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An Interview With Priscilla Gilman

We talked to one of our favorite critics about the books that inspired her life, work and her new memoir.
Tertulia •
Jan 29th, 2023

We here at Tertulia were excited to find out that one of our favorite book critics was coming out with a memoir. Priscilla Gilman's The Critic's Daughter (out February 7) is a portrait of her unique relationship with her famous theater critic father Richard Gilman. From tender childhood memories to salacious details surrounding her parents' divorce to reflections on the nature of art criticism, the book is an intimate window into her extraordinary family and upbringing. We sat down with Gilman to learn more about the books that inspire her. Here's what she shared.

Anyone who lived in New York in the ’70s will get nostalgic for the shops, restaurants and cultural institutions of the Upper West Side that you conjure in your memoir. What was your favorite bookshop in NYC while you were growing up? What about now?

Gilman: I have to say Eeyore's, an incredible children's bookstore on the Upper West Side that was the basis for the bookstore run by the Meg Ryan character in You've Got Mail. Some I loved in high school and college: Endicott Books on Columbus, the Strand always, and Shakespeare & Co on Broadway and 81st. That last one was always a charmed and somewhat formidable place — I tried to get a job there when I took my sophomore year off from Yale, but didn't have enough literary or philosophical training according to them! I became an aerobics instructor instead.

I spent countless hours perusing the shelves or curled up with a book at the Barnes & Noble in the West 80s on Broadway, and I still love that bookstore most of all. I had a full-circle moment when I did my launch event for The Anti-Romantic Child there, and my childhood piano teacher, who taught out of the Belnord (the basis for The Arconia in Only Murders in the Building) walked a few blocks over to see me speak. 

Your childhood was filled with reading, writing and performing in the company of your father. What’s an example of a book that you read together that you return to over and over again?

The Oz Books by L. Frank Baum. I have read them all countless times, with my father, to my boys, on my own. A boundless and fathomless treasure trove of riches.

You had such a unique and profound bond with your father. In painting the portrait of this relationship, are there any particular books that inspired you? 

I didn't read any father-daughter or, for that matter, any mother-daughter memoirs while thinking about or imagining this book. I always try to stay away from anything remotely comparable when I'm immersed in a project. So I need to catch up now on some that were published over the past few years. Ada Calhoun's Also A Poet and Kathryn Schulz's Lost and Found, father-daughter memoirs by two writers I greatly admire, are calling to me. Also on my To Read list: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.

During the time of your father’s physical decline — while you dealt with your own struggles raising a young family while developing your career — were there any books that stand out for bringing you solace or insight or inspiration?

Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindful Parenting, Wordsworth's poetry of loss and recompense, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica. That might seem like an unlikely triumvirate, but in an odd way it captures the range of my sensibility!

What is the one memoir that you’ve read recently that you would recommend?

A few: Carmen Maria Machado's In The Dream House because it's formally ingenious, emotionally wrenching, and one of the best portraits of an abusive relationship I've ever read. Casey Gerald's There Will Be No Miracles Here because it's a rare combination of brilliant and heartwarming without an iota of self-pity or sentimentality. 

What’s your favorite campus novel?

I have a soft spot for campus novels. Francine Prose's Blue Angel, James Lasdun's The Horned Man, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Rebecca Makkai's forthcoming I Have Some Questions For You, Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Susan Choi's My Education, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Richard Russo's Straight Man are some of my favorites. I am an enormous fan of Elif Batuman and her Selin novels, the first of which I reviewed for the Boston Globe. And I have to give a special shout-out to Brandon Taylor's Real Life

What was one of your early first published book reviews that you remember feeling great conviction about? Why? 

The first review I wrote for the Boston Globe was of a much buzzed-about debut novel that I thought was absurdly overhyped and absurdly overwrought. I channeled Richard Gilman and told the truth as I saw it.

Which book did you review over the past year that you were most excited about?

This is tough! I'd say it was between Jennifer Egan's The Candy House and Elizabeth Strout's Lucy By The Sea

During your time as a book critic, which book did you find most difficult to review either because it was good or because it was bad and why?

Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has long been one of my all-time favorite writers, and Gilead in particular one of my favorite books of all time. But Jack was not good. Jack didn't work.  And this was the first and only time I'd been assigned to write about Robinson for the public! So it was a tricky task to convey my love of and reverence for her work per se while explaining why this particular instantiation of her world and aesthetic failed.

What TV or film adaptation do you love watching for how it brings a book that you love alive?

I know this will sound cliched, but the BBC 1990s Pride & Prejudice miniseries remains perfection for me. I wrote part of my dissertation on Austen and am generally quite tough on adaptations of her work. A few others that worked well: the 1995 film version of Persuasion, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, other than vis-a-vis its casting of a ravishingly handsome and sexy Hugh Grant as the diffident and dull Edward Ferrars. And I always tell my students that Clueless is a brilliant adaptation of Emma.

PRISCILLA GILMAN is the author of the forthcoming memoir The Critic's Daughter.

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