I don't know what it as about the autumn that always makes it seem like a new beginning. Some people use the New Year to make a fresh start, but for perpetual students, teachers, and professors like me, autumn is the time for new beginnings. I always speak of years in terms of school years, and probably always will.
You wouldn't know it was autumn here in South Texas. Like green, I miss seasons, but there is still a sense of palpable change in the air. Next week, I'll have completely new students, some of whom are attending university for the first time. That's always exciting--to be part of their freshmen experience. In addition to upper-division students, I've had the opportunity to teach freshmen almost every year I've been a college instructor, and their nervous excitement is catching. They come in, eyes wide and almost frightened, none of them knowing what to expect or how to behave. I like to think I have at least a small part in making them feel at home and challenging them to think in new and critical ways about the world around them. Besides being a writer, teaching is the best job, really.
This autumn is also a change for me in terms of my own writing. My new book, Gnarled Hollow, is a ghost story, and a pretty creepy one at that. There is a lesbian romance at the heart of the novel, but the paranormal/mystery genre is new for me as an author. The novel includes elements of everything I love--higher education, lesbian relationships, art, literature--but it's a completely new direction for me in terms of structure and mood. As I was writing it, I felt like I'd finally found my grove. It wrote quickly, faster than anything I've ever done, almost effortlessly. I think I've finally recognized that, while I love traditional romance novels, it was, perhaps, mystery and thrillers that I was meant to write. I felt good, excited, as I was writing it, and I've never been more proud of something I've written.
So this autumn really is a new direction, both for me as a writer and my for students. I can't wait to see what happens next.
I grew up in a small town in Northern Colorado near Estes Park. Anyone that’s been to Colorado, and even those that haven’t, think of Colorado as a nature-lover’s paradise, with the steep Rockies functioning as a background to everything that means anything to most Coloradoans.
What people who haven’t visited don’t tend to realize is quite how dry it is there. Much of Colorado, like New Mexico, is semi-arid, which means, apart from snow, there is very little precipitation. It only rarely rained there when I was a child, and generally only in May and August a few times. Most of the year is sunny, dry, and warm.
This is partly why my first significant move out of Colorado came as such a pleasant shock to the system. I first moved to Washington D.C., where, at least for the short time I was there, it rained almost every day. I’d never even owned an umbrella until then—my early twenties. I took the bus when I lived there, and often had to stand there waiting for it in the pouring rain. I loved every second of it.
With rain comes greenery, which was on an entirely new level compared to what I grew up with. The semi-arid climate of Colorado is great for cottonwood trees, willows, and, of course, pines and aspens, but little else. In D.C., for the first time, I saw elms and maples and oaks, along with the various mosses and vines that grow all over in wet places. I was in heaven.
My next move to New Orleans was even more dramatic. There were a few months there at the beginning when you could set a watch to the afternoon thunderstorm. I would wake up to morning fog in the warm, mild climate and ooze my way to the bus stop. Pure joy.
After this, I was on to New York, and then to Tennessee, both of which are incredibly wet and green places. Even at this point, over a decade after leaving Colorado, I loved the rain and fog, in part because of its novelty, and in part because of what it leads to: a world filled with the varying shades of green I only every saw on TV growing up.
Now don’t get me wrong—I love Colorado. It’s funny to say it now, since I was so desperate to leave when I was younger, but I suppose that’s what happens when you take wonderful things for granted. Anyway, I think if I moved back to Colorado, I could overlook that fact that it’s not as green as some of the places I’ve lived in part because of the natural beauty that’s simply everywhere, green or not.
I live in South Texas now, in what amounts to a desert. It almost never rains (even less than Colorado), and, unlike Colorado, there are really no trees to speak of. True, it’s warm, which I love, but I miss green, even the faded greens of my semi-arid home state. Drive two hours North of my place and green starts to creep back into the world, but it is a brown & yellow world I see now when I look out the window or drive to work.
This might, in part, explain why my novels so far, including my work in progress, have taken place elsewhere. I get to write myself back to the green.
