I was recently contacted by a journalist for a national newspaper who wanted me to name a book I read as a child that left a lasting impression.
That’s a tough question for me, because I sense that my answer is never exactly what the questioner is seeking. I don’t have a poignant story about Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy, that glorious day when I suddenly knew that reading was for me, and forever.I can’t describe in loving detail the book I encountered as a fresh-faced welp. (Though I do recall loving Splish, Splash, and Splush.)
Nonetheless I did somehow grow up to become an author, and therefore my answer is, I guess, legitimate. It’s the only story I’ve got.
Here’s how I replied, limited to 150 words:
Born in 1961, I have no memory of my parents reading to me. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I grew up surrounded by six older siblings and they were (mostly) all readers. I guess I got the message by sheer proximity. As a baseball-mad boy in a world without ESPN, I devoured the sports pages in the daily newspaper. Those were the first writers I desperately needed. By age 13, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” It was funny and easy to read. There was no YA back then, my generation naturally graduated to Steinbeck, Bradbury, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Plath, whomever. “Breakfast” blew me away. Here was something as devilish as the kid in the back row, irreverent, rebellious, hilarious, wild. In a word, subversive. In those pages I first recognized the possibility that a book could be supremely cool. Thanks, Kurt.
Well, it’s been a wonderful week and I’ve really enjoyed having Lewis Buzbee as my co-host, trailing after me like a lost puppy . . .
Believe me, if I had any idea he’d act like this, I never would have asked Lewis to stay for an entire week. But Don Rickles canceled, Sammy was busy, and Barbra never returns my calls.
Seriously: I don’t hang with authors much. I don’t get invited to conventions or even blog tours or — come to think of it — neighborhood block parties, so it’s not like I get the chance to meet many high-flying literary types. I tend to spend my time with my wife, my kids, and other people here on earth. But when I read The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, I felt an immediate connection to Lewis. I had to talk with this guy. I wanted to push his doorbell, spend the weekend. Separated by 3,000 miles, I did the next best thing: Asked him for an interview.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of interviews half as much as I did. I feel like I’ve not only discovered a terrific writer — someone whose career I will follow, whose books I will read — but also, something more lasting, more meaningful: I’ve found my 163rd Facebook friend.
He’s my first writer, for sure. And reading him again and again as an adult, I learn more from him every time. But there’s a million others out there who are my favorite writers. I go with E.M. Forster on this. I don’t see writers in any competition, I see them all working together in the big round reading room of the British Library. Isn’t it a miracle we have so many great writers to read?
So, yes, he has to be my favorite.
What have you learned from him?
I hope what he wrote to a young Peter Benchley, who was in boarding school at the time. He was friends with Peter’s father. Steinbeck wrote, “Only a fool is willfully obscure.”
Yes, excellent. You put that in Steinbeck’s Ghost.
In other words: the exact opposite of what they taught us in college! To me, so much of my adult writing life has been about unlearning those lessons, the obtuse writers that we were supposed to admire and love. I mean, yes, some are great. But there’s definitely an Emperor’s New Clothes thing going on: I don’t understand it, I can’t comprehend it, so golly it must be good! More and more, I respect writing that has clarity, directness, and restraint. An absence of flash. I’m striving to write sentences like, “He put the glass on the table.”
Many of my students — I teach part-time in the MFA program at University of San Francisco — are under the impression that subtlety is the goal. And by that they mean murkiness. One of them recently told me, “I love stories that leave you completely confused about what’s happening.” Okay, fine.
Flannery O’Connor wrote that in a time when there is too much noise in the air, and everyone is heard of hearing, the writer needs to practically shout, use primary colors, be bold. Yep.
Talking about Steinbeck, I’m reminded of how I read many of his books as a young teenager. He and guys like Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (probably my favorite at that age) were the young adult literature of my youth. There was no such thing as “YA.”
I think that that’s my ultimate goal as a writer, to crack open the brain, and unleash the words, of a fourteen-year-old. To meet the big ideas about the world that are just forming in their enormous brains. As a bookseller, who should pay attention to categories, I was never one for categories. Good is good. That’s that. Bradbury, Vonnegut, Steinbeck — that’s a good desert island stack.
You recently wrote your first children’s book, Steinbeck’s Ghost. How did that happen?
Like I said, I wasn’t a voracious reader as a kid, so I missed a lot of great kids’ lit. But the very first bookstore I worked in was run by three wonderful women, who were all passionate experts about kids’ books. And they made certain that I read as much as I could, and that I understand, not only the importance of kids’ books, but the variety and expertise of kids’ books, their sophistication. So my whole adult life, I’ve been a reader of kids’ books. And I’ve always wanted to write my own.
I’m glad you did, just don’t eat up too much of the market share. Oh, wait. We”re not supposed to be in competition. Can’t I just quietly hate you?
You became a father relatively late in life. How do you think that’s affected you as a writer? As a reader?
Lord, what a question. It changed everything.
When my daughter was born, I was halfway through the second draft of a six hundred page novel that was all very clever and erudite and luminous. But I threw myself, gladly, into being a dad, changing diapers and staying up nights for feedings, strollers, all the rest. It was a blast. By the time I got back to that novel, I was disenchanted with it — it seemed so unessential, so small. And I immediately began writing a whole new crop of stories about what I felt were bigger things. That became After the Gold Rush, my first book of stories.
