This year was unlike any other year in my life, to put it mildly. I was lucky enough that people wanted me to travel to their cities and talk about my book (and, I’m sorry to say, myself) for the better part of this year. Friends, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more soul-deadening than talking about yourself for weeks and months on end — or talking about a book that lives in amber, while your brain (ideally) does not. Grateful as I was for every last opportunity, the lack of a normal routine or schedule was upending in every way. For much of the year, I worried I’d lost the power (or will) to do any of the things that I knew would make me feel more like pre-publication me: read for pleasure; cook a proper meal; sleep peacefully; put in an honest day writing; exercise; pretend to meditate. All of my non-work reading this year was an effort to remind myself of my stay-at-home, solitary self. Although I have an e-reader for travel, I found I wanted physical books more than ever. I needed ballast but couldn’t afford too much extra weight. I needed slender volumes I could tuck into a purse or a coat pocket and take out during a flight delay, a train ride, or while having many a solo drink in many a hotel bar. Some on this list are old favorites I grabbed on impulse as I was leaving the house; some I acquired along the way. All have one thing in common — they are light in weight, but not in substance. So, in no particular order, here are some of the books I carried in 2016.
John Berger’s About Looking and Susan Sontag’s On Photography I reread for a project that might not live but who cares when the reading is that great. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety also belongs on that pile. I don’t think I’ve had a nonfiction book recommended to me more by so many fiction writers than Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I loved as much as the rest of the non-physicist world. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City was an excellent reminder to turn off HGTV (Dear Ladies of Say Yes to the Dress, if an item of clothing moves you to tears you need to get out in the greater world a little more) and leave my hotel room and walk, walk, walk no matter where I was. One of my favorite literary magazines is One Story, perfectly pocket-sized, and I always had a few with me, old and new. Somewhere (Seattle? Portland?) I picked up Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection The Unspeakable. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen went into the bag after Wimbledon, specifically so I could reread the Serena Williams parts, but of course I reread all of it. Missing Elena Ferrante, I packed what might be my favorite, if forced to commit at gunpoint, The Days of Abandonment. How have I never read The Lover by Marguerite Duras? An embarrassing confession, but I was so happy to have it with me as I waited out weather in some airport somewhere only to be told later that flights were grounded because Air Force One was landing; my irritation at that political inconvenience feels laughably (tragically?) quaint now. At the Mississippi Book Festival, I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time (after the powerful panel of the same name) and devoured both. My well-thumbed copy of Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing lived in my carry-on for a few months because I never get tired of dipping in. On a train ride from Paris to Frankfurt, I read the beautiful and devastating The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. An advance copy of the always great Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams and Other Stories fit my page requirement. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different did not, but I packed it anyway because I didn’t want to wait. On a muggy, rainy afternoon in Cincinnati, I popped into a bookstore and am so grateful I bought Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I woke up in Germany on November 9th to discover the unthinkable had actually happened and was too busy — and too rattled — for most of that trip to read anything but election news when I could get the Internet to cooperate. But the following week in Barcelona, I pulled from my suitcase Eric Puchner’s new story collection Last Day on Earth. The book is out in February and it’s marvelous. What a relief to be reminded of the vital importance of books when it feels like the world around is crumbling. Worth remembering as we stumble together into 2017.
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For years I’ve heard my mother-in-law say that Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is the best book she’s ever read — and for years I’ve chosen to read other books.
But this summer, during a long layover in the house where I grew up, I spent the longest nights of the year deep in Stegner’s stirring descriptions of the American West. His feel for the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 19th century nearly prompted me to vacate the coast. The novel left me continually uneasy in my chair for other reasons, too. Stegner creates the tragedy of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage with real-to-life perfection. He slowly locks them into a landscape of silence and misunderstanding that’s as unconquerable as the arid territory they’re trying to settle. After I’d finished the book, a friend who’d read it decades ago, told me he still considers it the finest fictional depiction of marriage he’s ever read. I agree.
After Angle of Repose I read Gilead, which I thought was also superlative, but which didn’t hook me in the quite the barbed way I always hope for in a novel. I think I just had a hard time getting inside John Ames’s end-of-life equanimity. With Gilead finished, it was back to Stegner. I began reading Crossing to Safety with a copy checked out from a library near my old home Maine and finished it with a copy borrowed from a library near my new home in South Carolina.
Crossing to Safety, like Angle of Repose, is about marriage, and it reinforces Stegner’s interest in a particular kind of relationship: strong-willed, striving women and the ways they misunderstand their meek husbands. I’d like to know what in his own life put Stegner onto the topic. I also appreciated the opportunity Crossing to Safety provided to talk about the qualities that attract friends to each other, and to consider how being married bears on the way we choose to die.
