Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Polly Shulman
If you were aware only of her top-notch educational achievements, it might feel surprising to find our current author’s writing brimming with so much humor and imagination! Born and bred in New York City, Polly Shulman attended Hunter College High School and Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics before spending quality time at Yale University in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree in mathematics. Lucky for us, her current resumé also includes three entertaining novels for the young–and young at heart–with a new one on the way! She’s also written book reviews for the New York Times, The Village Voice, and Salon, worked as Newsday’s Sunday Book Critic, contributed articles on math and science to Discover, Scientific American, and Smithsonian, plus edited articles for even more notable magazines. That’s a lot of writing for a math-y kind of girl. In those brief moments when she’s not wordsmithing, you might find Shulman hanging out with other Jane Austen devotees, shopping a flea market, rewiring a lamp, walking across a bridge, or maybe even baking a sweet treat for fun. Still calling the Big Apple home, the author and her husband Andrew are surrounded by an eclectic and curious group of family and friends. No wonder her books are full of such good energy!
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
PS: Well, I was a nerd. But so was everyone else at my school, including the cool kids, so the term needed some qualifiers. In particular, I was a math nerd and a bookworm.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
PS: Going to my high school was the best thing that happened to me. It was a specialized public school that drew together smart, creative students from all over the city—a seething cauldron of enthusiastic oddballs. I felt right at home—a little like how Elizabeth feels at the New-York Circulating Material Repository.
SH: Favorite childhood book?
PS: Oh, so many! The Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess and the Goblin, The Earthsea Trilogy, the fantasy novels of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager.
SH: Favorite food?
SH: Favorite band or album?
PS: I don’t have one—I’m profoundly unmusical.
SH: Favorite television show?
PS: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you or about you?
PS: Well, there was the April Fools’ Day when my friend Lydia and I dipped raw garlic cloves in chocolate and told our brothers they were chocolate-covered almonds . . .
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention?
PS: I wish I had learned more history. But it’s never too late. I wish I’d learned a second language thoroughly as a younger kid—children’s brains are built for that.
SH: If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
PS: Statistics! Statistics and probability. We would all be able to make much better decisions if we understood the comparative likelihoods of different outcomes and what the numbers in scientific, demographic, and economic studies really mean.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
PS: It depends on the secret. Some people are better at giving advice about work, some about love, some about money. Some are prone to worry; some are prone to blab. Depending on the secret, I would probably tell my husband, my best friend, my imaginary friend, or my mom.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own of course, you think everyone should be reading?
PS: No. Everyone has different interests, needs, and cravings. Everyone should read the books they find compelling, which will not always be the ones I find compelling. It’s a good idea try lots of different kinds of books, though, including ones you don’t think you’ll like—books can surprise you.
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
PS: People who block the sidewalk. Step aside, folks! I understand that it’s a fascinating city, but you don’t need to admire it four abreast—you can gape just as effectively in single file.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
PS: There are things I wish I could ask my father, and things I wish I’d told him.
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
PS: Me: Deliberate, verbal, imaginative.
Other people: Warm, brainy, odd.
(I just asked my husband, and he said: “Pretty, smart, funny.” That must be why we’re married.)
SH: If you could be a superhero: what would your superpower be, what would you call yourself, what would you want your outfit to look like–including any special function-type features!–and how long would you want the gig to last?
PS: I would be Writergirl! My superpower would be to keep people up all night reading and make them miss their stop on the bus. My costume would be supercomfortable sweats, and the gig would last forever.
SH: When you’re done writing for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?
PS: I go for a long city walk, sometimes while listening to an audiobook, or I comb the Internet for the perfect antique silver spoon.
SH: If you could spend a little time as a fairy tale character, which character would you want to be and in which fairy tale would we find you?
PS: A fairy, the kind who can turn pumpkins into carriages and princes into pigs. You’ll find me in most fairy tales; I’m the godmother in Cinderella and the uninvited guest in Sleeping Beauty.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
PS: So many of the people I find fascinating wouldn’t be much fun at a dinner party. They were recluses (Emily Dickinson), on a hunger strike (various suffragists, Gandhi), or wouldn’t get along (Charlotte Brontë had some pretty contemptuous things to say about Jane Austen). So I would put together a dinner party of great chefs, foodies, and restaurateurs: Catherine de Medici, Isabella Beeton, Peng Zu, Wylie Dufresne, and whatever genius figured out that artichoke flowers are edible. The menu: Anything they decided to make. Except fish. I don’t like fish.
