|photo: Fred Bergon
Valerie Martin is the author of 10 novels, three collections of short fiction, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi and co-author (with her niece Lisa Martin) of a new middle-grade series, beginning with Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea. She received the Kafka Award for her novel Mary Reilly and Britain's Orange Prize for Property. Her new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Nan Talese/Doubleday, January 28, 2014), concerns the discovery of the American ship the Mary Celeste, which was found in 1872 adrift off the coast of the Azores without a crew. In Martin's novel, this "ghost" ship is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity for the young doctor Arthur Conan Doyle and a tale of a seafaring family's suffering and loss.
On your nightstand now:
I've just finished The Infatuations by Javier Marías, a truly strange and wonderful novel. Next is The Friendly Brook and Other Stories by Rudyard Kipling, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, How We Hope by Adrienne Martin and a short novel, Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig. By the time I finish these, Yasmina Reza's novel Happy Are the Happy will be out and I'll add that to the stack.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I read and re-read two 19th-century classics narrated by animals: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders. Both were written by women who wanted to call attention to animal abuse, and they were instrumental in raising social consciousness in their era, but the horse (Black Beauty) and the dog (Joe) are such observant and gifted storytellers that the agenda is never overbearing. Had I read only these books I might have been a happier child, but unfortunately I ruined my chances for that with my passion for brutal and morally reprehensible fairy tales.
Your top five authors:
Hmmm. Only five? Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Taylor. Except for the last, these are obvious choices. Elizabeth Taylor was a terrific British novelist who died in 1975 and should be better known but for some reason isn't.
Book you've faked reading:
I would never fake reading a book. There could be a test! I will confess to having occasionally skimmed a book by a fellow writer on a literary panel, but only if sorely pressed for time.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I've been telling everyone I know to read John Banville's The Untouchable for years. Recently I noticed that I've purchased several copies of Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to give as presents. I found this novel funny, beautiful, moving, and--like the beloved books of my childhood--concerned with man's inhumanity to animals. So I come full circle.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I just bought Henri: le Chat Noir by the angst-ridden cat who starred in a popular video on YouTube some time ago. I picked it up because in the cover photo Henri is clearly in an advanced state of ennui and I recognized him as a fellow existentialist. How exciting that he's written a book!
Book that changed your life:
Anton Chekhov's short novel The Duel, which I read in Rome in 1993, not only changed my life, it changed my writing. Pre-Chekhov, my characters were a passive, gloomy lot, nonconfrontational and occasionally self-destructive. Post-Chekhov, they began standing up for themselves, making commitments to wild courses of action and entering forcefully into arguments regardless of the consequences. I'm happier, they're more interesting, and it's all thanks to Chekhov.
Favorite line from a book:
There are many, but here's a new favorite from The Infatuations by Javier Marías:
"Unlikely truths are useful and life is full of them, far more than the very worst of novels, no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime, let alone all those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It's quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself."
This quote explains why every writer snorts when someone says: "You can't make this stuff up."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Long ago, when I was in the last month of pregnancy, I spent a few days lying in a hammock and reading Junichiro Tanizaki's monumental family saga The Makioka Sisters. Someday I'd like to do that again--excluding the pregnancy part, but definitely including the hammock.