February 18, 2013

Ravenous Reader #1

David is a freelance writer in Toronto.

1.  Do you have an early memory of learning to read?
In my earliest memory of reading I wasn’t even reading at all. I was still too young to know how, but I loved my earliest books so much that, if no one was around to read them to me, I would pretend I knew how to read them to myself.

2.  Have you always been an avid reader?
Always, but it took until I was 18 and moved to the city before I began to appreciate anything that wasn’t genre. 

3.  How do you decide what to read next?
There’s only one way to choose which book to read next: I listen for the one that calls out to me. A book might sometimes sit on my shelf for years before it does so. Or more than one book may call out at once, in which case I test them all until I have a winner (one will have to shout the loudest).

4.  Do you have any reading rituals that you follow? 
Once I reach the halfway point of what I'm reading, I always have my next book lined up.  

5. What makes a great story or novel?
The old standbys: character, plot, craft.

6.  Do you have a favourite genre?
I’ll read anything, from Tolstoy to Crichton, depending on my mood.

7.  Who was the first author you fell in love with? The last?
Stephen King was the first. Hillary Mantel is the most recent.

8.  What classic or well-known book have you never been able to get through?
Catch-22. I can’t remember how many times I tried to read it and was never able to get past the halfway point. I had the same experience with Moby Dick.

9.  What book or books do you reread?
Each year I reread one book that I read and loved in the past. Each year it’s different, and I only allow myself the time for one (too many unread books to read!)

10. Do you have dry spells where you stop reading or read very little?
The only time I can’t read is when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Reading other writers’ great books depresses me when I’m trying to write my own.

11. How do you organize your collection?
I’m very anal about organizing my books. I don’t go as far as alphabetical, but I break them down by fiction and non-fiction. Within non-fiction I have as many different categories as you’d find in a bookstore; with fiction I group authors, plus I have desert island categories. I could go on…

12. Do you enjoy recommending books to others? What criteria do you use?
Recommendations are easy once you’ve had some success with any given recommendee – they’ll read just about anything I toss their way. If it’s a first-timer, it takes a bit of trial and error to nail down what they might like. But I never stop trying.

13. You host a dinner party for five authors (dead or alive). Who’s invited?
Salman Rushdie, John Irving, Peter Carey, Martin Amis, and Jonathan Franzen.

14. Do you write? If so, how does reading influence your writing?
Reading inspires me to write, but once I start writing… see question 10.

15. What are you reading right now?
Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.

Ravenous Reader will be a regular series of posts.

February 12, 2013

Reading Paralysis

Not only do I suffer from writing paralysis, but also from reading paralysis - long stretches where I am unable to read anything of substantial length that requires focus and memory.

This past year I wasn't able to make it through novels. I kept short story collections by my bedside but even these were only read every so often.

It's frustrating and somewhat embarrassing as a writer and editor to have trouble engaging in longer manuscripts. It's happened throughout my life, but so has the opposite where I've found myself ravenously reading book after book.

What accompanies these dry spells makes matters worse. When I can't read; I can't write. At least not in any great capacity. I write first drafts like I read chapters, losing concentration quickly.

Recently wondering when and if this drought would break, I met a writer who is a voracious reader and a collector of first editions. I knew he admired Salman Rushdie, so I asked what book he would recommend to a first time reader of his work.

Instead of just offering a Rushdie title, he sent me a beautiful letter that expressed his gratitude and excitement for being asked. Then he went into detail why The Satanic Verses may not be the best place to start, and that most people recommend Midnight's Children, but why he thought it wasn't quite right either. He wrote about Rushdie's craft of story and style, suggested two books, and ended with...
"...try it, and if you don't like it, I always believe life's too short to chug through books you're not enjoying. There are too many others to read..."
His generous response to my simple question not only made an impression, but also gave me the courage to get reading again. He lent me The Ground Beneath Her Feet and I was nervous because I thought, what if I can't get through it.

Well, I did read the book and loved Rushdie's playful use of language as well as his beautiful storytelling narrative. I travelled through decades of rock 'n roll alongside three characters caught in a love triangle, with the Orpheus myth threaded throughout. Highly recommended!

Finishing the book, I felt excited to work on my own fiction and to continue reading. The two are always intertwined. My new friend also inspired me to start a series of blog posts called Ravenous Reader which will ask avid readers to answer questions about their fondness for the written word, book collections, favourite authors, reading rituals, and yes, dry spells.