When I Worked in Advertising

When I worked in advertising, I took solace in knowing that my task was, fundamentally, to tell stories. I believe that; our society's most successful storytellers are probably the people who make television commercials. In one of the 16 or so drafts of my new book, I mention that Folger's commercial where the guy comes home for Christmas and wakes his family by brewing a pot of Folger's. If that ends up in the finished book, I'm confident most readers will know exactly what I'm talking about. When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country's largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father's Day or the story was Mother's Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff. Only the stuff changed, and even then, not that much, the same stuff month after month, story after story, the way certain writers repeat themselves when it comes to an image or a turn of phrase. Years ago, I noticed a detail in two separate Margaret Atwood works, both novels I think, but I really can't remember; something to do with tenants seeking revenge on a bad landlord by painting the walls black. It's possible I just made this up. When I worked in advertising, I told myself that anything is a learning experience if you insist it be. I think that holds true. On more than one occasion, I had to write for a sign that could only accommodate four words. Four words is not many, but you can, if you need to, if you're being paid to, get a great deal out of four words. The other day I went to visit an art gallery in Chelsea with a friend, a novelist, and her mother-in-law. My own mother-in-law is an absolutely delightful woman, and other people's mothers-in-law are almost always my favorite people, perhaps because of my fraught relationship with my own mother. When I worked in advertising and I had to tell the story of Mother's Day, I never thought of my own mother. At the gallery, apropos of nothing in particular, my friend said How long is your new book? and I tried to remember the page count and she said No, words, how many words? and I told her it was near 80,000, which is true, and quite a bit longer than those four-word signs I used to write. When I worked in advertising, I was invited to many meetings and expected to have opinions about things beyond my purview as the writer. People cared, or pretended they did, what I thought about the models, or the music, or the wardrobe, or the director. I realize now that it was not because my opinion had any value (it didn't) but because there's something reassuring about consensus. If we all agreed that this model and that model made a handsome and believable on-screen couple, if we all agreed on the green dress instead of the polka dot one, if we all agreed on the director from Los Angeles instead of the director from London, if we all agreed, then we must all be right. When I worked in advertising, sometimes the art director I worked with (there were many, and this is true for every one of them) would say What does it look like? She (they were mostly, though not always, women) would be frustrated, because I was using words and she did not think in words; she thought in pictures, which was why she had become an art director in the first place. I would describe, say, a Mother's Day ad, and she would ask What does it look like? I would spin a story about a sweater or a handbag or a lipstick or a stand mixer and she would ask What does it look like? I enjoyed these conversations because they were a bit like the conversations you have with someone on drugs, or a young child; they didn't have to adhere to any particular logic. She could ask What does it look like? and I could tell her it looked like flowers, and Tina Barney's photographs, and happiness, and late afternoon sunlight, and the paintings of John Singer Sargent, and a scone on a chipped porcelain plate and an old American standard sung by someone with a Carly Simon-ish voice but not Carly Simon, and the art director would close her eyes and nod her head slowly. When I worked in advertising, I learned that I had to be tough enough to toss out ideas to the boss or to the client and not flinch as they were rejected. No, not right a kindly boss might say or That's stupid a different sort of boss might say or Did you read the brief an impatient client might say, but all this, after a time, rolled off of me. If my idea was bad, and no doubt the majority of mine were, it didn't matter. Learning this was incredibly liberating. Once, a very well-known writer said something unkind to me about my book—right to my face!—and I rather wanted to explain that I had plenty of experience with people telling me that my ideas were bad and it didn't matter because that was the job, having bad ideas, and that maybe that was the job of the novelist, too. When I worked in advertising, the objective was to sell. There's a purity in that, if you think about it. Last summer, I had a long and often angry conversation with another novelist, though we weren't angry with one another. We were talking about beach reads. On the one hand, what writer doesn't want to see lots of people lying on those Turkish-y beach towels that are so in fashion now, cradling the thing you wrote? You should want people to buy your book—you should want to sell!—and read it on the beach or in the bath or in their shrink's waiting room or on the subway or on a park bench whilst eating one of those dry Pret a Manger sandwiches. Of course, you sometimes run into people who think that because your book was marketed as something to be read at the shore that means it's stupid, that you're stupid, that everything is stupid, etc. Maybe everything is stupid; it depends who you ask. I wanted to tell this other novelist that beach reads anagrams to abashed rec, but I didn't, because only a crazy weirdo searches for meaning in anagrams. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while -- you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring. All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people -- and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go.  Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He's a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is "about" Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically? Lindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first -- but certainly not my last -- act of pointless literary contrarianism. It was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things. As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background. RA: Steinbeck isn't the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it's about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that "historical fiction" is in fact a very postmodern exercise. LH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting. I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time. One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” 'Nuff said, I think. RA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can't imagine anyone who doesn't love James enjoying Toibin's book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That's testament to your storytelling, but I think it's also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people? LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways. So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little...gothic. As for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals. RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there's still something, well, sexual about her. I'm curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book. LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences. The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing. As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her. RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn't say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected. LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well. BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing. RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it's fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked "How did you do it?" On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers. LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry -- however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off -- into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible. You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. RA: I believe I am supposed to ask you the last great book you read. LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.

