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Featured Alumni: An Interview with Laura Zandi

The following is an interview with Laura Zandi, a Penn English alum (’77). The interviewer is Laura’s daughter, Sarah, who is a Penn English major expected to graduate in 2017.



My mother and I have lived strangely parallel lives. She was named after the movie Laura, and subsequently named me after a Hall & Oates’ song, “Sara Smile.” She was raised in Briarcliff, New York, only ten minutes away from my town of Chappaqua. We grew up reading the same books (Anne of Green Gables, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle), went to diners on Friday nights, watching White Christmas every holiday season—all things that we still like to do. She went to the University of Pennsylvania in 1977 and graduated four years later, after majoring in English and focusing on nineteenth-century literature. I will graduate Penn in 2017, with that same English degree, but instead choosing to concentrate on creative writing. Things start to shift after that: my mom went to business school at NYU a few years after graduating Penn, and she now works for a magazine company, managing its communications department and writing advertisements. As for me, I’m still not sure. Business school is probably not in the cards, and the writer’s life has always appealed, but everything is still up in the air.



Sarah Zandi: Mom, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview with me.

Laura Zandi: You’re welcome!

SZ: Um, I wanted to start off by talking about some of the great books you read, and classes you took in the English department. And I was wondering if there were any professors that you were really loved and really impacted your experience positively?

LZ: Absolutely. I had some amazing professors at Penn that I remember to this day. I remember being in the classrooms with them. The one that I remember first was Dr. Laws, who taught a class about Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales. He was an older gentleman; amazingly sophisticated, incredibly knowledgeable, and really brought to life books that I found very hard to read. I had an amazing several classes with Dr. Elaine Scarry. The class that I first took was nineteenth-century literature where we read Wuthering Heights and Adam Bead. And the class was packed, which I thought was interesting for an English class, and come to find out later there was good reason why it was packed, because she was just so incredible. Her knowledge of the books was amazing, but even far beyond that she was able to talk about so many different subjects and interweave them into the stories and into the education about the book. I had a few other classes with Deirdre Baer: twentieth-century women writers that I found very inspiring. It was the first time that I read a book by Anne Tyler called Searching for Caleb, and Deirdre Baer enjoyed the book so much she was able to convey that joy to the class. And, yeah I had so many classes like that—my Shakespeare class with Dr. Turner, I learned so much about reading Shakespeare, and, that’s it!

SZ: One of the things I felt at school is that the English department has helped me, sort of, change the way I read. And I was wondering if you felt that way—like maybe you became more intuitive, or more thoughtful as a reader.

LZ: I definitely think that I became a better reader. I learned to look for things that I never looked for before. But also, I was taught that it’s okay to read the way you read. And I also was taught that it’s okay to read the end of the book. And to this day I still read the end of the book first.

SZ: I like to do that too. And, another thing I’m fascinated by is how many parallels there are in our lives—growing up ten minutes away from each other, three decades apart, and both going on to Penn to become English majors. And, my question is, does my current experience as a Penn student in the English department allow you to view your own experience differently? Is there a wave of nostalgia, or an influx of memories?

LZ: I absolutely think so. I think that the experience of walking into Bennett Hall with you during that first few days of school, I definitely had nostalgia for my own English classes. And the experience that I had always walking into Bennett Hall was that this was the best building on campus. It was the warmest feeling; it had the nicest classrooms even though it was one of the older buildings but I just felt a wave of warmth every time I walked in. I do think though my experience as far as being an English major so far has been a little bit different than yours. I kind of think mine was more of a solo act; I had friends in the English major but I pretty much, you know, was not in contact with professors or doing group projects. I feel that you’re much more connected into the English department, and I think that that’s a great thing. I wish that my experience was a little bit more like that.

SZ: So, any advice for me, in the next three years?

LZ: The thing that I thought was so great was that I could take so many different types of English classes, and every time I took one I thought to myself, Wow, I never thought that this was a subject that would interest me. And suddenly, that was a newfound love. And so I would say, take as many of those classes as you can, because nothing beats English at Penn.

SZ: Thank you so much!