SH: One of your books has been selected to be made into a movie, which book would you want it to be and who would want in your cast?
PS: The Grimm Legacy has, in fact, been optioned by a Hollywood animation studio. It’s out of my hands now, so I won’t speculate about whether they actually will make a movie out of it and the other Repository novels, or who they’ll cast for the voices—I’ll just trust them to do a great job. But I would love to see a movie of Enthusiasm directed by Whit Stillman, with Greta Gerwig as Julie. (This production might require a time machine.)
SH: Who was the first person to say you should be a writer?
PS: I don’t remember; I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and people always indulged me with plenty of pencils. I used to write acrostic poems for my friends, using each letter of their names at the beginning of a line; friends with names exactly fourteen letters long got sonnets. This turned out to be great practice for Enthusiasm.
SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest?
PS: Can I choose more than one? Sunshine, finding the right word, Andrew’s smile.
SH: What makes you sad?
PS: When people I love die.
SH: What scares you?
PS: Money, that is, the prospect of not having enough of it and needing to get a job that doesn’t leave me time to write—or, worse yet, not being able to find one. Also, heights.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
PS: My endless capacity for daydreaming.
SH: A series of choices: Comedy or drama? Cats or dogs? Board games or online games? Five-star hotel or rustic camping? Coffee, tea, or soda pop? Spend or save?
PS: Comedy. Cats. Parlor games. Funny little hotel that has been run by the same family in the same way for at least a century, with rotary phones, irregularly shaped rooms, and a creaky old elevator that looks like a birdcage. Mint tea. Save up enough to spend on something great.
SH: What’s the best piece of advice you got as a teen? Or maybe at any age?
PS: “Don’t worry about your career. Worry about your character.” From a Very Important Editor, when I was around nineteen. I’m still trying to decide if that was the best advice I ever got, or the worst.
SH: Are you an Enthusiast?
PS: My friends think so. I, of course, think of myself as a very sensible, restrained person with a proper appreciation for beauty and variety.
SH: If so, what are two of your most recent Enthusiasms?
PS: I like to invent cookies; recent successes include lavender-cornmeal butter cookies and pomegranate snaps with Syrian spices. And I have more 19th century ornamental hair combs, coin purses, dinner bells, and calling-card cases than any 21st century person probably needs.
SH: Do you think people were charmed or annoyed?
PS: People seem to enjoy the cookies.
SH: Are any of your friends Enthusiasts? Have you found a new hobby thanks to one of these friends?
PS: I’m often drawn to Enthusiasts. My friend Laura collects English Art Deco teacups with trees on them; so far I’ve resisted being sucked in, but it’s taking all my strength.
SH: When did your own passion for all things Austen begin?
PS: When I was thirteen or so, I stayed up all night reading Pride and Prejudice, trembling when I came to the scene where Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter.
SH: Do you have any personal favorite movie adaptations?
PS: I’m partial to the Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice and the BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.
SH: Any favorite prequels/sequels to Austen’s novels?
PS: I liked Joan Aiken’s sequels.
SH: Or any favorite “inspired by” novels you’d like to recommend? (I’d suggest Enthusiasm for one!)
PS: Aww, thank you! I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn—Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants. Clueless is peerless, though it’s not a novel. Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, too.
SH: If planning to crash a Founder’s Quadrille, would you most enjoy: finding the right outfit -including fancy shoes, learning the old-fashioned dances, snacking on unusual refreshments, or flirting with a cute boy? Or would you rather skip the whole thing and go to the movies?
PS: Flirting with a cute boy! As long as there’s one who will write me sonnets and refrains from laughing at my attempts to dance the quadrille.
Oh, okay, he can laugh. He’d have to be utterly without a sense of humor not to.
SH: Have you ever considered writing a real script for Midwinter Insomnia? Would you write the music and lyrics yourself or would you prefer a professional songwriter take on that task? Who would you select as the songwriter?
PS: Cole Porter, please! We may have to use that time machine again.
SH: Parr’s making a new ring out of the one that was broken is pretty darn romantic. What’s the most romantic gesture that you’ve ever received?
PS: For years, my husband and I had the following dialogue:
Me: I love you so much!
Andrew: More than chocolate?
Andrew: More than Jane Austen?
Me: Well . . . yes.
Andrew: What if there was a great big Jane Austen made out of chocolate? Would you love me more than that?
