Sunday, February 11, 2007

clearing a path

Warning: Literary ramblings ahead.

I've finished Interpreter of Maladies, that Pulitzer-winning sensation that took the literary world by storm not too long ago. Well, I finished all but the last story. And while the stories I did read are good and the characters held my interest, my overall reaction is "meh" with a palms-up shrug. This is not sour-grapes jealousy, trust me. I think it rocks that Lahiri had such success with this book, and at such a young age. Clearly, she's poised for a long, illustrious career, and when one literary author makes her mark so boldly, I believe it bodes well for those of us still in the trenches. But I didn't come away from any of these stories changed. I didn't have to put the book down in the middle of a passage just to take a breath, or to look away from the story so that I could get my bearings, which are just two of the effects that the books I love have on me.

I think immediately of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a book so completely out-of-line in it's brazen literary greatness that I'm not sure how my basic bodily systems continued to function while I was reading it. I don't think I breathed at all the whole time, and I'm pretty positive that I didn't eat or drink or move anything except for my page-turning arm until I reached the end. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had a similar effect on me, though more because of the quiet gorgeousness of her prose than because of the blinding intensity, which is how Frazier got to me.

As a reader, being transported like this has something to do with journeying to the heart of a story and then journeying away from it again, having learned something about the world or yourself that you hadn't known before. As a writer, I don't think there's a formula for clearing a path to this heart (so that you can take your readers there, too) in the cleanest, clearest, most-efficient way. Or, if there is, I sure haven't found it yet. The first novel I ever finished writing(over a decade ago - my true "practice book") seems to lack a strong, steady, central heartbeat, which I think is why it just doesn't seem to "work" when I've gone back and taken a look at it. My second novel, though, the one currently making the rounds (thanks to my awesome literary agent), is different. The heart of that book - the event that drives the protagonist to make choices that almost bring her down - came to me in crystal-clear form while I was just sitting around one day doing not much of anything.

And the draft I'm in the thick of now is challenging me in ways that the other two didn't. It's making me work to find its heart, which I know is there and close, just beneath the underbrush. Today I was able to resolve in my head a key scene that has been eluding me, and doing so felt like finally staking down the corner of a big tarp flapping in the wind, driving me nuts.

On the reading front, two books have taken the place left on my nightstand by Interpreter of Maladies. They are Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones (who has an excellent, hype-free blog) and Journal of a Novel, which is a transcription of the journal John Steinbeck kept (a series of letters to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, actually) while he was writing East of Eden. I've had the latter since studying Steinbeck as an undergraduate, but I haven't taken a serious look at it in years. Now that I'm hot on the trail of my WIP's beating heart seems as good a time as any to re-read the words of yet another master.

I would love to know what books threaten to send you, Dear Readers, into organ failure with their greatness, regardless of genre. What books have stayed with you for years after reading them for the first time, and why?


  1. Nicole, I LOVE reading about how other writers work, and what they love to read!!

    I just finished Neil Gaiman's latest short story collection and found it stunning. Sometimes gruesome and sometimes beautiful. I had to reread a few things to soak in the words. It's not for everybody though.

    I remember reading A Canticle for Liebowitz & Brave New World in high school and being very mind expanded over it. That was in my sci-fi phase.

    Last year I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which almost made me want to stop writing because it was so good!

    I'm done editing now (two books) and my brain has a great new idea forming with no event to make it happen. I have to come up with an event! I've written four novels now and sooner or later I'll get it right... I hope!!

  2. Heidi, I need to pick up another Neil Gaiman book. I tried reading Ananzi Boys last year, but for some reason I just couldn't get into it. I'm apparently the only one who has this problem, which is why I think I should give him another shot. ;-)

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was another biggee. I think I'll put it on my reading list.

  3. Hi Nicole,

    I stopped in because I was checking in on how much Tayari Jones is getting blogged about. (Quite a bit, actually.) She's a friend that I've read with often over the years. Anyway, that brought me to your sight, and after reading your post I couldn't help but leave a response.

