Jacket Copy: I've never read any Virginia Woolf. Where should I start?
Anne Fernald: There are a lot of ways to start Woolf. If you are interested in experimental fiction, then "The Waves," her most experimental (and perhaps her most difficult) text, can be a good starting place. It follows six friends from childhood through middle age, all in interior monologues -- you flow, like waves, in and out of the thoughts of Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Louis (based on T.S. Eliot, from St. *Louis*! ha), and Bernard.
But, if you prefer your novels more autobiographical, then "To the Lighthouse" is a lovely entry point. Woolf's most autobiographical novel, it depicts a large Victorian family on summer vacation and then charts the impact of WWI and other life events over the years. It's got Woolf's best artist-figure in it: Lily Briscoe, a frustrated painter.
For sheer perfection of prose, I love "A Room of One's Own," her 1929 feminist masterpiece. It's a great manifesto for all writers: the need for both privacy and the ability to roam about unmolested in the world. But I love it for its gorgeous sentences, its glorious metaphors, the amazing way that its pieces all fit together into a symphony.
Overall, for me, her masterpiece is "Mrs. Dalloway." There is a lot not to like about the main character, a hostess throwing a party (snore), but Woolf knows that and teaches you to care about her in spite of Clarissa's flaws. It's an amazing book and one of the best treatments of shellshock I know. A great version of the novel set in a single day, too.
You can find the whole interview here.