My daughter “restored me to life,” as Dickens said, reminded me what was essential. And since then, I’ve written so many books, with such urgency. She not only reminded me what to write about, but showed me, perhaps for the first time, why I was writing. Dude, seriously, it’s life and death stuff — that’s how it makes me feel.
Katherine Paterson has a wonderful line about that, reflecting on being a parent and a writer: “I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.” There it is, I couldn’t possibly say it better. Like we were talking about before — she said it for us, articulated that chaos of the heart, and I’m grateful to her for that.
God, what a great line. I wish I’d said that. Can we pretend? That’s the wonderful thing about being a parent, and I think a lot of people miss this part — especially the “workaholics”: my pleasures here are purely selfish; she gives me so much.
And then, of course, there was reading to her. She’s eleven now, and we still read together every night. But the first day she was home from the hospital, I read to her — Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak. And it’s been such a journey to follow her through that development, through all the picture books, then the chapter books, then the middle grade novels. Yes, that had a huge influence on my desire to get into the kids’ section.
What’s your daughter’s name? I’m guessing it’s Flannery, Harper, or Willa.
Maddy. Yes, Madeleine. Actually named after a character in the Bill Forsythe movie, “Comfort and Joy,” who is a kleptomaniac, and her boyfriend follows her around department stores watching her steal, and he’s always saying, in his Scottish accent, “Ach, Maddy; ach, Maddy.”
Ach, Maddy — that’s funny. What’s next for you?
My second middle-grade reader, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, will come out in September 2010, and I’ve just finished Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger, September 2011.
Quick idea here, Lewis, if the series is successful: Marcel Proust and the Madeleine Tea Cake. Kids are always clamoring for more Proust — plush toys, bed sheets, lunch boxes, 8-track tapes. Or how about, Ernest Hemingway and the Disappearing Absinthe. Maybe you could package it with “Death in the Afternoon by Chocolate” brownies or something. Hey, it’s your series — do with it what you’d like. I’m just typing out loud here.
I was thinking more like Kafka Goes Krazy. I think Kafka is the perfect karacter for kids to relate to. I mean, you know you did something wrong, and have to stand trial for it, but you just don’t know what it is you did. Plus, it’s got movie written all over it.
Actually, I think Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is the most borrowed idea in children’s picture books. Imogene’s Antlers, anyone? A Bad Case of Stripes? There are many variations. And I love that idea today, waking up in a transformed body. It’s probably a great story starter in the classroom.
I’m just starting a new adult nonfiction book, along the lines of Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. It’ll be called Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, and will concern itself with classrooms and what happens in them. It’ll include history, too, but also the memoirs of a student, and of a teacher.
Wow, huge topic, sounds interesting — I’ll look forward to reading it. Now strap in, Lewis, here comes The Lightning Round. Five favorite TV shows, all-time?
Simpsons, South Park, Cheers, M*A*S*H, iCarly (my new favorite).
Five best concerts you’ve ever seen?
Tom Waits on New Year’s Eve; Elvis Costello’s Spinning Wheel Tour; Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming Tour; Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense Tour; Bruce Springsteen in San Jose, 1978.
I love Tom Waits, and he is a genius. But frankly, a lot of the more recent stuff is just too, well, obscure. I’m not a musical genius. I like songs. I have all his albums up through the early nineties. Then it stops. But I’d love to have lunch with him someday.
I just met Rebecca Stead, ever so briefly. Got a signed copy of When You Reach Me for my kids. I don’t think she realized how fabulous I was, or else she would have been more excited. Don’t you think? A lot of talk about that book. How’d you like it?
It’s a great voice she has, and a real great, what I call “kid brain.” I also like that she and her publisher were willing to go back to the 70’s. Near history, not movie history. I dug it, completely. Like Konigsburg, she knows how intense every moment of childhood is, and she knows that kids are intensely involved with the lives of adults, too.
Wouldn’t now (cough, cough) be a good time to talk about my books? I mean, dude, throw me a bone here. It’s how we met, isn’t it?
I didn’t know you wrote. Oh, you’re that James Preller! Hmmm. It’s true. I recently read Bystander, and wrote you a somewhat unabashed fan letter. Because, like Stead and Konigsburg and L’Engle and Cormier, you get what the best kids’ writers get and what makes me want to keep doing this: kids are way, way smarter than we think they are, and their lives are as worthy of serious literature as adults. Perhaps more. Then I read Six Innings, which I loved, and I thought, crap, this guy is too good.
But seriously, where’s my pie, Mr. Preller?
I lied about the pie. Listen, bro, thank you so much for hanging around, putting in all this time. I can only hope my Nation of Readers goes out and buys all your books. You should expect a huge spike in sales. Please except this new Kindle 2 as a parting gift. It’s lightweight, 20 percent faster than the original Kindle, and lasts four to five days without needing to be plugged in or whatever. Let’s see a book compete with that! Plus, you can use it as a doorstop.
Can you hand me the chainsaw, please? The chicken is getting antsy.
Last thought, as the credits roll . . .
. . . the nicest thing I can say about Lewis Buzbee is that after you talk to him, you want to go out and buy a book. You want to catch up on all those treasures you’ve missed. You want to walk into a good bookstore, run your fingers down those beautiful spines, bring the weather with you. We all feel it, everybody here. We’re readers. We love books; it’s at the core of everything we do. Thank you, Lewis Buzbee, for reminding us of that love.Now get outta here, ya big lug, before I hit you with a pie.
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