Dearest readers, I am a big big cheatyface who was so busy making books this weekend that I did not really write a blog post. So, instead I give you a reprint of an essay that I’m pretty sure I wrote for entrance into grad school, although whether I wrote this for Goddard or another program, I am not sure. I am sure that this was actually how much of an idea I had that I was soon to become completely obsessed with fairy tales and rewrite them all the time. Oh, that crazy Process.
To introduce myself to you, here is a tour of nine books that have changed my life. These aren’t necessarily the best and most literary moments in my reading career, or even my all-time favorites, but rather the most significant books to my development as a reader and a writer. Think of this essay less as a reader’s curriculum vitae, designed to impress, and more as an adolescent mix tape given to a sweetheart.
My reading life began early. I was hungry for words and could read coherently by age five. At age six I chose Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth for my book report. Because most other kids were reading things like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, I got several extensions, causing a jealous classmate to exclaim, “Well, I’ll just read the dictionary and take all year!” Reading The Phantom Tollbooth taught me two important things: I could read something long, and reading gave me power. I re-read the book with my class in third grade, and suddenly all the jokes made sense. This taught me something else: re-reading brings insight. Also, language is hilarious.
The next book that really floored me came into my life at age eight. My mother brought Mariel of Redwall by Brian Jacques back from a library conference. I didn’t expect to like it, but then sat down and finished the whole thing in a matter of days. I became a Redwall fanatic, read the whole series and was hungry for more. I wanted to write Redwall stories for myself. I wrote a few, unfinished, because something seemed to be lacking when I used Jacques’ world instead of making one up for myself. So, I started making up fantasy stories. When I was in my late teens and had long since graduated from Redwall to the more adult, wittier Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, I went back and read some of the Redwall books, just for kicks. It was like reading preteen love letters: nostalgic, but painful. I realized how black-and-white all the characters were, how melodramatic the plots were. The Redwall books taught me several things: to love reading epics, to love British literature (Redwall prepared me, in some ways, for Dickens), and to recognize finesse in writing. The Redwall books, to my adult eyes, are not “good”. But they are addictive and engaging and there’s a spark of that pure childish fun that I hope to preserve in my own works today.
I drafted my first novel in high school. I didn’t finish the manuscript but did get well over a hundred pages done, and it is now what Tamora Pierce calls the “bury it under the crossroads with a stake through its heart” novel. It was about what happened to the gods of various ancient cultures in this modern world, and how they were plotting to cause and/or stop the end of the world. I let some of my friends read what I had so far, and the one overwhelming comment I got was, “Have you read American Gods by Neil Gaiman?” I hadn’t. So I did. And that led me to Neil Gaiman, superstar of speculative fiction. Here was a guy who was doing what I wanted to be doing, only better. Instead of being frustrated about it, I tried to learn all the tricks I could from him and broadened my reading base of speculative fiction. I finally had a name for what I was trying to write: Not hard scifi, not sword-and-sorcery, but rather something strange and otherworldly that was grounded in reality, in this world. Speculative fiction.
The next book that impacted me was not fiction, nor poetry. I find it in bookstores in that most embarrassing of sections, self-help. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron set me up for success in ways no other book has. It helped me explore who I was as a writer and an artist and why I sometimes stopped myself from doing writing and art. Working with her book made me much saner and steadier as an artist. As David Wagoner pointed out to me, writing “must not be fearful or holy.”
As I mentioned, I’d been well set-up to enjoy British literature. So when I started reading it in earnest, I found my taste towards the darker end of the 19th century spectrum. I shunned Austen in favor of Jane Eyre. I enjoyed the redemptive tales of Dickens well enough, but in college I found the 19th century novel that really tickled my fancy: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. I loved every sympathetic, backward character and the evils that befell them. Thackeray’s distinctive style showed me how the narrator can be a character, and how as a reader I could strongly like and dislike characters at the same time. The way Thackeray manipulated his readers’ emotions with cold ease fascinated me. I wanted to learn how to throw narrative power around like that without coming off as hackneyed or obvious.
I suppose it makes sense, then, that the next author I fell in love with was Dante Alighieri. I read the Commedia in a class at Colorado College, poring over it for three and a half weeks. I loved the fantastic structure Dante gave to the afterlife. I loved swimming in the layers of meaning and allusion. Even with all of his gall and ego-tripping, Dante’s poetry was wonderful. Dante’s journey inspired me so much that I wrote a grant to write a three-part graphic novel script based on the Commedia, casting myself as the narrator and the journey as a three-part fictional trip through my life: childhood as Hell, young adulthood as Purgatory, and older adulthood as Paradise. I won $3500 of grant money and spent a summer writing the script to my Inferno, which I finished in 2005.
In college, I took several classes and worked on my thesis with Chris Bachelder. He was one of the few writers whom I read only after meeting them. His first novel, Bear V. Shark: The Novel, did something unique; it collaged sections of seemingly random story fragments and pop culture sound bits into a fascinating, romping narrative. Chris broadened my speculative fiction palette, introducing me to the writing of George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, and Aimee Bender. Through Chris and his writing, I learned how to take fragments, the language of advertising and legalese, and work it into compelling fiction. Chris taught me not only writing skills, but also showed me how significant a writing mentor is, and guided me through my own first novel, a dystopian tale called Freedomland. Years later, I published Freedomland; revision was a two-year labor of love and editing in which I often worked alone with nothing but a block of comments and self-determination.
After college, with no school to tell me what books I might want to read, I still sought community and literary connections. I took many writing classes through Seattle’s Richard Hugo House and began to form community with other local writers. But sometimes, literary synchronicity found me. In an airport, I picked up someone’s lost copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and again had my novel-writing world turned upside down. Foer’s strong narrative voices and use of pictures grabbed my attention, and his subtle ways of dealing with major tragedy kept me riveted. Through him, I learned how to bring serious subject matter into the story from the side-door, while maintaining an engaging and funny tone.
I began another major project soon after publishing Freedomland, this time a novel heavily informed by British mythology. In my research, I ran across The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child. It was like meeting a long-lost friend; many of the ballads I had known since childhood in the form of songs or poems. I am exploring the Child ballads in fits and starts as I work my way though my manuscript. I expect the connections I make from the Child ballads and my other research will give me more insight on how to weave mythic archetypes and situations into my fiction.
And so my reading life is a continually changing, renewing wellspring. Sometimes my reading informs my writing, as with the Commedia; sometimes my writing informs my reading, as with the Child ballads. As my critical and creative study progresses, I hope my reading choices will follow a flow between influences from advisors and peers, naturally occurring discoveries through my fiction research, and pure random happenstance.