Stacy Schiff is one of our time’s greatest portrait painters— with words. Her first biography, Saint-Exupéry, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the same prize that her second work, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), won. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, was the winner of several awards and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, and The Economist. Her most recent work, Cleopatra: A Life has soared to third place on the New York Times Bestseller List and was listed as one of the New York Times Magazine’s best non-fiction books of all time.
Schiff’s writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and she has been a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. In 2006, she was awarded an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Schiff may appear delicate and she may call herself shy, but she is fierce— fiercely smart, fiercely funny, and fiercely committed, whether to the people she is portraying in her work, or to the lowly interviewer throwing endless questions her way.
You worked for a long time in publishing. Tell me about that.
I finished school on a Friday and began work that Monday at Basic Books, where I was the assistant to the editor in chief, Martin Kessler. Martin had many talents but among his greatest was the ability to make a piece of paper vanish in a closed room. I spent a lot of time rescuing wayward pages, writing rejection letters, and imposing on writers for blurbs, for which services I was paid a munificent $9,000 a year. I also watered Martin’s plant, which was half-dead when I arrived and half-dead when I left, a year later. These were the heady days of carbon paper and Dictaphones, also the days when a book like Godel, Eschler, Bach – “a metaphysical fugue” – sold brilliantly.
After Basic, I moved to Viking Penguin, where I supplemented my salary by excerpting books for the New York Post, a job handed down to me by a fellow editorial assistant. (Thank you again, Abby Thomas. And I loved Three Dog Life!) Essentially, you pried out of a perfectly respectable biography of, say, Frank Sinatra, the 1000 words you would be most embarrassed to be caught reading. I used to walk over to the Post for the book on a Friday, slash it up over the weekend, and feel very rich by Monday. Whatever the job paid – $500? – it was more than I was then making in a week. I also wrote an annual report during the Viking years, though for the life of me I can’t imagine how I managed to do so.
Did you write during that time?
Until I left publishing, that annual report was the only piece of considerable length I produced. The remainder of the literary output consisted of catalogue copy, flap copy, and editorial letters.
Flap copy was the kind of thing you put off as long as you humanly could; not only did you have to sell the book, but you were reducing a volume to which someone had devoted years of his life to three paragraphs. To this day I won’t read flap copy until I’ve finished the pages inside it, possibly because I’m still wary of those summaries, which reliably flatten or inflate. I will of course read the author bio, which the author just as reliably wrote himself.
I would like to hear about how you made that transition from working in publishing to writing on your own. I guess I am interested in the shift that occurred; when writing your own work took over.
I reread Wind, Sand and Stars [by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry] in 1989 and was shocked to discover that the book – which I knew only from the forced march of high school French class – held up. It more than help up; it was a gorgeous piece of writing, on par with Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. That led me to look into Saint-Exupéry’s life, about which no recent volume had appeared. Why did I find it so enchanting that he was as poor an aviator as he was a splendid writer? Mechanics routinely cleared his cockpit of the balls of crumpled paper he left behind.
For a long time I meant to give the idea to the appropriate biographer, which meant I had to spend many of my Simon & Schuster lunch hours in the New York Public Library reading up on Saint-Exupéry, in order to pitch the idea persuasively.
There was a great deal in French but very little in English, though Saint-Exupéry had written much of his later work—including The Little Prince— in New York, and at the end of his life flown with the American Air Force. Early on someone had told me that one of the French biographies had been written by his longtime mistress, under a pseudonym. That person did not, however, know which one. I remember piling all the books high on a table in the south reading room one afternoon and working my way through them, more or less systematically. Suddenly the puzzle resolved itself: The mistress’s account – written by “Pierre Chevrier” – had to be the only volume that failed to mention Saint-Exupéry’s wife! It was. Even better, the mistress was still alive. We spent a series of Wednesday afternoons together in Paris, the low point of my life as a biographer, as each session began with her insulting me, always from a flank I hadn’t reinforced. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” she might ask. “Jewish,” I replied. “As I thought,” she sniffed. She had piles of documents which, she allowed, would be open one day to the public. “But by then,” she added, “You will be dead.”
At some point in 1990 I began to get restive in my publishing job and to toy with the idea of tackling the biography myself, not necessarily in that order. I left in the spring to write a proposal, though told no one what I was up to; it felt presumptuous to announce to novelist friends, and to the authors I was leaving behind, that I was a writer now. For years I avoided the predicate nominative; when people asked what I did I said “I write books,” which seemed more accurate.
