Stacy Schiff ’78 Pursues Writing After Andover, Proceeds To Win Pulitzer Prize in 2000

When Stacy Schiff ’78 was told by her teachers at Andover that she should consider a career in writing, she “assumed they were nuts.” Now, Schiff has written three books, including the biography “Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),” which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. She is writing a fourth book about Cleopatra, and is an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. “[Writing] was always something I really enjoyed. Nothing is more gratifying than the intellectual puzzle of getting words down in something resembling the right and the aesthetic order,” Schiff said. “I was always enchanted by it, but I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could be a writer,” she continued. Schiff, whose mother was an academic, grew up with an emphasis on literature. She said that she was “at an early age, unceremoniously tossed out of the adult reading room of the public library. The books were deemed inappropriate for me. I trembled for years every time I walked into any library.” “I loved books, and I think there was a part of me that thought it would be more thrilling to be behind the scenes,” said Schiff. Schiff attended Andover at her parents’ wishes for her to receive a better education than the one available in her small hometown in Massachusetts. When Schiff applied to boarding schools, she “looked at Andover, Exeter and Northfield [Mount Herman]. If you look at those three schools, Andover is the obvious choice, right?” she said, admitting that she eventually married an Exeter graduate and now has a son who attends Exeter. “Andover scared me to death, thrilled me beyond measure and entirely changed my life,” she said. “I spent most of my time at Andover staying up too late, playing pranks on friends and running,” she said. “I was early cum laude, which came as a thrill, as I hadn’t even known such a thing existed. I continue to hold an Andover track record, but that is only because the event was calibrated in yards, and hence no longer exists.” Schiff said that she essentially only wrote at Andover for her classwork and “letters to boyfriends.” While Schiff did not consider writing a serious career option during high school, she possessed a natural command over the English language, according to her PA teachers. Thomas Hodgson, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, taught Schiff in his introductory philosophy course, which she called her favorite class at Andover. Hodgson said that the first time he read one of Schiff’s papers, he beckoned his wife to read the essay and yelled, “This girl can write.” Schiff said that Hodgson was the reason she attended Williams College in the class of 1982. “I thought [Hodgson] was fabulous, and he had so loved Williams. At the time I thought I would be a philosophy major mentor, and his mentor was at Williams, so the transition made sense,” said Schiff. Schiff ended up majoring in Art History at Williams, and she graduated early due to the credit she earned from AP Art History at Andover. Schiff became an Editorial Assistant at Basic Books, a nonfiction book publishing chapter of HarperCollins during her time, now a chapter of the Perseus Books Group. Schiff then worked at Viking Penguin, and later Simon and Schuster, both publishing companies. In 1989, she left Simon and Schuster, where she was Senior Editor, to write her first book. In 1994, Stacy authored “Saint-Exupéry: A Biography” about Antoine de Saint Exupery, the author of “Le Petite Prince.” Then, after writing her Pulitzer-winning biography on Vera Nabokov in 1999, she penned “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America” in 2005. She is currently working a fourth book about Cleopatra, on whom she wrote an op-ed article titled “Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb?” Schiff’s article was printed in the New York Times. “For the next six to 12 months I’m saying ‘no’ to journalism, and I’m trying to finish the book,” said Schiff. “It’s shocking to me to discover I’m most lucid as early as possible in the morning,” Schiff said. At Andover, Schiff completed most of her work between 10 p.m. and three a.m. each night, she admitted. For Schiff, even with three published books, writing has not become any easier, she said. “Part of the problem with writing is that once you’ve figured out how to do something, you’re halfway through the project—which means that for your next project, you’re looking to attempt something different and probably more difficult,” Schiff said. “If I had stuck to one particular realm, I would have made things a lot easier for myself, but by nature I’ve wanted to climb a higher mountain each time,” she continued. “Call it ambition or stupidity.”