Verena Von Pfetten
Verena is a freelance writer, editor, and digital consultant. She lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn because it smells like the ocean and the garbage cans are striped with cut-out anchor motifs. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Modern Farmer, Condé Nast Traveler, Man Repeller, among many others. Also: she's Canadian.
GAL: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a life long reader?
VVP: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. It's about a bored young boy named Milo who comes home from school one day to a mysterious package. Inside is a cardboard tollbooth and a map of "The Lands Beyond." I go back to it every few years, especially if I find myself feeling a little too grown up. (His sidekick is a talking dog named "Tock" with the body of a clock. I love dogs!) This book taught me what a dodecahedron is which has been surprisingly handy and is also just a really fun word to say.
Runner up: The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrice Potter, because it was the first time I consciously thought of reading as interactive. Also, I love puzzles.
GAL: What is the power of story? How has fictional narrative impacted you and your life?
VVP: Well, like most young girls who read Matilda, I spent a few years convinced I had latent telekinetic powers. I'm still not entirely convinced I don't.
GAL: How often do you read?
VVP: Probably about 10 hours a week, more if I'm traveling or near or on a beach. I tend to finish about a book a week. If it takes me longer, it's usually a sign I'm not that into it.
GAL: You're a writer. Is there or are there any book(s) that helped you decide to become one?
VVP: I'm not sure there was any one book that made me decide to become one, but it was R. L. Stine's books that taught me the importance of narrative (by virtue of sheer repetition) and also gave me a framework within which to practice. (Belated apologies to my sister who was frequently the unfortunate victim in my copycat attempts.)
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
VVP: To escape: The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
For pleasure: The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fischer.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why?
VVP: Fiction, because a good story is a well-told lie and I think lying is an entirely underrated (and somewhat unfairly maligned) skill.
(A few very rare non-fiction exceptions: Patti Smith's Just Kids, William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, Erik Larsen's Devil in the White City, and the occasional book of essays, like Women in Clothes and M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating.)
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
VVP: Genre. I am an unabashed fan of young adult fiction. Or that jolt of excitement you get reading the back. I need to feel something--curiosity, suspense, a morbid fascination--in order to open it up and start. To be honest, I rarely read things on recommendation alone.
GAL: Do you have a favorite bookshop in New York City?
VVP: The Strand, McNally Jackson, and BookCourt all top my New York City list, but show me an airport bookstore and I'll show you a carry-on immediately three books heavier.
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
VVP: Currently, like most twenty or thirty-something females with a misplaced nostalgia for the '70s and psycho-sexual cults: The Girls.
Forever: The Magus by John Fowles.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
VVP: This was an interesting exercise, because I truly couldn't think of one I'd name my favorite. Instead, these are the authors whose works I've devoured in full, or nearly so: Beatrix Potter, Lois Duncan, Roald Dahl, R.L. Stine, J. R. R. Tolkein, Christopher Pike, George R. R. Martin, J. K. Rowling, and Agatha Christie.
In retrospect, that list is telling.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
VVP: Never Not Hungry. Or: What's For Breakfast?
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot? Where is it?
VVP: The beat-up, hand-me-down leather armchair in the corner of my living room. My friends call her Big Brownie. She's hideous, but so big and so comfortable that curling up in her makes me feel a little bit like Alice down the rabbit hole. My dogs agree. They've destroyed the seat cushion with their nesting efforts. I need to get it re-covered, but in the meantime, I just wrapped it in several cozy and cheap blankets and called it a day.
GAL: Is place important, or can you read anywhere?
I can read anywhere. On the subway, in a check-out line, waiting for the bus, in a moving car on a winding road, while other people are talking. Probably my favorite way to read is a version of this cartoon: swaddled in a duvet.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
VVP: I love physical books but I am an unapologetic Kindle fan. It's the only electronic device I like to read on -- I refuse to read on an iPad and it's not going to happen on my phone. I bring my kindle everywhere, no matter how small my bag is or how short the trip. You never know when you'll have a minute or two to read!
GAL:Your devotion to young adult books made us wonder: did you grow up reading with one or both of your parents while you were a child? Or did you find your love of reading when you were able to read on your own?
VVP: My father is an erstwhile writer, but I grew up reading alone. As for my devotion to young adult books: both my parents are German immigrants to Canada, which means I grew up on a steady diet of Max + Moritz and Der Struwwelpeter, among other dubiously appropriate stories marketed to young German children, which I think explains a lot.
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
VVP: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood for anyone who has ever been a teenage girl. (Or wondered what it was like to be one.)
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann because the author was a pill-popping failed actress who survived breast cancer to become one of the best-selling authors of all time, only to be criticized relentlessly by her male contemporaries -- Gore Vidal once complained of her work, "She doesn't write -- she types!" and Truman Capote compared her to a truck driver -- and she took them on fearlessly. (Truman Capote was eventually forced to issue a public apology to truck drivers.) She was a real broad, in the best sense of the word. Also: the topic remains eerily prescient.
The Phantom Tollbooth because first and foremost, reading should be fun.