I began writing down the books I read in my late youth in college, about fifteen years ago. I was, at the time, obsessed with Virginia Woolf, in part because I was writing a thesis about her. In addition to her novels, I read all of her diaries and letters, as well as several biographies about her. She kept a private diary, but she also keep a reading diary. Unlike her personal diary, which she wrote in very frequently, the reading diary is clearly incomplete, and looks like it was something of a burden to keep up. She would list book she was reading and comment on it, and it appears that she often grew tired of keeping up with it.
My paternal grandmother also has a version of this. She writes down every book she reads, and has done so most of her adult life. It's fascinating. Cynic that she is, she finds the whole thing mundane. She keeps it only so she won't repeat the books she reads, as she thinks life is too short to read a book more than once. She can't understand why I'd be interested in her diary, but I've loved looking at it every time she's let me see it. Like Woolf's diary, it is a record of the hours and a snapshot into her life.
My own diary is much like my grandmother's--simply a list. When I first started, I tried to keep up with a review of each book, of sorts, but, as Woolf clearly found, the reviews quickly became tedious. So, instead, my reading journal is simply a list, with the author's name and the title and the month I read it.
Unlike my grandmother I frequently re-read books. One of my go-to, come back and re-read authors is Stephen King. I've read many of his novels multiple times, and most at least twice.
I also tend to get on a "kick" with an author. If he or she has multiple books, whether a series or not, I'll often read all or most of his or her books the same year.
The following the full list for 2016. I don't tend to include the works I teach or study in my journal, for some reason, so this list is partial.
The Passion of Alice, by Stephanie Grant
Collected Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Waterson
The Sinner, by Tess Gerritson
Still Midnight, by Denise Mina
City of the Dead, by Sara Gran
Depraved Heart, by Patricia Cornwell
You’re Not Weird… by Felicia Day
Deja Dead, by Kathy Reichs
Body Double, by Tess Gerritson
You, by Caroline Kepnes
Vanish, by Tess Gerritson
Mephisto Club, by Tess Gerritson
Sun Storm, by Åsa Larsson
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith
Death du Jour, by Kathy Reichs
The Keepsake, by Tess Gerritson
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
Run, by Blake Crouch
Hitler’s Furies, by Wendy Lower
The Whites, by Richard Price
Furiously Happy, by Jennifer Lawson
Last Salute, by Tracey Richardson
Weeping Walls, by Gerri Hill
Ghosts of Winter, by Rebecca S. Buck
Grave Talent, by Laurie King
Assassin’s Quest, by Robin Hobb
My Heart and Other Black Holes, by Jasmine Warge
Ice Cold, by Tess Gerritson
Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
Landing, by Emma Donoghue
More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera
Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
Descent, by Tim Johnston
Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor, by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume
Vanessa & Her Sister, by Priya Parmar
Slow Regard, by Patrick Rothfuss
Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Flu, by Wayne Simmons
Deadly Decisions, by Kathy Reichs
Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler
Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
When Women Were Warriors I,II,III, by Catherine Wilson
The Dinner, by Herman Koch
Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix
Silent Girl, by Tess Gerritson
Trust No One, by Paul Cleave
End of Watch, by Stephen King
Little Girl Lost, by Richard Aleas
Last to Die, by Tess Gerritson
Murder at Mullings, by Dorothy Cannell
Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King
Earth Abides, by George Stewart
The Assistants, by Camille Perri
Apt Pupil, by Stephen King
Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub
Fatal Voyage, by Kathy Reichs
In the Woods, by Tana French
True Story, by Michael Finkel
Firestarter, by Stephen King
Death at Dovecote Hatch, Dorothy Cannell
The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz
One Second After, by William Forstchen
Slade House, David Mitchell
Rose Madder, Stephen King
The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
Time of the Twins, War of the Twins, Test of the Twins, by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
Dragons of Spring Dawning, by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
War of the Twins, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Totally Worth It, by Maggie Cummings
The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
Courting the Countess, by Jenny Frame
Serious Potential, by Maggie Cummings
Basic Training of the Heart, by Jaycie Morrison
Miss Match, by Fiona Riley
First Position, by Melissa Brayden
Just Enough Light, by AJ Quinn
Fragile Wings, by Rebecca S. Buck
Garden District Gothic, by Greg Herren
The Shewstone, by Jane Fletcher
After the Fire, by Emily Smith
Built to Last, by Aurora Rey
Love on Tap, by Karis Walsh
Whiskey Sunrise, by Missouri Vaun
Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher
Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander
Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson
Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” –Stephen King
“Knowing you have something good to read before bed is among the most pleasurable of sensations.”
