Open book with Elinor Lipman

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Whether it's in the form of a novel or a tweet, Elinor Lipman's wry writing manages to both delight readers and examine weighty political and social issues. In her latest novel, "On Turpentine Lane," a young woman returns to her hometown, leading to revelations regarding race, marriage and fidelity. "Light and tight, 'On Turpentine Lane' is constructed with an almost scary mastery," writes Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgen in The New York Times. Lipman once held the Elizabeth Drew Chair in Creative Writing at Smith College, and she is longtime friends with Adams native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff.

Lipman answered some questions via phone in advance of her reading on Sunday, Sept. 3, at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center's 12th annual Festival of Books in Spencertown, N.Y.

Your latest book and many of your books have been praised for their humor. What is the wittiest book you've ever read?

I have two answers ..."The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" by Max Shulman, and that got turned into a sort-of-funny TV show, but it's these brilliant short stories about a character who goes off to college. And then — this came to mind — I reviewed a book in I think 2010 [it was 2009] for The Washington Post, and it was called, "How [I Became] a Famous Novelist" by Steve Hely ... I ended it by saying, "I may have read a funnier book in the last 20 years, but at [this] moment I'm hard-pressed to name it." And then [in 2010] it went on to win the Thurber Prize for [American] Humor.

Your work has drawn comparisons to Jane Austen. What's your favorite Austen novel?

"Pride and Prejudice."

Which author or book has influenced your writing the most?

I would say what made me pick up the pen — not literally, pick up the keyboard — was Laurie Colwin.

What about her writing [influenced you]?

I took "Happy All the Time" out of the library and loved it so much that I then bought it and reread it a number of times, and I hadn't started writing yet, but I would say the combination of wry and smart and just very appealing characters. That's important.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Oh, I'm right there! "The Last Laugh" by Lynn Freed; "The Widow of Wall Street" by Randy Susan Meyers; "How to Change a Life" by Stacey Ballis; and I have an advance reading — an uncorrected, bound manuscript — of "How Hard Can It Be" by Allison Pearson, who wrote "I Don't Know How She Does It."

What was your favorite book as a child?

It was called "Daddy-Long-Legs" by Jean Webster ... [It's an] epistolary novel. She outgrows the orphanage, and a trustee anonymously sends her to college, and all he asks is that she write him one letter a month. And of course she has no relatives and nobody else, so she writes all the time, and it's just the — sometimes I think I shaped my life after her because she wanted to be a writer, and even though she wasn't tall, she played basketball [Lipman played high school basketball].

Other than that one, what's your favorite book to reread?

I've got a lot of those. In college, I reread 'The Razor's Edge" by [W.] Somerset Maugham many times. [I've] read "All the President's Men" [by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward] many times. Of course, "Happy All the Time" by Laurie Colwin ... You know what book I've read a million times? "Alive" [by Piers Paul Read]. It was about the plane crash in the Andes [in 1972], where the people survived ... Somewhere probably in my 40s I stopped rereading books because there's just — I get sent books a lot. Too many books!

What is your favorite novel set in Massachusetts (where "On Turpentine Lane" is set)?

I've got many. OK, one of them is "Mail" by Mameve Medwed. Another one would be "Selling the Lite of Heaven," which is a comic novel by Suzanne Strempek Shea. And any book of Stephen McCauley, speaking of funny.

Where is your favorite place to read?

In bed. I have to admit, in bed. It might be the only place I read, now that I think of it. You know why? Because I feel guilty — I'll read during the day if it's a book I'm reviewing ... but in terms of just recreational reading, I would say in bed at night.


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