Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Interview: Dr. Harrison Solow


In your youth, what was the root of your love of literature and writing?

Undoubtedly that of most writers: reading, something that seemed so magical and was so earnestly desired when I was a very young child, that my mother, besides reading to me all the time, taught me to read when I was three. It’s a very short step from being an early and prolific reader to being a writer, at least the kind of writer I am. This is not to say that being a writer was my aim, when young. It was not. But the seeds of writerliness were sown from those books in those days, whether I knew it then or not. I do think there is something else at play here, because a great many people read prolifically and/or learn to read at a young age and do not become writers. I don’t know what that is, other than an inborn propensity to communicate. When this manifested in my school work, I was urged to consider writing and teaching (clearly there was a pedagogical bent to the work!) by my teachers.

In a former life, you were a Franciscan nun.  Can you please describe the circumstances behind pursuing this vocation and why did you depart?

No, I really can’t. There are many reasons and circumstances, spiritual and secular (mostly the latter) for both acts and most of them are personal and even those that aren’t are indescribable, at least in an interview of this length. I can tell you that part of the impetus was the pursuit of the Unknown, another was to live a dedicated life in the service of good (whatever “good” means). It turned out that I had a different definition of “good” than was compatible with the convent in which I lived and worked, but it was a place and a time of great joy, great silence, and great learning. In one sense, my departure, though voluntary and a sad necessity, was not a departure at all, since the knowledge gained as well as so many of the skills, propensities and values inculcated during that time have remained with me.

You are a huge enthusiast of Welsh culture.  What attracts you to this part of the world?

Its invisibility. This is explained best in my Pushcart essay, Bendithion, which can be found here: http://www.bu.edu/agni/essays/print/2007/66-solow.html

Bendithion means “blessings” in Welsh.  What was the reasoning for choosing this title your essay?

Well I had other titles in mind (containing words like trothwyol and anweladwy) but honestly, I thought that this one was the easiest for Americans to pronounce. The idea was to convey that Wales and my liminal experience in it, was a gift, a benison - for which I was grateful.

What was the inspiration for your novel, Felicity and Barbara Pym?

Not long ago, I was asked the same question by the Barbara Pym Society and invited to write a short article for their newsletter. The text of that article, which answers your question, can be found on my Felicity & Barbara Pym Blog at http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/291/

In the aforementioned novel, how autobiographical is the character, Professor Mallory Cooper?

I will have to refer readers to my interview by New York Times contributing writer -  in which this question is asked and answered, as I cannot better that answer here. http://bit.ly/vMRYzb 

In the past, how did you balance your thriving academic career, motherhood, and your affiliations with the entertainment industry?

There wasn’t much need for balance, actually, because these vocations/occupations were consecutive, not concurrent. There was a little overlap when I was doing my Master’s degree and teaching and later when I was working in Hollywood and also teaching, but basically, when my children were young, they were my vocation. Period. When they got a little older, I began to do free-lance writing. I then created a consultancy and worked mostly at home. It was only when they were in high school that I began to teach/work/study full time and my hours were compatible with their schedules. They were a priority, no matter how busy any of us were, and we ate dinner together almost every night throughout even their high school years. When they went to university and left home, my writing career took precedence (in time).

What is your writing process and schedule?

What engages me in the art and the act of writing is the companionship of the words themselves. The process depends on the nature and depth of that companionship. In the beginning of any work, when the project and the words are new (and they are new every time) the process seems more like a self-taught class and requires more structure – a time, a place, a set number of words. Little word-dates. Later, when the relationship between the words/material and me deepens and becomes more intimate, the process takes care of itself – I can’t wait to get up in the morning to inhabit the world I am creating. By the time that happens, I am in limerence (in the most positive definition of that word) with that world and no imposition of artificial structure is necessary. It is all self-propelling – the desire to be with the words. 

Who are some authors who inspire you?

I have addressed the authors I admire elsewhere at length – on my blog and in other interviews and guest blogs, so I’ll just mention a few authors whose work I admire and concentrate on the word, “inspire”.

First of all, almost everything I have read in my life has contributed in some way to my own work – including children’s books, which I still read, English Literature from Beowulf onward, some American literature, and not insignificantly Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts of philosophy and theology in the Catholicism and Jewish traditions that I have studied over the years. Having said that, the authors whose writing has recently influenced mine include Antonia White, AS Byatt and Anita Brookner. These are three writers who have near perfect command of a language that describes interior landscape. Beautifully lucent.

