Literary Hub

When I’m Writing Fiction, I Cannot Read It

piles of books

As a child, books were your refuge. The entirety of book-world was your tribe. The March family taught you morals; Anne of Green Gables, especially if you were like me, an unruly kid with reddish braids, gave you hope. Maybe Brian Robeson in Hatchet made you believe you could survive anything. The Lord of the Flies let you know that you wouldn’t.

As you grew older, you discovered new books and new ways to learn from them, but that profound connection you feel with them never left you.

What, though, if the joy did?

For life-long bookworms, as many novelists are, becoming a published author is a dream come true. Or perhaps more accurately, a long-awaited arrival. You enter the heart of the tribe.

Being a novelist is hard work. You are at your desk for often long, often irregular hours. Or for short hours that you wish could be longer. Frequently you struggle through one or the other without knowing whether a paycheck awaits you at the end. When your novel is published, you have to switch to a whole new skill set to assist with marketing and publicity. You may also have to face a new set of trolls.

At the same time, making up stories for a living is crazy wonderful. Having a legitimate excuse to obsess over language is utter relief. My books, although not autobiographical, still carry a piece of my heart; in becoming a published novelist, I feel as though I’ve in a way become the very thing I spent my life loving.

But what if becoming a published novelist was to rob the pleasure that inspired it? What if it was to hamper the act or, worse still, joy of reading?

My second novel, Shining Sea, came out in paperback last month. In the year between the hardcover release and the paperback, I was involved in promoting the novel, wrote a number of short and long-form nonfiction articles and op-eds, wrote some politically oriented speeches, and began researching and making notes for a new novel.

I also read like a coyote loose among sheep. I devoured new releases, explored and fell in love with a whole new (for me) genre, and consumed huge chunks out of my to-be-read pile. I re-read every book I own by Willa Cather, which is pretty much every book by Willa Cather. I consumed any book of fiction or creative nonfiction related to Uganda that I could get my hands on. I strode into bookstores and strolled back out with books recommended by the bookseller. I always am startled when, at the end of the year, I tally my book-buying costs. This year I may need to down a glass of wine first.

In October, after a final loop through California, all of my scheduled book touring for Shining Sea will be done. As much as I enjoy visiting bookstores and meeting readers, I look forward to settling down to the nitty-gritty of my new novel, closing my office door to the world, and turning the notes and random pages and research I’ve amassed over the past year into a carefully crafted whole.

Does this mean my greedy fiction-reading streak will have to end?

*

When Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mercy of Thin Air and The Keeper of Tales trilogy, is working on a new book, she will “read ARCs if asked for blurbs and do critiques.” But she “will rarely read for pleasure.”* Kelly Simmons, author of One More Day and the forthcoming Fourth of July, says, “[W]hen I’m writing I can’t tolerate what others might call a guilty pleasure. I’m worried it might seep in!”

I also shy away from reading other people’s fiction when I’m in the thick of writing a new novel. I have to read daily, especially before I go to sleep at night. The idea of not doing so is impossible; I might as well go on a fast—something you would never catch me doing. But while I’m developing the voice of a book, I don’t want to hear someone else’s fiction cadences.

For a period of time in the course of working on a new fiction manuscript, novels—apart from ARCs that have been sent to me for blurbs and fiction by friends to critique—disappear from my bedside table to be replaced by nonfiction titles, newspapers, and magazines. While writing Shining Sea, the table was also occupied variously with books by or about a WWII Japanese prison camp survivor, a Pacific Ocean surfer, John McPhee’s The Crofter and The Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island, Homer’s The Odyssey, and other books whose cadences I did want to catch (or at least those of a character in them). Books, in other words, I might appreciate as a reader but was reading as a writer.

The irony! Doing the job I love, although intimately connected to the pastime I love, clearly also interferes with it.

Some novelists do read other people’s fiction while they write. “I always read, even when I am in the thick of my own work,” Marcy Dermansky, author most recently of The Red Car says, “because I need to be reading. It would be too bleak not to be reading; it takes a long time to write a novel.”

“Yes!” Elizabeth Silver, author of the novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton (as well as a recent memoir), replies when I ask whether she continues to read fiction.

“Constantly!” Pamela Erens, author most recently of Eleven Hours, says.

Like Domingue, other novelists don’t. “Generally not,” Ramsey Hootman, author of Surviving Cyril, says, “Although I’ve learned in the past five or ten years that this doesn’t apply to nonfiction.” Allie Larkin, author of Stay and Why Can’t I Be You, concurs: “I have a hard time reading novels at some stage of writing my own. I stick to non-fiction then.”

