Castles out of Books: A Conversation with Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman
© Matt Valentine

Anne Fadiman is an author, essayist, editor, and teacher. Her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, chronicles the trials of an epileptic Hmong child and her family living in Merced, California. Fadiman’s sensitive, incisive treatment of the unbreachable gulf between the Hmong and American medical systems won her a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. The Washington Post called the book “an intriguing, spirit-lifting, extraordinary exploration.” In 2009 it was chosen by the Young Adult Library Association as one of its recommended titles for all students (the list, which includes a number of adult titles, is revised every five years and used by educators and librarians across the country). Spirit is frequently chosen by colleges, libraries, and communities for First Year Experience and All Read programs. The book continues to be taught at universities both as literary journalism and as a casebook for cross-cultural sensitivity in general; it is also widely read by medical practitioners who wish to offer more effective care to patients from other cultures.

As the inaugural Francis Writer in Residence, Yale University’s first endowed appointment in nonfiction writing, Anne Fadiman serves as both a professor in the English department and a mentor to students considering careers in writing or editing.

Her best-selling essay collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Readeris a book entirely about books — from purchasing them, to reading them, to handling them (turn monologues into dialogues by writing in the margins; pay no mind if you drop crumbs between the pages). The London Observer called Ex Libris “witty, enchanting, and supremely well-written.” It has been or will be translated into fifteen languages, including Korean and Catalan.

Fadiman’s most recent essay collection is At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, in which she discloses her passions for (among other things) staying up late, reading Coleridge, drinking coffee, and ingesting large quantities of ice cream. The Christian Science Monitor called it “as close to a perfect book as you will ever hope to read.”

For seven years Anne Fadiman edited The American Scholar, the venerable literary quarterly described by The New York Times as “an intellectual giant.” Her essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among many other publications. She has won National Magazine Awards for both reporting and essays. She is the editor of both the 2003 edition of The Best American Essays and Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love. In 2012 Anne Fadiman was awarded the Richard H. Brodhead Prize for Teaching Excellence from Yale University.


At Large and at Small

At Large and at Small
BY Anne Fadiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)


EDITED BY Anne Fadiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

Ex Libris

Ex Libris: Confessions
of a Common Reader

BY Anne Fadiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You
and You Fall Down

BY Anne Fadiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997; Fifteenth-anniversary edition 2012)

In the great essay “The Joy of Sesquipedilians,” from your book Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, you discuss long and little-known words; your family playing as “Fadiman U.” from the living room, pitching their wits against the academic teams on the TV game show G.E. College Bowl; and the stories your father, Clifton Fadiman, told about Wally, the bookworm who loved the “high-caloric morsels” of the dictionary. How did your family help shape your love of literature, and how did you become the writer that you are?

Who knows if it was nature or nurture? Whether it was their DNA or their interest in books, both of my parents had such a gigantic influence on my writing that it’s impossible to imagine my life path had I grown up in a different family. I was surrounded by shelves that held 7,000 books; my brother and I built castles from our father’s 22-volume set of Trollope; our parents both read to us; the Fadiman dinner-table conversations were larded with long words and literary references.

We oaklings — the writer children of writer parents — are generally grateful for what our oaks gave us but eager to emerge from their shadows.

My parents were equally strong influences. I’m both a reporter and an essayist. You might say that my first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (a work of reportage), sprang more from my mother, the first woman war correspondent in China, and that the next two books, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small (essay collections) sprang more from my father, an essayist and critic.

Literary legacies are a gift, but they can also be inhibiting. I recently wrote an essay called “The Oakling and the Oak,” about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his relationship with his elder son, Hartley, also a poet. Hartley’s readers assumed that anything good about his work must have come straight from his father, as if Hartley was incapable of originality. The title came from an 1833 review that praised Hartley’s poetry for embodying “no trivial inheritance of his father’s genius” but also quoted the saying that “the oakling withers beneath the shadow of the oak.” We oaklings — the writer children of writer parents — are generally grateful for what our oaks gave us but eager to emerge from their shadows.

There is a great quote from an interview you once gave to The Atlantic Online: “The most important thing when starting out with essay writing is to find a voice with which you’re comfortable. You need to find a persona that is very much like you, but slightly caricatured. Think of it as your own voice turned up slightly in volume…. Once you’ve found that voice, you’ll discover that the essay is something you can be serious or funny with, or both.” Is the familiar essay making a comeback?

More writers are taking up the essay. The Best American Essays series continues to be successful, and although essay collections are rarely bestsellers, more are published and read today than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Whether writers are taking up the familiar essay–a particular subset of the personal essay that’s about the writer but also about a subject, often a familiar one–is another question. All I can say is that I enjoy reading and writing familiar essays myself. The preface to At Large and At Small explains some of the reasons why.

