Rosina Lippi, 1999 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner
Q: You were born in Chicago. Did you read a lot of Hemingway growing up in high school?
A: I went to Saint Benedict High School in Chicago proper, and no I did not read Hemingway in high school. I am not sure why. I remember reading other classics and a lot of Shakespeare, but no Hemingway.
Q: Tell us about your experience as a seventeen-year-old studying in Austria. How did that come about?
A: I won an American Field Service Scholarship through Saint Benedict’s. They could have sent me anywhere, but I wound up in Austria. My first choice was to study in Italy because of family connections, but I was extremely happy in Austria.
Q: Did you finish high school and college in Austria, and is that the reason Homestead is set there?
A: I received my high school diploma from Saint Benedict High School. I then went to a teachers' college in Austria for two years, and then I went home and finished my BA at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. In graduate school I decided to write my doctoral thesis on the dialect of German spoken in the Bregenz Forest, where I had spent my time in Austria. This meant conducting field work there, which took about a year. I spent that year in a village of about three hundred people, recording them talking to each other and telling stories. It was in that period that I began to get a sense for the way the world wars had changed (or failed to change) the way women lived their lives, and that was the start of Homestead.
Q: Did you model any of your characters in Homestead after anyone you met in Austria?
A: Yes. Many. In fact, when a friend finished reading Homestead, she said to me: “that’s my mother.”
Q: Did anyone at Princeton (Lippi has a PhD in linguistics from Princeton) inspire you to become a full-time writer, or was becoming an academic the focus there?
A: Becoming an academic was focus there.
Q: When did you decide to become a full-time writer?
A: I taught at the University of Michigan for ten years and I taught at Western Washington University for two years. After I left Western Washington, I decided to devote all of my time to writing.
Q: (Editor’s note: Lippi writers under the pseudonym Sara Donati for her Wilderness Series of historicals, which is comprised of eight novels, to date.) How did you get the inspiration to set the Bonner family in Upstate New York (1792-1824) for this series?
A: An exercise I taught at Michigan was to have my students take characters from two different novels and have them talk to each other. For example, Huck Finn would talk to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, so as I was teaching this exercise a light went off in my mind to do that with my writing.
I thought about James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye having a conversation with Austen's Bennett sisters, and in particular, with Mary. Austen was not kind to Mary, and I thought she could make a life for herself on the frontier. So I put them (or characters similar to them) together, and the series was born.
Q: Do you remember where you were when you received the news about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?
A: Yes. I was at my desk working when my editor called me. She told me I won the PEN/ Hemingway Award. I was completely shocked. I didn’t even know my book was submitted for consideration.
Then, the judges got in touch with me. One I knew--Nick Delbanco because he and I taught together at the University of Michigan. But we never really conversed until we talked about my winning the award.
Q: Do you have a favorite Ernest Hemingway story or book?
A: Yes, “Hills Like White Elephants.”
Q: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
A: Yes. I am working on a historical novel set in the mid-19thcentury (pre-civil war), and I am writing a novel set in 1885. It is the third in the new Wilderness series after The Gilded Hour and Where the Light Enters (which is in press) and the one I am currently writing comprise the new trio of Wilderness novels. The first six novels are set between 1792 and 1824, and the next two between 1883 and 1885.
Q: How can your readers stay in touch with you?
A: Through my website: http://rosinalippi.com/weblog/