It was a treat to interview Pushcart Prize-winning author Harrison Solow. She is the author of Felicity and Barbara Pym, which is about to be launched in London, and then in the entire U.K. in late July. Her eclectic life includes stints as a Franciscan nun and the editor of a Jewish Hassidic Magazine. She’s written for everyone from celebrities and astronauts to Canadian prime ministers and NASA. Harrison has also lived a Hollywood life with her husband Herbert Solow, the former head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios. A lover of all things Welsh, Harrison accepted a lectureship in the English Department of the University of Wales in 2004 and was appointed Writer in Residence in 2008. She was also invited to lecture at Harvard and Cambridge.
Click on the audio player below to listen to our hour-long interview (the first of our two interviews).
Click on the audio player below to listen to our follow-up eighteen-minute interview, in which we discuss the mystery and majesty or Welsh tenor Timothy Evans.
Want to hear Timothy sing? Here is a twenty-second clip of his otherworldly voice.
Click here to order a compilation of eighteen selections from Timothy Evans’ first two albums.
Click here to read The Postmaster’s Song, Harrison’s fictionalized version of Bendithion, which was published in The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Cinnamon Press. The Postmaster’s Song, which won the Cinnamon Press Award for Short Fiction, takes place in Lampeter and on the University of Wales campus. The editor of the anthology, Jan Fortune-Wood, says in the introduction that Harrison’s story represents the best work submitted to the sixth Cinnamon Press short story and poetry collection awards, and says that of all the short stories submitted that a “through-line emerged . . . centered on the exploration of inner landscapes, sometimes slightly surreal, sometimes poignant, but always finely observed, startlingly authentic and beautifully controlled.”
Here is a blurb that Jan Fortune-Wood wrote for The Postmaster’s Song.
Selecting stories for the anthology, The Ground Beneath Her Feet & other stories & poems, was no easy task, but from the first read Harrison Solow’s The Postmaster’s Song leapt off the page. The style is engaging and innovative. From the three possible beginnings to the delightful end, which invites the next leap of imagination, the reader is treated as an intelligent participant in this part fairy tale, part creative nonfiction story. It’s refreshing to find an author who can not only spin tales, but also take risks—crossing genres, pushing the boundaries of perception, playing with language—and all with a light touch, beautifully controlled. It’s an exquisite story, finely told and will certainly make you want to read more of Harrison Solow’s work.
Click here to read Harrison’s critically acclaimed essay, Liminality, which explores the literacy hinterland between fiction and nonfiction.
Harrison Solow discusses Liminality, Luminescence and Literature in an unprecedented double feature in the Fall 2009 issue of the arts magazine, Carpe Articulum. The other half of this double feature is Harrison’s husband, Herbert F. Solow, who discusses his legacy as the Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios. Click here to read the first three pages of that interview.
Click here to read Epistle for Ellison, Harrison’s poetic tribute to her friend, science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison. It begins:
Everyone thinks he knows Harlan Ellison.
Even I—and I really do. That is, we are acquainted—and more. We share sustenance—and more.
Thrice did he offer to smite my enemies. And did. And more.
One evening after dinner, he wrote a nameless story at me in five splashy minutes,
typing loudly on his Philip Marlowe typewriter in the castle he lives in and the one inside that.
Click here to read an interview with Working Writers in which Harrison tells the following story about how she discovered she had won the Pushcart Prize. She had been nominated the year before so she had forgotten all about it by the time she attended this party.
I was in Cambridge (Massachusetts) for a meeting at Harvard. William Pierce, the editor at AGNI, knew that I was coming and invited me to a little party at his house to meet the rest of the AGNI editorial staff who had worked with me on the story and cd. I’d only communicated by email with them until then. It was an absolutely charming literary party – intellectually and socially rich, unpretentious and companionable. I was particularly fond of one of the interns who had been assigned to Bendithion, Sumita Chakraborty, who always seemed to understand my writing and Timothy’s singing with particular insight.