    In particular, I was struck by your question about what books stayed with me for years and why. I recently contributed to J Peder Zane's The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (Norton), and that's just the way I approached coming up with a list. I didn't try to pick the world's best works. I just tried to pick titles that indelibly effected my growth as a person and as a writer. The list I came up with was...

    1. Beloved, Toni Morrison
    2. The Brother’s Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
    3. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
    4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
    5. The Green House, Mario Vargas Llosa
    6. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
    7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
    8. The Famished Road, Ben Okri
    9. Dune, Frank Herbert
    10. Watership Down, Richard Adams

    I'm embarrassed that I didn't have more women on the list (although Toni Morrison does get top billing), but again, this list is just a personal one. And these books affected me in some amazing ways that I had to acknowledge. So that's my list. I don't mind saying that when they tallied up the lists of the 125 authors they asked none of my picks were in the top ten. That's all right with me, though.

    As for Neil Gaiman... I had the same experience with Ananzi Boys. I stopped reading it. But I recently read American Gods and really liked it. You might consider giving that one a try, if Gaiman gets on to your nightstand again. Also, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age was great. And, keeping with the sci-fi/fantasy theme, I'm excited about my next book, Acacia. It comes out this summer, and I'm hoping that a few people out there come to think of it as a favorite.

    All the best with your writing,


  4. David, be still my heart: Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera and Cormac McCarthy on one list. You and I have some 'scussing to do, man! Reading All the Pretty Horses is like consuming a meal of 99% pure dark chocolate and habanero peppers with a Jim Beam chaser. It's one of those books I had to just look away from every now and then while reading, so that I could process what I'd just read. And Kundera writes with such an awesome, masculine sensuality. His work is what makes me want to visit Prague before I die. Toni Morrison actually came to Northern Arizona University several years ago to speak - what a treat that was. It goes without saying that she has the presence of a really intelligent giant.

    I will give American Gods a try, and I'll have to put The Diamond Age on my list, too. But before those, I'll check out Gabriel's Story. How exciting it must be to have another book forthcoming! It sounds like you're an old hand to this publishing stuff, but to someone like me this sounds like an incredible rush. Please pop back in here when it's on the shelves so I can trumpet it for you. :-)

  5. Hi Nicole,

    Thanks for your nice response, here, and for your comments on my sight. I've had a blog for a while now, but I've only recently begun to really pay attention to it, and to correspond with others on their blogs. So far so good, though. Nice to feel a little grassroots networking going on.

    Yes, McCarthy was a big influence. I wouldn't have written Gabriel's Story as I did without the prompting of Blood Meridian, and The Border Trilogy just reinforced that. I'd like to believe you'll like Gabriel's Story too. It's Cormac-influenced, but it's particularly mine in many ways, too.

    I do recommend American Gods and The Diamond Age. Gods maybe goes on a bit long. At least, that's what I thought when reading it. Then I read an interview with Neil Gaiman about the book and he made some very interesting points about the wide swathe of American history and culture he wanted to include. I especially like the short sections about various immigrant groups bringing their gods to America. He really touches on the diversity of America, much more so than most white American writers usually do. But Gaiman is British, so I think he sees his adopted country with fresher eyes than the natives. (Oh, there's a rather bizarre sex scene early on, and another involving a cat further in. Just thought I should mention it.)

    And the Diamond Age... Well, it starts out with some decidely ciber-punk elements that may or may not work for everyone. But the further I got into it the more engaged I got. Stephensen is smart, and his vision of the future is scary and fascinating both - like Margaret Atwood's in Oryx and Crake.

    Both these writers, and a few others throughought the genres, marked an important step for me back toward acknowledging that good writing is good writing, no matter what genre it's in. I'd forgotten that as an arrogant grad student and had to unlearn my disdain for anything not clearly labelled literary.

    Glad I did, though. I've begun to really enjoy reading again, and I've found a lot of pleasure and inspiration and challenge in letting my work go in unexpected directions. That's what Acacia is, and, yes, it's still exciting and nerve-racking to know that I'm about to go through the whole publishing thing again. But I wouldn't have it any other way.