An Interview with Nina Sankovitch

July 31, 2011

Author Nina Sankovitch read at EPL on July 14th.

Nina Sankovitch has always been a book lover, and now she’s an author as well.  In June the former Evanstonian celebrated the publication of her debut book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – an inspiring memoir that recounts her year spent reading one book a day in order to heal from her older sister’s tragic death.  Moving and insightful, Purple Chair has been lauded by of the L.A. Times, O Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly who called it “an entertaining bibliophile’s dream… [that] champions the act of reading not as an indulgence but as a necessity.”  On July 14th Ms. Sankovitch visited EPL to read from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and as an encore, she recently spoke with us via email about how her reading journey evolved into a book, the pleasures and perils of sharing books, Purple Chair’s life lessons, and letters as an “endangered species.”

Evanston Public Library:  First off, congratulations on the incredible reception Tolstoy and the Purple Chair has enjoyed including its selection as a “Recommended Summer Read” by Kirkus Reviews.  What is your reaction to how well your debut book has been received?  Have you had any particularly memorable encounters with readers since its June 7th publication?

Nina Sankovitch:  I am thrilled with the great reception the book has received.  What I find most moving is how many people have written to me expressing how the book resonated with their own experience of loss or love for books (or both), and the connections that readers were able to make to my own experiences, as presented in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.  The connection made by readers brings full circle my own experiences of connection, understanding, and comfort that occurred during my year of reading a book a day.

EPL:  What motivated you to write Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and when did the idea for the book first strike?  Did you always plan to cap “The 365 Project” by writing a book, or did the idea develop over the course of your reading journey?

NS:  I never thought of writing a book about my experience of reading a book a day, but after a New York Times article featured my 365 project, opportunities to do so came in.  I was uncertain of how to craft a book out of the experience — my reviews are all on my website, and I didn’t want to write a book of reviews — but then I realized that I should write a history of my family and of my life of reading that would explain why reading a book a day was not a crazy undertaking but an entirely rational choice of therapy and reconciliation.  The book was also a chance to commemorate the life of my sister with a message of hope and joy and remembrance to be shared among all book lovers.

EPL:  Can you discuss some of the challenges you encountered while writing the book?  Was it hard to write so candidly about such personal topics as the death of your sister Anne-Marie and the murder of three of your father’s siblings during World War II?  How did your family feel about your decision to share these difficult times, and did you ever have any second thoughts about doing so?

NS:  “Remembrance is the bones around which a body of resilience is built.”  I write that in the book, and I believe it.  My book offers the opportunity for so many to remember those who have died, not only from my own family but the losses that each individual reader has experienced.  The challenge in writing about the most painful parts of my family’s history was in presenting the horror but also in recognizing the value of life, especially in the face of horror.

EPL:  In Chapter 9, you insightfully discuss the pleasures and perils of sharing books with others and write, “Both sides of the book-lending equation, the giver and the taker, experience fear.  How brave we are to overcome that fear to share love, truth, beauty, wisdom, and consolation against death!  The threads of friendships entwine over the shared enjoyment of a book.”  Of all the books you read during your “year of reading,” which ones do you share consistently and bravely?  Can you recount a friendship made over a book?

NS:  I share without hesitation the over ninety books I read during my year that I listed as “great” on my website; that list has grown into the hundreds in the years since I finished my year of reading in October 2009. Books that I share without hesitation include To the End of the Land by David Grossman, The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz by Almudena Solana, The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher, and Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill.

The author Almudena Solana became a friend after I reviewed her book and we have continued sharing book recommendations and emails.  She even sent me lovely book marks made by her mother from pressed flowers her parents found on their evening strolls in their small town outside of Madrid.  She also sent me one of her books that has not been translated into English.  I speak Spanish, and I will be reading — and reviewing — it soon!

EPL:  What lessons do you hope readers will learn from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair?

NS:  That we live in cycles of sorrow and joy but that joy can prevail if we allow it to.  We choose joy by remembering past joys, enjoying present joys, and anticipating future joys.  And for me, reading will always be one of the most constant of joys.

EPL:  Regarding your post-project reading life, did you ever experience any book-a-day withdrawal?  What is your reading pace like today, and do you have any tips for someone interested in embarking on a similar reading journey?

NS:  After my year of reading, I went back to reading a book or two a week; I was not reading at a different rate, I just had fewer hours in the day to read.  My advice to anyone is not to worry about the number of books you read but to read every day.  Pleasure, joy, comfort, escape, and wisdom are found in daily reading.

EPL:  What are your plans now that Tolstoy and the Purple Chair has been published?  Do you have any new projects in the works?  Can we look forward to another book sometime in the future?

NS:  I am very interested in letters as a physical and metaphysical representation of connection and remembrance.  People often ask me if the “book” is dead, and I can answer emphatically “No!”.  But letters are certainly an endangered species, and I would like to bolster their continued existence by understanding and demonstrating their importance in connection, memory, and as proof of life.

Interview by Russell J.


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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