I realized when I promised to blog reader requests for a week, it was already Wednesday — and I try to stay off the Internet on weekends. So I thought I’d take one more day to answer some questions that were posted to the Facebook page:
1) What aspects of your childhood would you not want your own children to experience? That’s tough to answer without hurting someone’s feelings, so I’ll flip it to talk about the aspect of my childhood that I wish I could share with the next generation: the general freedom to roam, and the specific place in which I roamed, Dickeyville.
I know I was often bored as a child. I had few true peers in the immediate neighborhood. I was bored often enough that we recited this couplet: “Nothing to do, nothing to do?/Put some mustard in your shoe.” But I did live on the side of a densely wooded hill and I was allowed to wander there pretty freely. I also ice skated, often with no parental supervision, on the dammed-up pond near my house. (And fell in, too.)
These memories — BSP alert as I learned to say on the DorothyL listserv long ago — form the spine of my next book, THE MOST DANGEROUS THING. The children in this book are three to ten years younger than I am, but I think kids in 1976-1980 still had this kind of freedom.
2) Books versus e-readers. The first thing I think when asked about this topic is the old Michael O’Donohue routine, in which he did an impersonation of Tony Orlando and Dawn with 9-inch spikes through their eyes. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
I own a Kindle. I use it mostly for travel. I have some quibbles with it and therefore use it primarily for books that I would not buy in hardcover. This creates a kind of vicious circle, in which I think the books I read on the Kindle are not as enjoyable as books I read in traditional formats, but then I’ve purchased mainly books that aren’t as good as the books I buy in hardcover and paperback. Every now and then, a book transcends the device — Gillian Flynn’s DARK PLACES, Michelle Huvenen’s BLAME.
Meanwhile I cling to the Pollyanna-ish hope that digital devices are creating new readers, not just moving them around. Or getting people to buy even more books. I know that I make incredible impulse purchases now. On Sunday, I saw an ad for the new Melissa Fay Greene memoir, which sounded like something I would love. An ad! I have never purchased a book based on an ad in my life. And, to be sure, I read the reviews first. But I had the book downloaded to my Kindle no more than a minute after reading the reviews.
Finally, I’d like to quote John Connolly from a recent Tweet that made me laugh: “A bullet to the head for anyone, esp a writer, who uses the term ‘dead tree publishing’ or ‘legacy publishing’ to describe a printed book.”
3) Journalism. How does it help (or hinder) a novelist?
Journalism is great training for novelists. It teaches one professional work habits and discourages the romanticization of research (which can be a dangerous Bermuda Triangle of procrastination). Interestingly, I find that journalists who write/want to write fiction are less likely to fudge things in their journalism. The fabricated stories created by James Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, etc., would never work as fiction because they are too over-the-top. They had to trade in the currency of fact to get a pass on the things that would never fly in fiction.
As for journalism’s present state/future: I have no clue. I do know this much. Information may want to be free (I doubt it), but it isn’t free. Good journalism costs money. And it was subsidized for years not by the subscription price, but by advertising. Lose readers, advertising rates drop and budgets shrink. Much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is just second-day thumb-sucking.
4) Do I listen to music while I write? Only what’s on the sound system in the coffee shop. I zone out while writing; music is wasted on me. In fact, I am going to make a confession, deep in this blog post: I wrote some of my first novel while Melrose Place or some other show played on the television in an adjoining room. I liked the noise.
5) Ten favorite books? Impossible. Instead, I’ll name ten books that are important to me:
All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers
Beany Has a Secret Life
Zuckerman Unbound, My Life as a Man, When She Was Good
Rabbit is Rich
I jotted these down from impulse, thinking about books I read before I was age 25, books that I re-read to this day. (Note that three are children’s books.) In many ways, the second book on the list is the most important because its first line, which is very simple, made me say to myself: I want to make someone feel the way I feel right now, happy and tingly with anticipation about the story to come.
Mary Gordon’s brilliant essay, Good Boys and Dead Girls, has made me question my admiration for Updike, but Rabbit is Rich was the first book I read that showed me how literary fiction can use pop culture without being dragged down by it. (Or, conversely, without relying on it as a lazy shorthand.) If memory serves — ! — there’s a heart-wrenching scene involving Rabbit, his son and some cars, which may or may not be at the Toyota dealership where Rabbit works. I think it ends: You asked for it, you got it, the Toyota jingle of the time, which has been laid into the text earlier, presumably just for this pay-off.
The trio of Roth works — none of which would be considered his very best, probably — provide interesting insights into how a writer uses autobiography. The first two are deeply autobiographical, especially MY LIFE AS A MAN. But WHEN SHE WAS GOOD is Roth’s attempt to imagine the life of someone very different from him. The passages that stick with me are of Roy, the small-town boy who thinks he’s destined for great things. Roth, from what I can glean, had a relatively happy childhood and the kind of life that doesn’t provide much fodder for fiction. But he found material there, quite a bit. As Eudora Welty wrote, she had a sheltered life: “But all great daring starts from within.”