Snapshot: Elissa Altman

Published: March 15, 2019 at 08:00 am


Occupation: Author/editor/teacher. My third book, Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing, is coming out in August from Ballantine Books.

Family: My spouse of 19 years is Susan.

Pets: A rescued terrier mutt, Petey, and a Maine Coon, Charlotte, who showed up at our vacation house in Vermont as a tiny kitten. We had no choice but to bring her home. It was an interesting eight hour ride, and gave new meaning to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.

How long have you lived in Newtown? Fifteen years this April.

What do you like to do in your free time? When I’m not working, I am invariably reading, cooking, traveling, visiting museums, and playing music (I am a longtime roots musician). In the good weather, I love to hike and to be outside even when the weather isn’t good. I practice Insight Buddhism, and I try to meditate every morning.

Do you have a favorite book? My favorite book of all time is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I keep Maira Kalman’s Principles of Uncertainty on my nightstand. Right now, I am loving my dear friend Dani Shapiro’s memoir/mystery, Inheritance, which traces her discovery that the man she knew as her father was not, in fact, her biological father. I love poetry and carry Marie Howe’s The Kingdom of Ordinary Time with me wherever I go.

What is your favorite travel destination? Anywhere the food is good and the people are kind. I love Ireland. I am particularly fond of Italy, which feels oddly familiar and deeply sacred to me, almost on a visceral level.

What is the best part about Newtown? I love all the wonderful hiking paths and the phenomenal work that the Newtown Forest Association does. But the greatest thing about Newtown is its people: Newtowners are some of the nicest, most caring, resilient people I’ve ever known.

Who has been the greatest influence in your life? My father, Cy Altman, who died in 2002. My dad was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and went on to be a night fighter pilot in the Navy during World War II, flying in the Pacific. He was a lover of literature and an excellent writer, utterly hilarious, and overcame profound personal and health issues with great dignity. More than anything, he was a believer in the inherent goodness and decency of people. On days that are difficult for me, I feel him on my shoulder. On days that are better, he is still there.

If you could spend the day with one person, who would you choose and why? My spouse, Susan, who reminds me every day to travel through this world gently. She’s an incredible book designer for Random House, and because of her, I’ve learned to look at the world around me with an eye to art and beauty, even in the most unlikely of places. She never ceases to surprise me and is consistently one of the funniest, smartest people I’ve ever known.

Who is your favorite musical artist? I love roots music, but particularly Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, and Billy Strings. Joni Mitchell is definitely in the mix. When my father died, I inherited his 1950s jazz and classical albums: I grew up with Coleman Hawkins, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and the Modern Jazz Quartet playing in the background, and if you drive past my house on a Sunday afternoon, you might hear them, too.

Do you have a favorite TV show? I love The Marvelous Mrs Maisel — seamless, wonderful writing and a vernacular I understand — and also Chef’s Table, because of its stories of humanity, nurturing, and sustenance both at the table and away from it.

What is your favorite food? I crave the foods of Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Sichuan Province, Korea, Japan. My palate is attuned to them in a way that is almost startling. I find them immensely interesting and comforting.

What is the greatest piece of advice you have ever been given? On the bulletin board above my desk is tacked a quote that is alternately attributed to Philo, Plato, and a few other wise guys — “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” In the divisive world in which we live, where every exchange — from ordering a coffee at Starbucks to minding local leash laws — seems fraught, it pays to remember this.

What is something you cannot live without? Devoted friendship.

What is your proudest accomplishment? Working very hard to fulfill my writing dream: my third memoir is coming out in August. Delivering a TEDx talk on the moral implications of bringing senior citizens to the table. Being a good spouse, a good daughter, a good friend.

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