Literary Lion: 5 Questions with Nonfiction Writer Lis Harris

March 31, 2015

Lis HarrisAssociate Professor Lis Harris was a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1970 to 1995. In addition to innumerable articles, reviews and commentaries, she is the author of Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family, Rules of Engagement: Four American Marriages and Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings and the Corporate Squeeze. In 2014, Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired her papers.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

In one way my teaching life and my writing life are utterly intertwined, in another way they are utterly separate. I continually learn astonishing things from my students and their concerns, which remain in an ongoing way in my consciousness. In another way, the place in my mind I enter when I'm working on my own writing is pretty much separate from teaching, students—from everything else in my life.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

I don't know a single writer who isn't an avid reader. Most writers, when they were children, were big readers and the imaginative world of books is necessary sustenance for not just the craft, but the larger underpinnings of writing.

Q. Do you focus on one particular kind of writing or can you easily switch genres?

I am a nonfiction writer. I read a great deal of fiction but my sentences coil better around the matrix of reality.

Q. How does living and working in New York influence your writing?

Living and working in New York City is a great boon, as is the wonderful group of writers who are my colleagues. Literary cacophony and competition are non-factors when the precious moments for writing arrive. The only din I hear is the sound of my own cacophonous brain.

Q. What are you working on now?

I am working on a book about three generations of a Palestinian family and three generations of an Israeli family.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg