I was recently reading American Isis-a book about Sylvia Plath-by Carl Rollyson. For any Plath fan, this is a great read, addictive, etc. From a more journalistic perspective-to use the term very loosely-I wanted to ask Carl several questions; here, he answers.
Hello Carl, thank you for agreeing to this interview. How did your book, American Isis, come to fore?
In my capacity as a reviewer for the New York Sun, I reviewed the movie, Sylvia, and Jillian Becker’s memoir about Plath. In that review, I outlined what my own biography of Plath would look like. But when I approached several agents, they all said there were already too many biographies of Sylvia Plath. Then I attended the first meeting of the Biographers International Organization in May 2010, where I was able to pitch my Plath biography to four agents. Two were clearly not interested. One was a maybe, but the fourth said: “That’s a book I want to read.” She sold the book to St. Martin’s Press.
With living figures it often means contending with some very hostile forces, but even with dead subjects, literary estates often get in the way, and they are aided, I’m sorry to say, by librarians who put restrictions on material they have no business restricting.
How and at what age were you introduced to Plath?
I first became aware of Plath while teaching high school in 1973. I was Lawrence Perrine’s book, Sound and Sense, which included two Plath poems, “Mirror,” and “Metaphors.” I thought they were magical. I was entranced. So I taught her from time to time and read the biographies as they came out.
Do you have a favourite Plath poem?
“Daddy.” It has everything: high seriousness, humor, a powerful sense of history, of the relationship between men and women, and so much else.
How do you think Plath is relevant to today’s generation?
Plath will always be relevant. So much of her writing is about how the self forms itself in relation to the world. She was capacious. Every generation is going to find something new in her.
What is your opinion about the Plath/Hughes relationship?
They helped one another as poets. She really got him started on his career, and he was there for her when she was feeling down about herself. But there was so much intensity. In a curious way, Hughes was the weak one. He couldn’t take what he came to see as her all-enveloping myth. He had to get away. I don’t think he was ever able to equal her greatest poetry.
You’re also a professor of Journalism. What practical advice do you have for aspiring graduates?
Read four to six hours a day if you want to be a writer.
Previously, you’ve also been critical of the practice. Could you elaborate as to why?
Critical of journalists? Only in the sense that they sometimes lack a sense of history and don’t realize the stories they publish are incomplete. That’s why they need to do a lot more reading!
Have you ever practiced as a Journalist?
I think I’ve always practiced as a journalist, even though I’ve also been a professor of art and a professor of English. I was a regular columnist for the New York Sun for almost four years. I was an online columnist for bibliobuffet.com for two years. I regularly review for several newspapers and journals.
I first became aware of Plath while teaching high school in 1973. I was Lawrence Perrine’s book, Sound and Sense, which included two Plath poems, “Mirror,” and “Metaphors.” I thought they were magical.
You’ve also written several biographies. Why do you choose subjects such as Marilyn Monroe and Susan Sontag?
One of my books says it all: Female Icons From Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag.
What challenges present themselves to you as a biographer?
Getting the story right, of course. With living figures it often means contending with some very hostile forces, but even with dead subjects, literary estates often get in the way, and they are aided, I’m sorry to say, by librarians who put restrictions on material they have no business restricting.
For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice?
All you need to know is that you have a story to tell. Not much else matters, except doing all that reading.
Random question: If you could visit any time period in history, where would it be and why?
I would like to be in New York City in 1923 and present at the meeting between Amy Lowell and Rebecca West. I feel very close to these subjects and they met only once.
Thank you very much, Carl, for answering my questions. Don’t forget to buy his book-