor of Felicity and Barbara Pym at http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/felicity_and_barbara_pym_harrison_solow_i022003.aspx I hope it will be on amazon.com soon - this is subject to international copyright law and I am not sure when it will be officially sold in the USA. If an American publisher is interested in publishing an American edition, it will be readily available in bookstores in the USA. But it is easy to order from these sites - I often order British books from UK websites before they become available in the US.

These links are also on my website, http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com - a website, by the way, that exists for people who would like to ask questions about the book or if they wish, my other work.

Ceri: What are your future literary plans? Do you have any other works in preparation?

Harrison:
I do. I have a PhD thesis in preparation which is both a creative and critical work, largely about Wales, Cymreictod and liminality; I just won first place in Carpe Articulum's short fiction competition for my story, Mater Amabilis, and I have been looking at that as a possible seedling for a new book, and of course Bendithion - the essay for which I won the Pushcart Prize (http://tinyurl.com/solow-bendithion) is currently underway as a book. I continue to write other works – I’m almost finished with a series of poems about Wales, and am just about to submit two solicited articles on liminality and on experimental fiction to two literary journals. I do a great deal of consulting, which sometimes involves writing. And (rarely these days) I edit (developmentally) literary works. Currently I am the consultant on a production of Under Milk Wood in Los Angeles for the Coeurage Theatre Company in North Hollywood.

Ceri: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Harrison:
Yes - Thank you to you, Ceri, for the interesting and challenging questions in this interview and to Tarw Llywd for my previous interview with Americymru - and also I’d like to say that I look forward to meeting members of Americymru and readers of Felicity and Barbara Pym at the Left Coast Eisteddfod in Portland where I will be on the panel of judges for the short story competition and giving readings of both this book and Bendithion. Edrychaf ymlaen at eich gweld chi yno!





Interview by Ceri Shaw Email




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