|photo: Penni Gladstone
Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author who lives in San Francisco. Her debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight (Algonquin, January 19, 2021), won the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
On your nightstand now:
I always have a mix of fiction and nonfiction, along with magazines and clipped-out newspaper stories, arranged in precarious stack. At the very top: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato and All Adults Here by Emma Straub.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There was something about the way the prince tended and regarded his rose that got me every time, along with his whimsical drawings, beginning with the one where the boa swallows an elephant. (The grownups aren't bothered by it; they think his drawing looks like a hat). I read this book over and over to my own kids so I could hear it.
Your top five authors:
William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, James Joyce. My parents grew up in Tennessee, and I spent every summer there, which is probably why I love Southern storytellers. And I love Woolf, James and Joyce for the way they create the immediate, interior lives of characters. Times and taste change, but I keep returning to these writers.
Book you've faked reading:
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, because my best friend in elementary school read every book in the series and I wasn't there yet, so I had to pretend. Eventually, I did read and enjoy it, although probably not as much as my friend did. For some reason, she would read five pages, hop across the room, read another five pages, then hop again. I loved to watch her doing that.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. The fictional world of a small Mississippi town that feels so real, as do the characters, three generations trying to preserve a family that has encountered poverty, drugs and violence. The lyrically written story centers on a car trip to pick up a father just released from jail, but there are ghosts, flashbacks and mishaps, incredible tenderness and no easy redemption.
Book you've bought for the cover:
In this pandemic age, I miss lingering in bookstores, looking at books and touching them all. It's not the same seeing them online. When a friend recently showed me a copy of The Secret Life of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, I was struck by the image of a woman on the cover. Was she wistful? Resigned? What had happened? I went home and ordered the book. The stories did not disappoint. They are wonderful.
Book you hid from your parents:
I don't remember hiding any books, except the ones my mother tried to make me read in the summer. She had a rule that I had to finish them before I could accept invitations for play dates or sleepovers. I'd occasionally hide a book and say she'd never given it to me. "Anne of Green Gables? I have no idea where it is." (I did eventually read and like it.)
Book that changed your life:
That's a hard one, because it happened so many times, starting with The Little Prince and moving on to James Joyce's story "The Dead" in Dubliners. And then there's the book where I was a character. My mother (Dorothy Halle Seligman, the same one who forced certain books on me) wrote a children's book, Run Away Home, based on the time, at around 10, I ran away. In reality, I spent a few hours in a patch of ivy, got tired and came home. The book version was better. The mother packs a lunch for the kid and tells him to have a good time. Reading it made me realize how little we can know about our kids--or our parents or really anyone--and how little they know about us.
Favorite line from a book:
From Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: "With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, as she moved and took Minta's arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past." This passage about time, how a single moment becomes history, always gets to me.
Five books you'll never part with:
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Dubliners by James Joyce, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O'Connor.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I was so moved by the relationship between two young men whose lives are forever changed by an accident at a Northeastern prep school. I know that reading it again I would understand the ambiguity, historical and social context differently than I had when I read it as a teenager.