Lois Wallace sold the proposal to Knopf in the fall, at which time I came clean. Mine was said to be a model proposal, which it should indeed have been given the years I had spent reading them night and day. Of course every time an editor told me he kept that proposal in his top drawer I worried that the book would not live up to its 15-page billing, which for all I know it doesn’t.
I wrote the thing in Montreal, with the help of a brilliantly bilingual library, on the only Coca Cola binge of my life.
Did you find it very difficult to write that first book, to get into the habit of writing— all that— since your previous experience had all been in editing? The Coca-Cola binge being one thing…
I have always felt more comfortable on the page than in person, so the biographer’s life – decamping to the library, closeting yourself with a mountain of books, scaling that mountain, cozying up to microfilms – was not difficult. That said, writing is as blissful as it is terrifying; I find it to be no easier today than it was 20 years ago. I’m always jealous when a seasoned professional tells me that – having put in his hours on the job – he can cut a deal, write a pre-nup, perform heart surgery in his sleep. I feel as if I’m reinventing the wheel every day. And I rarely know what might actually land on the page each time I sit down. I still fear it could be nothing.
Something that might have helped would have been a few years as a journalist or as a private detective: I’m not at my best asking that tough interview question. I still shudder when I remember the day I hobbled downtown to ask an esteemed female academic if she had slept with Nabokov, as was rumored. (She said no. Was she telling the truth? I didn’t press, as I was too busy falling through the floorboards.) What’s worse, I seem to be getting slower: With Saint-Exupéry I could draft three to four pages on a good day. With Cleopatra I was down to about a page and a half.
As for your Coca-Cola question, I’ve moved on to cappuccino. Squeeze any page I’ve written and coffee will drip out.
I miss the editorial life greatly, feeling still more comfortable behind a book than in front of one. Also, it’s lonely out there in the trenches. And I have to pay for my own People Magazine subscription.
Do you remember what it was like to see your first book in print?
I remember many lovely lunches with Ash Green, who edited my first book at Knopf, but none better than the one at which he put a finished copy of the book in my hand. It sat on the table between us, a living, breathing presence. I don’t think I heard a word that came out of Ash’s mouth. To this day that is my favorite time with a book: It has appeared, and its reviews haven’t. It’s still your perfect child; no one has noticed the congenital defects or mentioned the colic to come.
And then the book is nominated for a Pulitzer!
Ash called to tell me Saint-Exupéry was one of the three finalists for the 1995 Pulitzer in biography. This was entirely out of the blue and of course six months after publication, by which time the book was long forgotten. I was over the moon; I couldn’t imagine a greater honor. I called my agent immediately to tell her the book had been shortlisted. “But Stacy,” she replied, “that means you lost.” I floated for a few more days all the same.
What was the living like for you in your twenties and thirties? A day in the life of Stacy Schiff in her salad days.
Oh the salad days! The ones I still dream about regularly, you mean. Yes, roommates. First I shared a Tribeca loft with a real estate broker and his insane cat, Beast. Later I lived in a loft across from the World Trade Center with two male friends, one of whom I had known since childhood. We consumed every book and movie in sight and occasionally washed a dish. I lived on ice cream. I wrote a lot of letters, on an IBM Selectric I had bought from a guy who sold what could only have been stolen machines. The previous tenant had installed a jacuzzi in the living room; we gave highly memorable parties. Once in a while I’m sure someone must have vacuumed, though that isn’t the part I remember. By the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the two roommates had moved out and my husband and infant son had moved in.
What are you work habits like now? Have they changed over time?
I used to write best at night, the later the better— the habit of a seasoned collegiate procrastinator. Something about the dark focused the mind on the page. Either with age or after children the cycle reversed itself; I am most lucid early in the morning and positively obtuse after lunch. So the drill is a race to my desk as soon as I can humanly get everyone out the door (shouldn’t school start at 6 AM?), minimal contact with the world until a late lunch or, better, no lunch; an afternoon of editing or research. Repeat daily and ideally seven days a week. To be away from something I’m writing for more than a day is to watch it shrivel and die on the page, so I’m in the office Sundays if not every day when I’m working on a book.
Needless to say that schedule was more draconian before the advent of e-mail, which has effectively shredded my focus. I used to unplug the phone until 1 pm. How quaint.
Have you ever felt like giving up?
Every day, several times a day.
What has stopped you?
What has stopped me? Deadlines.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
He or she should remember that every editor out there is just as hungry for a fine manuscript as the writer is for a publisher. Possibly even hungrier. Difficult to believe, I know, but true. There is an acquisitive anxiety on the other side of the desk, though of course it pales compared to any and all writerly anxieties.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Elena Seibert