Julia Sonneborn is an English professor and a native Angeleno. After heading east for college and graduate school, she hightailed it back to California, where she now lives with her husband, two kids, two cats, and a dog. When she’s not reading, writing, or talking about books, she enjoys trying new restaurants, reading gossip blogs, and throwing dinner parties.
How do you pronounce your last name?
It’s pronounced Sun’-uh-born. I use my maiden name (which is much easier to pronounce) to publish my academic work.
Why two names?
Partly it was to keep my writing personae separate. Partly it was an homage to women writers who used pen names.
What was the inspiration for the book?
As I write in my acknowledgements, BY THE BOOK is a love letter to books and a love letter to book lovers. It was obviously inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but it was also inspired by the teachers and students I’ve had through the years. In college, I did have a professor who had a huge poster of Keanu Reeves up in his office. In grad school, I knew a student who did propose to his girlfriend with a note he’d slipped into a copy of Jane Austen in the library. I have smuggled cans of champagne into commencement in the sleeves of my gown. I do have overdue books (in fact, I still owe fines to the USC Cinematic Arts Library), but nothing close to 100. A famous writer did snub me when I asked her to sign my book. And I refuse to check Rate My Professors.
Do your two lives overlap? Ie, your life as a fiction writer and life as a literary critic?
Fiction writing and literary criticism are two very different beasts, and I’ve always had the utmost respect for writers who can do both, and do both well (here I’m thinking of people like Eloisa James/Mary Bly, a bestselling romance novelist and Renaissance scholar, and Viet Nguyen, an Asian American literature scholar and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist). Then there are superstars who are able to write criticism, fiction, and poetry brilliantly (Garth Greenwell, who is also an immensely talented teacher and the kindest of humans). In grad school, I had many classmates pursuing doctorates in literary studies who were also writing novels or poetry or journalism on the side. In my classes today, most of my English lit students are also creative writers.
I think that when you love books, it makes sense that you’d want to write a book. Yet from my time in academia, I’ve seen plenty of tension between the critical writing and creative writing wings of English departments. Honestly, I think it’s stupid. I have an immense amount of respect for both disciplines. What they share is an emphasis on reading a lot and reading carefully.
As for my novel, I did include one moment where my lives as novelist and literary critic intersect. Near the end of the story, when Anne goes to the Fairfax library to check a citation and bumps into Adam? The book she’s looking for is mine—namely, my first book of literary criticism. The fact that it’s missing…put on your literary critic hat and make of that what you may!
What is your favorite book? Favorite writers?
I have so many. I adore Jane Austen, of course, and the Brontes and George Eliot. I love Marilynne Robinson and cried straight through Home. A play that also made me cry? Margaret Edson’s Wit (HBO has a great adaptation). I’m currently on a Louise Erdrich kick (how does she have such an expansive imagination?). Several years ago, I went on a Larry McMurtry bender—Lonesome Dove, et al. I’m from the West and have lived in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, so I love any book that evokes the Western and Southwestern landscape, such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes To the Archbishop and Raymond Chandler mysteries. Flannery O’Connor stories always make me feel a little sick to the stomach, but they’re brilliant. I could read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Age of Innocence over and over and over again. I think Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the great American novel.
Incidentally, I am one of those embarrassing people who writes fan letters to writers. I can’t help it. When I love a book, I feel compelled to tell the writer how much it meant to me. I wrote a fan letter to Margaret Edson after reading Wit, and she wrote a really kind letter back, which I partially attribute to the fact that she’s a kindergarten teacher IRL and therefore a saint.
And yes, I hate Henry James.
When did you first read Jane Austen?
I went to an all-girls school, and we were assigned Pride and Prejudice in my 11th English class. I’d never read any Jane Austen before, and I remember finishing the book in a single sitting, my heart in my throat. In class the next day, my teacher asked how we were liking the novel, and one of my classmates (I still remember who it was—her initials were AR) scoffed and began mocking the marriage plot. We were supposed to be little feminists, and Austen was so retro and lame.
I kept my mouth shut (which wasn’t unusual. I rarely talked in English class), and I learned to be almost ashamed of my love for Austen. It was ok to analyze her dispassionately—to study her narrative style, or to consider her contributions to the rise of the English novel. But to react like a teenage girl to the central romance plot was considered, well, stupid.
Honestly, it’s only been in the last five or ten years that I’ve realized how much I’ve been brainwashed—brainwashed to believe that romances are trashy, that literary fiction (usually written by men) is better than commercial or popular fiction (often written by women), that novels should be valued for their intellectual rather than emotional heft. Jane Austen is a brilliant prose stylist, but she is also a brilliant emotional stylist. She evokes longing and regret and shame and pride—all those painful emotions that lodge in the chest—so well. I also appreciate the circumscribed world she evokes—the meaningful looks, the unspoken words, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations. It feels very old-fashioned now, especially with the rise of social networks and loss of privacy.
I don’t know if I succeeded in eliciting half those feelings in BY THE BOOK, but I tried.
Is Persuasion your favorite Jane Austen novel?
No (whispers). It's actually Pride and Prejudice.
Do you have advice for writers?
I have three pieces of advice.
1) Read voraciously. I remember asking a group of MFA students who their favorite writers were, and half of them couldn’t name a single one. I wanted to die. I truly believe you cannot be a writer unless you are a reader first.
2) Be a glutton for rejection. There is so much of it, and it always hurts. But you have to keep going—keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting. And even then, there will always be critics and haters (I’m one of them, too!), and you have to suck it up and keep going back for more.
3) Work your ass off. One of my pet peeves is when professors complain about how hard they work. Sure, they work hard, but you know who works harder? Immigrants. My parents used to run a liquor store and a fast food restaurant. They worked 15-hour days and only got Christmas and Thanksgiving off. Work your ass off. Write all the time.
If you could invite three people to dinner, who would they be?
This is a hard one. In general, I’d follow the advice I give in BY THE BOOK, which is to never meet the writers/famous people you love. You’ll just get your heart broken. But if I disregarded my own advice, I’d say that I’m dying to meet Sonia Sotomayor (her autobiography is wonderful), Michelle Obama (obviously), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (genius).
If I could invite a whole slew of other people, I’d also invite John Lewis, Shonda Rimes, Carrie Fisher (resurrected), Kelly Marie Tran, Barack Obama, Serena Williams, Warren Buffett, Chrissy Teigen, Judy Blume, Daniel Armitage, Hugh Jackman, Oscar Isaac, Colin Firth (ok, now I’m just listing guys I have crushes on).
What are you reading now?
I just read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which made me laugh out loud (Eddie is my favorite, and I absolutely can’t wait for the movie). I’m in the middle of reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Always Sing (I adored Salvage The Bones, her first novel, and yes, I wrote her a fan e-mail). I’ve got Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years In Power, and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House on my list, and I’m also reading Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower for a class I’m teaching next semester. I was late to reading Big Little Lies, but I gotta say that Liane Moriarty is a genius at characterization. A friend said I reminded her of Madeline Martha Mackenzie, and I take that as a huge compliment.
What is ekphrasis?
Ekphrasis is a literary description of a visual work of art—say, a painting, or a sculpture. Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn is an ekphrastic poem. Some of my favorite poems are ekphrastic—William Carlos Williams’s The Dance (based on “Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess”) and W. H. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts (based on Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).