Reading Lists

I want this book so bad, I could eat it.

It’s a fine balance for me, my reading list, as I’m always juggling three balls in the air: books by authors I will be presenting with, books by other war lit authors, and books I want to read. Sometimes, I find all three of these in one, such as FOBBIT, which is written by David Abrams. I knew I’d meet present with him, he writes about war, and his book was already on my can’t-wait-to-read-it list. Other times, I struggle with my reading list, because the order of events in my life doesn’t line up with the order my creative mind wants to encounter different narratives.

Next week, I’ll be introducing authors Christine Sneed, Matt Gallagher, and Susanna Sonnenberg–three writers I’ve crossed paths with in the past few years whose talents and personalities I thought would be a good match for our faculty needs at the annual Writer’s Retreat I direct. In order to introduce Christine, I’ve read her short story collection and her novel. I actually started this process back in March, as Christine and I served on a panel together in Chicago. I enjoyed both books, most especially Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. But reading these in the midst of my own novel revisions was not specifically helpful to my own work. I might have preferred to read her novel, for example, after I finished my own, and not to read short stories at all while I was trying to teach myself how to write longer. Her work made an impression on me, but without being able to apply that impression in some immediate way to my own work, I wonder how deep that impression can go on my writer-self. Likewise, I’ve just finished She Matters by Susanna and it’s an incredible memoir…but I don’t teach memoir until August and I’m not currently working on any nonfiction myself. I loved the book, but might have loved it more if I’d read it while sunning on the porch of a lakeside cabin where I teach every August.

What this means is that I end up reading four or five (sometimes six) books at a time. Right now I’m reading one for professional purposes (Her Last Death), one for war professional purposes (Demon Camp), one for leisure (Sixty-Six Square Feet), one for my writer-self (Bluesman), and dreaming of Claire Davis’ Season of the Snake (which is in the attic and I can’t find it no matter how many times I look) and Stuart Dybek’s two newly released books of fiction (which I can’t afford until they’re paperback or used). After I return from next week’s retreat, though, I’ll have 3 weeks before sharing a stage with Sandra Scofield and Reginal Harris, whose books I have ordered by not yet read…and so the list of books I’m reading, and must read, and want to read, continues to grow. Sometimes it makes me grumpy; other times I feel rich with words.

Am I over-preparing? Perhaps. In fact, the majority of panels or shared-author events that I’ve been involved in have been with authors who are not familiar with my work. Typically, I show up with that writer’s words fresh in my mind, questions on the tip of my tongue. If I’m going to meet and work with another writer, I want to know what he/she has to offer and how we differ or overlap. I likewise want to ask that author questions that will be meaningful…perhaps a question they’re not usually asked, a question only another writer could come up with. I want to do this not only to engage respectfully with another professional and show that I care about their work, but to provide a better experience for the audience that has come to see us. If all the writers on the panel know each other’s work well enough, the panelists can make creative connections and leaps more efficiently and tie each other’s work together any number of ways that might be useful to the audience.

In time, I might grow out of this. Right now, I’m still working on my street cred, as they say, and it still feel it’s really important to be prepared when I meet other writers. I’ve shaken hands with more than one writer whose work I admired and who I presented equally alongside with, only to have that writer ask me later, something like, “So, you interviewed soldiers, right?” or “Oh…your book is fiction. Gosh. I had no idea. I’ll have to check that out.” I don’t take this personally, but I do find it…a bit, well…unprofessional. I suppose I’m a traditionalist at heart. To each her own. Meantime, back to the reading list…

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