An Interview with Lizzie Skurnish

by Catherine Petruccione

7 September 2009

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"Now, suddenly, I was the kind of girl who felt true physical pain when asked to put down a book at the dinner table, who asked friends over and ignored them to finish Island of the Blue Dolphins for the fifth time."

From Shelf Discovery

Lizzie Skurnick's recently published book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, evolved from a regular column by the author featured on the women's website Jezebel.

Skurnick realized she was not alone in collecting and re-reading books that she cherished when she was a youngster, and when the opportunity presented itself, she found Jezebel to be the perfect venue to share this appreciation of young adult literature with other readers. The happy result is this book published by Avon/Harper-Collins in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-06-175635-1). With contributions by Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, and Jennifer Weiner, memories of favorite stories come alive from the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L'Engle, Louis Fitzhugh, Judy Blume, and other superb authors.

Ms. Skurnick is a Yale graduate, a free-lance writer and book reviewer who was an editor for Girl's Life Magazine and has written for the New York Times Book Review, Times Sunday Styles, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Her blog, Old Hag was a Forbes "Best of the Web" pick. She was born in The Bronx and currently resides in Jersey City.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to write this book?

SKURNICK: The book came out of a series of columns that I do for the website Jezebel. It was just a funny circumstance that inspired me to do the columns. A friend told me that they were starting a women's website. The Gawker sites are very successful, and I somehow knew in my head that however good or bad the website was going to be, it would probably be a mighty center for women 25 to 45 years old - this swath of my generation. And I thought it would be a great place for a regular column about these books which had meant so much to that age group of women as they were growing up.

I knew I saved all my favorite books, and my friends all saved them , but it wasn't like I walked around consciously thinking, "One day I can write a column about them." It had never occurred to me before. But suddenly there was a circumstance that could support it. And I thought, "Why don't I try to do this on Jezebel?" There was really no other place this column could live - it couldn't live in a print publication; it certainly could have lived on my personal blog with no trouble, and maybe eventually by word-of-mouth it would have caught on, and it might have developed a significant readership. But you can't compete with the big general interest internet sites. For all the power of the web and blogging, there is so much out there, and if you want to do a column of any kind, it really serves your interests to be someplace where people can find it.

What I love about Jezebel is that it really does function like a traditional women's magazine, and something that's always found in a traditional women's magazine is books coverage. I just had a feeling they would want it. So I met with Anna Holmes, who is the Editor in Chief, and she was actually going to ask me to do just that. By the way, I think someone else might have started doing this if I had not - if you look right now, suddenly, the New Yorker has clearly been asking its female reporters to write about female writers that mean something to them ... you had Lauren Collins on Nora Roberts, you just had Judith Thurman on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Megan O'Rourke did something on Nancy Drew ... it seems it is a well they are trying to draw from. There are a few people I know who are doing books about this period, about authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I think you essentially have a generation of voracious bookworms coming of age; quite a few of us are writers, so what else are you going to get? Just like for a long time there were all those books about Woodstock and the sixties, it may be sort of a similar trend.

BOOKTHINK: How did you decide which books to include? Were they personal favorites, best-sellers, longest in print?

SKURNICK: It was really difficult. When I was doing the column, I would try to basically switch between something that I thought was a heavy hitter with something that was my secret favorite. But I almost stopped doing that, because it turned out that the books I would have thought were really popular weren't always. I'm so surprised that a book like A Gift of Magic, which is one of my favorite books ever, was one of my lowest drawing columns. It's Lois Duncan, and it's like the seminal ESP book. Finally I figured out that the whole point of the column is to have fun, so I should just have fun and do what's fun for me that week and not over-think it because everyone has their own reading history and their own reading favorite. I just kind of let it go. There's a few writers who are very special to me that I haven't yet done a column on ... you know what it's like when you're writing back a letter to someone you like it sometimes takes longer to answer their letter because it's so important to you to write a good letter.

I didn't do The Long Winter until my book was published - I did finally do a column on it for Jezebel and it is one of my favorite columns that I ever wrote.

BOOKTHINK: Have you ever read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith? I was hoping that would be included in your book.

SKURNICK: No, and a lot of people have asked for it. I have it on my shelf, and I will get to it. I sometimes try to find a guest reviewer to do a column if I haven't read the book. It's not that I can't write an interesting column about the book if I didn't read it as a child, because I can; but part of the column, in order to write about it the right way, I need to have read it as a child. I guess because the books I've read as a child I automatically file or index them into this general world of literature I experienced and I know the connections and interconnections. I pick up something like A Summer to Die, and I don't remember what was bracketing the shelf around that book, and I can't figure out why that book was important anymore than I can tell you why a new book you handed me right now is important.

BOOKTHINK: I actually read I Capture the Castle as an adult, maybe five years ago. It was the very first line that reeled me in. So if you open that book sometime, just read the first line and I think you'll understand what I mean. Some of these books are so well written, they are totally enjoyable as an adult reader and I think they can take you back to a different time in your life and revive some of those feelings you had as a young adult.

SKURNICK: Oh yes, totally - and this idea of a world that doesn't exist anymore. Not just the world of the novel, but also the world that existed when I was reading the novel. You do feel books differently at that age; they take up your whole psyche and become part of you. I'm always trying to chart when it became a lot harder for a book to become a part of me. I think it began after college.

BOOKTHINK: Uh-oh, is that what college does to us?

SKURNICK: Maybe there were some books that still could do that for me in my early twenties. While you are forming as a person, they can still kind of sneak in there.

BOOKTHINK: I'd like to believe we are always forming as a person.

SKURNICK: We're always forming, but we're not always as open. As much as people in college don't want to be children, you are still pretty much a child while you are in college. Once that went away, then how I read books became different also.

BOOKTHINK: People say "We are what we eat." I say, "We are what we read." I think authors often become our mentors, especially when we're young.

SKURNICK: Yes, I think that's totally true. It's very difficult to distinguish at that age between what you've just read and what your real life is. It's funny because there's always this idea that children read to escape; and certainly, when you are sitting at the dinner table reading you are escaping.

BOOKTHINK: I still do!

SKURNICK: I do too. But actually you are not reading to escape yourself. When you are younger, the books you read are becoming part of you. Now when I read, it really is to take a break. I'm not saying I didn't have fun with the books when I was younger, but I was reading to look at the world. And now that's totally not the case. I want a good story that can hold my attention and I'll be happy.