Monthly Archives: June 2010

On Being Married to a Non-Reader

When I first met my husband, I thought his not being a book lover would be a deal breaker. Although I read for pleasure much less now than I did as a child and teenager, I still consider reading part of my identity. Many of my childhood friends were bookworms, and so was my first boyfriend. When A told me “I don’t read,” I had to discard certain fantasies. Curling up on the sofa with our separate books and reading passages out loud–that wasn’t going to be part of our shared future.

But then I realized a few things. First of all, A wasn’t exactly telling the truth. He does read online news, and Pop Candy, and CHUD.com. And occasionally he reads a book. Though that doesn’t make him a reader of the wormish sort, it’s not the same as thinking books–or reading–suck.

Second, I realized that dating a movie lover was just as important to me as dating a book lover. Maybe more important. People go to movies together. We read books alone. Bonding over The Lord of the Rings films was just as good as bonding over Ondaatje.

Third, I realized it didn’t matter. My brother Y isn’t a reader, and I still loved _him_. (He has only been known to read books by Robert Jordan and he has convinced me–not on purpose, but pretty much convinced me–that even video games can be “literary.”)

Finally, I eventually learned that A loved me enough to go to a Michael Ondaatje reading _when I was out of town_ to buy me a copy of _Divisadero_ and get it signed.

What more could a book lover want in a spouse?

‘Even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart’

If you read the New Yorker or you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of the magazine’s 20 Under 40 issue. I’ve been making my way through the stories, and ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” really grabbed me, perhaps because it’s historical fiction, and my novel-in-progress is also set in the past. Or perhaps because–well just because.

I’d gotten to paragraph four before I realized the story was set in the post-Civil War South (“Two years free, Lazarus was hoisting himself up a pine like a runaway”). Writers take different approaches to weaving history into their fictional works. Books like “Sea of Poppies,” and a lot of the more “popular” (excuse the scare quotes) historical fiction, pile on the historical details. I think a lot of readers, especially history buffs, like their historical fiction strong on the history. Many people like to feel they learnt new facts while also getting a good story.

Other novelists go light on the historical detail. “The Known World,” “The General in His Labyrinth,” and Packer’s New Yorker piece take this approach. Though historical setting is integral to these works, their minimalist approach to creating a historical world enables them, I think, to speak eloquently toward contemporary, even universal, themes. (Racism, poverty, and the yearning for a better life; imperialism and growing older; coming-of-age, family, and escape.)

I don’t think one approach is better than the other, but as a reader and a writer I favor the latter. When a friend’s wife heard I was writing a historical novel, she said, “You must really like history.” Um, no. I don’t love history. Don’t hate it either. But it’s a means of saying what I want to say, rather than a passion.

The beauty of Packer’s piece is how she gets into the emotions of her 15-year-old main character. Stuck up a tree, needing to save his younger sister from the vicious dogs sent after them, he thinks

It was all his fault that they were in it like this. Ever suspicious of a God who hadn’t spoken to man, woman, or child in more than a thousand years, he nevertheless sent up a pinprick-brief prayer, even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart.

Ah, if I could write one image that vivid in my entire life, I’d be happy. Reading as a writer, I found Packer’s writing intimidatingly good. (Self-improvement resolution of the day: Turn feelings of intimidation into aspiration.) Reading as a reader, I found the story ignore-your-toddler-until-he-starts-whining-and-then-feel-annoyed-at-the-guilt-that’s-keeping-you-from-getting-to-the-end good.

It’s good to see historical fiction in the New Yorker. Not because that’s a mark of approval from the powers that be (literary historical fiction has been in vogue for quite some time now), but because I do like a good dollop of history with my fiction from time to time.

Here I Am Again

Let’s just say I’ve been gone for two weeks because I’ve been reading Robin Black’s “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.” My friend and reader S mentioned Black in response to my post about late bloomers; “If I Loved You,” a story collection, is Black’s first book, and she is in her late forties.

I like a good short story, but despite my love of Alice Munro, I’ve never been as big a fan of them as I am of novels. I like losing myself in a world for several hundred pages. (But not more than 350-400–yes, I know that cuts out Russian novels and 18th century novels and “Ulysses.” I’ll live.) But I’m short on reading time and attention span these days, so Black’s book has been perfect for getting me back into the reading habit. Her stories are lovely and she’s the kind of writer who doesn’t intimidate but rather inspires: “If she can do this, I can do this, too.” My three favorite stories have been “The Guide,” about a father taking his daughter to get her first guide dog, “Harriet Elliot,” because it veers a little more toward the bizarre than the other stories, and “A Country Where You Once Lived.” I didn’t like the last of the three at first. The language is a little balder and more distant than the language in the rest of the book, but eventually that started to make sense. The point of view character is a scientist and the voice fits him and his distance from most other people. But the story won me over because it turns drastically several times, and what I got in the end was not the story I expected, but seemed inevitable.

The problem with reading a good story collection, it turns out, is that it has made me want to write new stories or work on stories that I set aside a while ago.

And then today I worked in my garden for four hours, and _that_ made me want to work on the novel I set aside to write the one I’m working on, because one of the main characters of set-aside novel is going to be into gardening.

So, someone please tell me how to get into the right mindset for writing about a wacky medieval sorceress/fortuneteller who lives in the hills with a goat.