An interview with Ellen Feldman

26 January 2015

As well as giving us a chance to read (or reread) some of the best works of literature from the past forty years, the advent of the Picador Classic series also seemed the perfect opportunity to ask the authors some big questions – about life and literature, their current obsessions and how times have changed.

Guggenheim Fellow Ellen Feldman is the author of five novels. Her 2009 book Scottsboro, which has been made into a Picador Classic, is inspired by the shocking true story of the Scottsboro boys. In 1931, nine black youths were accused of raping two white girls. An impassioned young journalist tries to save the boys from the electric chair. It's this intersection of individual lives and wider political events and ideals that makes Feldman's writing so powerful.

Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Every decade or so I read The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, and Middlemarch. I don’t say that I reread them, because at each stage of my life I find that I’m reading a different book. A friend, who is another Middlemarch devotee, puts it ingeniously. Why would you bother with a self-help book when you can read Middlemarch?

Which other author would you most like to have for dinner and why?

That’s always a dicey question, because the writers I admire most would not necessarily make the best dinner companions. I’d love to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he was a nasty drunk, and would probably get blotto before dinner started, hurl crockery and cutlery during it, and insult me mightily.

What’s your favourite film?

I have two favorite films, both of which I discovered decades after they ran in theaters. Dodsworth, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and better than the book, was known as the first grown-up American movie. The Best Years of Our Lives is a beautiful story about homecoming after World War II. I loved it so much that years ago when I first saw it I tried to track down the book on which it was based. I naturally assumed it was a novel, and when I couldn’t find it in the fiction section of my library, I was sure that the whole world had discovered the movie too and beaten me to the book. It turned out that the movie was based on a long narrative poem. I’m still amazed that some earnest moviemaker persuaded a Hollywood mogul to risk filming a long narrative poem.

What’s the last thing you do at night?

The last thing I do at night is scratch Charlie, our mixed terrier foundling, behind the ears, tell him he’s a good boy, and read fiction.

Tell us the first thing you do in the morning.

The first thing I do in the morning is scratch Charlie behind the ears, tell him he’s a good boy, and read the paper.

What continues to inspire you?

I’m not sure if I’d say inspire, but I am endlessly intrigued by the variety and complexity of human nature, not only how some people can be so honorable and altruistic and others so venal, but how the same individual can be so high-minded one moment and vicious the next.

Take a photograph of your bookshelf and talk us through it.

I recently spent a weekend cleaning out my book shelves. Here are before and after pictures.

Before:

Feldman books

After:

Feldman bookshelves

Deciding what to hold on to and what to give away is agony. And of course there’s the marital negotiation: “I’ll let you keep all your Le Carre’s if you let me keep all my Jane Gardams.”

What advice would you give your 15 or 20 year old self?

Take more chances.

>>READ AN EXTRACT FROM SCOTTSBORO

ScottsboroScottsboro (Picador Classic edition) is introduced by Jayne Anne Philips. Photograph of Ellen Feldman © Lucy Moses.

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