Sumita had just graduated from Wellesley a couple of days before and William Pierce said she had an announcement to make. I was delighted because I thought she was going to announce that she was going on to graduate school or had secured a fabulous job (which she had) and I was really happy for her. William poured a glass of wine for everyone – they all raised their glasses and then Sumita said, very slowly and very simply, “I’d like to announce that Harrison has won a Pushcart Prize for Bendithion.”
I remember that those words didn’t really come into my brain. They went into my ears and just stayed there for a few seconds in a strange sort of time-lapse. And then they came back as an echo – more like remembering that they had just been said, rather than actually having heard them when they were spoken. I was stunned for a few minutes. It was just so unexpected. I have friends who are famous writers – some who have been nominated but never won – and they include the nomination in their bios. It means a great deal more to them than their enormously successful books. It is equivalent to an Oscar nomination or win. Anyway, that’s how I felt. Of course I ran to phone my husband, Herb, who was back in California. And my parents and my sons. It was too late with the time difference to call Timothy Evans, around whom the entire story of Bendithion revolves – but when I told him the next day, he was thrilled.
And just after the announcement, the legendary editor, Sven Birkerts who teaches writing at Harvard and Bennington (and who had originally made the decision to publish “Bendithion” in AGNI and who together with William Pierce had nominated it for Pushcart Prize consideration) arrived with his congratulations (which, to me meant almost as much as the prize!) and the joy (and the party) escalated. It was all done so thoughtfully and beautifully. One of the more memorable experiences of my writing life!”
FOREWORD TO FELICITY AND BARBARA PYM
BY HAZEL HOLT
Of all the books that have been written about Barbara (and how she would have smiled at some of them) this is the one with which I am most in sympathy.
Original, controversial, academic, readable, serious, light-hearted, sensible, charming – there is no end to the words that could be applied to Felicity and Barbara Pym. The framework, letters to a new student of English Literature, allows Harrison Solow to range widely over many topics and, in the process of examining the work of one author in detail, take her readers on a leisurely ramble though English literature during which she shares with them the treasures of a cultured mind.
The underlying premise of this splendid book is the importance of the appreciation of literature – something that has too often been mislaid along the way in critical exploration. The choice of Barbara Pym, by no means a mainstream author and one very much of her period, may be surprising but, as we discover, she is an eminently satisfactory subject for the author’s sympathetic analysis and her invaluable advice about considering a writer in his or her own particular setting, as well as the universal qualities in Barbara Pym’s work that go beyond time and fashion, as Philip Larkin noted so perceptively.
Students and tutors and, indeed, everyone who has ever found enjoyment in reading, will be grateful for this delightful work. I loved it and I can say with confidence that Barbara would have loved it too.
Hazel Holt is Literary Executor of the Barbara Pym Estate, author of the Barbara Pym’s biography, A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym and editor (with Hilary Pym) of Barbara Pym’s unpublished work, Civil to Strangers and Other Writings. Originally from Birmingham, Ms. Holt read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, and went on to work at the International African Institute in London, where her lifelong friendship with Barbara Pym began. Ms. Holt was an editor, television reviewer and features writer before turning to fiction. She is a leading crime novelist, best known for her 20 “Mrs Malory” books and her recent epistolary novel, My Dear Charlotte, based on Jane Austen’s letters.
INTRODUCTION TO FELICITY AND BARBARA PYM
BY PETER MILES, EMERITUS FELLOW OF THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION
Harrison Solow is a writer of experience at least as diverse as that of her principal voice in this unusual, charming and astringent piece of writing which some will read as an epistolary novel (no adjectival form of the term ‘e-mail’ having yet been generated), some as both a practical and philosophical introduction to, and summing-up of, the nature and uses of literature and its discussion – and others as a delightfully readable and comic drama of the generations, of cantankerous yet worldly-wise tutor and idealistic yet impatient young American student trying to set up lines of communication about the (highly) English novelist Barbara Pym — not to mention the strange pathways that lie between the cradle and the grave, linking even Tunbridge Wells, a West Wales butcher and Hollywood.