Years with Yoko

It was 2001 when I first listened to Yoko Ono’s music. I was young and quite stupid and mostly alone. I’d walk around New York with no particular aim, trekking from my job in midtown to a subway station in SoHo because I had nowhere better to be. I took my lunch (one-dollar coffee, banana) in the bakery across the street from my shitty office, where I’d read and smoke (indoors!). I was broke, but buying things made me feel alive. I’d pick up remainders at Coliseum Books, or vintage porn from a sidewalk vendor on Seventh Avenue. One day, on a whim, I bought Ono’s 1982 album It’s Alright (I See Rainbows). It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, on sale. If I didn’t like Yoko Ono myself, I might think someone who called himself a fan was joking, or engaged in some other thing: adolescent contrarianism or camp, possibly diva worship of those giant Porsche sunglasses, those hats, those short shorts, those gams, the incontrovertible foreignness of Ono’s English. For a long time Ono was basically despised, the inevitable lot of someone married to a person whose fame actually may have eclipsed Christ’s. Fools hate foreigners, and fools hate women, but a lot of people who ought to know better hate the avant-garde, and a lot of people who ought to know better hate the politically engaged, and a lot of people who ought to know better hate polymaths, and Ono is all those things. I think that now the line among sophisticates is that Ono’s musical project is so idiosyncratic you can respect it without quite enjoying it, but I’ve never considered myself a sophisticate. I associate Yoko Ono’s music with our first year of George W. Bush’s ruinous presidency, prophetess for a new year/decade/century/millennium. That September morning, I watched smoke pluming up over the Williamsburg Savings Bank (then dentist’s offices, now luxury condominiums) from my bedroom window. I strolled through Fort Greene Park, where people, no doubt driven mad by watching television, were playing tennis. That night, I listened to Ono’s album Rising, on headphones connected to my Discman. That album was suited to that day: war has long been one of Ono’s abiding preoccupations, and war was in the air. “Towns burning/ Throats choking/ Watch out/ Check out.” Indeed, I did check out. I left New York to live alone in a big empty house in the woods, where I spent months writing five hundred pages of a truly horrible novel and listening to Rising repeatedly. I had no television, I had one book (The Ambassadors, for some stupid reason), and I had nightmares almost nightly. Ono entertained me. “You are a New York Woman/ I miss you/ I miss you/ I miss you, my friend,” she sang, and it seemed like she was talking about the women who would have been my friends, if I had any. On one of the album’s later songs, “Where Do We Go From Here,” Ono sings, “Are we getting tired of blood and horror? Are we getting ready for God and terror?” That Rising was released in 1996 makes Ono seem prescient. I went back to New York in the spring of 2002 and found it so full of God and terror that I couldn’t take the subway, and broke down into tears when a lunatic at Pathmark called me a faggot. I never finished writing that novel. It probably means I’m a philistine that I never simply listen to music; it’s a secondary consideration, something to accompany me on a commute, while washing dishes, on those rare horrible occasions I decide to go for a run. I respond to music emotionally rather than intellectually, which feels like a failing, if a common one. At some point a couple of years ago, I trained myself to write at night instead of during the day; it was easier to sustain focus after the children were asleep, and I was tired all the time because of the children anyway. I used music to modulate those late nights, giving those hours a rhythm: easy, then invigorating, then calming. That nightly cycle almost always involved revisiting that first record of Ono’s I had bought. "My Man" is a daffy, earnest love song that’s almost certainly about John Lennon (“When he speaks/ all the birds come around”). It’s sung, rather than screamed -- the notion of Ono as banshee isn’t an altogether fair one -- and it calmed me. “Spec of Dust,” another song that’s probably about Lennon, a paean to the idea that love is timeless, made me sad. “Why do I miss you so/ if you’re just a spec of dust/ floating, endlessly, amongst a billion stars?” That record, with its songs of love and rage, made me remember being a dumb twenty-something, full of both: love for some theoretical boyfriend, rage at my creative/financial/professional impotence. Most feel this way as teens and get into punk rock or start a shitty band all their own, but I had an arrested adolescence, not uncommon, I think, when you grow up gay but refuse to think about it, and so I had Yoko Ono. Listening to her in my thirties, in the middle of the night, my husband and children asleep upstairs, I remembered the years in which I was without a husband, without children, and without the discipline to write a book. I love hearing people’s advice about books to read, exhibitions to attend, films to see, but I am utterly incurious about what music people recommend, because I ask that music perform this service for me, that it entertain me in the moment while also offering some memory of a moment long passed. Dionne Warwick reminds me of those early days of parenthood, my older son lolling around on a blanket and frowning; Kate Bush’s sixth record reminds me so much of a desperate summer I spent lovelorn in Boston that I can barely bear to listen to it. It’s an imperfect way of listening, of consuming, of course; emotions ruin everything. * There are the songs I enjoy because they remind me of some previous time, some previous self, and there are the songs I enjoy because they are tidy, perfect texts of which I am professionally jealous. Ono has always had a flair for language. Undoubtedly her best-known work is the phrase “War is