Take Five with Jill Santopolo ’03

Jill Santopolo
Jill Santopolo ’03 is the New York Times bestselling author of The Light We Lost; the novel has been translated into more than 35 languages, was chosen by Reese Witherspoon, The Skimm and Belletrist as their book club picks and has been optioned for film. Santopolo’s second novel for adults, More Than Words, will be published in February. She is the author of the Sparkle Spa series, the Alec Flint mysteries and the Follow Your Heart books for kids and teens. Santopolo earned a B.A. in English literature, an M.F.A. in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate in intellectual property law from NYU. She is the associate publisher of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, where she edits bestselling authors such as Chelsea Clinton, Mayim Bialik, Temple Grandin and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was equal parts excited and intimidated. Living in Manhattan was something I’d dreamed about doing ever since I was in elementary school and my parents took me into the city to go to Broadway shows and visit friends and spend afternoons at FAO Schwarz. All the students and faculty I met during orientation seemed so smart and interesting and sophisticated. I was looking forward to living my New York City dream and getting to know the people in my suite and in my classes better. But I was also worried that I wouldn’t be smart enough or sophisticated enough to find my place at Columbia — or in New York City.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I had a single in a suite in Wallach and I remember being very surprised that the bathroom was coed. I probably could’ve read about that somewhere before I arrived, but I hadn’t. Brushing my teeth next to a guy I didn’t really know, who’d just come out of the shower and was wearing nothing but a towel and shower shoes, took a bit of getting used to — especially after growing up in a house with two sisters.

What class do you most remember and why?

The two that I remember most are Professor Michael Seidel’s Lit Hum class, and Professor David Kastan’s Shakespeare lecture. Lit Hum was an incredible introduction to Columbia, and many of the friends I was close to throughout college — and afterward — were people who were in that Lit Hum class with me. As first-years, we all really bonded and I credit that to Professor Seidel and the way he ran the classroom, getting all of us to participate and interact with one another. He even took us all out for dinner at Symposium, where we got to know each other even more over flaming cheese and babaganoush, cracking up as we tried to imitate how we heard Owen Meany’s dialogue in our head when we read John Irving’s novel.

The Shakespeare lecture I remember for a different reason. It was while I was in that class that the September 11, 2001, attacks happened. I will never forget what that day was like at Columbia — I wrote about the experience in the opening of my novel, The Light We Lost, because I felt like living through this day as a college student was a defining moment of not only my life, but also of a generation. I’ll also never forget what Professor Kastan said when we were all back in class the week afterward, as we were all trying to make sense of what had happened and the feelings it had unearthed.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I loved the Spec office because of the feeling permeating the space that we were all part of a team trying to put something meaningful and useful out into the world. I also loved the Postcrypt Coffeehouse. My roommate Bec ran the folk music shows there sometimes, and I had a great time going with her, drinking beer, eating popcorn and listening to the musicians who came to play.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I think I would have studied abroad. Because of AP tests, I’d had enough credits coming into Columbia that if I really pushed it — taking an extra class for a couple of semesters and a couple more over the course of a summer — I could graduate in three years. So I did that. But it meant that studying abroad wasn’t really an option. I think if I had it to do over, I’d spend a semester in Spain or Italy, and then take a lighter course load when I was on campus. But the truth is, I’m happy with where my path in life has taken me, so perhaps I shouldn’t want to change anything at all!