Fast Books, Slow Books
+ XO is out & so are dandelions + Ruth Ozeki & Emily St John Mandel + I got a new desk!
Squeaking this month’s newsletter out just under the wire, as April came out of the gates like whoa and has been a bit like chasing a runaway steamroller ever since.
As most of you know, my second book, XO, released on April 5 (I’ve linked some press below1, if you want to check out some interviews and an excerpt), and I’ve been humbled by some of the beautiful responses I’ve had from readers so far. Seriously, the best part of being an author (besides the fame and fortune, obvs) is hearing from readers! Because XO is intensely personal, hearing about how it is landing for people means all the more. Writing this type of nonfiction is a particular kind of experience, distinct from writing fiction (maybe I’ll talk about this more in a future newsletter), and while it is HARD, the rewards are pretty fantastic.
And with further ado, some thoughts on books…
As a treat to myself on publication day, I took a trip to one of my local bookstores, Odyssey Bookshop, and splurged on two (!) hardcover novels: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
I started Sea of Tranquility that afternoon while waiting to pick up the kids from school, and then I didn’t want to put it down! As far as reading experiences go, this was of the variety where I had the book on the counter while I cooked dinner, reading as I stirred. Mandel somehow manages to be an incredible prose stylist while also making her characters come alive and never letting go of the propulsive plot. The only other book of hers I’ve read (so far) is Station Eleven, which I fondly remember devouring in a day, pre-kids. As I closed Sea of Tranquility, I wondered, How does she produce this particular alchemy of story, whereby I am desperate to find out what happens but also left bereft when the novel ends?
Next, I turned to The Book of Form and Emptiness and to my delight/amazement/curiosity had a wildly different reading experience: I fell headlong into the prose, characters, and plot, and while I faithfully returned to the book every night until I finished it (a rarity for me), I found myself taking as much time as possible to finish—that is, I was purposefully reading slowly. The book seemed to demand it of me (if you’ve read it, you’ll get my little joke). This was my first experience with Ozeki’s work and I found the way she weaves philosophy and metaphysics into the narrative to be utterly beguiling. I found myself wondering, How does she accomplish these feats of nimble intellect without bogging down her plot or turning her characters into talking heads? Again, what alchemy!
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two books, and this experience, ever since; trying to parse out the various types of “magic” at play in the narratives. Part of it is due to style, of course. Mandel started out as a crime novelist, and Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest—I have no doubt that these specific personal attributes exert a lot of influence over the books they write. But there seems to be something else too, something somewhat vague, but nonetheless valuable. Bear with me while I sound this out.
Some books are fast, and some books are slow. One is not better than the other. A book cannot be (and should not attempt to be) both.
As a writer, it helps to know which type of book you’re writing. This may sound like obvious advice, but given that each book you may write is its own puzzle to solve, I suspect it’s advice that is often ignored in favor of personal, craft, or market-driven expectations. Also, it’s maddeningly inexplicit advice—I mean, how, exactly, do you know?
Partly it’s a matter of personal taste, and partly it’s a matter of knowing—and trusting—thyself. Partly it’s a matter of slipping out of the hold that expectations may have placed on you. But there’s something else too, and I hope you’ll give it a try the next time a project thwarts your best-laid intentions. I call this process “deep listening,” though “listening” can be somewhat of a misnomer. On the most basic level, it asks that you slow waaaaaay down and tune in to the book’s frequency. You might do this by meditating or by entering a meditative state, or by using some activity that turns your critical mind off and allows your creative mind to turn on—and not only turn on, but hone in. (I was surprised recently to discover that I could access this place by wearing big headphones and playing a specific album on repeat. With practice, you’ll figure out what works for you.) Once there, pay attention. What do you “hear” in this state? What is your book’s frequency—high or low? fast or slow? Are you forcing the book to be something it doesn’t want to be because you think it should be fast paced or more thoughtful? Essentially, I’m urging you into a state of creative honesty—whether you find this place through your ears, your heart, your mind, your fingertips, or some other modality altogether—to see what you might find there. What happens if you trust it? What happens if you let the book you’re writing be itself?
“Signed with an XO” | Christine Sneed and I discuss XO at ZZYZZVA
“On the Beach” | An excerpt of XO at Vol. 1 Brooklyn
My editor/publisher Michael Wheaton and I discussed writing about affairs, heartbreak, and God, and the process of making XO on The Lives of Writers (podcast)
Pssst… there’s an XO tote available now! Get the book’s gorgeous cover to go right here.