Me: Oh, darling, please don’t make me choose!
So when Enthusiasm was published, he got my favorite chocolate shop to make Jane Austen out of chocolate! He designed the mold himself—she’s holding a copy of Enthusiasm.
The Grimm Legacy
SH: The illustrations at start of each chapter add such a great touch! Did you suggest items just so you could see them illustrated? Do you have a favorite or anything you wish had been drawn that wasn’t included?
PS: I love those illustrations. They were the designer’s idea; the book was already written and edited when she came up with it. I giggled my head off when I thought of showing the invisibility cloak with no picture—because, you see, it’s invisible. Tee-hee.
SH: Needing a recommendation from someone connected to the New York circulating material collection to become a page makes it such a super exclusive club house–but filled with kind-hearted people! How did you wind up as a library page (in a regular library)? What was your biggest or best adventure while you worked in the library?
PS: I got my job as a page at the New York Public Library’s main research branch the same way my narrator, Elizabeth, gets her job: My social studies teacher stopped me in the hallway and handed me a number to call. Thank you, Mr. Marienhoff!
It was a fantastic job, especially on slow evenings when my supervisor put me on Stack VII, where they kept the popular fiction from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved to read the old romantic comedies and melodramas, the kind with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson (of Gibson Girl fame). I didn’t have any real adventures, though—unless you count the time I found a book that had been misshelved for decades and written off as missing.
SH: Which object would you want to borrow–and that could include anything you might find in the collection but wasn’t mentioned in the story–and what would you be willing to leave as a deposit?
PS: Winged sandals, please. Especially if I could also borrow the invisibility cloak—I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for an enemy aircraft. Or maybe the time machine; I would love to see dinosaurs in person (from a distance).
As a deposit, I would leave my singing voice. Nobody would miss it.
SH: If you had access to Snow White’s mirror, what would you want to ask?
PS: I would stay away from Snow White’s stepmother’s mirror. Mean old thing! It’s not even very useful—even when it coughs up information, it tricks and confuses you so that you can’t really trust what it told you.
SH: Are you a collector of any particular object(s)–such as dolls, maybe?
PS: I have a large collection of collections. I collect: American 19th century silver teapots with bird feet or animal-head spouts; mourning jewelry made of human hair; 18th century sugar tongs; tiny books; those little metal admission badges you get at museums (but only when I’ve actually gone to the museum); itty bitty bottles; funny names; pebbles with a white quartz stripe through them; boxes; earrings shaped like acorns; animal skulls that wash up on beaches. That’s only a small sampling of things I collect. I can easily imagine collecting enchanted princesses. I would know it was cruel, but I would tell myself I was keeping them safe from all the other, crueler princess collectors.
SH: What do you think happened to the princess dolls after they were rescued?
PS: I don’t know the details yet, but I expect they will involve Jaya and a time machine. Someday I may write a story, or possibly a novel, about the Great Princess Rescue.
The Wells Bequest
SH: So far the special collections listed are mostly science fiction writers. Is sci-fi–or fantasy–your favorite genre?
PS: Fantasy is my favorite, though I love other genres too: science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, literary fiction (yes, that’s a genre). I chose fantasy and SF because they’re the ones with the greatest concentration of objects with unusual powers—though horror has powerful objects too, and I draw on paranormal, gothic, and ghost stories in my third (forthcoming) Repository novel, The Poe Annex.
SH: Is there a chance you might be adding more special collections–like Native American or Old World mythology?
PS: It’s a little tricky. It would be very disrespectful to treat anyone’s religion as a collection of fanciful tales, so I’m sticking to literary works rather than mythology. And for the sake of creative freedom and courtesy to other writers, I’m sticking to literary works in the public domain, which more or less confines me to works published before 1923.
I just finished writing The Poe Annex, the third Repository novel—and probably last one, at least for a while. It’s about the repository’s collection of spooky objects and haunted houses from American gothic and supernatural fiction: Poe, Hawthorne, James, Wharton, and many others.
SH: Leo’s gift for seeing potential in objects makes him special and worried that he’s a little crazy. (In the first book Elizabeth could detect magic by the way things smelled). If you could have a special ability for magical detection, what would you want that to be and how would it work for you?
PS: I would love to have the power to know an object’s entire history by touching it: who made it, when, why, how they used it, who owned it next, how it affected people’s lives or history, and so on.