More recently, I’ve read The Power and the Glory. The finished book, with its many exquisite scenes, is sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be sent back to the library. I’m happy to say that the smells of mule dung and whiskey are still thick in my blood, secret companions like a flask to this holiday season.
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I’ve admired Elliott Holt’s writing for years, ever since we were in graduate school together, and so I started reading her first novel as soon as the galley slid through my mail slot. I tore through it; I know I’ll want to read it again. You Are One of Them is a wonderful book, astute and mysterious, wry and true, about a friendship changed by the Cold War. Others have agreed. In the New York Times, for instance, Maggie Shipstead called it a “hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style,” and, in Bookforum, Roxane Gay praised it as “both a compelling character study and a psychological thriller with a ferociously intelligent ending.”
Elliott has received a Pushcart Prize and was the runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. We talked online about the loneliness of writing, the uses and limits of social media, the evils of lunch, and the key to good fiction.
The Millions: I think sometimes of a lunch we had in Chicago, when I asked how you’d finished your novel and you said you’d put a sign above your desk exhorting yourself to “make it happen,” and Lauren Groff noted she had a sign above her desk, and I thought, Aha! I need a sign. I went home and made one — “finish your novel” — and it’s helped. Can you tell me more about how you got yourself to finish your novel?
Elliott Holt: It felt like a do-or-die moment for me. I’d just gone through this break-up and was feeling crushed and heartbroken, but I also felt suddenly like my writing was all I had. I had quit my salaried staff job in advertising (after saving up some money to write full time for a while) and I was running out of money/time, so I said, that’s it. I have to do this. I have nothing else. I have to make this happen. I have to give it my all and actually finish this novel I’ve been toying with for four years. I was lonely and I was near broke, so I had nothing to lose!
And I wanted to publish a book before I was 40. Which is a totally arbitrary deadline, since writers mature at totally different rates. But anyway, I finished the book a few weeks before my 38th birthday. And it was published when I was 39. A 39-year-old woman can’t help but be aware of her waning fertility, but I made a conscious choice to focus on writing and not have children. So now I have to produce another book child.
TM: I forget which writer said every baby is a failed novel, but I think of that sometimes when I get asked why I’m not having a child. How’d you know the novel was done? What did it feel like to finish it and send it off?
EH: Some people will say it’s still not finished! (I’m joking because so many people hate the ending.)
TM: I love the ending, by the way.
EH: Oh, thanks. I knew that the book would end with that letter (I hope I’m not giving anything away) and I was writing to that point, though there were plenty of surprises along the way. I can’t really explain how I knew I was done. The same intuitive way I know I’m done with a story. It’s usually about the beats, the tone.
TM: I know we’ve talked in the past about how writing can crowd out most of everything else, especially social interaction. Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve gone all day without talking to anyone, and I think it helps my writing — at least, that’s what I tell myself — but sometimes I do get tired of the loneliness. How do you balance the two, the writer’s need for isolation versus the desire for human company?
EH: Oh, man, I do a terrible job of balancing the two. The year I was finishing my novel was the loneliest year of my life. I hardly saw or talked to anyone. l find that I have to check out of socializing in order to work well — I can’t just shift gears after a day of work and go to a cocktail party — but I’m single and I live alone so that means it’s easy for me to go weeks at a time without spending time with other people. And that’s not good. Everyone needs human contact and I don’t get enough of it. I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer and I was so happy because I was surrounded by smart, fun, like-minded people. It had been so long since I’d had spent so much time with other people. And I was like, oh, right, I love people! I miss hanging out! I need to do a better job at balancing my writing life and my social life.
TM: Exactly — it’s hard, while working, to switch gears and go to a party. I once read a letter by Dickens in which he complains to a woman about her wanting to have lunch with him, how it’s not “only” a lunch because the interruption will destroy his entire day’s productivity. You’re very active online, especially on Twitter — The Millions once called you a “fixture of the literary Twittersphere” — do you find that social media helps with the balancing act?
EH: First of all, I’m with Dickens on lunch. I don’t do lunch. And the virtual banter of Twitter can provide what I miss of office life (the random chats about TV shows, etc.). But when I’m composing new material, even Twitter is distracting. So I won’t be on Twitter much for the next few months. I get tired of it.
TM: I go through ups and downs with online interaction. I’ve read a couple of articles lately about how use of social media seems to add to people’s feelings of depression. One article suggested that a problem with online interactions is that people tend to present a more manicured, upbeat version of their lives, mostly or only discussing what’s going well for them. Part of what I like and admire about your online self is that you aren’t relentlessly upbeat. What has brought about or inspired your openness?
