Welcome to The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike celebrate the coming of summer by talking about how much they hate reading on the beach, and books they refuse to feel guilty about loving.
Discussed in this episode: beaches, Misery by Stephen King, why being a writer is horrible, broken legs, Kathy Bates, the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Class by Paul Fussell, The Passage by Justin Cronin, the coming vampire apocalypse, The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the idiocy of high school Mike, Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood, nihilist flappers.
Not discussed in this episode: Beaches (dir. Garry Marshall), the coming zombie apocalypse, the coming mummy apocalypse, the coming Frankenstein apocalypse, the coming Tom Wolfe apocalypse.
Not long after I published my first novel, my mother died. She was in her mid-60s, and her health had been declining for a while because of an aggressive cancer treatment she’d received two decades before, which had saved her life but weakened her heart and made her dependent on regular blood transfusions. The night she died, I left the hospice where she’d been in a coma for five days, went to a book club meeting where I was scheduled to give a talk, then came back to her room 20 minutes before she stopped breathing. My sister told me my mother had waited for me, but I wasn’t sure if she said this just to make me feel less guilty about leaving to give the talk.
Within a week, I was giving readings again, offering my ideas about books, although a strange thing had begun to happen in my actual relationship with books. When I picked up the kinds of novels that for a long time I’d most enjoyed, character novels about families and relationships, I felt only a kind of grayness or flatness, almost a neutrality. At first I thought it had to do with the books I was choosing, but again and again it happened, and for a time I wondered if I might have lost my taste for fiction or my sense of its importance. I’d been close to my mother, and I understood in a vague way that the loss of one of my deepest pleasures in life was tied to her death, but the intricacy of the knot as well as its closeness made it difficult to untangle.
I kept on giving readings. One night, holed up in a hotel room in San Mateo, where I was scheduled for an event the next day, I started reading Stephen King’s Misery, and I began to lose myself in the story, to let myself go in a way I hadn’t been able to in the preceding months. Somewhere inside me, the switch of wonder had been flicked back on. I didn’t think about the craft of the novel, or the prose or characterization, but found myself riding the wave of the book, which I think is the sensation that turns a lot of us on to reading. I stayed up with the novel, showing up bleary-eyed to my event the next morning, but relieved, feeling in a way as if I’d been saved.
For a while after that I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries and books that focused on or orbited around violence, and I began work on a thriller of my own, which has become my second novel. But there’s this nagging question of why reading about violence and the darkest corners of human experience can be interesting or even entertaining, and why there might be something in us that turns to these books, especially during our own dark times. Wouldn’t we want to get away from all that sadness and fear? Why should we enjoy mining others’ pain and our own, and even find ourselves restored by it?
My sense is that the answer has something to do with why we enjoy reading at all, with the particular thrill of seeing our secret selves reflected in a book. Undeniably, there is a part of human experience that is sad, and a part that is frightening, and both seem bound up with our understanding of the fragility and temporariness of life. Maybe my experience of losing a parent, which is something most people face at some point, pushed me toward books that explore other types of darkness, because they allowed me to make sense of my own darkness, to stare straight down into the chasm of it. Or perhaps the distorting lens of fiction distanced the loss enough that I could look comfortably at what had been too close.
Whatever the case, these books brought me back to reading and to writing and to the books I used to enjoy, as well as to new books I’ve come to admire. I don’t know the exact reasons, and I’m not sure I need to know, since I’m convinced that the joy of fiction stems from its ambiguities and contradictions, its questions and suggestions more than its assertions, the way it completes a circle without telling you how or why.
This essay was originally published in the November 2013 issue of Writers Ask, a publication of Glimmer Train magazine.
Image Credit: Flickr/watchsmart
Once every season, at the end of her hibernation, the contemporary fiction writer (Midlistia microadvanceiata) emerges from her burrow. For years she has lived underground alone, in sweatpants, eating whatever she can scrounge and drinking nothing but the tears of her own crushed ambitions, and as she blinks her way into the light she clutches her newest novel to her breast. The circle of creativity is now complete. It is time for this infant book (made from clay, broken fingernails, coffee grounds, and her own hair) to take its first tentative steps into the world, into the harsh light of publicity. For the lucky ones, this means writers’ festivals.
I love writers’ festivals. I feel privileged to be sitting on stage in the company of my betters, facing that rarest, most perfect of creatures: the reader. If I were a poet, I’d write an ode.
Oh, reader. You, who spend your hard-earned on our books.
You, who not only talk about switching off Twitter to read a novel, but actually do it.
I wish I could marry you. All of you.
This doesn’t mean I find writers’ festival panels easy. Novelists are natural hibernators who can happily sit in front of their screens alone for months and years at a time. (After a few more generations of evolution, we’ll all be hooded-eye albinos with shoulders attached to our earlobes and enormous bladders and stumps for legs, able to touch-type by instinct at birth.) At festivals, these same hermit writers are required to be entertainers: funny and self-deprecating, eloquent and compelling. It shouldn’t be possible to be both introverted and extroverted, yet many writers manage it with grace and wit.
