Reading Matters blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

Leaving space between the words

I’ve been rereading the novel that turned me on to writing, in ninth grade. It’s The Human Comedy, a 1943 book about wartime life in a town in California that centers on the adventures of twelve-year-old Homer, a messenger boy for the Postal Telegraph who must deliver to parents the telegrams of death from the War Department, and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who watches and appreciates everything.

Saroyan wrote in a liberating way that carried original energy. He called it jumping into the river and starting to swim, and he opened me up to what writing could do. And his work was simple, simple, simple: there was space between the words.

I was a gawky unpopular kid who liked to read, and that year I swallowed everything that I could find by Saroyan — especially My Name Is Aram, his 1940 volume of gracefully lucid stories about growing up Armenian in Fresno, his home town that became the model for Ithaca in The Human Comedy. I took in the plain, humane clarity in these stories and thought, “I can do that!” But Saroyan’s simplicity is as deceptive as a great outfielder’s; it looks easy until you try it. Yet the writer left so much in the space between his words, so much to feel and connect with, that I’ve kept on trying to do it ever since.

I read both those books again this week, and Saroyan isn’t always perfect. He couldn’t work with editors, and The Human Comedy loses air in bursts of windy philosophizing that should have been trimmed back — but then consider this. It’s possibly the writer’s greatest sentence, from the opening chapter of The Human Comedy, describing how Ulysses finds an egg:

He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.

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Why did two fine stories leave me flat?

I had the flu. So I read. This is one redeeming thing about the flu.

When I’m sick I want either comic novels or good suspenseful stories — mysteries, spy novels. I also like historical fiction, and I love to get taken to different places in the world. So this time I read one spy novel, then another, by a well-known and very skilled writer, who set both books in 1945 at the end of the war, one in Berlin, the other in Istanbul.

The stories were excellent, deeply researched and finely crafted. I was happily immersed in their time and place ... yet at the end, I didn’t much care. Close to the end of the second, I almost didn’t even finish it. Didn’t seem to matter, really. Yet the writer did such a good job, in so many ways ... why did I not think about the stories after? Why did I not care?

Then I understood: I never came to care about the characters.

I should have, right? I mean, a dark time in deep settings, lots of moral complexity, struggling with serious evil ... and the characters were complex. They made mistakes. But ... I just didn’t care.

And that’s something to notice. A novel can’t be great or even really that good if the characters don’t come to life. They don’t have to be good, but they can’t be empty. Or leave you empty. If they do, then nothing else can really matter that much.

There’s no formula, no trick, no technique for this. It’s alchemy, I guess. Paul McCartney teaches songwriting to young people sometimes, and he starts by saying, “I really don’t know how to do this.” I doubt that any writer could tell another person how to make characters that connect with readers, I know I couldn’t ... but I think of the Harry Potter books. I think of Nick Hornby’s novels about rock ’n’ roll and soccer and guys, I think of John LeCarre’s spy stories. These are all so different, but their characters are alive.

I think that’s we’re looking for most of all. Good stories grow out of good characters, not from plotting or anything else mechanical or contrived. Great novels have life because their characters have life. I don’t know how you could ever teach that. But you know it when it happens, because inside you it is real.

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Spotting the Snow Leopard

I’m revisiting books that have meant something to me over the years, and I can’t remember if I ever finished The Snow Leopard. I don’t think I did. But it sort of changed my life anyway.

This time I did finish it. That’s not totally easy to do; Peter Mathiessen’s most famous book, for which he won the National Book Award, is brave and deep but also dense, intensely serious. I read it the first time, or most of it, in my late 20s as a weekly newspaper editor secretly preparing to leave my job and travel in Muslim and Buddhist Asia, hoping to write a revealing personal narrative as Mathiessen did. That he could get to such depth with such economy and precision was as inspiring to me as the courage of his journey — and so I set off on a journey of my own. (I did write my book, my first one, which nobody would publish. That’s another story.) 

Not long after losing his wife to cancer, Matthiessen joined the wildlife biologist George Schaller on a long, risky hike through the Himalayas in western Nepal, in late autumn with winter threatening, to explore the ancient Buddhist landscape of Dolpo beyond the mountains. Schaller hoped to learn about a rare breed of sheep, and maybe see the rarer snow leopard; Matthiessen hoped, surely, to get a good book out of the quest.