Over! If You Want It,” a line in "Happy Xmas," the song she co-wrote with her late husband, but more famously the advertising slogan of Yoko Ono Inc., on behalf of all humanity, stark black on pure white in filthy Times Square. There’s an unadorned clarity to her writing, which might have something to do with her long association with Fluxus, the self-serious art movement that preferred strong words and uncollectable action and performance to a traditional conception of art. The movement was big on disarming straight talk. Ono’s book Grapefruit is pure Fluxus: silly and impossible instructions for actions, process as product. I love that you still see pretty undergrads buying copies of it at the Strand every fall. This is why Ono is so great at Twitter, a medium where she has had a renaissance -- she’s been able to talk directly to an audience that might otherwise not know much about her beyond the obvious. Ono’s oeuvre contains many turns of phrase that I envy -- one of my favorite songs is her “All Day Long I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window” which has the very clarity that makes her tweets, and Grapefruit, so perfect. Her songs are poetry that never sound much like poetry, unlike many of Morrissey’s songs, which I can never listen to when I work because I end up writing ersatz Smiths lyrics, with opaque references to the royal family. But of course the real standard by which you measure a song is more animal than intellectual. In the story “Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov wrote of referential mania, the delusion that all the world -- the most innocuous action, the simple existence of some thing -- is somehow about you. I imagine we all suffer from this mania when it comes to judging art (hence this passion to see ourselves in the pages of a book) but of course, there’s some other, ineffable thing to the equation. Ono has written a lot of great songs. She’s also written a lot of not great songs, as have most people engaged in this pursuit. The sound of some of Ono’s songs -- “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” “I Have a Woman Inside My Soul,” “Loneliness,” “Sisters O Sisters” -- simply works for me; music and the savage beast and all that. Ono can and does caterwaul, and I get why people snicker at that. It’s aggressive and weird and disorienting and to laugh at it is an obvious response, if a superficial one. The live version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” on Ono’s 1972 record with Lennon, Some Time in New York City, is bracing, electric, astonishing. You needn’t know the backstory -- Kyoko is Ono’s daughter, the subject of a custody dispute so bitter they were wholly separated for decades -- to hear the raw expression of pain leavened by maternal comfort in Ono’s screams. In the soundtrack to Ono’s remarkably unsettling short film "Fly," she delivers a vocal performance that defies description. It’s worth listening to, even if you can only manage to listen to it once; I think the same can be fairly said of the composer Kaija Saariaho or many other difficult artists. But leave aside this aggressively avant-garde work if you like; “The Death of Samantha” and “Walking on Thin Ice” are great rock and roll songs. It’s incredible to me that the same artist could manage to have made both. * My children are older now, and I’ve gone soft, the abbreviated schedule of their infant sleep somehow forgotten. A few weeks ago, I tried to reclaim the night for myself, those stretches of hours that had proved so fertile, so essential, only a couple of years ago. It was in part superstition and in part the simple need to keep myself awake, but I tried to recreate the specific rhythm of those productive nights: ease, then energy, then quietude. I began with the Brandenberg Concertos, but Bach’s cool mathematics often make me sleepy. I played “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” to rouse myself, then the computer offered me “Is Winter Here to Stay?,” a song of Ono’s that I’ve long liked. I was surprised to find that what I remembered, with a sensory clarity that was almost frightening, was not that time alone in a far-away house in 2001 but a similar night alone in the house I still call home. I remembered two years ago, I remembered a tumbler of watery whisky, damp with condensation, the oppressive heat of New York in June, the lack of absolute silence even at two o’clock in the morning, the reassuring sense that everyone I loved was asleep upstairs. It’s a confounding thing that art can endure. I don’t mean over the ages -- what does that matter, we’re destroying the planet -- but in our lives. Art is a conversation between you and someone you’ve probably never met, and that conversation can continue for so long. Yoko Ono, who once reminded me of being twenty-three and watching the world blow up, now reminds me of being thirty-six, old enough to have built a world anew for myself. I don’t know why this should be, but I’m grateful that it is. When she screams don’t worry, I almost believe her.   Image: I bought this oddity on eBay in the middle of the night. It purports to be a wire service news bulletin, and I can't imagine it's not authentic because who would fake such a thing? The manner in which Ono is discussed in this says a great deal. I like to imagine Ono, who has played with language throughout her long career, would be amused at rather than hurt by its casual cruelty. It's dated the day after John Lennon was murdered.  

A Year in Reading: Rumaan Alam

The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared. As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered. I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark. We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring). You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness. I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel. One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be. I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.