How reading is like oxygen for writing

WYDKN - Colin FirthFor a few days now, like my man Colin Firth (Does he have a clone? Because I’d like one, please), I’ve been walking around inside the world of The Book Thief. I just finished reading it, but I’m still with the child Liesel Meminger, back in her town outside of Munich, in Nazi Germany.

Markus Zusak’s novel has done what all great books do — entered into that place in a reader’s brain where gorgeous words, shocking words, uplifting words, words that bite at your throat and make it hard to swallow for the tears they call up, all exist for the rest of your life.

I’ve been on a — what would I call it? — a roll? — a path? — a series? — of novels I’ve read in the last five years, all about characters living in/through World War II. The novels have been set in New England, Guernsey, Germany, Britain, Poland, Russia. I’ve read Grand Central, a collection of stories that take place in Grand Central Station in NYC on one particular day as the war is ending.

Two books have stayed with me — Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum, and now The Book Thief. Reading these books does what every influential book I’ve ever read since I was a kid has done — make me want to be a better writer.

They are the books that dazzle with their language. Not difficult language, crafted to show off. The painting of images, like these (from The Book Thief):

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.

And…

That was when the great shiver arrived.

It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

Those Who Save Us, of all the books I had read about WW2, stuck with me for its perfect way of going back and forth in time, and the story of a mother and daughter — a mother’s great love for her daughter and her inability to tell her why she seemed as if she didn’t love her daughter, conceived in Nazi Germany with a young Jewish doctor, and how the daughter grew up as a modern American woman, detached from her early childhood.

My book, too, is about mothers and daughters and that tricky terrain.

But it takes place in another time, when the world was supposed to be over that “old” war, and preoccupied with wars in other places. Like the people on Himmel Street where Liesel lived and played soccer and loved, life went on. Unlike Leisel, who couldn’t avoid the effects of her country’s war, my characters are able to imagine they and their lives at home in the U.S. are untouched as they travel through countries in Europe still rebuilding from Liesel’s war.

The ability to construct a story that isn’t linear (mine is very linear, it follows an itinerary) but takes the reader back and forth in time and place — and doesn’t lose the reader in the process — is a great skill.

As a reader and a writer, I learn from reading all the time. I love sinking into the story, walking around with it in my head, thinking about characters, losing myself. But I know that I’ll take some of a book’s magic with me, like a transfusion, and I hope that bloodline will show up in my own work.

What books in your life have stayed with you?

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