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Literary Lion: 5 Questions with Nonfiction Writer Andrew Solomon

Columbia University Coat of Arms

Andrew Solomon, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, has just assumed the presidency of PEN American Center. His most recent book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (2012), won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction. A previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2001 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Solomon has written numerous articles for the The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum and other publications on a wide range of topics.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

Segregating my writing has never been a possibility — what I am writing reflects my outer and my inner life, which means, in turn, that it in part creates my outer and inner lives. To speak of them separately is like speaking about my skin separately from my body. It can be done; one has a dermatologist; but it’s not a relevant way of thinking most of the time. The teaching that I do always enriches my writing. In talking about the subjects that engage me with people to whom they are fresh, I garner new insights. I have, always, a great deal to learn from my students. In teaching, I also learn from myself, because I find myself articulating familiar ideas in new language, or spotting connections I hadn’t quite realized were there. And of course the precision that writing requires makes me more lucid as a teacher. There are things I write about but wouldn’t teach, and vice versa, but in general, the conjunction of the two activities is a rich and joyous one.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

There can be no writing without reading. The ways I express myself are somewhat original, I hope, but much as a child needs limits in order to develop, I need models to react to in order to express myself. I can’t write in a vacuum; I can’t even think in a vacuum. Reading is, of course, a pleasure in its own right, but beyond that, it’s the basis for all writing. Having said that, I don’t get time to do nearly enough of it: the writing can be so demanding that it consumes reading time. But whenever I return to reading, I feel a great relief in it, and am awakened to other possibilities of language and thoughts.

Q. Do you focus on one particular kind of writing or can you easily switch genres?

I have published one novel and three books of nonfiction and a great deal of journalism. I wrote poems and plays as a student, but not in many years. I love fiction, and my childhood plan was to be a novelist. My favorite books are works of fiction. But the world feels urgent to me, and I’ve tended to get absorbed in processes of research. That said, I’m working on two fiction projects now. I’m not sure I ever move seamlessly between any two things, but as seamlessly as I move, I move between fiction and nonfiction.

Q. How does living and working in New York influence your writing?

Like all New York writers, I can drown in the noise, and I have been addicted to artists’ retreats, Yaddo in particular, where I go to get away from the city and do nothing but write all day long for a couple of months. The retreats are highly nutritious and I am something of a residency junkie. But my son is now five years old, and would not take kindly to such disappearances, and so I am for the moment trying to carve out silence without skipping town. It’s not easy. Having said that, I find New York endlessly inspiring. I’m right now researching an article on a topic with which I have limited experience, and I’ve found that three of the leading people in the field are associated with Columbia, and I wrote to them last night and am interviewing all three within the next 10 days. I couldn’t do that while living in any other place on earth. And I find that the energy of the city inspires me. If it’s a tough place to find the calm of work, it’s the best place to find the jolt of inspiration.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m working on several things at once. I’ve just written a new final chapter for my book about depression, The Noonday Demon, which will be reissued in late spring, now brought up to date. I’m putting together an anthology of my international reporting. And I’m beginning work on a new book looking at how we’ve come to redefine family, looking at issues including changed attitudes toward divorce; the merging of gender roles as mothers work outside the home more often and fathers get more involved in child care; the advent of gay families; single parents, by choice or otherwise; open adoptions; reproductive technology; expanded foster care; and everything else about family today. Another small, manageable topic! I’m also working on a book of children’s stories based on the ones I tell my own children at bedtime, and very occasionally returning to a novel that’s been vaguely in the works for two decades.