He surely did. Reading it again, the acuteness of his observation awes me as much as the depth of his phrasing. The man took incredible notes, but even more, he achieved, and conveys, incredible presence. And that in essence is what The Snow Leopard is about — the quest for true presence, genuine awareness beyond the cell of self. He almost, almost gets there. And then he has to start home. He never does see the snow leopard; but he does glimpse what he's truly searching for.

“What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments,” Matthiessen writes as he begins the journey back: “... In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us.”

So there you go. There, and back again.

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Stories to Treasure: My Christmas Books

We like to do the tree at Christmas. Our boys come back from their grownup lives and we put up the ornaments that Cary and I each brought to the marriage, and we tell the stories behind them and laugh. More quietly each year, I also put out and arrange the Christmas books. Nobody else pays much attention, but I would never want not to have them there.

There’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, with Dylan Thomas’s magical tumbling of words and memories: All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.

I love Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, about an orphan boy and his childlike aunt, and the years before life divided them that they would fill a baby carriage with windfall pecans, pull out an ancient bead purse with their carefully assembled Fruitcake Fund, and put together 31 cakes that went out as far, believe it or not, as the White House.

In Willem Lange’s Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story, fruitcake is central too. Favor is a lonely, old-time Vermonter whose wounded dog is saved on Christmas Eve by a newcomber neighbor who’s a vet; and each Christmas Eve afterward, Favor hand-delivers his own fruitcakes to everyone in his village, in his old blue pickup. “And the village responded. Now, all through the Christmas season there are cars in his dooryard, and his kitchen is piled high with gifts that he enjoys all through the long winter.”

I still have, after all these years, The Animals’ Merry Christmas. The front cover is gone, it was that well-loved when we were little. My secret favorite was the first story, “The Terrible Teddy Bear,” about a boy who was so difficult he doesn’t really deserve anything. But Santa finds just the right gift — a teddy bear who’s just as nearly impossible. And Teddy gets his secret wish.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope yours are warm and happy. And I hope you have stories that you treasure, too.

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Meeting Ignatius J. Reilly in the Rain

It was pouring on Canal Street. I was hobbled in New Orleans on a foot I didn’t know how I’d hurt, struggling back to my hotel from giving a TED talk at an anti-bullying conference, and it was getting dark and the storm had opened up ferociously. I ducked under a hotel awning, by the corner of Bourbon Street ... and there he was.

Beneath the clock he waited for his momma. Both flaps of his ridiculous hunting cap turned up, he was “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency.”

At the base of the statue, a placard said this had indeed been the site of D.H. Holmes, the department store where we meet Ignatius J. Reilly in the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest American novel ever written.

I’d never before been to New Orleans; but because I’d read the novel two or three times many years ago, I had already bought wine cakes for Ignatius inside Holmes with well-meaning Irene Reilly. I had ducked into the Night of Joy, the French Quarter’s least reputable club, with ill-paid porter Burma Jones; and I had ridden up St. Charles Avenue under a canopy of ancient trees with hapless Patrolman Mancuso, “undercover” in shorts, t-shirt and long fake red beard.

It’s central to the legend of A Confederacy of Dunces that its author, John Kennedy Toole, having failed to get his book published, committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally persuaded famed Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Percy was awestruck, but it took even him four more years to convince a small publisher to bring out the book, in 1980. Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize, and has since sold 1.5 million copies.

I think it’d be impossible to get this novel published today. It so celebrates Ignatius’s outlandish insensitivity, and its gay and African-American characters are at the same time stereotypical and strikingly human; the former aspect would sink the book. Nobody would touch it. But it’s with us forever, now — and like that statue in the rain, to run into it is to rediscover an old friend. To laugh at the memories. To have again, for a little while at least, a shelter from the storm.

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The practice of the pause

After a long holiday weekend, we start back wondering if we can stay relaxed. Somehow.

It wasn't easy to get relaxed, for me by Saturday, our company had moved on and I'd been looking forward to slowing down, but mostly I snacked and twitched and realized how tense and tight I was. Finally by the end of Sunday, after a real effort (ironic? oh, at least), I had pretty much relaxed. But that goodness will evaporate by mid-morning this Monday ... right?