Of course, you’re not allowed to touch objects in museums, so maybe it would be better to see into an object’s history just by looking at it.
SH: Auntie Shanti bravely samples floral chocolates in the Time Travelers house. Did you bravely taste something similar first or are Jaya’s ginger creams more to your taste? Or maybe you don’t like fancy chocolates?
PS: Me, not like fancy chocolates? Unimaginable! Chocolate is second only to sunshine! Well, and Jane Austen, and Andrew. There’s no chocolate I wouldn’t sample, the odder the better. I’ve even eaten chocolate-covered ants.
SH: The New York City of 1895 you describe has so many fun and odd details, including the horse peeing in the street! What was the strangest fact you came across in your research–and were you able to use it?
PS: I got a little obsessed with how people got around town in 1895. My characters travel by elevated steam train, horse-drawn omnibus, and horse-drawn taxicab. I could have put in half a dozen other methods of transportation too, but I figured readers would run out of patience. It almost killed me to leave out the electric taxis, which were very popular just a few years after the story takes place; gas-powered cabs didn’t come in until later. I was also sad not to use the cable cars that went up and down Broadway driven by fantastic steam engines housed in the building that now holds the Angelika Film Center. Leo, my narrator, would have loved those! When you sip your latte in the center’s waiting area or watch a delicately brooding film, you’re being pounded by the ghosts of gigantic pistons.
I had a great time doing the research for the 1895 section of that book. I loved learning that Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain were buddies, that they both had a taste for the high life, and that Tesla insisted on letting women attend his lectures—science was often a boys’ club in those days. And I was delighted to find vivid, detailed newspaper accounts of Tesla’s lab fire and descriptions of the Electric Club, which seemed like a perfect setting.
SH: Nikola Tesla remains such an obscure figure to most people, but he was such an important inventor. Any theories why he’s not more popular?
PS: Actually, Tesla is not nearly as obscure now as he was just a few years ago. When I visit schools I ask the students who’s heard of him, and nowadays most of the hands shoot up. Maybe it’s because of the electric car named after him.
Thomas Edison was Tesla’s rival and a far better businessman. He overshadowed Tesla, who developed a reputation later in life as the ultimate mad scientist. Tesla’s many wild claims and crazy inventions that never panned out can’t have helped. But everybody loves an underdog, especially one who can shoot lightning around the room.
SH: It’s mentioned that there are repositories in other cities around the world. Will we get to read about them and their collections?
PS: Maybe eventually, but not right away. A few of them are mentioned in The Poe Annex, but just in passing. I’m planning to set my next book in an entirely different world.
SH: What do you think would be your test if you applied for a page job at the repository?
PS: Sorting buttons, I hope! I spent hours playing with my mother’s button box as a little girl, so I got plenty of practice.
SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
PS: In The Wells Bequest, I considered giving Jaya the motto “How hard could it be?” but it didn’t quite work in the story. I’m less confident than Jaya, but I try to remind myself to take more risks. I also frequently tell myself, “Be more generous.”
SH: Have you hidden friends or family in your stories? Has anyone ever asked to be included?
PS: All the time, though only very minor characters—the main characters are all made up, not based on real people. I especially like turning my friends and favorite teachers into teachers and librarians. I put my niece in Enthusiasm with her last name spelled backwards. I named the boys’ boarding school in Enthusiasm after a friend’s house. From time to time readers write asking me to name a character after them; I try to comply when I have small characters who need names. And I like to sneak my own name in, the way Jane Austen included characters named Jane who seem nothing like her: sweet, sincere Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and reserved, proper Jane Fairfax in Emma. I put a gigantic, terrifying bird named Polly in The Grimm Legacy, a school named Manhattan Poly in The Wells Bequest, and a pirate ship named Pretty Polly in The Poe Annex.
SH: What’s the best, or most surprising, question you’ve ever been asked? On any topic.
PS: “How would you like an after-school job at a library?”
Books by Polly Shulman
Enthusiasm. Speak, 2007, 2006. 198 p. $7.99. 978-0-14-240935-0. VOYA February 2006. 3Q 2P M J
The Grimm Legacy. Putnam, 2010. 325p. $16.99. 978-0-3992-5096-5. $7.99 Trade pb. 978-0-14-241904-5. VOYA June 2010. 3Q 4P J
The Wells Bequest. Putnam, 2013. 260p. $16.99. 978-0-3992-5646-2.
Polly Shuman Homepage: http://www.pollyshulman.com/