Why I’m Grateful to Fiction Writers

9781410468895Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
Marcel Proust

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.
Anne Lamott

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.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAnthony Doerr, who spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel of 2014.

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.9780062285508

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.

9780062365583Sebastian 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!

 

 

 

 

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15 thoughts on “Why I’m Grateful to Fiction Writers

  1. I’m so glad you linked this to the Hump Day Blog Hop (always held the last Wednesday of the month on my book blog) because I LOVE this list of books – I’m going to share it with some friends in the neighborhood who are starting a book club. I love the way you categorize your book lists into interesting, themed blog posts. You’re very good at what you do. I hope you know that. I cherish your blog and your insights, Ann. You are an absolute treasure to book lovers everywhere.

    Cheers!

  2. I am thankful for author Wallace Stegner. I recently read “All the Little Live Things” and “The Spectator Bird” and am currently listening to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” What a national treasure he was and is!

  3. Ugh, I know what you mean about the prompts. Sometimes a story comes naturally, and sometimes it doesn’t. But being forced to write a new one, day after day, based on someone else’s ideas and not your own – that’s both difficult and daunting. I actually agree with what you said about characterization, too. Virtually all of my fictional characters are based, at least loosely, on someone I know. Fortunately they seem to take on lives of their own as they’re being written, which should help to keep me out of lawsuits 😉

  4. I can’t say I’ve found a book this year that I’ve LOVED, you know, the have to tell everyone you meet kind of book. But I am thankful for any author who writes any story that is out there for me to discover.

    • There were quite a few books I loved this year — the ones I felt compelled to tell everyone about were All the Light You Cannot See, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, In the Kingdom of Ice, and Deep Down Dark. Only one more month in the year, so I don’t know if there will be another one!

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