Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.

[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I'm referring to were living then. Plath's mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can't confirm Olwyn Hughes's status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]

Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.

Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.

The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)

Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)

Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)

It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.

Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:

The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.

I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.

Also, this:

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.

I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

Laing’s poetic ruminations on the alcoholism of six authors will charm readers of travel writing, biography and literary criticism.

echo spring
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring studies six authors whose lives meet at the juncture of creativity and alcoholism. While Laing (who walked along the river where Virginia Woolf killed herself for her previous book, To the River) acknowledges she had many alcoholic writers to choose from, the half dozen she selected justify and reward her nuanced attentions. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams have been studied to the point of exhaustion, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman have been less comprehensively examined.

Laing’s exploration of these extraordinary men’s lives has many facets. The Trip to Echo Spring, named for the bourbon favored by the maudlin Brick in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is partly literary criticism–and no lightweight in that department, showing serious attention to her subjects’ works. Meanwhile, the level of biographical detail reveals Laing’s interest in their intersections with one another in life as well as literature. There are hints of travelogue as well, as Laing crisscrosses North America to visit the crucial locations in these writers’ lives, from Hemingway’s Key West to Fitzgerald and Berryman’s St. Paul, Minn., to Port Angeles, Wash., where Raymond Carver finished his life.

The common themes Laing finds in the cities and the bars where these men drank themselves into misery, death, and art include swimming, fluidity and the cleansing properties of sea and stream. She delves into the biology and psychology of of alcoholism, with several forays into Alcoholics Anonymous, and finally touches on her own upbringing as the child of alcoholics. While she focuses on the relationship between writing and drinking, another key part of her journey is personal–but her own history with drunks is only gradually revealed and never takes center stage.

These disparate elements come together elegantly in Laing’s quietly contemplative prose. She is sensitive to the struggles of these tortured men (among them several suicides) and deeply appreciative of their accomplishments, but also clear-headed about their shortcomings and their abusive treatment of others as well as themselves. A lovely piece of writing in its own right, The Trip to Echo Spring is a fine tribute to artists as well as a lament for their addiction.


This review originally ran in the November 20, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bottles.

book beginnings on Friday: The Norman Maclean Reader

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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For this book beginning, we are treated to a previously unpublished chapter from Maclean’s abandoned book about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It was in the year – even in the season of year – marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn that Major Edward S. Luce retired as Superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. He and the Hill have long been closely connected.

Even in those few words, I recognize Maclean and his attention to detail and his interest. As I’ve just read in the introduction, Maclean’s obsession with the Mann Gulch Fire (see Young Men and Fire) is at least matched by his obsession with Custer; but his high standards and (argues the editor who wrote the introduction) his proximity to the subject caused him to leave this book behind.

I am super-extra-excited to have more Maclean to dig into. Let’s have it.

did not finish: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (audio)

bonhoefferI’ve gotten better at putting down books I’m not enjoying. As I keep repeating to myself & others, there are far too many excellent books in this world for me to ever read them all, so why would I spend my precious, limited reading time on less-than-excellent books? But I guess I’m still working on applying this same policy to audiobooks. They are fewer, and a little harder to get my hands on, so I find myself taking more chances with audiobooks. But somewhere between a third and halfway through Bonhoeffer, I gave up.

This is the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who lost a brother in World War I and was more prescient than many during Hitler’s rise to power. He was already involved in “the church,” but as Hitler’s government worked to take over the German church establishment, Bonhoeffer became even more active. I didn’t get this far, but apparently he also acted as a spy (for the anti-Nazi Abwehr), and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

As a non-Christian, I thought I would be able to appreciate this as a work of history and biography. But I found myself too much irked by the unspoken premises: that Bonhoeffer, as a good Christian, was a good guy; that he could do no wrong; that the Christian church was inherently good. Christian readers of this book (who I can only assume are the majority, and its target audience) will naturally not be offended by these assumptions; but I am bothered by premises being treated as fact. Bonhoeffer comes off as a good and likeable man, and I may even miss him; but he’s presented as a totally good man, and I just can’t buy that about any human being. In other words, I don’t think Metaxas treats him objectively, and that tends to bother me a great deal in my reading. The religious bias, combined with copious quotations from the Bible, proved too much for me. In a shorter book, I would have hung in there: I made it 8-10 hours into its 22 hours! But I could go no farther.

