I was a reader long before I was a writer. And unlike many writers, I didn’t know when I was six or ten or even twenty-five that I was going to be a writer. I found out I was a writer – actually, was coerced into it – when I went to university very late and my favorite English professor (because of course I thought of an English degree as a way to re-read all those great classics I’d already read and get a degree along with it) said, Kate, you write essays as if they were fiction, why don’t you write stories? What did I know about writing essays? What I did, what I wanted to do, was talk about the books I’d fallen in love with – and luckily (and I use that word advisedly), despite the fact that I almost always took the opposite view from the criticism I was reading along with the books, I could argue my way out of – or into – almost anything.
So I started writing – poetry, short stories, articles about movies and music and books. After a few years, I started writing novels. But it really didn’t matter what I wrote, or what I write now, for me I’m still a reader first.
First, and most importantly, I’m always going to read as a reader. I’m not a writer who analyzes books. I love them. Or, occasionally, I hate them. But I never think of books as a way to learn about writing. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous and it is. I spent four years intensively writing dozens upon dozens of essays about books and I still couldn’t think of them as anything more than the most entertaining thing I’d ever done, would ever do, in my life.
I’m not a picky reader. I read anything and everything, from the classics to non-fiction to fantasy and science fiction. I read literary fiction and poetry. I read romance and erotica and mysteries. I read YA and children’s books. I read stories about war and travel. I read biographies and plays. Honestly, if it has words in it? I’ll read it. And honestly again? I mostly like what I read. Since I can remember, I have read an average of a book a day. And I’ve enjoyed a huge percentage of those books. And I’m a re-reader. I have a very large – some might say too large – library and most of the books that are still on my shelves are books I’ve read more than once, some of them dozens of times.
So what does this mean for me as a writer? I hear other writers say, oh I read so-and-so and I learned X. I read so-and-so and I fall in love.
I can tell you about books I’ve read that I love – most recently I’ve fallen in love with Geraldine Brooks’ great book March which is the story of Mr. March (the father whose absence is such a big part of Little Women and his journey to the Civil War. I loved, with a passion, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate, which I bought, I’ll admit, because of the title. Connie Willis, whose book Bellwether is a book I’ve read dozens of times, wrote a great book about time travel and World War II called Blackout which I just re-read today before I read All Clear, the second book in the series. Pat Conroy’s South of Broad blew me away. Susanna Kearsley’s (Canadian and often called the new Mary Stewart – who is one of my favorite writers ever) The Rose Garden. Kelli Stanley’s great San Francisco historical mystery, City of Dragons. But did any of those books make me think about writing? Nope.
I’m a huge fan of romantic suspense – Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann, Jayne Anne Krentz, Linda Howard, Julie Garwood and many more – but I’m never going to write suspense. I’m a devourer of paranormal romance and other paranormal books. But when I write about demons or the occasional witch, I don’t see anything of that paranormal in my writing. One of my favorite writers is Michael Ondaatje – In the Skin of the Lion is definitely in my top ten books – as is Anthony Bourdain’s fabulous book about cooking Kitchen Confidential.
But do I take anything other than joy from these books?
I honestly don’t know. Occasionally, if I’m recommending a book or talking about a book at my book club, I’ll talk about what I loved – or didn’t like so much. At the most, I’ll say that if I am influenced by these books, it’s unconsciously. As close as I’ve ever got is to say that I love magic realism and the great books of magic realism – Ondaatje, Hoffman, Kingsolver, Marquez – that I love are books I’m glad I’ve read, that I’ve learned what a great book, an amazing story, an absolutely fascinating character is. But I also say that about the great books of romantic suspense, of Dickens, of mysteries and literary fiction, and science fiction and… well, you get the picture.
For me books are about love. My love for them. Not about what they can teach me. And as books are the great love of my life, I really don’t want to spoil that by analyzing them and turning them into a tool for my own writing.
So I keep on reading. And writing. And I always remember that they’re two completely different things for me.