How to be a bookseller

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What you’ll need: a love of ISBNs and ARCs, a lot of time to read

Songlist: Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits

Further Reading: The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

Heaven

I have this business model in mind which is probably terrible in terms of financial prospects, but which would be totally cool.

Everyone loves food carts, right? Hot dogs on the streets of New York, mini donuts in Minneapolis, suspicious meats in a foreign country you probably don’t have the right bacteria to digest, and so on. So why not a book cart?

Can I offer you some Rushdie today, sir?

Here’s what I’m thinking: first I’m gonna become a super famous novelist (which is just one of the reasons this business plan might be a little tricky). That way, people will be much more interested in reading whatever I recommend. I’ll pick 3 books a week, one fiction, one non-fiction, and one miscellaneous–poetry, anthology, classic, young adult, etc–and sell them on the streets of Minneapolis. Businessmen and -women will start to trust my suggestions, and buy whatever I’m peddling. It can’t fail!

Oh sure, bookstores are closing right and left. But many of these are Barnes and Noble bookstores and, of course, Borders. The advantage of my bookcart (feel free to come up with potential names) is that inventory is always small and constantly being refreshed. Bookstores aren’t closing because people don’t read anymore–people just often don’t know what to read. Imagine their neighborhood Nobel Prize winning novelist (okay, I’m stretching here) stopping by every Monday with a fresh new recommendation.

Of course, I haven’t figured out any logistics of this, and it’s not a very franchiseable operation–I’d have to hire Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to fit in with the business model. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t make any money. But you don’t get into book selling if you want to make money. You do it because you love reading and talking about books–which I do. Like I said: can’t fail!

Writers on writing

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My post about NaNoWriMo from Friday reminded me of the duality of writerly opinions about how to create a first draft. John Gardner, who is perhaps as famous for his books on writing as his fiction, declared that you must strive to choose every word perfectly the first time around or else your story will be irretrievably led astray. Anne Lamott countered this advice in her wonderful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by encouraging writers to produce “shitty first drafts.”

The great thing about writers is that they all have different advice and methods for writing, and they’re all right. One of my great loves is the Paris Review interview series. The Paris Review, which has been published since the 1950s, contains interviews with novelists, poet, playwrights, and nonfiction writers all talking about their crafts. The writers–Tennessee Williams to Chinua Achebe, Hemingway to García Márquez–explain their habits, their successes and failures, their idols and contemporaries, their views on the history and future of literature. And, while reading them, I almost always feel a sense of kinship. Their habits sound familiar, their idols the same as mine.

One quote I particularly like from García Márquez talking about reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.” The way he describes Metamorphosis is the same way I felt when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude–I didn’t know anyone was allowed to do that.

Here are some of my other favorites Paris Review quotes from writers talking about writing:

Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they give the writer pleasure. A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. The joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Nothing else–cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews–will come near it for satisfaction.  –Ian McEwan

When I reach the heart of a story that I’ve been working on for some time, then, yes, something does happen. The story ceases to be cold, unrelated to me. On the contrary, it becomes so alive, so important that everything I experience exists only in relation to what I’m writing. Everything I hear, see, read seems in one way or another to help my work. I become a kind of cannibal of reality. –Mario Vargas Llosa

What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in the atmosphere, in the cosmos; he merely has the facility for hooking on, as it were. Who is original? Everything that we are doing, everything that we think, exists already, and we are only intermediaries, that’s all, who make use of what is in the air. Why do ideas, why do great scientific discoveries often occur in different parts of the world at the same time? The same is true of the elements that go to make up a poem or a great novel or any work of art. They are already in the air, they have not been given voice, that’s all. They need the man, the interpreter, to bring them forth. –Henry Miller

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. –William Faulkner

10 favorite novels

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I kind of hate being asked who my favorite authors are. There are very few authors of whom I’ve read the entire oeuvre. In fact, sometimes I avoid reading more of an author’s work when I’m completely enamored of one of their novels, because inevitably I’ll feel disappointed (or so I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Picking out favorite novels, though, is a piece of cake. If I thought a little harder, this list could easily expand to 25 or 50. In the interest of time, I’ll stick to my top 10:

Cover art from One Hundred Years of Solitude

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: I read this book for a world literature class in high school. When the town of Macondo suffered a plague of insomnia and lost their past, when a Buendía daughter ascended into the sky with the laundry, when it rained yellow butterflies I would think You can do that?!? I’d never read anything like magical realism before, and it flipped my world upside down.

2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: This is the kind of book I wish I’d written first. I mean, one of the characters is an opera singer, another is a translator, and it’s all set in an unidentified South American country. And it’s so freakin’ flawless. One of our assignments for my novel class was to bring in a paragraph we love from a published work. The only difficulty was choosing which one of Patchett’s incredible paragraphs to bring.

3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This was the only novel I brought with me to Spain. And, even though reading it was pretty much all I did with my free time, it took me three months to finish it–it’s that dense. Reading it was realizing that magical realism can exist outside of South America. Reading it somehow was both wading through Rushdie’s thick sentences while also being buoyed by his exuberant energy. I don’t think any other novel could have sustained me for so long.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: One of the two best novels of last year. For a book about an Irish boys’ prep school, it’s surprisingly long. And it’s surprisingly wise. I’ve bought it for all the boys in my life thus far.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: The other best novel of the past year. And also, technically, the only book on this list that’s not a novel. Instead, the book is made of interconnected stories that grow out from each other, wind back on themselves, delve into the characters’ pasts and launch into their futures. I got to see Egan at a St. Paul event called Talking Volumes at which she spoke of how her writing process for this book was just to follow her curiosity. It all began with a tiny moment in her own life, from which she wrote a story and then she wrote a story about one of the ancillary characters from the first story. I like this as a description of the creative process–follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Egan also has a very cool website which you can read about all her moments of inspiration and how they led to different stories.

6. Saturday by Ian McEwan: Set all on one day in London, Saturday is a deep study of one character’s psychology. McEwan loves detailing how tiny decisions and collisions set a course that affect an entire life. When he did this in very popular Atonement I was so angry I threw the book across the room at the end of the first chapter and never picked it up again. When he does it in Saturday, it’s extremely effective.

7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Atwood is the queen of creepy science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale being perhaps her most famous twisted novel. It’s best, though, in the Blind Assassin because the novel is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. The innermost story is a gorgeous piece science fiction that is told by one unnamed character to another (which happens to be a novel written by another character). In the science fiction section, orphans are made to create fine carpets for the ruling class; a carpet’s quality is determined by how many children were blinded in its making. The orphans, once blind, have no place to go except an elite assassins’ club where they use their other senses to get close to their victims. The other surrounding stories are just as incredible.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex is full of transformations: we’ve got the Greeks who become Americans, cousins who becomes spouses and, of course, the main character who is raised as a girl before going through puberty and finding out she’s biologically male. Given that I sold more of this novel than any other when I worked in a gay and lesbian bookstore in Provincetown, MA, I’d say this is a favorite in that crowd, but the questions of identity are relevant to everyone.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Another novel I wish I’d written. In fact, there are some similarities between this novel and the one I’m currently trying to write. I love reading novels like this where, when you get to the end of it, you share the characters’ nostalgia for their pasts. And who can beat a novel where Hitler’s getting punched on the cover?

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather: I read this when I was perhaps 12 or 13, and it taught me what nostalgia tastes like. I think the books I read at that age had a deeper emotional impact on me, and this one in particular seemed to settle into my bones. My favorite line from all of literature is when Jim tells Ántonia, “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’ve have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” Forever after, that’s how I’ve understood love.

What are some of YOUR favorites?