Well ... probably. But does it have to?

I like to read about mindfulness and meditation practice, and there I find the concept of the pause. In her book Radical Acceptance, which is a really good one, therapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls it the sacred pause. The idea is simple: At times during your day, pause and take three conscious breaths. That's all. It's often not simple to remember to do ... but that's all it is.

In his new book pause breathe smile, Gary Gach uses the concept of pausing to embrace the whole notion of intent that we make an ongoing effort to live with more care and awareness. He frames pausing as one of three intersecting spheres of mindfulness practice; the others are 'breathe', which includes the sitting meditation, and 'smile', which embraces an attitude of kindness that can open into insight.

That's a lot to think about, on a Monday morning, but it does bring me back to a good place to start. With the pause.

The more I try to remember to do this, the more I do. It really is simple: pause, wherever I am, and take three conscious breaths. The mind can wander far and away even after the first in-and-out! But the key is not to judge, just to come back. And the more I remember to do this little thing, here and there in my day, the less I do keep the the chance to open up to the day itself. Tension is a closing-up. Conscious breathing, in contrast, relaxes.

Really ... that's it.

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Back to Gettysburg, To the Turning Point

My son and I went to Gettysburg, and walked the fields of Pickett's Charge.

I had done this once before, in 1993 when Brad was six and I was researching Gunfire at Gettysburg, one of my Choose Your Own Adventure books. Walking then the long, broad, gentle slope of farmland where 12,000 Confederates made the final failed assault on the Union line that finished the battle on its third awful day, I was thinking about a story. This time I was thinking about us. All of us.

Back then, the divisions between us that could not be reconciled without violence led to war that cost 70,000 dead and wounded, just on those three days. Now again hatred, violence and division are a rising tide. Tuesday's elections can turn us on a pivot toward a new birth of freedom, in the phrase Lincoln gave us after the battle. Or they can keep us on the course to cataclysm.

As we came down the long field, we were reversing the path of the terrible charge. Brad got angry that the great statue of Robert E. Lee stood mounted on Traveler at the bottom, where Lee said 'This has all been my fault' to those of his soldiers who survived the slaughter. Brad said of the statue, It's a monument to white supremacy. It should come down.

I walked along the low wooded ridge, reading stone monuments to the units stationed that were stationed there that afternoon, each marker headed 'C.S.A.'. When I turned around, Brad was taking photos for an interracial group of Virginians who stood on the steps of Lee's statue. They had handed my son their cameras. Now a man wearing a rebel uniform, carrying the stars-and-bars battle flag, walked down the path, tracing the terrible retreat.

This is where we are. I wonder which way we will go.

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A SNAKE INVASION giveaway

Through Rafflecopter, the publisher Chooseco is giving away signed copies of my newest book, Snake Invasion, an interactive novel for young readers that I think is pretty scarey — and that could really happen! Here is the link to the giveaway … and here’s the story of the story:

There’s nothing more fun, when you’re in the right mood, than a good creature feature.
    I remember hiding under couch pillows, thrilled by terror, as Saturday night TV’s “Chiller Theater,” hosted by Zacherly the Cool Ghoul on New York City’s Channel 11 in the 60s, showed classics like “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
    So last year when the publishers of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, for which I’d written nine previous interactive novels, asked me to try a new project tentatively titled Snake Attack, I said heck yes! And I read some books like Nathaniel Benchley’s Beast (whoa), and watched some newer films like “Anaconda.”    
    And I had fun! I think you will too, if you check out my newest “Choose” book, Snake Invasion (we made the title more creepily realistic), which just came out this spring.
    Whether books or films, creature features work best when they’re built on a premise that's just believable enough to make it hard to sleep at night. So our concept for Snake Invasion is that you — the Choose books always center on “you,” a main character through whose choices the multi-ending story unfolds — are a kid living in a giant new subdivision that was built on a filled-in edge of Florida’s Everglades.
    What you don’t know at first, and neither does anyone else, is that the gigantic Burmese pythons, an invasive species that really is overrunning the Everglades (some estimates are that half a million of the creatures may be living there, with no natural enemies) have eaten all the wild prey in the world’s largest wetland.
    So now they are coming for the pets.
    And among the first two disappear is your little dog Zelda, who is snatched by a ten-foot python from her invisible-fenced pen in your backyard.
    You and your best friend Jackson, who spots the huge snake slithering toward the water with Zelda in its jaws, set out on a quest. Searching for your beloved pet leads you into a brace of moonlight adventures and scary predicaments, out in the gator-infested wetland at night — and among pet-attacking pythons by day.
    I won’t tell you what happens, but Snake Invasion has 13 different endings — and I had a great time researching what really might happen, if (as some experts predict) the huge, hungry snakes do clean the Everglades out of its raccoons, opossums, bird eggs and other vulnerable species, and come looking in nearby neighborhoods for more living food.
    If this sounds like a story for you, or for a young reader you know, the publisher Chooseco has just extended a Snake Invasion book giveaway through Rafflecopter. Here again is the link!
    Each copy is signed by me. I hope you’ll win one. And if you read Snake Invasion … I do hope you’ll survive.

