About Joanna Smith Rakoff
Q. What is your birthdate?
Q. Previous occupations
A. Graduate student, assistant to literary agent, magazine writer and editor
Q. Favorite job
A. Perhaps my first job, as an assistant to the agent Phyllis Westberg, at Harold Ober Associates, one of New York's oldest agencies. More recently, I edited a wonderful online magazine called Nextbook. I loved that job, too, as I was able to hire some of my favorite writers to contribute.
Q. Name of your favorite composer or music artist?
A. I don't think I can name just one. But if I had to choose, I suppose Elvis Costello. His work endures.
Q. Favorite movie
A. The Philadelphia Story. A light, delectable comedy that gets at the heart of the American class system.
Q. Favorite television show
A. I don't actually own a television, but I do watch certain shows on iTunes or DVD. Right now, like everyone else, I love Mad Men. And I'm an eternal fan of Freaks and Geeks, the Gilmore Girls (it's not what you think), and, yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Q. How would you describe your life in only 8 words?
A. Happy, busy, overly full, well-considered, sometimes chaotic.
Q. What is your motto or maxim?
A. I'm afraid I don't have one.
Q. How would you describe perfect happiness?
A. Lying on the couch, reading Middlemarch, eating a hard, green apple.
Q. What’s your greatest fear?
A. I have a terrible dread of snakes.
Q. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A. London, wandering around Bloomsbury or Neal's Yard. With plans to visit friends in Yorkshire the next day.
Q. With whom in history do you most identify?
A. Mina Loy. Dawn Powell. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Sylvia Plath.
Q. Which living person do you most admire?
A. I'm afraid I don't quite think in those terms, so I can't really answer that question. I admire certain things about certain people.
Q. What are your most overused words or phrases?
A. Like. Quite. Maybe. Perhaps.
Q. What do you regret most?
A. I wish that I'd spent more time with my paternal grandmother before she died. She was a brilliant, ferocious woman who had great stories to tell.
Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A. I'm not sure if this qualifies as a talent, but I hate that I don't speak any languages other than English. I'd love to learn French and Spanish, then Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese.
Q. What is your greatest achievement?
A. My novel, A Fortunate Age. But I'm also quite pleased with a few poems I've written over the years. (And, well, do children qualify as an achievement? I have two beautiful ones.)
Q. What’s your greatest flaw?
A. I'm afraid I have a pretty bad temper. I don't get anrgy all that often, but when I do -- agh.
Q. What’s your best quality?
A. I'm not quite sure. Patience, maybe.
Q. If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A. Again, my mind doesn't really work that way. I'm happy being myself.
Q. What trait is most noticeable about you?
A. Physical trait? If so, well, the first thing people comment on is generally my hair, which is dark and curly.
Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A. This is too difficult. I love the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, in Sense and Sensibility, and Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda. Irene Heron from The Forsyte Saga. And, of course, Jane Eyre.
Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A. Soames Forsyte, from The Forsyte Saga. His villainy springs from his being so purely a product of his era and class. Poor Soames.
Q. If you could meet any historical character, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A. Again, my mind doesn't quite work in this early-Caryl-Churchill-Tom-Stoppard-play sort of way, so this is hard for me to answer. But I'd love to meet favorite writers--Austen, Dickens,Eliot--and talk to them about their lives, their writing, the intersection between the two.
Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A. I really hate the unnecessary use of quotation marks. As in, menus that offer "roast" chicken. Why, why?
Q. What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
Q. What’s your fantasy profession?
A. I have an overhealthy interest in film, which I blame on my father, who took me to the movies twice a week, starting at about age three. Thus, I've always fantasized about actually making--writing and directing--films. But I'm not quite sure I have the personality necessary to navigate Hollywood.
Q. What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A. Honesty. Humor. Introspection and intellectual rigor.
Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A. I'm sort of terrified by the idea eating just one food for the rest of my life.
Q. What are your 5 favorite songs?
A. Right at the moment, let's see: I Wanna Know Girls, Portastatic; Ghosts, Laura Marling; Stars and Sons, Broken Social Scene; Staring at the Sun, TV on the Radio; Flume, Bon Iver. But this pretty random. I could just as easily list Wilco, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Elliott Smith, and dozens more.
On Books and Writing
Q. Who are your favorite authors?
A. Edith Wharton, Dawn Powell, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson, David Mitchell, Martin Amis, Junichiro Tanizaki, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Pynchon, E.M. Forster, Zadie Smith.
Q. What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen Daniel Deronda, George Eliot A Time to Be Born, Dawn Powell Howard's End, E.M. Forster
Q. Is there a book you love to reread?
A. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie. All of Jane Austen.
Q. Do you have one sentence of advice for new writers?
A. Just write.
Q. What comment do you hear most often from your readers?
A. Which character are you? (Answer: None.)