What Happened to Sophie Wilder
Tin House Books
June 12, 2012
The Whole Five Feet:
What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
May 6, 2009
W. W. Norton & Company
August 1, 2011
IN 2009 I WAS PERUSING the aisles of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass, hoping to find something I didn't know I was looking for. On the table of new nonfiction sat gleaming a memoir with a most curious title: The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else. A longtime proponent of the notion that great literature has the capacity to enrich lives, to alter lives, to enlarge the potential of one's mind and heart, to prepare us for love and death if we will let it, I carried this book home and was introduced to the mind and storytelling of Christopher Beha. A memoir of book love and the intellect, The Whole Five Feet is a necessary reminder of literature's central role in our world.
After that I began reading Beha's work everywhere: in The New York Times Book Review, in The London Review of Books, in Bookforum, and in Harper's, where he is an associate editor. Tin House Books has just released Beha's debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a story crafted of uncommon beauty and truth, unsentimental and searing — a book about memory and love with a title heroine who will not leave you easily. It has already garnered effusive and deserved praise from Publishers Weekly and fellow writers such as Helen Schulman. I asked Beha to speak with me about reading, writing, criticism, and fiction.
Giraldi: I'm interested in labels. I mean: I prefer the lack of labels. I'd never wear a shirt with an insignia or brand name on it, nor a cap advertising this or that team or tractor. The labels in our profession tend to irritate me. Updike was a novelist, yes? Not a short story writer? Or was he a fiction writer? His critical essays match or exceed in volume his short stories, so was he an essayist? A personal essayist or a critical essayist? So he was a prose writer. But he wrote poems and drama, too. Man of letters, then? Or just writer? Your first published book was a memoir and you're well known as a literary critic writing for some of the most respected venues. And now here you are publishing your first novel, your first piece of published fiction. So my question is: In a world that requires labels, what is Christopher Beha?
Christopher Beha: Whenever these questions come up, I think of that great Borges essay, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," in which he describes a system for classifying animals that includes categories like "those that belong to the emperor," "embalmed ones," "stray dogs," and "those that at a distance resemble flies." Of course taxonomies can be reductive and arbitrary, and I find the aggressive genre resistance lately pushed by David Shields, John D'Aga...read more