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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Watching Bernie, from way back

I first met and interviewed Bernie Sanders when I’d become a Boston Globe correspondent covering Vermont from Montpelier, and he’d just been re-elected mayor of Burlington. Over the years I’ve spoken with him a number of times and seen him many more — and like most all of us here in Vermont, I’ve always seen him in the same damn shirt.

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Words from another age of fear

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.”

That’s how the writer E.B. White began a still-celebrated letter to the New York Herald Tribune on November 29, 1947. Ten men from the world of filmmaking — screenwriters, directors and/or producers — had just been convicted of contempt of Congress, and given jail terms, for supposedly sneaking Communist propaganda into their work. In levying the charges, the House Unamerican Activities Committee had given no supporting evidence.

White was worried, much as many of us are worried today.

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A president, a ball ... and a book

Early on in in Alexander Wolff’s new book The Audacity of Hoop — Basketball and the Age of Obama, there’s a photo of a ten-year-old boy and his dad. The setting is San Francisco airport. This is the last time Barack Obama will ever see his father, who abandoned the family when his son was an infant and had only now come back, to visit, for Christmas.

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What to tell a young teen who wants to write?

Because I’m lucky enough to do a lot of author visits to middle schools, I very often meet young people who are seriously, intently interested in writing — and often are writing; a sixth grader I met this week told me he’s working on a 500-page novel. (Whoa!) On almost every school visit I’ll get asked what advice I can offer.

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The songwriters: McCartney's "no rules"

At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”

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The songwriters: Jackson Browne's basement

The other day I bought “Looking Into You,” the double CD that’s a tribute to the early songs of Jackson Browne — and whose cover photo shows a roughly made wooden door, opened to a room that looks to be dominated by an upright piano. I’m assuming that’s either the actual doorway into the basement room where Jackson, young and struggling in LA, actually wrote his early songs, or else it’s meant to look that way.

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When a story helps a kid find courage

I was interviewed online last week about my novel The Revealers, which deals with middle-school bullying, and about the effort to address that issue in schools that I've been plunged into since the book came out. My conversation was with ConvergenceRI, an online public-affairs newsletter in Rhode Island that is published every week by Richard Asinof, a lifelong journalist, writer and friend with whom I went to high school and worked on the school newspaper.

Richard asked some great questions! The full interview is here, if you'd like to see it. Here is the last question, which (as I hope you can see) really got me thinking:

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Until they took her away

I’m right in the middle of Suite Francaise, the celebrated, unfinished novel by the late Russian/French writer Iréne Némirovsky that transports you into the turmoil of French civilians’ experiences as the German army overran France in June 1940. It’s been said that this book is the first great literary work to have emerged from the war, because Némirovsky composed it in the midst of everything; she was deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, and soon after died of typhus there, at age 39. 

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Maybe we need to hang up ... and be

Louis CK is a comic who tends to capture things, and in a few words recently he capsulized what an MIT professor, researcher and author conveyed in a 1,600-word New York Times oped. Our phones are wrecking our ability to be real.

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What to leave out

“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.

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Ending my summer of story: Fatima

For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.

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