With regard to inspiration, that powerful but delicate symbiosis between two minds, and in some cases, two hearts, there is no doubt that my colleague and friend, Dorian Llywelyn, scholar, professor, theologian, Welsh-American Jesuit, bard, musician, and writer of staggering depth, is a singular inspiration to me.

This is a different thing from influence, which is a more static, dissipated, and distant thing. This kind of inspiration takes the form of its origin, in which there is the dynamic of breathing in(to) and breathing out, generating, sustaining life. Inspiro, expiro. It extends beyond the writerly influence – it  breathes new life into the soul. It makes one hungry, restless and resistant – sighted with extra perception and blinded to all but the force of creation - a force of such magic, such seminal power, that it confers a certain obligation on anyone who employs it to do so with reverence.


Father Llywelyn adds a significant intellectual, creative and spiritual dimension to my life and all I write is transformed by that significance. Put simply, I don’t write the same without him as I do with, or rather because of, him. It’s not that I can’t or don’t write (or haven’t written) a good many things without the benefit of this profound connection but I prefer, vastly, the writing that arises from our confluence. I also come away from each encounter with more to write about.


In another interview, I remarked that what initiated my writing was “arrested experience” – that millisecond when suddenly, something just stops you in your tracks and you forget to breathe for a moment. That’s when I write. I write about that something. This is precisely what happens in an encounter with Father Llywelyn and with his writing – arrested experience. I mean, anyone who has a chapter in his book (Toward A Catholic Theology of Nationality) called “The Value of Thisness” that lucidly, elegantly explores “the heart of each person’s existence” is himself a formidable standard of excellence. I like formidable standards.


Do you have advice for novice writers attempting to sell books?

I do: Read everything industry leader Jane Friedman writes on this topic (and others): www.janefriedman.com Also keep book marketing experts Porter Anderson http://porteranderson.com and Kathy Meis www.bublish.com close to hand as primary resources in this field.

What is your opinion regarding blogs, social media, and the future of the publishing world?

I honestly don’t know enough about the first two to make any useful comment, or at least none that has not been made before. Regarding the third, the sooner that (some) agents and (most) publishers get over the their clubby, twee, 19th century perception that this is an elite, leisurely gentleman’s profession and realize that they have become a great, creaking, really annoying dinosaur, the better traditional publishing will become. I think that survival for these publishers means a drastic programme of streamlining and creating niches – resulting in fewer companies, smaller lists, better books and faster turnarounds. I’ve been lucky with my publishers and agents, but I know that was a fluke. Too many writers’ experiences, particularly in the last few years, have been the opposite.

Finally, can you share some details about your current projects and plans for the future?

Currently, I have a children’s book with an editor at a large publishing house and another with an agent. I am writing a new one that I can’t talk about right now, which is non-fiction. Then, I am turning the creative part of my PhD dissertation, The Bendithion Chronicles, into a book and the critical part into a couple (or more) scholarly essays.

 There is one other book on the horizon, which I am meant to be writing with someone else based on the letters we exchanged. My agent had a look at some of these last year and thinks it should be the priority.


Harrison Solow Bio:
American writer Harrison Solow has been honoured with multiple awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably winning the prestigious Pushcart Prize for Literature in 2008.  A writer and strategic consultant of rare experience, her work spans Hollywood, Academia, Business, Law and Literature. Dr. Solow is one of the two best-selling University of California Press authors of all time (at time of publication), a Notable Alumna of Mills College where she earned an MFA, and holds the rare distinction of a British PhD in English (Letters) with a critical and creative dissertation “Accepted as Submitted: No Changes” from Trinity Saint David in 2011.

She lectures in English and American Literature, Creative, Nonfiction and Cross Genre Writing, Specific Authors, Science Fiction and American Culture, Professional Writing, Philosophy and Theology at a number of universities, colleges, arts and cultural institutions in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.


A former faculty member at UC Berkeley, she accepted a lectureship in the English Department of the University of Wales in 2004 and was appointed Writer in Residence in 2008. She returned to America in 2009.


Dr. Solow is a strong proponent of the traditional Liberal Arts, the Fine Arts and the Utilitarian Arts as separate and equally respectable entities, an advocate for Wales and a patron of literary endeavours.


She is married to Herbert F. Solow, a director & producer and the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios in Hollywood. She has two sons.


Her latest book is Felicity & Barbara Pym: http://amzn.to/Jcnpc9 and http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com/


Harrison Solow is available for interviews, lectures and workshops. She can be reached through her manager, Simon Rivkin simonrivkin@solowtwo.com



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