De Pasquale's Dozen With Author Hannah Sternberg

Lisa De Pasquale
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Posted: Sep 03, 2014 12:01 AM

John Updike said, “We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”

After the release of my book, Finding Mr. Righteous, I have a new appreciation for fiction writers. While I tried to make my mundane history of dating and religion interesting, I at least had an outline – my own life. While it may seem like fiction is easy because anything is possible, that’s its own hardship. When anything is possible, how does a writer choose correctly?

When I encountered Bulfinch by Hannah Sternberg, I was unsure of what the genre of “magical realism” even was. The possibility of magic in everyday life? Perhaps that’s not too far off from the chick lit I usually enjoy.

Sternberg’s Bulfinch is about a woman who finally experiences the world around her when two characters – a knight and monk – emerge from a book. As one reviewer put it, “Rare is the female protagonist who is smart, well-read, adventurous, flawed, and utterly relatable. Bulfinch's Rosie is a welcome rarity.”

In addition to her books and articles at PJ Lifestyle, Sternberg has worked for various giants in the conservative movement. As someone who also dabbles back and forth between the political world and the creative writing world, it’s encouraging to find another kindred spirit.

The De Pasquale's Dozen asks political figures and free market-minded writers and entertainers to take a break from politics and talk about their pop culture obsessions.

1. What's your favorite movie line and who would you like to say it to?

The first thing that came to mind was from John Carpenter's They Live: "I came here to do two things: kick ass and chew bubblegum...and I'm all out of bubblegum." Of course, it's completely inappropriate for most social situations, so I'd like to say it to everybody.

2. Tell me about your favorite teacher and how he or she influenced your life.

I've been lucky to encounter many wonderful teachers at all phases of life. In high school, it was definitely Mr. Rosenberg, my English teacher. He also offered a creative writing class that students were allowed to repeat, just for fun, so I took it twice, and I got him for study hall in the most glorious final semester of senior year. He encouraged everyone's creativity, and never stopped me and my friends from using study hall to write silly pass-the-pen stories, instead of studying. Another important teacher was Jochen Schenk, who led my section of the medieval history class that inspired me to write Bulfinch. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with him recently, to send him a copy! But the most important teacher in my life has been my mom, and fellow novelist, Libby Sternberg.

3. If you could be paid to do anything besides your current job, what would it be?

That's a tough one, because I can say with confidence that I'm doing exactly what I'd love to spend all my time doing -- writing, working on my novels, teaching others creative writing in workshops and events here in DC, and generally hanging out and being artsy full-time. I have had dreams of being a professional baker -- as I told my roommate, "I'd be interested in starting up a food truck or something, but I've already staked my livelihood on one pursuit that is only tenuously remunerative...I'll see how that works out before I add another." Okay, and I've daydreamed of running a garden event venue in Lancaster County, PA. I'd open a gift shop and host high tea every day!

4. Tell me about a public or private moment when you thought to yourself, "This is what Elvis felt like every day.”

Being asked to do any book-related media, like this interview. I'm still tickled, and flattered, every time! I love people to read my books, and it gives me joy to know the books are getting attention -- almost as if they're my kids. But when I get the attention myself, personally, I get a little rush of "Oh, yeah -- I'm the author. I'M THE AUTHOR! That's pretty cool." As if I'd forgotten that people might be interested in the person who wrote this book, instead of just being interested in the book alone.

5. What's your current “guilty pleasure” television show?

Psych is the show I Netflix anytime I've had a bad day, or I'm just really drained and need something 100% uplifting, cute, and funny. I know it's completely silly, but that's the point! I love it for the same reasons I loved Chuck -- the concept is so unapologetically goofy you can't even complain about it; the characters are endearingly weird without pushing it too far; and the weekly plots are comfortingly predictable. It always makes me smile, and often makes me laugh out loud. I was heartbroken when I heard it was ending, but I can still rewatch all my favorite episodes.

6. What’s the best present you ever received as a child?

One year for Christmas my parents tracked down an out-of-print dictionary of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for me. I was really into ancient Egyptian stuff after watching the 1999 movie The Mummy. Being an ultra-nerd, here I was, at 12, teaching myself ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. And I was good at it! I actually learned how to read some of the basic, common funeral inscriptions well enough that I could translate them at sight when I saw them in museums. I still have that dictionary, and another book they got me that year, which was basically a textbook for college students studying hieroglyphics. Yes, that was the best gift I received as a child. If you've read Bulfinch, you'll see how much Rosie and I have in common.

7. What’s the best present you ever gave?

Last Christmas, I gave my boyfriend a record player. He still talks about how it was the greatest gift ever. And the best part? From now on, whenever I can't think of something else to give him, I can just find a neat old record. Life achievement unlocked. The record player isn't just about being an "audiophile" -- we're both music lovers, but the record player I got isn't exactly the highest quality. What's fun about it is it becomes an activity we can share -- we dive through the $1 bins at record stores and pick out really wacky things we never would have discovered or listened to otherwise, and then we take them home and make an evening of just lying around listening to them all the way through.

8. What advice do you remember your mother or father giving you? Did you take it?

My mother's most infamous advice to me and my brothers growing up was, "If you can imagine William Shatner talking about it on an episode of Rescue 911, don't do it." I've found I've neglected that advice with increasing frequency throughout my life. But even if I choose to ignore it, I always think of it, usually about a split second before fully committing to an activity that may land me in an episode of Rescue 911, like running a trail race through a thunderstorm and bear-infested woods in West Virginia, or helping a friend capture lizards in St. Croix for scientific study. Or sleeping in a car in New Jersey after driving to New York City on New Year's Eve for a punk show. Or...sorry Mom. Maybe you should just stop reading.

9. Who would be on the perfect "Red Eye" panel?

Bruce Willis, Trent Reznor, and Oscar Wilde. I would watch the hell out of that.

10. What books are on your reading list?

Right now I'm in the middle of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, a deliciously seditious libertarian sci-fi novel. My roommate (fellow blogger and jewelry designer Becky Graebner) recommended Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder, a book about Sylvia Plath's time in New York, so that's next up. I'm usually juggling a few books at once, though, so right now I'm also working my way gently through The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and picking at Virginia Postrel's The Power of Glamour.

11. What would you like tomorrow's headline to say?

Everybody Got Along; There Were Cookies

12. Tell me about a moment you decided to enter the political arena.

Me and politics started as a marriage of convenience. I was a newly graduated film major, and the Institute for Justice needed a video intern. But I quickly became passionate about school choice, eminent domain reform, and the other issues that form the pillars of IJ's public interest law work. I'd started work there feeling mildly interested in politics, but mostly interested in finding a way to fund my art. I think what I learned was that in a more free world, everyone has better opportunities to pursue their passions. I wanted to make sure that all kids had the educational opportunities I'd had, to discover their full potential, and I wanted to make sure that onerous or corrupt regulations and governments couldn't get in the way of fledgling artists, business owners, and others as they realized their dreams.