Suggestion Boxes and Beginnings Part #2

Part of my business here is to be on hand to answer questions. Sometimes questions are hard to ask. Because it’s tricky to find the time, or formulate (on your feet, in your words) what you want to ask. Or it’s just odd and embarrassing to be on the spot.

So, hopefully shortly, there’s going to be a question box out on the front desk. And if you have a question you’d like me to answer, just write it anonymously and slip it in the box. And I’ll answer here, for all to see, as best I can. So everyone who likes can hear your question and what I hope is a useful answer.

Something I’m going to do here, weekly, is book recommendations. If you don’t have the mental space, file them for later. Writers are readers first, and the more you read, the more you realize you are in company, that what you are doing is supported, and exists in concert with the reality of other people, other lives. As a writer, you read to be encouraged and humbled at the same time, to know that the task you are engaged is achievable (others have done this, so why not you?) and less singular than you thought (be careful of thinking you are the only person to have ever thought a thing. It won’t turn out to be true. That is comforting as well as disappointing).

So here goes: Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. This is a craft book, in the sense that it’s a series of essays on writing. I usually dislike craft books, because writers can be so pompous and prescriptive, as if the only way forward was to do exactly what worked for that particular writer. But there are a few exceptions. This is one of them. Percy writes genre-inflected literary fiction. He also writes for DC Comics. Part of his project is to bulldoze forever any distinction between different forms of cultural engagement. He doesn’t have a snobbish bone in his body, and the only question he asks of a book is: does it feel alive? My favourite essay is his discussion of how time and tension work within a narrative, how suspense is achieved. Which he then breaks down in a Jhumpa Lahiri short story and a novel by Stephen King. The Lahiri short story is a perfect example of restrained and discreet literary fiction: a couple, unhappily married, coming to terms with loss. The Stephen King novel is, well, a Stephen King novel. But Percy brilliantly shows that the two writers are doing, in essence, the same thing in a different way. I laughed out loud and never thought about literary fiction (or genre fiction) the same way again. He also has one of the best practical arguments for why we should be very cautious around the explicit depiction of violence I’ve ever heard, and wonderfully puts forward an ethical position cloaked within an aesthetic one. And the essay “Consider the Orange,” about visual themes and how they work in fiction, changed how I saw both writing and reading. Plus, this book is funny and short. Check it out. It helps with the question of how to begin.