After receiving her law degree from Harvard Law School, Nina Sankovitch worked as an environmental lawyer, working on ocean pollution issues. In October 2008, following the death of her oldest sister from cancer, Nina began a year of reading a book a day, and writing about it on her website, Readallday.org. Her book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, about the joys and therapeutic benefits of reading, was published in 2011, when it was hailed as “an outstanding debut” by Kirkus Reviews and designated a “book to read now” by Oprah. In 1999, Sankovitch discovered the one hundred year-old letters of James Seligman in the backyard of a decrepit brownstone she had just purchased with her husband. This discovery, coupled with a lifelong love of letters and the departure of her oldest son for college, prompted her to write Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing which was published in 2014. Once again Oprah hailed the book, calling it a book “every joy-seeking woman needs to read.” It also received laudatory reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, Library Journal, and Booklist. Sankovitch is married with five children. She lives with her family and two cats in suburban Connecticut.
Geosi Gyasi: I’m so sorry to bring back memories but I feel I ought to begin the interview this way – is it true that your sister’s death inspired you to embark on a year long reading project?
Nina Sankovitch: Yes, she died in 2005. For three years I tried to deal with my sorrow over her death by immersing myself in work, volunteer projects, family – but I never allowed myself to face up to my grief. I realized I needed help and as books had always helped me – great good comes from reading great books – I turned to books for solace, for answers, for guidance.
Geosi Gyasi: So you wrote your first book, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” afterwards. Did your sister’s death inspire you to write this book? If not, what inspired the book?
Nina Sankovitch: I wanted to share with everybody the story of my amazing sister, the secrets I discovered about my family during my year of reading a book a day, and the wisdom I mined from all the wonderful books that I read.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you learnt anything from cancer that you could share with us?
Nina Sankovitch: We carry the people we love with us in our hearts and in our memories. We can move forward, living a full and engaged life, while also looking backward and remembering the beauty and wonder of those we have loved.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the greatest challenge of the long year reading project?
Nina Sankovitch: Writing every single day about the book I read the day before was a challenge but it really allowed me to both remember and distill what each book meant to me, and also to develop my own voice. Through reading great books and writing about them, I learned how to express myself, and my feelings of loss and guilt, and about my desire to live fully and well.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the most important book you read for the reading project?
Nina Sankovitch: There were 365 books and I cannot begin to pick just one! I began with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery which was perfect to start with, as it is about loss, resilience, beauty, memory – when I finished that book on my first day of reading, I knew my year would be healing, restorative, wonderful.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know at the time of beginning the reading project that it would garner a huge public interest?
Nina Sankovitch: I wanted to share my year with people so that it was a year of connection, not isolation. From the beginning, I heard from people also coping with death or job loss or uncertainty, and they were inspired by books, just as I was. I found myself talking about books and about life with so many different people – it was rejuvenating on every level.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”?
Nina Sankovitch: I found a trunk of 100-year old letters in my back yard and fell in love with the man who had written most of them, all to his mother. I wondered if my own sons would write to me when they went off to college – and I wanted to define why letters are such a unique and powerful form of communication.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”?
Nina Sankovitch: Almost two years.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you share with us how you make time to read?
Nina Sankovitch: I always have a book with me so that wherever, whenever, a little time opens up, I can read. Even fifteen minutes of reading calms me down, centers me, empowers me. I can get back to life with energy and optimism. And I’m always looking forward to that next great book and the time I carve out to read it.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there books you sometimes feel like not reading?
Nina Sankovitch: I only read books I want to read. Life is short, read what you love. I start all different types of books but if it does not grab me in the first twenty or forty page, I move on.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important book you’ve ever read?
Nina Sankovitch: There is no way to answer that! Every stage of my life has had a definitive book. But I can say that Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer has guided me through so many stages of my life. I love that book.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you struggle coming up with the name of your website — readallday?
Nina Sankovitch: No, it was obvious! The website existed before my year of reading began. It started out as a project to get adults reading for pleasure. We are told to encourage our children in reading for pleasure and fun, but adults need to take time out to read too! Not just for work or for advancement or self-improvement. Purely for escape and pleasure.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any specific plans for the future?
Nina Sankovitch: I am working on a book about a New England family, telling their stories of 300 years. The trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Fascinating research and hopefully I will write a fascinating book.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often read and write?
Nina Sankovitch: At home, with my cats beside me. Looking out over a garden that is currently covered in snow but will later have flowers – I am looking forward to spring! But I can read anywhere.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when not reading or writing?
Nina Sankovitch: I play tennis, I go for long walks and bike rides.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about your readers when you write?
Nina Sankovitch: Yes, I treasure the connections I have made through my writings.
Geosi Gyasi: You second book, ““Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is non-fiction. Would you continue to explore this genre of literature in the future?
Nina Sankovitch: I seem to have found my voice. But a novel would be great fun to write.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important mail you’ve ever received from a fan of your books?
Nina Sankovitch: Letters that tell me I have helped a person really move me. Again, it is about connection.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not reading?
Nina Sankovitch: No. Never. I stay up way too late reading – I cannot fall asleep with a book in my hands!
Geosi Gyasi: Which writer has had the greatest impact on you as a writer?
Nina Sankovitch: Too many to count. I find inspiration in so many books.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?
Nina Sankovitch: Ghettoside by Jill Levy.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any question to ask me?
Nina Sankovitch: How do you find the time to read and write? I love your blog and am so impressed by the breadth of writers you introduce me to! Thank you for your wonderful blog!
Geosi Gyasi: Thank you, Nina, but the honest truth is that no one loves your site more than I do. I am so amazed about how you managed to read 365 books in a single year. Back to your question, the simple answer is that when you have love for something, you definitely would find time to do it. But my greatest secret is that, I carry a book with me wherever I go.