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad.” –William Faulkner
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” –Eudora Welty.
I think I came to reading a little later than some of the other people in my family. The love affair didn’t start until I was eleven or twelve. My parents and my sister were always voracious readers, but it took me a little longer. I read what I had to for school, and I had some favorite (mainly children’s) books that I checked out at the library over and over again. I also loved comic strips and comics, particularly Batman, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Peanuts. I had subscriptions to children’s magazines that I devoured over and over again between issues, but again, particularly in comparison to my parents and my sister, I wasn’t exactly what one would call a reader until the end of elementary school.
I can remember the actual day things changed. I’d started to become bored with my comic books and children’s stories, even though I still loved them (and do). It was Friday afternoon. Our class was at the school library for a weekly visit, and the librarian saw me moping around. She was a short, squat woman with curly, steel-gray hair and frumpy clothes. She did our weekly story hour and she had an endless mountain of patience for loud children in quiet spaces. She was also observant, and she knew that something was bothering me. When I told her I couldn’t find something to read, she did an interview right on the spot.
“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate, though I had trouble naming just one. “I love The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, and Willow,” I told her.
“So you like swords and sorcery?” she asked.
Having never heard the term, I agreed with her based on the makeup of the phrase, and she led me to the first book series I ever loved: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. I read the series in a week, reading it at school and at home, and all weekend. She gave me C.S. Lewis next, and then J.R.R. Tolkien. By the end of the school year, I was reading a book nearly every day, and, with the help of the school and the public librarian, eating up my small town’s collection of science fiction and fantasy novels. I started saving up all of my money to buy used copies of books at the local seller, and begged my parents to help me get a library card in a nearby town with a bigger selection. I don’t doubt that my librarian changed my life that day, as I now make my living teaching others to love books.
Reading is major part of my life, which is why I have a difficult time relating to people who don’t like to read. I simply can’t comprehend it, particularly from an educated adult. What I can comprehend, and what I always try to keep in mind as a professor of literature and writing, is that most people who “don’t like to read” probably haven’t found the books or stories they would like to read. My non-reader students approach a lot of literature with something akin to suspicion and always with great reluctance. I can relate. You need only give me certain types of books and my enthusiasm dries up like a desert. I’ve managed to train myself over years and years of schooling to get through and sometimes appreciate reading I don’t particularly enjoy, but for some of my students, there is no motivation to get through it, and as they’ve never had pleasure reading before, they assume that everything they read will be the same.
They’re also surprised when I tell them that there is a connection between reading and writing, something I’ve always known intuitively. If I don’t read, I don’t have the actual words to write. Reading fills up my fingers and my heart with words. The two activities are, for me, basically the same.
So when students ask me how to write better and get better grades on their papers, they’re always surprised to hear me tell them that the best writers are also readers.
The excuse is always the same: “But I don’t have time to read!”
I tell them that in addition to working a full-time job, I also watch television and movies, play videogames, see friends, and I read on average two or three books a week—more when I’m teaching or when I’m writing an academic article. They’re floored. They look at me like I’m speaking tongues.