Harrison Solow’s creation Mallory Cooper, while constantly negotiating a constellation of identities that range between the American, the Catholic, the Jewish, the English and the Welsh has, notwithstanding, yet to find the fence on which she might be willing to sit. This is a book of strong opinions, valiant, forthright and elegant, laid out in defiance of yea-sayers, bet-hedgers, academic bureaucrats and bureaucratic academics. It will infuriate as well as stimulate (as Mallory Cooper, who is not short of self-knowledge, well knows), prompt both wry and outright laughter and stir deeper reflections. It should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate students of English Literature; no American students of English Literature should be allowed to set foot upon campus without having proved that they have read it (as well as answering a brief catechism on the subject of afternoon tea, high tea, dinner, supper and lunch – and explaining to Mallory Cooper’s satisfaction the significance of ‘dowdiness’ within a British context). They will be the more likely to obtain a degree if they do. After all, their tutors will certainly read it.
And if there emerges from all this a valuable reader’s guide to Barbara Pym (and there does), it is as a by-product of what is a fluent testimony and exploration of writing, reading, the significance of value, the rigours of understanding and judgement, and the fact that it is adult to realise that there are no short-cuts to scholarship. For Barbara Pym’s novels also just happen to be the subject of that first term-paper that Felicity the new student must write, a stalking-horse for the whole host of literary, cultural, philosophical and spiritual issues that restlessly inhabit Mallory Cooper (and which – one should stress — do not specifically demand of the reader any prior knowledge of Pym to appreciate and enjoy).
PRAISE FOR FELICITY AND BARBARA PYM
“A splendid book! Original, controversial, academic, readable, serious, light-hearted, sensible, charming…” – Hazel Holt, Literary Executor of the Barbara Pym Estate, author of Barbara Pym’s biography, A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym and editor (with Hilary Pym) of Barbara Pym’s unpublished work, Civil to Strangers and Other Writings; leading crime novelist, best known for her 20 “Mrs Malory” books and her recent epistolary novel, My Dear Charlotte, based on Jane Austen’s letters. [Hazel Holt has written the foreword to the book from which this extract is taken.]
“It should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate students of English Literature; no American students of English Literature should be allowed to set foot upon campus without having proved that they have read it…” – Peter Miles, Emeritus Fellow of the English Association.
“Dryden, a great writer as well as a great critic, created a work of art about works of art. Harrison Solow, in her incisive and delightful study of the novels of Barbara Pym has accomplished a similar feat.” – Mayo Simon, New York playwright, writer of Academy Award-winning film, Why Man Creates, lecturer in drama and film writing at Columbia University and California Institute of the Arts, author of The Audience & The Playwright, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2005.
“A terrific piece of writing – I would order it for all first year and second year English students.” – Dr. Thomas Strychacz, Full Professor, Former Dean of Letters, Chair, English Department, Mills College, Former Lecturer at Princeton University, Author of Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
“These ruminations offer unexpected insights that would escape a more mundane critic… a dazzling performance and it fills me with the most exquisite professional envy!” – Thomas Vinciguerra, Deputy Editor of The Week, New York; Contributing Writer, The New York Times.
“… a dramatic monologue which reveals how a life spent reading and thinking about literature has directed consciousness and informed the content of the thinking mind…A fascinating, intriguing presentation, which demands a sequel.” – Christopher Terry, PhD, Examiner for Cambridge University, Scholar at Downing College Cambridge, reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement, author of The Ogre of Downing Castle, Revisited: Recollections of Dr F. R. Leavis and Morris Shapira, Libertas Publishing, 2009.
“Harrison Solow seamlessly weaves form and content to create an engrossing hybrid work: epistolary novel cum memoir cum literary critique cum advice column…Masterfully done.” – Heather Hughes, Assistant Editor, Harvard University Press.
Click here to see all the video and audio interviews I’ve conducted.
ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
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SEE EVERY MOMENT AS A GIFT
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