Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What you read/what you write

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the subjects that draw me, and other writers to their work. Part of this is because I recently had an acquaintance hand me back my novel before she finished it. "You're such a happy person," she said (and it's true, I am. I'm completely immature and silly and so enthusiastic that a college roommate once asked me to tone it down.), "So why do you write such sad books?"

Why indeed.

I could talk about Plato, and the purging of pity and terror that any good catharsis should give you. I could talk about "Let's Hear it for the Unhappy Ending," a piece I wrote for the Boston Globe where I showcased sad novels I adored. I could mention how I call comic romps "flu books"--lots of fun when you are sick or want something for the beach, but something that doesn't quite satisfy a soul like mine, which yearns for Wuthering Heights over Friends.

Like most of the writers I know, I write the kinds of books I want to read, books that I hope are deeply emotional (getting that blood on the page), thoughtful, full of questions about love and relationships, and also I want them to be like a punch to the heart. But being a worrier by nature, I write about people caught in terrible circumstances fighting for a way out, and sometimes some of the people aren't so nice. Mothers leave their kids and don't look back. Lovers cheat in ways so cruel they could shatter your heart. People who are perfectly healthy reach for the jar of peanut butter and die in your arms. I think of what plotlines draw me. NOT this one: a woman quits her job and moves to Kansas where she becomes a champion breadbaker and meets the man of her dreams. BUT I do like this one: when a woman's sister dies suddenly, she suspects her sister's husband of beating her to death and kidnaps their baby and goes on the road. OK, maybe that's a TAD melodramatic, but you see where I'm going.

I can be happy because I work it out in the books. It's my catharis. So, what I want to know, is what subjects draw you as a reader, and as a writer? What is the question you're always struggling to answer? And sigh-of-hope, is there anyone out there who also loves the thorny novels, the heartbreakers with only a faint glimmer of hopeful light in them?


Clea Simon said...

This is a great question. I was talking this one out with my husband the other day, partly because I have just fallen in love with Henning Mankel's Kurt Wallender series. (Wallender, for those who don't know him, is a depressed, overweight divorced Swedish cop who is dogged by a sense that Swedish society is going downhill.) An agent recently suggested to me that I try to write more like Lee Child, who is immensely popular. But Child's hero, Jack Reacher, is a superhero who can disarm a bomb with a paper clip after taking three bullets to the shoulder. Mankell's Wallender is a decent, troubled human trying to do a good job and make some sense of the world around him. When I realized this, I had some of my answer.

I like to read about people I can relate to grappling with real situations. I hope they find some peace or resolution, and if they can, that cheers me more than a thousand world-saving adventures.

Jess Riley said...

I also want books to be like a punch to the heart. I love that!

But my favorite books marry laughter and heartache, because they both find common ground in the honest middle.

Caroline said...

Clea and Jess, thank you so much for those responses--I feel less alone in my reading obsessions!

Jean Medeiros said...

Beth dying in Little Women is still a punch in the heart to me, but I’ve reread that book more
times than I can remember. That woman who becomes a champion bread baker (yummy) and
marries the man of her dreams (yummy again) sounds good, but it’s not realistic. And I want
realism; I want to read about the tragedy in people’s life, but see that glimmer of hope and joy
too. I want to be shocked at cruelty and cry when characters die. That’s what I want to write too.

Not that I don’t enjoy my beach books–an exciting mystery with a happy ending suits me just
fine when I’m enjoying an ocean breeze. But it’s no Healthcliff on the moors.