HOTSEAT- Six million man: Mendelsohn moves from reviewer to reviewed

When UVA grad Daniel Mendelsohn wrote The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he didn't find himself dissuaded by the thousands of Holocaust books already out there.

"It was a story I wanted to tell, a family story I grew up with," says Mendelsohn. That story, published in September 2006, came out to rave reviews and made the books-of-the-year lists of many publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR's "Fresh Air," and And last week, it won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

For Mendelsohn, going from reviewer– he's written for every prestigious publication in New York– to reviewed was no big whoop. "This is my third book," he points out, not mentioning that number two, The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity in 1999, was also a NYT notable book of the year. 

Born in Long Island, Mendelsohn has spent his life in the New York area– except when he cast his gaze south to earn his undergraduate degree in classics at UVA.

"I always wanted to get away from New York," he explains. "I was always interested in Thomas Jefferson. And the South had an appeal for me."

Once here, "I was like a pig in poop," he says. 

That was after he got over the initial culture shock of full immersion in Southern accents. "I didn't understand that Southern passion for nicknames," says Mendelsohn, whose roommates were Flip and Skip. And at his first football game, where everyone was wearing a coat and tie, he says, "I thought I was in a movie."

Mendelsohn will be back at his alma mater for the Virginia Festival of the Book next week, talking about The Lost on a March 23 Holocaust panel, and about cultural criticism March 24 with Dahlia Lithwick and Hal Crowther.

Despite his success with writing books, Mendelsohn sees himself as "a born critic." Along with his New York Review of Books gig, he regularly writes for the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review. 

"What I want is to write reviews, and every few years I want to write a book," says Mendelsohn. 

At least he's not writing a screenplay. Although Hollywood is interested in The Lost. 

Age:  46

What do you like best about Charlottesville? The fact that most of the people whom I loved there in 1982 are still there in 2007: Jenny Clay, Marilyn & Stan Epstein of the late, great Hardware Store restaurant, where I worked in college, Ghislaine Neale, people like that.

Least? The fact that about a zillion people whom I didn't know in 1982 now live there, and that I now often get lost trying to find things that aren't where I think they should be.

Favorite hangout here? I haven't had a hangout in C'ville since Eastern Standard closed. But I'm open to suggestions.

Most overrated virtue? Sincerity, by a long shot. As soon as I see "sincere" in people's profiles, I delete and move on.

People would be surprised to know about you: I watch a great deal of TV.  Oh, and I voted for Reagan in '80.

What would you change about yourself? My tendency to overcommit my time

Proudest accomplishment? Finishing my dissertation and getting my PhD even after I'd decided I wouldn't be pursuing an academic career. Rough, but it was good practice for writing books.

People find most annoying about you: No one's really mentioned anything so far.

Whom do you admire? There are two kinds of people: Elizabeth I people (smart, competent, get the job done, know how to compromise; a category that includes Abraham Lincoln and my pal Lise Funderburg), and Mary, Queen of Scots people (hysterical, self-dramatizing, cause lots of unnecessary aggravation for everyone else; a category that includes, say, Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath). I admire the former type.

Favorite book? Proust

Subject that causes you to rant? SUVs. People who own them are selfish morons, and I hope they and their families drown first when the polar icecaps melt next March.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Can I list IM-ing under 21st century?

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Some people's idea that it will be cool to "shuffle" the tracks of digitized books. God help us.

What do you drive? A 1999 Hyundai Elantra– "drive" here being rather an optimistic verb, I gotta say.

In your car CD player right now: Nothing. I only listen to the radio when I drive. I'm all about surrendering myself to Fate.

Next journey? Do you mean "trip"? "Journey" always sounds like it's going to be something "spiritual," a word I loathe. My next trip, as far as I know, is London, for the UK launch of my book; then Australia.

Most trouble you've ever been in? Being pulled over at 3am in my 1977 Triumph Spitfire by a lesbian police officer in Charlottesville in the summer of 1986, on 250 East, for speeding. I was chasing the car of a cute boy named, I think, Tiger May.  

Regret: Not speaking better German, and screwing up a certain relationship in 1991  

Favorite comfort food: Bacon cheeseburger, fries, strawberry shake. Ask anyone.

Always in your refrigerator: "Drunk" cocktail onions, abandoned cartons of white rice from deliveries of Chinese food.

Must-see TV: Law & Order (the original, not the 3,652 spinoffs)

Favorite cartoon: You've got to be joking. I'm 46.

Describe a perfect day. Never leaving the bed. As happens to be the case as I write this.

Walter Mitty fantasy: I never fantasized about him; is he cute?

Who'd play you in the movie? A less fantastical question than you might think, as it happens right now, so I'm not allowed to say.

Most embarrassing moment? See above under "most trouble I ever got in": the embarrassing part was when I had no ready answer to the arresting officer's question, "Well, if he was chasing you, why is his car in front of yours?"

Best advice you ever got? "Don't ‘write,' just type." 

Favorite bumper sticker? Anything really savage about George Bush.

Daniel Mendelsohn


1 comment

Mary Queen of Scots was neither hysterical nor self-dramatizing. Also, it wasn't her fault that her cousin didn't like her. Shows how much he knows about actual history.