I am happy to accept that Bonhoeffer was, on balance, a force for good against Hitler’s evil; but in a lengthy biography I would expect a little more objectivity, and would prefer a nonreligious starting point for study. I found his life interesting and would read another book about him. But not this one.


Rating: 2 sermons.

Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married by Nancy Rubin Stuart

Parallel profiles of two wives on opposite sides of the American Revolution.

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Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold and Lucy Flucker Knox have traditionally been treated as historical footnotes in relation to their more famous husbands, Benedict Arnold and Henry Knox. Nancy Rubin Stuart (The Muse of the Revolution) remedies this neglect in Defiant Brides, a double biography that examines these two women as individuals as well as influential players in the American Revolution.

Peggy was a beautiful blonde belle of Philadelphia society, from a family that favored the British. Lucy was from a well-to-do, firmly Loyalist Boston family. The Shippens reluctantly admitted the political expediency of Peggy’s marriage to military hero Benedict Arnold; the Fluckers disowned Lucy for the sin of matrimony with patriot Henry Knox. Lucy supported her husband’s military and political careers in relative poverty and socialized with George and Martha Washington, even as she fretted over Knox’s long absences and missed the opulence of her youth. Peggy staunchly championed her husband through his treason and banishment and their subsequent financial difficulties in England and Canada; her part in Arnold’s betrayal at West Point, and her own possible role as a spy, remain controversial.

Stuart’s thoughtful research and consideration brings each woman forward into her own spotlight, reflecting on the flaws and strengths that Peggy and Lucy brought to their marriages and to the events of their time. Defiant Brides is an effortless read and a fresh perspective on the American Revolution, featuring two women who defied their parents to marry into a conflict that shaped a nation.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 degrees of loyalty.

What The World’s Strongest Librarian is Reading

Following up on my review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, and my interview of the man himself: this section didn’t get printed in Shelf Awareness but I thought my readers might be interested. I certainly was! For one thing, The Black Count is on my list.

So, from our interview conversation: What the World’ Strongest Librarian is Reading.


Josh says, “I read a book almost every day. Because I can’t sleep. It’s really hard for me to go to sleep with the tics, so that’s one of the silver linings, that I get to read so much. I shouldn’t say I read a book every day, but I finish a book almost every day. I read everything from juvenile books to big giant books that I’ll finish after eight days of reading.”

What good books have you read lately?

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It has never been this fun to be cynical. Kenney was an insider in advertising and copyrighting in New York, and it is just the most brutal look at the superficial world of advertising, and the storytelling – I really want everybody to go read it.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is about Alexander Dumas’ father, who was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a black man during the Napoleonic campaigns, and he rose to great power in a time when the world and the military were definitely ruled by whites. He winds up being imprisoned for something like 20 years, and the whole time he’s in prison his jailer is trying to poison him. Then it turns into this incredible story, if anything more swashbuckling and gigantic than The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a crash course in the Napoleonic campaigns that doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s just a wonderful book, the wildest adventure story.

I have been rereading Mark Twain, which I always am.

I just read a University Press book, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, that was quite good. Very theory-intensive, which I don’t enjoy so much anymore, but really good since I’m a fan of Wallace’s.

I just read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr again.

And, The Twits by Roald Dahl. I just read that with Max. Max is finally old enough to want Roald Dahl. And that has made me happier than anything.”


See more of Josh’s book reviews and related and unrelated writings at his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

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Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-“L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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