EH: I can’t say that I’m totally open. I’m actually a very private person. But I have a dark sense of humor and I appreciate the absurd aspects of life. I just can’t help being irreverent. I guess I like social media that feels unfiltered, even though the truth is, it’s all filtered through personas.
TM: Have you ever found that, because of Twitter and whatnot, people think they know more about you than they really do?
EH: Yes, all the time. But anyone who “knows” me from social media doesn’t really know me. That’s another reason I want to take a break from Twitter. Twitter is fun, but I’m a writer, not a tweeter, but a lot of people know me from Twitter, not from my writing.
TM: You also wrote a great Twitter story that Slate, among others, praised. It was the first Twitter fiction I’ve seen that actually took advantage of the medium by making use of different feeds’ points of view. Can you talk about what it was like to write this story? How was it different from — or similar to — writing more traditional prose?
EH: Writing that story for the Twitter fiction festival was a lot of fun. It was similar to other fiction writing in the sense that I was thinking a lot about beats, about voice, about pacing. But storytelling should adapt to its delivery system. We tell stories in films differently than we do in books, or on stage. So I wanted to use Twitter to tell that story. I wrote a story in tweets instead of tweeting lines of a story.
TM: If I remember correctly, we started becoming friends when we realized we shared a love of Norman Rush. You often evangelize for books you’ve been enjoying — I can think of several books I’ve bought on your recommendation — and I wonder what makes you decide you’ll keep reading. What pulls you in?
EH: Voice and tone. If I love the voice, I’m sold. And then, when I fall in love with a book, I tell everyone I know about it. I get very excited.
TM: What are some books you’ve read recently that you’ve loved?
EH: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, & Sons by David Gilbert, Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (it came out last year, but I just read it), and story collections by my friends Jamie Quatro, Ramona Ausubel, and Laura van den Berg. Also Hangsamen by Shirley Jackson. I’ve long loved Jackson, but didn’t read that novel until this summer. And it is such a wonderfully unsettling portrait of existential loneliness. It’s weird and brilliant.
TM: I think I’ve only ever read Jackson’s collected stories — now I’m curious. What’s one of the more astute things you’ve learned about your writing from one of your teachers, or a friend or editor, or from anyone else?
EH: Hmm. I was in a workshop with Charlie D’Ambrosio (who is one of the very best writers working today, in my humble opinion) at the Tin House Writers Workshop and he told me that a story I’d written was constructed to avoid the one thing it most needed to confront. He said, this story is so well written, but you’re avoiding the real issue. He was right.
Charlie has no patience for cowardice on the page.
But I’ve also been told that I create good details — and details are the key to good fiction, I think. The judges of the PEN Emerging Writers’ Award in 2011 wrote this really nice thing in their citation: “The physical details Holt tosses down (so easily it seems!) do double duty, creating a rich sensory world while deepening and complicating character. She can’t be called a miniaturist, though her gaze on the details of family life is focused and keen. She strives for — and succeeds at — an admirable largeness, an emotional awareness that borders on uncanny. Her prose is a thrill to read.” And I really needed to hear that. It meant a lot to me.
TM: I love that about the details. It’s true — I remember vividly, for example, the shimmering chartreuse of the leaves in You Are One of Them, and the film burning on the projector. You’ve mentioned the Tin House and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and you’ve been to Yaddo — have you found writers’ conferences and colonies to be helpful to your writing?
EH: Ah yes, I love having writer friends and I really value a sense of community with other writers. I loved being at Yaddo. I loved the Sewanee and Tin House conferences. The friends I’ve made in those places are some of my very closest friends and readers.
TM: Part of what I love about your novel is its intelligence about friendship. I’ve been rereading Bellow’s Ravelstein and Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and it’s occurred to me that there really aren’t enough novels addressing friendship, especially friendship between women and girls. Is this a lack that came to mind when you started thinking about your novel?
EH: Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the lack of fiction about friendship — though you’re right that there are a lot more books about romantic love than about love between friends. It was an intuitive decision to write about a friendship (and its attendant rivalries). Maybe because all my most intimate relationships have been with friends, not lovers.
When I went back through my book journal looking for this year’s reading highlights, a diverse foursome stood out, and I thought, Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. I’m not a singsongy person, but the monkey mind loves patterns.