I’m in awe of writers like that. This personality schism doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s worth the stretch because the thrill of discussing my work with intelligent, engaged readers is one of the joys of my writing life. For a very long time, a novel is a private thing I hold tight and close; it’s seen by nobody else for many months. Then it’s published, and, as if by alchemy, the characters leave my mind and walk around of their own accord and readers meet them, and have opinions and questions about them. It’s magical.
Sometimes, though, the audience questions at writers’ festivals aren’t so joyous. I’ve been asked: “What is your opinion of the elementary school curriculum?” (I have no children, am not a teacher, and have no idea why anyone would ask me that.) Once I was asked: “If someone killed themselves after reading your book, would you feel responsible?” (A dense fog descended on my brain, but I wasn’t forsaken. Other members of the audience yelled at the questioner to sit down and not be such a moron.) But the question that fills my heart with dread and leaves me quaking is this one: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I know I’m not alone. In green rooms and halls and lecture theaters, writers giggle nervously and roll their eyes when they hear those seven little words. When I’m asked Where do you get your ideas from? first, I look bashful. Then I stutter and stammer. Then I tell the truth, which is I don’t know. If I did know, I’d go there more often and get more and better ones.
After I finished my second novel, I wrote nothing for more than a year. Nada. Zilch. This was the bleakest stretch I could remember. I phoned my husband at work, just to say hi, maybe seven times a day. I cooked elaborate dinners: pot roasts and hot puddings, in contrast to my usual writing fare of ramen and yoghurt. To prove to myself that someone, somewhere, was still finding ideas, I took to visiting bookstores and staring at the new releases section like they were exotic animals in a zoo. Then I called my long-time publisher just to catch up, for a gentle, general chat about my progress, or lack thereof. The conversation went something like this:
Me: OH MY GOD my career is over isn’t it? It’s over. You can tell me. Just tell me straight. I’ll never get another idea. Never never never. Well it was good while it lasted. OH NO this means I’ll have to get a job. Who would be stupid enough to give me a job? My entire skill set revolves around making stuff up. What kind of job is that for a grown up? I’m unemployable. I have a mortgage. I need to eat. My life is over.
Publisher: That’s what you said after your first book. My guess is, you’ll say this after every book.
Me: No no no I’ve never said this before and even if I have this is different I am doomed doomed.
Publisher: Can you speak up? I can hardly hear you.
Me: I’m in a cupboard. I don’t know when I’m coming out.
At the very beginning of my writing life, before I’d finished my first manuscript, before I even knew what I didn’t know, my college teacher invited me to a book launch: a former student of hers had published her debut novel to much international acclaim. I had never been to a book launch before. Other than my teacher, I’d never met a novelist. I was almost 40 and lived in the suburbs. Up until I started writing, I lived a very different kind of life.
The launch was in a groovy pub in Collingwood, in Melbourne’s inner north. It was the kind of place with skateboard parking provided, with a vegan microbrewery attached, where the patrons all looked like amateur secret agents in beards and big glasses. I looked like somebody’s mother.
The author gave a charming and witty speech and, as she sat down to sign books for the long queue, I remember thinking to myself: Well, she’s sorted now. She knows how to do it. She just needs to do it again.
Ho ho ho. I don’t think that way anymore. Now I think that ideas are like fruit, and novelists pick the low-hanging ones first. These are the ones closer to our psyche and our preoccupations, the ones that have been forming inside us for years. The idea for each new novel is harder to find, in my view. Each time, we must stretch further from the heart of us, from the things we care about.
Lately I’ve taken to leaving a notepad on my bedside table in case I dream a novel, like Mary Shelley who, on holiday one summer on the shores of Lake Geneva, woke up one morning with Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. After all, Stephen King wrote Misery after falling asleep on a plane and dreaming about a fan who kidnapped her favorite writer, Stephenie Meyer dreamed up Bella and Edward, and Stevenson snoozed his way to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it’s working for me. Here is an actual note I found the morning after a particularly vivid dream:
Eight years old again kidnapped by a secret society of maniacal British chefs who know I’m really 45 and want to squeeze my brain to make money on elections, disasters, sports, whatever. I’m in a mini-bus with the chefs. Big white hats. Shoving newspapers in my face. Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, trying to squeeze my brain in a juicer. Super scary. Run!
I know, right? Those 2016 Booker judges can put away their binoculars: it’ll be my British-chefs-time-travel-brain-juicing-conspiracy novel (The Indigestibles?) by a wide margin.
By now, I’ve established I’m in no position to give advice about finding ideas for novels, but I will anyway.There are two essential things, for me. The first is walking. There is something about this meditative rhythm of movement, about the permission it gives my brain to wander, that encourages tiny idea sparks to make flame. I’ve sold my car and bought a dog. It’s not everything, but it helps.
