Friday, January 4, 2013

An Uncommon Education Now In Paperback

Many readers eagerly await the release of books in paperback as it is their prefer format for reading or the fact the cost is a bit less. Either way it’s always exciting when an intriguing book is finally released in paperback.

Author Elizabeth Percer joins us today to talk about the paperback release of her novel, AN UNCOMMON EDUCATION, and share some thoughts on writing.

AN UNCOMMON EDUCATION: A Novel (Harper Perennial; January 8, 2013; $14.99; Trade Paperback) tells of Naomi Feinstein, a pensive young girl who must navigate a rocky path to adulthood propelled by her fervent if misguided hope that she can rescue the people she loves. This unforgettable debut from Elizabeth, an award-winning poet, ponders themes of identity, loyalty, and resiliency as it tells a powerful story of growing up and letting go. 

Gracefully written and skillfully told, AN UNCOMMON EDUCATION marks the emergence of a formidable talent in literary fiction. 

Elizabeth creates an instantly engaging lead in Naomi Feinstein, an only child of two mismatched parents who spends all of her free time with her adored father, pouring over books or going on excursions. Meanwhile her mother, a deeply depressed beauty, holes up in a darkened bedroom most days, unable to function. Theirs is a household where much is not discussed—including the scar on her mother’s wrist.

When her dad suffers a near-fatal heart attack, it is the defining episode in Naomi’s youth. At the hospital, during those agonizing hours waiting for word on his condition, she vows to become a cardiologist,  willfully suppressing her pain by clinging tightly to the conviction that she can—and must—do whatever it takes to save her loved ones from harm. 

A shy, studious introvert with a photographic memory, Naomi is a loner until she meets Teddy, her new next-door neighbor, and they quickly forge a bond that seems unbreakable. In their friendship she finds joy and understanding, and not even the disapproval of his devoutly religious mother can separate them. But suddenly, he moves away in a mysterious departure that will haunt her for years. Alone once again, Naomi is left bereft and with her father’s encouragement focuses all her energy toward getting into Wellesley.

They achieve their shared goal—Naomi receives an early acceptance letter and a healthy financial aid package to the school of her dreams. Once on campus though she realizes that the prestigious college is neither the idyllic intellectual haven nor the welcoming sisterhood of her imagination. It is a crushing blow, and this unfriendly, often cutthroat environment tests Naomi’s strength and commitment.

Only after she rescues a classmate from drowning in a frozen lake does she discover an exotic hidden world and its colorful inhabitants. This chance act of heroism gains her entrée to the infamous Shakespeare Society, an ultra-exclusive secret club with a strict code and wild rituals that attracts some of Wellesley’s most interesting, ambitious, and accomplished women.

Finally, she begins to open up, develop relationships, live in the moment, and experience things not taught in lecture halls. But when jealousy and competition threaten to ignite an explosive scandal, Naomi must confront the limits of her ability to help those she cares about and ultimately come to terms with the true desires of her own heart, as AN UNCOMMON EDUCATION brings this compelling journey to its emotionally resonant conclusion.

Elizabeth has graciously answered some questions about her writing and this debut novel.

Mason - How do you go about doing research for your writing? Is it a process you enjoy or just find it necessary?

Elizabeth - I am absolutely LOVE doing research, and have to be careful I don't go overboard. I'm a recovering academic: put me in a library, and I just might never find my way back out. That said, I enjoy doing research for a work of fiction far more than I ever did as an official "researcher." When you do research for a university -- as I did for more than a decade -- a great deal of whatAnUncommonEducation pb c you're doing is checking to make sure what you want to say has not been said before. This is an agonizing and draining task (in this bridesmaid's opinion). But when you do research for fiction, you can really dive into what interests you and try to understand the lives and worlds behind the words you're reading. I think that in this sense, the fiction writer's duty toward research is to have a solid, general understanding of any factual events that might be fictionalized in the novel, so you may fictionalize them with respect. In other words, a fiction writers shouldn't feel she has an obligation to replicate fact, but she should know it well enough to honor its more meaningful aspects. 

Mason - If you had to write this book over, would you do anything differently - content in the book, your writing schedule, the way you went about having it published, etc.?

