By the Book
“There’s a very small group of authors whose books I won’t read because the mind I sense behind them disturbs me,” says Diana Gabaldon, whose novel “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone” is the ninth in her Outlander series. “In all fairness, mine disturbs a few people, too.”
What books are on your night stand?
The 1,500-plus that are on my Kindle.
What’s the last great book you read?
Saeed Jones’s “How We Fight for Our Lives.”
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In my old family house in Flagstaff, Ariz., alone, with heavy snow falling outside, the old floor furnace crackling and the makings of roast-beef sandwiches in the refrigerator.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
It depends where I am in the process. (I tend to have long processes.) Early on and through the middle, I read anything and lots of it. In the final few months to a year, though, I can’t risk reading anything I can’t put down to work, so I tend to read good, but less gripping books — or, if gripping, short ones. (Just recently, reading Vol. 1 of the Inspector Maigret Omnibus by Georges Simenon and David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife.” Also “The Big Blue Jobbie,” by Yvonne Vincent. Yes, I do read more than one book at once, unless it’s really gripping.)
Early on, though, I like to read fiction with a strong poetic feel, because the sense of beautiful language is catching (see “How We Fight for Our Lives,” noted above). Not necessarily literary fiction, as such, but authors who routinely play with language — I reread all of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels while writing the most recent book.
Editors at The Times Book Review selected the best fiction and nonfiction titles of the year. Here are some of their picks:
Now that said book is finished, though, I have a deal with one of my favorite booksellers, to read “Swann’s Way” together. We haven’t started yet, but we’ve both been rather busy.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Well, now, there’s a fraught term. I’ve generally felt mildly miffed when people refer to my books as guilty pleasures, feeling that the implication is that the reader considers them in the same light as cotton candy: delicious and fun to consume, but ultimately fluff. However. I mentioned this briefly somewhere online, and someone replied, “Oh, no! When I say that, I just mean that your books are so addictive I can’t stop reading them, and end up neglecting all my responsibilities. That’s what I feel guilty about!”
Which I suppose just goes to show that one oughtn’t to leap to conclusions about what people mean, at least not without further conversation. On the other hand, perhaps she was just trying to spare my feelings.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Honesty. Emotional honesty, in particular. Granted, an author is (more or less by definition) not only taking liberties with reality, he/she/they are deliberately manipulating the feelings and thoughts of the reader. Still, emotion that doesn’t ring true will kill a book for me.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I kind of think a good book should do both. Even the lightest of escape fiction needs to have an intrinsic sense of structure, self-awareness and intelligence. On the other hand, I totally consider laughter to be an important emotion.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I will honestly read anything, including the label on the Tabasco bottle if there’s nothing else. You know what’s in Tabasco? Peppers (puréed, we assume), vinegar and water. So simple — but do people make their own at home? No, so why not? And who are these McIlhennys and how did they get this thing started? (I posted a Thanksgiving photo last year — featuring our table set for 10, with clean, empty dishes (as everyone stayed home, isolating during the pandemic) — but with a glimpse of the kitchen counter, on which was a Tabasco bottle. Some alert soul noticed this, and the company promptly sent me a nice Tabasco caddy, with six different forms of the sauce. My husband urged me to put a bottle of Krug on the counter this year and see what happens.)
That said, I do avoid books in which terrible things happen to children (not counting autobiographies of people who survived terrible things happening to them when they were children; those are fascinating) — and there’s a very small group of authors whose books I won’t read because the mind I sense behind them disturbs me. (In all fairness, mine disturbs a few people, too.)
How do you organize your books?
What is this strange term, “organize”…? Basically, it’s management by piles. The TBR pile (well, one of them) is over there, and has everything in it from sf/f and history to hard-core crime and memoirs — to say nothing of “Love Drunk Cowboy,” by Carolyn Brown, which I’m taking with me to Europe on Thursday. In the office bathroom, there’s a pile of historical (mostly) reference books, including whichever of the Firefox books I’m finding useful at the moment, plus my brand-new (used) copy of “The World Almanac of the American Revolution” (my original copy broke into several pieces, having been used throughout the writing of the last four or five novels), and an intriguing thing called “How to Read Water” (an excellent skill to have), plus an enormous, deliciously illustrated book called “Lichens.” Down by the girls’ wing (all our kids are long since grown, but they come back for visits) is a small bookshelf that’s stacked (the shelves being full of games like Monopoly and something in a black box with a vulgar name that I don’t have time to go look at just now) with mostly popular fiction — chick-lit, fantasy, murder mysteries, biographies, etc. — that somebody in the house has already read but didn’t want to throw away or donate to the library, so there it is for whoever might be interested. And … um … well, several more of the same. Piles, I mean. <cough>
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’m fairly sure that people who read my books (let alone those who actually know me) wouldn’t be even faintly surprised that I have titles like “Medieval Punishments: An Illustrated History of Torture,” or “The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe,” let alone “Blood and Guts,” or the “Carmina Gadelica,” “The Mask of Command” (that’s military history/commentary, not BDSM (that’s on another shelf…)), and three different books on symbology, plus a couple dozen slang dictionaries.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“All About Moths and Butterflies,” which I got for my ninth birthday. It was the first hardcover book I ever owned.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Omnivorous and dedicated. The sort of kid who gets in trouble at school for reading a book on the playground instead of risking her neck roller-skating (I was and am Completely Uncoordinated). I liked everything, but was especially fond of series: Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys (never cared for Nancy Drew, who I thought was a simp), Danny Dunn, the Oz books (especially the Oz books!), and two long series of biographies of famous people, intended for children. Also “The Moon-Spinners” and “Man-Eater,” which were certainly not intended for children, but I read both in the sixth grade and enjoyed them immensely.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read a lot more non-American/non-English writers, as technology has given me easy access to things like Scandinavian noir and Latin American fiction, that I simply wouldn’t have found in my younger, pre-internet years.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
“The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies.” Also “Horton Hears a Who!” (Not to the same family member, I should add.)
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Oddly enough, I’ve never really felt I was “supposed” to like any book. Reading a book is a unique experience, a personal communication between reader and writer. I don’t like all the people I meet (though I’m polite to them), and I don’t like every book I pick up, but it’s usually obvious within a few pages whether we’re past the “let’s go out for a drink” phase or not.
As for disappointing/underwhelmed, though — John le Carré’s last few novels. In all fairness, the geopolitical conditions weren’t helping him out, and it’s hard to write his kind of books without an overwhelming and personal sense of specific evil and impending doom. Still, I disliked his falling back on simple-minded political disparagement in lieu of character development (granted, still good characters, but lacking the complexity and subtlety of his earlier books). His autobiographical stuff — “The Pigeon Tunnel” and “A Perfect Spy” — were great, though.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Frankly, I don’t want anyone to write my life story, but if anyone ever does, I hope it’s me.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Um. I don’t really consider books as social accessories. I don’t care in the slightest what people might think of what I do or don’t read.
What do you plan to read next?
Well, to be honest — “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.” “You read your own books?” someone said to me in amazement recently, when I remarked that I was looking forward to getting my author copy of the book so I could read it. “Of course,” I replied. “It wasn’t a book when it left me; it was this huge cloud of sparkly fragments that I’ve been juggling inside my head for the last few years. Being able to read it straight through (I don’t write with an outline and I don’t write in a straight line) is always a thrill.”