The second is more difficult. To be a good novelist, you need to keep your sense of curiosity alive. You need to be the kind of person who wants to know things: about people, about events, about objects. What made you want to become a pilot? Do you get on with your sister? What is that police car doing there? Who lives in that tiny/big/smelly house? Who dropped that hand-written note in the park, and what does it say? Good fiction writers are nosey. I think “write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice. Instead, write what you’re really interested in. Write what is going to keep you awake at night; write what you don’t understand; write to figure something out. Good novels are journeys into the unknown, for their authors as well as their readers.
Ideas, like much of life, seem obvious in retrospect. The idea behind my most recent novel was a historical photograph. My second novel was inspired by a dinner party conversation with a stranger who was, he told me, “a telecommunications technician by day and a cryptozoologist by night.” For the rest of that evening, we talked about extinct marsupials and giant cats and Bigfoot. He didn’t smile once. For him, it was not a laughing matter. Within a few days, a plot began to appear: a family of con-artists attempt to sting an eccentric millionaire by making him believe an extinct animal still exists.
The idea behind my debut novel is harder to explain. It’s the story of a woman with OCD: a compulsive counter obsessed with 10s who must decide if there is space for love in her regimented world. The book began on a plane, in 2004. I was traveling for business (I worked as a scientific writer then, for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies) so my laptop was in the overhead compartment. I was in the aisle seat. It was a 14-hour flight and the movies were terrible. The voice of a counting woman just popped into my head and there was no excuse to not write it down. (Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d had the window seat and hadn’t wanted to disturb a sleeping traveller sitting next to me. Voices are fragile things that fade quickly. A life can turn on moments like these.)
Sometimes, at writers’ festivals and library talks and book clubs, kind people step forward to take extra good care of me. They check what time I want to start my talk; they rearrange the rows of seats; they move the coffee cups to rows of tens. It took me some time to realise, but now I know: they think I am Grace, the counting protagonist. They think I have OCD, which I don’t (they’d realise their mistake if they only saw the state of my study). They think the idea for that book came from within me.
Perhaps it did, though. Perhaps somewhere inside me is a desire for order, a need to be the kind of person who has everything squared away and ship shape. I have no other explanation. And I like it that way. If the act of writing a novel is a mix of art and craft, it seems to me that the “craft” is the only bit I can control. I worry over every sentence, I move commas and rewrite dialogue and try to find a better way to build scene upon scene. The “art” bit is beyond my power. Perhaps I have an old fashioned muse sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. It’s as good an idea as any.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
It’s safe to say that Tumblr saved my reading life. By the time I began using police composite sketch software to create images of literary characters suggested by Tumblr users I had really stopped reading fiction. Between sorting short stories every month at Joyland and switching from writing unsold novels to working on film and television scripts, my relationship to fiction had trailed off to a sluggish pulse. When The Composites took off, I started reading what thousands of complete strangers told me to read and, in the process, I rid myself of a lifetime of habits, biases, and poorly formed opinions on what literature should be. I killed my inner pundit.
Answering the hive mind of Tumblr, I was sent rummaging through my books in storage. I searched Project Gutenberg. I skulked the aisles of The Strand bookstore with pen and notebook, hoping to not get caught. While I thought I probably looked thoroughly insane, I’m confident the staff had seen worse. Hell, I even bought a few books.
This accelerated thesis-style surveying of 400 random novels over eight months allowed me to revisit books from my past and to see their forgotten influence on me now. Stephen King may have unknowingly swiped the title Joyland, but I still think Misery is a bitter, hilarious, and brilliant novel. Not before or since has such a popular author figuratively punished his fans with effortless postmodernism — a nuance I may have missed when I first read it at age 13.
I re-read The Recognitions, William Gaddis’s messy, vital book about the impossibility of living authentically. His consciousness-altering writing merged with The Composites, from the definite article title to the heady brew of ideas about representation and originality. Even the resulting composite image of the protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, felt like a mystery solved. Gaddis had described a face much like his own.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s perfect novel The Master and Margarita was something I boldly lied about having read before and once you lie about having read a book it’s very difficult to undo deceptions you’ve built your life on. Jonathan Lethem’s funny and affecting The Fortress of Solitude was a novel that sat on our shelf for years (it’s one of my wife’s favorite books). Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the story I now most want to see as a TV show adaptation.
The default of the hive mind is to reiterate the popular. A composite drawn from Gaiman’s novel created waves of nerdgasms throughout Tumblr while something like the composite from The Recognitions brought a smattering of applause from five men in cardigans. I tried to keep the balance of popular and unpopular in phase during my nine months of social reading but what most changed my understanding of literature was being asked to look at staggeringly popular books.
Women who write popular books are given a raw deal out of the critical gates, judged on criteria that similarly popular male authors never face. How much had I unconsciously absorbed that bias? Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is not a book I would have read without hundreds of requests for me to do so, but I’m glad I did. It is a damn good book. Collins’s writing is economical and elegant and the novel’s allegories about class and entertainment are sharper than literary attempts to explore the same subjects.
Having spent a year speed-reading and skimming 400 books, I think I deserve another few years off. When I do start again, though, I know it will be as a freer, more open reader.
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