Elizabeth - No. A book is as much as process -- an experience -- as it is a finished product. I think wishing to change something about a printed work is like wishing you could go back in time and redo a part of your life. Even if you could, and change something for the better, everything that you learned from that time would be altered, too. You might end up squashing the most valuable parts of the experience in your quest for perfection. Also, novels aren't supposed to be perfect. Think carefully about your favorite novel(s) -- is it really perfect, or just perfect to you? Like people, the imperfections in novels make them feel real and unique. It's easy to forget that a work of art needs to have a distinct flavor to succeed. When I'm writing, I often think of some advice my mother gave me when I was a teenager: "If everyone likes you, you're doing something wrong." 

Mason - With the book’s release, as you look back what was the biggest surprise that occurred in writing the story?

Elizabeth - Oh, I love this question! Surprise is one of my barometers for measuring how well the writing is going -- if it's not surprising me, I get cranky and nervous. I think that's because I want to feel that the novel is taking on its own energy, that I'm discovery something I didn't know as I'm writing, rather than using writing as a process of straight mental transcription. I say all this, I think, because there were so many surprises along the way as I wrote the story and I'm having trouble identify one as the "biggest." I think the first big surprise that occurred -- and also, the first sign that the novel was going to have legs -- was when Naomi began to insist on a story of her own. I really, really wanted to write a Gatsby-esque/Holmesian kind of novel, wherein the narrator is a character in the book but is focused on emphasizing the events in someone else's life. But when I set Naomi up to do this, she kept whispering things about herself to me that became harder and harder to ignore. Eventually, the story became hers, which felt ten times more authentic than what I had initially planned. 

Mason - What message would you like readers to take away from your book?

Elizabeth - Hmm. There really isn't single message. But I would like readers to think of my book as a sort of "modern old-fashioned" novel, the kind that emphasizes the trajectory of a life as of utmost interest. So often, today, I think we look for such a quick bang for our buck in novels, but I think this does the genre a disservice. There are so many other marvelous media forms out there that can give that instant gratification to us, but a novel's job is to let us linger on our own time, to consider the pacing of life itself and the way it builds its own peculiar and lasting meanings.

Mason - What can readers look forward to next from you?

Elizabeth - My next novel is quite a bit different in setting and plot, but I think the thematic flavors have some fascinating (to me, at least) overlap. It's called ALL STORIES ARE LOVE STORIES, and it centers around the immediate aftermath of a pair of massive earthquakes hitting San Francisco. Right now, it's scheduled to be out in Winter/Spring 2014. 

Elizabeth, thanks for visiting today and sharing your thoughts on writing. I especially like your take on the “modern old-fashioned” novel. Books should be linger over, not rushed.

Elizabeth’s poetry has been widely published. She has been twice honored by the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. She received a B.A. in English from Wellesley, a Ph.D. in arts education from Stanford University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship for the National Writing Project at Berkeley. A native of Massachusetts, Elizabeth now lives in California.

For more on Elizabeth and her writing, visit her website.

Here are what some reviewers had to say about AN UNCOMMON EDUCATION:
     “Enticing and shyly perceptive.” —  New York Times Book Review      “Elizabeth Percer relates the life story of Naomi Feinstein with beautifully scripted, lush prose drawing in the reader and providing an unobstructed view deep into the hearts of her characters. . . . An Uncommon Education is rich in history, steeped in family tradition, and full of emotion-a lesson in practiced elegance.” —  New York Journal of Books      “Think Dead Poet’s Society or The Secret History.” —  New York Post     “[Naomi demonstrates] how to make the kinds of choices that eventually lead to an uncommon but joy-filled life.” —
     “Three-time Pushcart nominee Percer offers an uncommonly good debut that’s finely detailed and emotionally gripping while avoiding every pitfall of the standard coming-of-age tale. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal (starred review)
     “Poet Percer’s fiction debut is an intimate portrait of an intelligent, tender girl with a deep wish to protect those she loves.” —  Publishers Weekly
     “Bonds of love, family and friendship, sometimes damaged or beyond repair, are nevertheless celebrated in an intense debut by a noted poet. . . . [A] thoughtful coming-of-age tale that hovers observantly on the edge of melancholia.” —  Kirkus Reviews
     “Percer’s lyrical novel has much to offer.” —  Booklist

Thanks everyone for stopping by today and visiting with Elizabeth. Do you enjoy books that you can linger over or do you want a book that rushes you through? Are you like Naomi and want to rescue all the people you love even though you know it’s not always possible?


  1. Elizabeth, thanks again for visiting with us and answering these questions. Wishing you much success.

  2. Mason - Thanks for hosting Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth - Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you that research is one of the really interesting parts of writing. I wish you much success and congratluations on the release of yournovel in paperback.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.