An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.
I recently finished a 4-week creative writing course called “A Story a Day”. Do you know how hard it is to write a story a day? Every day, for four weeks, the instructor emailed a prompt. On Wednesday evenings, we met and discussed the stories we’d written during the week, as well as a story by a published author that illustrated the theme of the week — plot, characterization, dialogue, etc.
Actually, I shouldn’t say I finished this course. I still have quite a few outstanding assignments. Some of the prompts left me absolutely bewildered. I especially had a hard time with the ones that required me to move outside my “comfort zone” and write speculative fiction. I learned that my comfort zone — would that be my imagination? — is very limited and that I am not interested in writing (or reading) speculative fiction.
What else did I learn? I learned that it is really, really difficult to write fiction. You know the little disclaimer in novels that says something to the effect of “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental”? My characters almost all have some resemblance to real people. I am amazed by writers who imagine and create unique, fully formed characters. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care if the characters are likable; I just want to believe in them. As Claire Messud said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?'” (That being said, it is a wonderful reading experience when a character not only comes alive on the page but makes his or her way into your heart.)
This year, I read some spectacular novels. I want to thank 10 writers (some of whom are debut novelists) for creating memorable characters and stories.
Gabrielle Zevin, who created my favorite character this year, the cantankerous A.J. Fikry, in her love letter to the book business — and to reading — The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
Erin Lindsay McCabe, who brought both my husband and me to tears in her debut novel, I Shall Be Near to You, a tender love story about a headstrong young woman who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband into battle in the Civil War.
Matthew Thomas, whose first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, is a masterpiece. Like Anthony Doerr, it took him 10 years to write his book. Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters.
Laura McBride, whose debut novel, We Are Called to Rise, chronicles the lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.
E. Lockhart, who made me a convert to well-written young adult literature with her poetic and tragic novel, We Were Liars. I knew from the first page I was reading something extraordinary, because the voice of Cadence, the teenage narrator, struck me as completely authentic.
Julia Glass, who brought some of my favorite characters from Three Junes back to the page in And the Dark Sacred Night. Glass’s characters are imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured.
Rene Denfeld, who is such a skilled writer that she made me feel compassion for a prisoner on death row, who has committed a crime “too terrible to name” in her debut novel, The Enchanted.
Thrity Umrigar, who created two unforgettable characters (an uneducated Indian immigrant and her therapist) in The Story Hour. Umrigar was also kind enough to send me a long, thoughtful email answering some questions I raised in my review of her novel.
Sebastian Barry, who always awes me with his beautiful writing, and broke new ground in The Temporary Gentleman, the story of an Irishman who makes some wrong turns in life and ends up as an expatriate in Africa after World War II.
David Nicholls, who wrote Us, a delightful romantic comedy about a marriage that may or may not have run its course. In the words of my coworker, Max, it includes “just enough humor to counteract the bittersweet”. The characters, especially Albie, the sullen teenage son, drove me crazy — just like real people.
Which novelists are you most grateful for this year?
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I hope you have some time to read over the long weekend!