Open Book with Polly Shulman


During high school, Polly Shulman took an after-school job as a page at the New York Public Library. The experience helped inspire her "Grimm Legacy" fantasy novels, which are largely set in the New-York Circulating Material Repository.

"It was an enchanted place and an amazing job, and I thought it would make a great setting for a fantasy novel. But while books can be magical, they don't have the same physical variety as objects, so I made my fictional library a library of objects," Shulman writes on her website.

Some of the institution's objects stem from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. In "The Grimm Legacy" (2010), the items begin disappearing, a mystery protagonist Elizabeth and others must solve before they find themselves in danger. "The Wells Bequest" (2013) and "The Poe Estate" (2015) also involve journeys into the building's depths.

Shulman's venture into fantasy followed an acclaimed debut in young adult. "Enthusiasm" (2006) tracks the relationship between two high school best friends who love Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." One of them becomes a bit too entranced by the famous novel, her story starting to evoke Austen's.

"Teenage girls who are serious Jane Austen fans will be too advanced for this story, but it might be just the book for a less sophisticated 12- or 13-year-old reader who dreams of romance with a dashing admirer," Elizabeth Spires writes in a review for The New York Times.

Shulman is continuing her run of fantasy writing. The book she's currently working on is "a longish fairy tale about a very young fairy godmother — she's only 275 years old, this is her first time fairygodmothering, and she keeps messing up," Shulman wrote in an email.

The licensed private investigator also revealed her favorite books in an email exchange before her reading at Stanmeyer Gallery & Shaker Dam Coffeehouse at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. Her responses have been lightly edited.

What is your favorite fantasy novel?

It's so hard to choose just one! Here are three, from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (respectively):

1. "Lilith," a somber and soaring fairy tale for adults by George MacDonald. It opens with a haunted library tended by a raven librarian, and was a favorite of C. S. Lewis. MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish Christian mystic, also wrote fairy tales and fantasy novels for children, including "The Princess and the Goblin," a childhood favorite of mine.

2. "A Wizard of Earthsea" and its sequels, by Ursula K. Le Guin. An ambitious young man goes to a school for wizards and saves his world from an evil that he himself unleashed. The mysticism in the "Earthsea" series has a Taoist flavor.

3. "Spinning Silver," by Naomi Novik. A gripping novel about greed, generosity, justice and love, which draws on the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin" and Jewish folk tales.

Who are some of your favorite authors who write fantasy?

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In addition to MacDonald and Le Guin, my favorite classic (that is, dead) fantasy writers include Angela Carter, who wrote furiously exultant feminist fairytales and Gothic fantasies in the 1970s-90s, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novelist a generation older, who wrote sly, witty and utterly original stories and novels. I recently loved Marie Brennan's "Lady Trent" series, about a Victorian naturalist who studies dragons and Vivian Shaw's (ongoing) "Dr. Greta Helsing" series, about a physician to the undead. These days I'm drawn to fantasy that takes its inspiration and settings from non-European sources; I've enjoyed novels by N.K. Jemisin, Lian Hearn, Celeste Lim, and S. A. Chakraborty.

What is your favorite young adult novel?

The "Chrestomanci" series, by Diana Wynne Jones. She wrote deeply magical adventure novels that are hilarious, brainy, moving and dazzlingly thought through. YA is usually defined as teenagers (age 13 and up), and her intended audience is a little younger — say, 10 and up. But then, so is mine.

What is your favorite work by Jane Austen?

I love "Sense and Sensibility" for the contrast between Marianne's self-indulgence and Elinor's self-restraint. I see this contrast over and over in my friends, my family and myself. It creeps into a lot of what I write.

What is your favorite book of poetry?

Again, so hard to pick just one! I prefer brief lyrics that sing themselves over and over in my ears. I often find myself rereading the poems of Andrew Marvell, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore. (I don't always need to reread them, actually — I know tons of poetry by heart. If you're stuck in an elevator with me, I may while away the time by reciting "Paul Revere's Ride," but I expect neither of us will enjoy the experience.)

What is the best book you discovered while working at the New York Public Library?

I used to gobble down what I called "books with frontispieces"— popular novels from the turn of the 20th century. They were deliciously melodramatic, and they often came with illustrations by people like Charles Dana Gibson (of Gibson girl fame). I wouldn't call any of them good, but they did have romantic, forward-sweeping plots, and they were often very funny, not usually on purpose.

What is your favorite novel featuring a private investigator?

Do short stories count? If so, Sherlock Holmes, of course. If not, something by Raymond Chandler.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

I just finished Cathleen Schine's "Fin & Lady," about an orphan being raised by his hippie sister in the neighborhood where I grew up. I'm in the middle of "A Favorite of the Gods," by Sybille Bedford, a mid-20th century novel about three generations of women who might have been descended from characters out of Edith Wharton or Henry James. I love to listen to audiobooks while I'm walking to work or folding laundry; I'm currently listening to "The Island at the Center of the World," Russell Shorto's wonderful history of New Amsterdam. And I'm about to start reading the galley of Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, "Bowlaway," which I've been looking forward to for years. (One advantage of being in the book business: You can get your hands on books before they're published.)

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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