Jo-Ann Mapson: Still Recovering, With Reading Suggestions

Pneumonia’s healing process, I’ve learned, is one-step-
forward, two-steps-back kind of progress. 
It’s humbling to be told in no uncertain terms by your body that she’s
had enough and rest is mandatory NOW.
Reading has kept me from going insane. I want to share these
book titles with you.  They have been good
“friends” who aren’t worried I might be contagious.  Some of them have bowled me over in their new
approaches to narrative.  Mostly, they
brought me as much joy as one can experience while resting bed.
Faithful Place by
Tana French
Broken Harbor by
Tana French
The Secret Keeper
by Kate Morton
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour
by Robin Sloan
The End of Your Life
Book Club
by Will Schwalbe
The Unlikely Pilgrimage
of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Tell the Wolves I’m
by Carol Rifka Brunt
The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
The River Swimmer
by Jim Harrison
Blasphemy by
Sherman Alexie
Many Ways to Say It
by Eva Saulitis
Into Great Silence
by Eva Saulitis
I’d read Tana French, Kate Morton, and Jim Harrison previous
to this jag. French writes police procedurals set in Dublin, Ireland.  The
Wall Street Journal
had this to say about her:
“Ms. French has come to be regarded as one of the
most distinct and exciting new voices in crime writing. She constructs her plots in a dreamlike, meandering fashion that seems
at odds with genre’s fixed narrative conventions
. Sometimes, it’s not even
clear whodunit. Her novels have been translated into 31 languages, with 1.5
million copies in print . . .  Broken Harbor has the hallmarks of a
standard police procedural: a cocky homicide detective with a troubled past who
educates his younger partner with pat lessons; a shocking crime that seems to
defy explanation; a heart-stopping twist at the end. But Ms. French undercuts
expectations at every turn. The victims begin to look less like victims; the
case starts to unravel and the lead detective makes compromises that could ruin
(The Wall
Street Journal
Check out the line I’ve highlighted: Her stories do have
that feel at the start.  There’s no sense
of urgency. Both these books read like character-driven novels, where the
change in character functions as the plot.  Here’s where French is different (and
brilliant):  By the end of the book, you
realize that she never once lost
control of her plot, and in a genre like mystery, the writer must be in control, the crumbs dropped, the
red herrings placed, the tale is brought to fruition with that twist or
surprise we all missed.  She is that
good, and apparently, with every new book, she gets more accomplished. (She
also writes in Irish dialect. 
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-HourBookstore is a first novel, and debut novels are frank and magical.  Probably it has to do with not yet being
reviewed.  Robin Sloan creates the
collision of two worlds, technology and old-fashioned books, the type that must
be read over and over again, and teach the reader something new with each
read.  His first person narrative is
seductive while being innocent, commands empathy without sounding whiny, is humble
while informative, and filled with a wisdom that seems well beyond his age—go
watch his book trailer on Amazon.
Here’s what Newsday
said about him:

“What makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan’s
great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters.
Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph
Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of
wonders at which to marvel.” —Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday

Nice comparison!  Joseph Cornell is an
incredible artist.  Here’s a YouTubevideo.

What stuck me about these two books in particular is that
the approach to narrative was fresh and involving without being “experimental.”  The same can be said for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  It appears to have grown out of the playwright’s
stage play, her first novel as well.  The
UK Times said:

“Harold’s journey is ordinary and
extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society,
through time and landscape. It is a funny book, a wise book, a charming
book—but never cloying. It’s a book with a savage twist—and yet never
seems manipulative. Perhaps because Harold himself is just wonderful…. I’m
telling you now: I love this book.”—Erica Wagner, The
It’s easy to teach the same books over
and over again.  We know them so well.  They are classics of our age, us Boomers.  Cathedral by Raymond Carver, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the
only book she ever wrote, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  If you
haven’t read them, get thee to a library posthaste. 
But reading new writers is like having
a taste of green tea ice cream.  Fifty
years ago, Neapolitan ice cream was the fanciest thing out there.  Reading new writers, debut novels,
collections of poetry, I cherish that experience.  I learn from it.  The older I get, the more I realize that the most
important thing to teach a writing student is to just tell a story. When I was
a writing student, the similes, metaphors, flowery language I used, well, it embarrasses
me today.  But if that’s how a writer
falls in love with words and images, think of it as a step on the staircase. 
Readers want a story.  Just tell a story.
Often I steer my writing students to
poetry. This is one of my favorite poems ever.
Look at that poem!  Study it. 
It contains the entire blueprint for a novel.  Beginning, character, conflict, epiphany,
denouement. Sometimes story exists in what isn’t
written, but possibly hinted at.  Like
the white space in a poem, the themes, metaphors, and truths dawn on the reader
in the process of reading. 
If you want to write, you had better
read.  Sometimes, not often, students get
huffy when I ask them to rewrite, or occasionally, set a hundred pages aside
and start over. Excuse after excuse bubbles from their lips.  Yes, I’ve made a few students cry.  I am a mean little old lady.  But the writer who grows and accomplishes
multiple projects is the writer who in her downtime is reading, studying books,
how they are structured, experiment with style and narrative, and other areas
of craft, and rewriting. 
That’s about it.  Oh, wait. 
One more thing:
This morning I posted on Facebook:
around part 2 (of my new novel), looking for the one sentence that will get me
headed in the right direction…where is the writer’s compass? Who sells them?
Are they like Leathermen? Swiss Army knives? What?
Because I am a cowboy
boot freak, my FB friend Cindy Schnack Arsenault Coffell posted this
you look in your boots?
And I grinned like
crazy because she nailed it.  The cowboy
boots in my new novel matter.  Ron
Carlson always says, What’s in your inventory? 
What is the smallest object and how can you use it?  Skye’s boots are custom made Old Gringo boots
with bluebirds on them.  When she got to
Santa Fe, she fully intended to sell them because she is broke.  But she doesn’t want to sell them.  Boots make her feel strong.  They are the one beautiful possession she
owns.  Now, I see.  The boots are rapidly approaching
Gotta go write
now.  Thank you for reading my posts, and
49Writers, for asking me to blog.   

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of eleven novels and a book of short stories. Her work is widely anthologized and her literary papers are being collected by Boston University’s Twentieth Century Author’s Collection.Finding Casey, featuring some of the characters from Solomon’s Oak, was published October 2012. Core faculty and co-creator of The University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program in Writing, she lives with her husband and their three Italian greyhounds in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is at work on a new novel. Owen’s Daughter will be published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishers. Meet her on YouTube or at her website.

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