Personal essays — a larger category — have enjoyed a resurgence in the last couple of decades because the rise of the contemporary memoir has sparked an interest in first-person writing of all lengths.

A lifetime of wide-ranging, deep reading is clear from your writing. Your essays always enrich and delight in a meaningful, inspiriting way. What is your definition of the essay?

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and most of the work that preceded it, I considered myself a literary reporter. But going out into the world and recording what you find is completely different from reflecting about that world and about yourself. I like Adam Gopnik’s distinction between reportage as writing from the outside in and essays – personal essays, that is – as writing from the inside out. I also like Montaigne’s view of the essay (which comes from essayer, to attempt) as a trial or experiment rather than an exhaustive treatment.

What is your view of creative nonfiction?

I think of creative nonfiction in its older sense, the one used in the title of the legendary class John McPhee teaches at Princeton. That class has been called both Creative Nonfiction and the Literature of Fact; McPhee uses the phrases interchangeably. In the genre he writes and teaches, no facts are “created”; everything is true. The “creative” aspect comes from using some of the tools of fiction — character, dialogue, narrative voice, nonformulaic structure — to tell a true story.

You are the first to hold the endowment of the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale University and also were recently awarded the Richard H. Brodhead Prize for Teaching Excellence from Yale University. What have you learned from teaching? What aspect of mentoring is most satisfying for you?

Teaching hasn’t taught me to be a better writer. It gives me less time for writing and less time for reading canonical works that might, by slow osmosis, improve my own writing style. But that’s not why I teach. I teach to expand my world view; to get to know brilliant young people, some of whom write far better than I did at their age; and to help train soldiers who will fight on the literary battlefield and keep books alive long after I’m gone. Also, I absolutely love it. Of the three occupations I’ve held — writing, editing, and teaching — teaching is the most enjoyable. It wins hands down.

What is your current view of e-books, and literature which seems to be slipping off the read-in-bed, write-in-the-margins page and onto a pixelated screen?

E-books are useful in certain contexts (textbooks, vacations, large-font reading for the elderly and others with limited vision). But in general, I hate them. The decline of the printed word — in books, newspapers, and magazines — makes me incredibly sad.

Upcoming and/or future projects? Have you ever considered writing a novel or book of poems?

My big project right now is teaching. I write only in the summers: no sacrifice, since, as I’ve said, I love teaching, and also since I don’t consider essays a lesser form than books just because they’re shorter. I’m currently working on an essay about the South Polar Times, a magazine published (or, rather, produced, since there was only one copy of each issue) on Robert Falcon Scott’s two Antarctic expeditions. Because I’m interested in both the history of polar exploration and the history of periodicals, this is something I’ve wanted to write about for decades. It’s so exciting finally to have the chance!

At some point I’ll probably have enough essays for another collection, and I hope I’ll have the good fortune to see it published. And after my husband (George Howe Colt, also a writer) finishes his next book, I’ll likely do another reported book. George and I switch off, one of us writing a book and the other holding a job with health insurance. Each of us edits the other’s work. George just finished Book 3, but for a variety of reasons we’ve decided he should forge ahead with Book 4 before I do.

As for the genre: I took a couple of fiction classes in college, and the main thing I learned from them was that I shouldn’t write fiction. Reading fiction gives me great pleasure, but I lack the necessary imagination to write it. I’m no poet either. I’m not just being modest. If you read my attempts, you’d agree that the greatest gift I’ve ever given my readers is likely my decision to spare them my stories and poems.

The fifteenth-anniversary edition of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down — the true story of a severely epileptic Hmong child and her family who lived in Merced, California, and their difficulties with the health care system — was recently published. In the afterword, you describe Lia, who spent twenty-six years in a vegetative state after her neurological crises in 1986, as someone who has “altered the course of my family life, my life as a writer, and my whole way of thinking.” What is at the heart of this extraordinary statement?

Lia’s mother, though she was labeled a child abuser by the American legal system, taught me how to be a good parent. Lia herself taught me that a person’s value cannot be measured only by her achievements. Hmong culture taught me that there are some problems for which the rational approach is not always most effective. The unexpected success of the book opened many opportunities for me as a writer.

Lia died on August 31, at the age of thirty. Her three-day funeral broke my heart. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on what a gigantic role the Lees have played in my life, how deeply I prize their friendship, and how rich and complicated my relationships with them have been over the last twenty-four years. I also gave much thought to how remarkable it was that Lia’s family kept her alive so long at home. They defied every expectation. Also, in ways I cannot explain and that perhaps only the Lees understand, I miss Lia.

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