Still other authors do continue to read fiction, but not in their own genres. “Yes, sometimes I can’t help myself,” Emily Holleman, author of The Fall of Egypt series says. “But I avoid reading things that are at all similar in genre/tone. No historical fiction when writing historical fiction.” Jasmine Guillory, author of forthcoming The Wedding Date, says, more specifically, “I read every day and have since I first learned to read. I tend not to read books that are in the same genre/style of mine while I’m first drafting, though.”

The timing issue mentioned by Guillory strikes a chord with me. Liz Kay, author of Monsters, explains it particularly well. Kay, too, says she doesn’t read fiction at certain points in the writing process. “When I’m really deep, deep in a project… I care about almost nothing beyond the novel. The only thing I can compare it to is the experience of falling into a novel as a reader and not wanting to put it down to sleep or eat or anything.”

I’m not one of those readers who will have two or more novels going at once. I become too involved in the world of the book I’m reading and find it too confusing to be involved in multiple worlds. Leading a double life between that in an engrossing book and my real-life family is enough of a trick already. It makes sense then that when I’m deepest into my own novel, I also don’t have room in my world for additional fiction.

When I’m in the thick of it, the book’s the thing. I feel a little envious hearing others discussing books I’d love to read too, but not as much as I feel happy for the writing storm that has overtaken me. “For the record,” Kay adds, “I would much prefer to be underwater, finish the book, and then indulge in all the reading I want until I start the next thing.” I have to agree. I’m not a critic and don’t need to read any book at any given time. I keep a list of all those want-to-read books and am happy when I can start to investigate them.

It’s a price but maybe not a huge one to pay for the privilege of being a novelist.

But what if having become a novelist, and all that comes with it—the knowledge both of craft and business—were to interfere with the ability to fall into novels in the way Kay so aptly describes when that season for reading novels returns? Or could it be like listening to interpretations of Wagner or Webern—the more you know about music and the business of music, the more you (maybe) enjoy it?

“I would definitely say my reading has become a richer and deeper experience since my first book’s publication,” David Abrams, whose second novel Brave Deeds, was just released, says. “I have not been robbed, but enriched.”

Cristina Alger, author most recently of This Was Not The Plan, her second book with a third releasing next year, also says becoming a novelist hasn’t detracted from her reading pleasure. If anything, it’s given her a more sympathetic reading experience. In particular, she says, “I’m more impressed now by debut authors who have a real sense of voice.” She finds herself actively seeking out and rooting for debut fiction.

The thing is I’m not sure I’m as nice as Alger. Increasingly, I find myself distracted by diction and repetition that bother me—things that I’m a stickler about in my own writing. More and more I find myself setting books aside for “another time,” something I never used to do. I’m not naming titles, but a couple of times I’ve actually slung a book across the room.

I can’t recall ever literally tossing a book aside before. Not even when I was younger and more impetuous and more apt to throw other things across rooms.

Might my newfound impatience be related to the fact I’m no longer selecting what I read purely by natural attraction? I still make beelines for certain books and browse bookstore and library shelves looking for a description or opening page that grabs me. But I’ll also nowadays read a book because of the noise being made about it. Or I’ve met or will meet its author at a publishing function, or someone in the industry sent it to me. Sometimes that works out great, and sometimes it doesn’t. Nothing is for everyone.

Or has becoming a novelist compromised the innocent pleasure I once took in being on the receiving end of storytelling?

Recently I returned to Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a book I loved as a disaffected teen so much that I took my yearbook quote from it. What an ungenerous man, I now thought! How black-and-white these characterizations! The pages still held much to admire, but I was not sad to turn the last one.

The reading experience of any book will be different during the course of a life. If other life changes affect the encounter, it only stands to reason that becoming a novelist would too. Maybe it also can both improve and detract from it.

“I find I can still lose myself in reading when I’m not WHOLLY, ACTIVELY writing,” Rumaan Alam, author of the novel Rich and Pretty, says. “When I finished my new book, the relief I found in reading was a balm… I don’t think writing novels has interfered with my pleasure—reading, still, is my greatest private joy—but I suppose it’s fair to say that I read slightly more keenly, as a predator, as a thief.”

The way I read differently since becoming a novelist is not entirely like Alam’s. I also can still lose myself in a book when I’m not lost in my own work. And I do take notes on every book I read; I actually keep a reading journal. But that happens after I’ve finished reading. It’s not a part of the actual reading experience.

The difference for me may be that my standard for falling into books is somehow higher and the occurrence more rare. When I’m engrossed in a book, though, I belong to that book. I’m like the best audience member at a magic show. I believe everything and forget all about looking for the sleight of hand. When I do find that magical novel that makes the rest of the world disappear, the pleasure I derive from it—the awe that brilliance in fiction inspires—is heightened by my intuitive knowledge of just how rare and exquisite it is to achieve.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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