But it’s true. Writing and reading are, to me, inseparable—two sides of the same coin. Whether you’re talking about writing fiction or writing essays, you cannot be a writer without also being a reader. I wouldn’t presume to suggest to the average nineteen-year-old that he or she needs to read as much as I do to become a good writer, but even reading four books a year is beating the national average, and quite easy to fit into a daily schedule. Ten or twenty pages a day will do it. Quantity and topic (what some might snobbishly call “quality”) don’t matter. Read books about anything and you’ll become a better writer.
But most importantly, make a habit of reading and you’ll fall in love with books—a love story that never ends.
In the summers of 1998 and 1999, I worked in a plastics factory as a temporary employee. If you’ve never worked in a factory (or even if you have) you might imagine this to be some of the worst work imaginable. I actually loved it. Despite my age and inexperience, I was paid very decently, and I was allowed to listen to my Walkman. It is the latter that made this job enjoyable. While there were many employees at the factory, and I occasionally worked with other people, most of the time my shift was all by myself. I’ve never been much of a people person, and I still prefer to be alone most of the time, so this was my ideal job. Further, because of the Walkman, I could listen to Audiobooks. I was basically paid to read.
Audiobooks have always been a big part of my life. My dad listens to them a lot for his job, which includes a lot of driving. Also, all of our family trips when I was a kid were car trips, and nothing makes a car trip go by faster than an Audiobook. Many a trip was spent listening to Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Isaac Asimov, and others classic Ghoulies. We always like a good scare in my family.
My grandmother would also send her Audiobooks to my dad after she listened to them, which meant that by the time I got my job in the plastics factory, he had a large collection. While I listened to music on CDs in the late 90s, all of the Audiobooks I initially heard were on tape—hence the Walkman. I would show up for my ten-hour shift with a stack of tapes and extra batteries, relieve the person I was replacing, and start or continue the novel I was listening to. The shift would fly by and I would walk out of work as if I hadn’t even been there, looking forward to my next shift so I could finish the story or start a new one.
My grandmother is a mystery fan, which meant that most of the Audiobooks I listened to those summers were mysteries. Prior to that, I read almost exclusively science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. My family are all big sci-fi nerds, so it isn’t exactly surprising that I would continue the trend, but I do remember after I listened to my first mystery (an Agatha Christie) being pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I would also get science fiction Audiobooks out of the library, but it wasn’t always convenient to pick one up on the way to work, and in between my usual swords and sorcery stories, I listened to my grandmother’s mysteries.
While there were many series and authors I fell in love with over that time, the first one I clearly remember falling—and falling hard—for was Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series. I know I didn’t listen to the first in the series first, but I’m not entirely certain which one it was (The Body Farm, maybe). What I do remember that the protagonist’s niece, Lucy Farinelli, was already out of the closet. I can clearly remember putting some little piece of plastic into some other piece of plastic as I realized what I was hearing. I put down the pieces I was holding and just listened for a moment before rewinding what I’d just heard to listen again and again. I was stunned. I’d never read a novel with a lesbian character before that moment.
Now keep in mind, I was pretty young at the time. More swords and sorcery novels have become a little bit more inclusive now, but there was very little popular gay sci-fi at the time, and that was really all I read. Later I was discover some hidden queer-positive sci-fi gems, but at the time, Lucy was my very first fiction lesbian character of any genre. I remember a flash of excited heat and some emotional tears before I got myself back under control, but the fact was, that from that moment, I was hooked. Outside of the literature I read for work (more on that in a future post), my “fun” books are almost exclusively mysteries. I still read a lot of horror, and I occasionally get into a sci-fi or fantasy series, but mysteries have had my heart for decades now.
As a young, isolated, small-town lesbian, with very little awareness of the rich literary history of lesbian fiction, finding a lesbian character in a work of popular fiction was a godsend. I went out the next day and got all of Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels, sucking them up like a vacuum. Lucy is still one of my earliest literary crushes, and every time a new Scarpetta novel comes out, I’m the first in line, wondering what she’s been up to since the last time we met. Thank goodness Cornwell was brave enough to push the envelope, if, for nothing else, than making a young lesbian in rural Colorado feel like there was someone out there like her. One could only hope to be that important to a reader.