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Jay Parini

Jay Parini is the author of nonfiction books about a remarkable quartet of American writers, including full-length biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner, and a biographical and critical study of poet Theodore Roethke. His novel about Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, The Last Station, was an international bestseller and later made into an Academy Award-nominated film. Benjamin’s Crossing, another biographical novel, is based on the life of German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, while his most recent novel, The Passages of H.M., explores the life of Herman Melville. Film versions of both books are forthcoming, with Stanley Tucci starring as Benjamin and Paul Giamatti as Melville.

In an interview with Bookslut, Parini discussed his work on the lives of writers as both novelist and biographer: “I make few distinction between straight biographies and novels. They both are works of fiction. Fiction means ‘shaping’ in Latin. I shape reality in both genres. … They both involve creating narratives, and narrative is what I like: telling a story. The story of a life can be told in the conventional way of biography … or in fictional form. Fiction allows you more freedom: you can imagine motives, dig into the unconscious of a character, go inside a character’s head. … I think what I can bring to a biography is a writer’s sense of what kind of discipline and commitment it takes to assemble a shelf of books over a lifetime. To me it’s got an inherent drama, the whole cycle of production and rejection, agony, elation, all of the different things that go into producing a body of work.”

Parini is also a poet, with five volumes of poetry, including a volume of selected poems called The Art of Subtraction. Other nonfiction books include Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Literature and Politics; The Art of Teaching; Why Poetry Matters; and Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.

Online Resources

Parini on Elizabeth Bishop
Parini interviewed by Paul Holler for Bookslut
Parini interviews Gore Vidal at KWLS 2009 (audio)

Selected Bibliography

The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville (2010)
Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (2008)
The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems (2005)
One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (2004)
Robert Frost: A Life (1999)
John Steinbeck (1995)
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year (1990)
Theodore Roethke, an American Romantic (1979)