The something old was my re-read of an old favorite, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. This was my third time, occasioned by an invitation from my local indie bookstore to lead a book club on my favorite novel. Crossing to Safety is the story of two couples, their lifelong marriages and friendship, and it takes a clear-eyed look at how our strengths and foibles become more forgiving and more brittle over the decades. It’s brilliant, more so each time I read it. This time I treasured the voice and dry humor of the narrator poking fun at the champagne bubbliness of his own youth — hoo hoo, ha ha — naïve to the hardship up ahead.
Something new was The Light Between Oceans, a summer debut by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. I’ve been a bit of a zealot for this book while on book tour and probably should be on commission, because when I give my elevator pitch, the audience sighs with that reader-hunger that must be appeased. I tell them this: It’s set on a tiny island in 1920s Australia, and its sole inhabitants — a lighthouse keeper and his wife — have been unable to have children. One day a rowboat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby. What to do? Report the child, or raise her as their own? The decision the couple makes that day reverberates through the decades, and through the lives of others. It’s the kind of novel I love because it involves a moral choice where there is no clear right or wrong, no clear path of lesser harm.
Borrowed is a bit of a stretch, but work with me here. My pediatrician told me recently about a little-known and out-of-print children’s novella by Faulkner called The Wishing Tree. My first thought was, What would Faulkner have to say to kids? That when you mimic the help, it’s important to get the dialect right? That you shouldn’t drink while doing your homework, only after you’re done?
Intrigued, I tracked down a used copy online. The Alice-in-Wonderlandesque story is in classic Faulker terroritory, a sloshing bouillabaisse of race, relationships, and social class but served up in kiddie bowls. It hints at many of the themes and characters to come in his later work, The Sound and the Fury, which I borrowed from the library to refresh my memory. The strong doomed sister. The disgruntled black maid carrying the weight of the world and none of the family’s respect. The menacing jaybirds, always swooping. No Dick and Jane.
I decided to read The Wishing Tree to my kids anyway and they loved it, along with the controversial way it found its way to publication some 40 years after it was written: first as a gift to an eight-year-old girl whose mom he wanted to marry, then to three other kids, including a girl dying of cancer. Each thought he’d written it only for him or her, and were in for a rude awakening when the first girl published it after Faulkner’s death.
Blue is how Salvage the Bones made me feel, the blue of neglected children and spurned love and rushing hurricane stormwater before it goes brown in its race through dirt lots of Mississippi. This is the Katrina most people didn’t hear about, put to merciless fiction by Jesmyn Ward. In her hands, four siblings’ fierce bickery loyalty is the closest thing to unconditional love, and a teen’s dedication to his fighter of a pit bull and her pups is as close as it gets to salvation.
This audiobook kicked my tail clear from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Chicago, where I bought a paper copy to finish on the flight home. Because I love a book that beats me up a little, makes the monkey mind sit still and show respect.
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One of the first essays I ever wrote was about my room. I was in high school, and the class assignment was to write about a place that was important to us. Five hundred words was expected; I think I turned in three times that. I described everything, from the Renoir poster over my bed to the black-and-white satin musical notes mobile over my desk. I delved into the critical importance of each item on my bookshelf and dresser. I highlighted the “I’d Rather Be Dancing” bumper sticker I’d stuck on my closet door (though I didn’t end up a dancer). A major theme was my love of the color blue, how it calmed and inspired me. I remember working hard to get my description of the way the sunlight filtered through the blue curtains just right.
The piece didn’t have much shape, but with hindsight I see what it revealed: I spent too much time setting up my room! By the end of high school, I did most of my homework at a large desk in my father’s office on the floor above. The rest of my time was spent at the piano or in the family room.
After college, I moved to New York with no furniture. A mattress was easily acquired by dialing an 800 number (I still remember: 1-800-MATTRES, leave off the last S for savings!), and my roommate had a sofa and table, so the only thing I needed was a desk. I spent a lot of time looking for one. I was working in publishing, trying to write in the mornings and evenings, and making very little money. I thought if I had the right desk, everything would be easier. I went to estate sales, church sales, the Salvation Army. I considered one of those lap desks from the Levenger catalog, but was afraid I’d feel like an invalid. One day, complaining to my father about this lack in my life, he told me a story. He’d known a man—the father of a childhood friend—who spent his retirement building the studio of his dreams. His whole life he’d wanted to write and paint, and now he would have the time to do it. As soon as the studio was finished.
This sounded fine to me. Where was it? Were they still friends of ours? Could I rent it?
He designed it beautifully, my father continued; the man was a good carpenter, worked on it for years. Apparently he showed it to my father at one point. He walked him through this perfect backyard work space, but what struck my father was how the man talked on and on about all the things that weren’t quite right yet.
The story appeared to be over.
What happened? I asked.
