In Case You Have Missed Them: Authors to Be Reading Now by Brad Windhauser
Last month, we discussed writers who have influenced us. Understanding your influences helps you best appreciate how he or she is able to craft their work. Doing so allows you to learn from these stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. Past work, however, is only part of the writing landscape; it’s equally important to appreciate current work. This month, each of us is discussing current writers we think you should know about.
I’ll discuss two such writers. If you’re unfamiliar with either Meg Wolitzer (fiction) or Erik Larson (narrative non-fiction), you should seek out their work.
When I compile my yearly reading list, I often look to current best sellers for options—I want to know what the public is gravitating towards. I’m not counting on liking these books just because they are popular (though I often do); rather, I’m curious about technique: what can a best-selling author teach me about connecting with readers. This is how last year’s best-selling The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, landed on my radar. I know a lot of people who shun best sellers because they are best sellers: they are “too main stream.” If you pass up this book for such a reason, you’re making a mistake.
Goodreads has a lot of mixed reactions to this novel: people either loved it or hated it. I won’t bother with the effusive praise. The reviews that slam the book, however, are worth discussing. I won’t say these reviews are wrong—people enjoy reading for different reasons—but I do think, as a writer, there is deep value in appreciating what these readers dislike: apparently the book lacks a discernible plot. As such, the over-500 pages can feel bloated, tedious, etc.
True, there is no “plot”—seven teenagers meet at an arts camp and the narrative follows their lives through adulthood. Thus, in terms of plot, the book is about life, in all its meandering, seemingly mundane ups and downs. The accuracy and often subtlety with which Wolitzer captures this on these pages is fantastic. She does, however, make the reader work a bit to get into this world.
The first 100 pages aren’t so much rough as they are a bit boring, in part because when you’re reading for plot you won’t know where this is all going. That said, stick with it, and when you do you’ll be drawn into these engrossing characters and the honesty with which they live their lives. These diverse people talk, think, and feel completely genuine. You’d be hard pressed for a better example of how to fully render character than this book. In addition, she also deftly moves through time.
Given how well this book works with character, presents a modern depiction of life in our society, and manipulates time to great effect, there is much to appreciate in Wolitzer’s work. This book makes me want to read her previous novels, which is the mark of a good author.
Fiction writers can also learn a lot from other genres. For example, narrative non-fiction can also be just as instructive and engrossing. Erik Larson’s work is a perfect example, and his recent book Dead Wake contains some of his sharpest prose.
I first read his The Devil in the White City, which explores the events involved with and surrounding the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair in the late 1800’s. I was hooked. His most recent book looks at the sinking of the Lusitania. I knew little about this disaster (which apparently pulled our country closer to being involved in WWI), and I’m not even remotely a history buff. But Larson uncovers the narratives that undergird important events, and in so doing, he creates characters out of famous (and not so famous) people and draws connections between their lives, decisions, and motivations. He also structures his work to heighten suspense. In a book where a lot of readers know “what happens” this is impressive: the suspense builds around how the characters will react, not what will happen to them. If you’re an author who enjoys character over plot, this is a useful example to study. I enjoy what his work teaches me about building story arcs that develop character.
If you haven’t yet read Dead Wake (or The Devil in the White City), you should consider hunting his work down. You won’t regret it, even if you don’t typically read in this genre.
When I was pursuing my Master’s in English, I foolishly believed that I needed to focus my attention on the work of past writers; you know, the classics. I’m glad I learned otherwise, for contemporary writers have just as much to teach you. You also need to know what contemporary writers are working on, for as one of my professors told me: “You can’t act like nothing has been written since Hemingway.”