He died before it was finished, my father said. Never wrote a thing.
I kept looking for a desk, but I can’t say I wasn’t rattled. I eventually found something I liked and could afford at a very depressing estate sale on the Upper West Side: an antique, Mission-style writing desk that probably should have been found by someone able to afford to have it restored. I brought it home as it was, rough and rickety, for $150 and used it for a year. When I left that apartment, I sold the desk to the next tenant because it wouldn’t have survived another move. She worked in publishing, too, and wanted to write, so it felt like the right thing to do.
But I also think my father’s story had taken root. I began to suspect I was too susceptible to the idea of the “writer’s desk” and decided it might be better to do without one. Somewhere along the way, I began to work in libraries. More important, I began to get work done in libraries. I acquired a laptop, a padded case for it, and a backpack. I carried pens, a notebook or two, a legal pad, and a few books. Very soon I felt like the academic equivalent of the college student backpacking abroad—I was entirely self-sufficient! I didn’t need a private desk and the talismanic power of special objects surrounding me. All I needed was a warm cardigan (summer temperatures can be freezing) and the ability to ignore certain trivial rules (no drinking in the reading room; I’m very discreet with my coffee), and I had everything I needed to work effectively.
Libraries I have loved: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; in England, the British Library and the London Library; the Charlottesville Public Library; the Miller Center at the University of Virginia; the Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania; Bobst Library at New York University; and in Connecticut, the Essex Library and the Old Lyme Library. These are the places where I worked on the stories of my first collection, Bending Heaven, and the book that became my first novel, The Report.
As work spaces, they were not always ideal. The small public libraries, for example, were rarely quiet. I asked a librarian about it once and she said, “Silence is not a priority.” Personal observation suggests that middle school math tutoring is.
The university research libraries have established quiet study rooms, but offenders are hard to police. I once asked a couple of undergraduates to take their bubbly conversation outside, and spent the rest of the day feeling like an old grump, which turned out to be not particularly conducive to writing. Oddballs can populate membership libraries like the British Library and the London Library. One man used to exclaim every half hour or so, “1734! Shit!” The date changed (though it was usually in the 15th or 17th centuries), as did the expletive, then he’d rub his forehead and abandon his books for a while.
People like the date mutterer are colorful when you’re writing well; distractors and the reason you can’t get anything done when you’re not. But the alternative worries me more. I’ve watched friends put a great deal of time into the renovation of houses and the decoration of studies or offices, and in this realm they have triumphed. They have beautiful places to work. But a lot of time has gone into those spaces and when I look at the creative output versus the time spent on preparing them, I remember my father’s story and think, No. Better to make do, sit down, get to work.
There is a passage from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety that I remembered recently. A daughter, standing in her father’s impeccably arranged shop, ruefully describes the man who never quite became the poet and scholar he meant to be. A friend of the family says, “Is it compulsory to be one of the immortals? We’re all decent godless people, Hallie. Let’s not be too hard on each other if we don’t set the world afire. There’s already been enough of that.”
Hallie replies, “I know. I sound like Mom. But it does bother me that he never gets past preparing. Preparing has been his life work. He prepares, and then he cleans up.” (emphasis mine)
Wise words, and ones I read over ten years ago. Yet when I went looking for the passage for this essay, I opened the book to the exact page. And it was not dog-eared! It was not my copy, but a library book. I checked the edition to make sure the spine had not been cracked to this place by some other nut worried about spending her life only preparing, but it appeared to be undamaged. How did I turn right to it after all these years? The idea must have haunted me more than I knew.
But there is one more reason I work in libraries. I have a section of a poem about solitude by Jennifer Michael Hecht copied in one of my notebooks:
bestial from not being seeing;
staring out the window with wide, immortal eyes
I’m fairly certain that would be me at home, alone. The date mutterer and the throat clearer and the woman who wears black cardigans (she must have twenty!) and the young man with a spectacularly loud space bar, they are doing me a service. I am grateful to them. God knows what they’re working on, but I see them, and I know they see me. Being seen keeps me sane.
And maybe others feel the same. I’ve just watched a woman come in and sit down in the seat next to the older gentleman who so often works in my current library, the man with the portable word processor, an unusually upright bearing, and wide eyes. He is away from his seat and she has taken one of his books and is browsing through it. Could she know him? I’m hungry and would like to leave for lunch, but I feel I must wait to see this played out. If he doesn’t know her, what will he say? Will he ask for his book back?
He returns and they smile at each other. He says, “Why, where have you been?”
To me, that is worth not having a special pencil cup on my own desk at home.
Image credit: Flickr/racreations.