The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Tracy Manaster.
Who are you?
Tracy Manaster, author of the just-released YOU COULD BE HOME BY NOW.
What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
Is it cheating too terribly much to list a series? Maude Hart Lovelace’s BETSY-TACY books are among my all-time favorites. Betsy in particular is so fully-realized, ambitious but very, very fallible–a little vain, a little melodramatic, and not always the best at balancing her desire to be a writer with her rich social world. I suspect it’s obvious why I identify so strongly with her, though of the two of us Betsy is by far the better dressed.
When I was in the fourth grade, I practically memorized D’AUALARIES’ BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS, with its rich, gorgeously-illustrated collection of gods behaving badly. Then, when I was an Archaeology major in college, I found I could easily stay on top of my Classic courses thanks in no small part to D’Aualaries, provided I dialed the PG rating up to NC-17.
And in the spirit of honesty (and despite the fact that my love for, say, LITTLE WOMEN would sound far more impressive) I’ll admit to at one point being hopelessly addicted to THE BABYSITTERS’ CLUB’s entrepreneurial spirit and general sense of can do.
What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
I feel like I’m chief proselytizer for the cult of Brian Hall. Looking over my own early stabs at fiction, I can readily pinpoint whether a story was pre- or post- my first reading of Hall’s THE SASKIAD; very little pre-Saskiad is salvageable but just about everything post has at least a phrase or an idea that’s worthwhile. With The Saskiad, I really began to understand all the crazy, graceful things that could be done with point of view and to start attempting them myself.
What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I’m often drawn to what I’ll call “Westerns that aren’t Westerns.” Part of the appeal is the landscape–it’s what I grew up with and also happens to be stunning, moody, and dramatic. And so much of the usual Western is driven by trope and by type that it’s incredibly satisfying to see works that look beyond that and (even better) blow it apart. Sherman Alexie comes to mind here of course, as do Judith Freeman (read RED WATER. Read it. Now.), Larry Watson, and Molly Gloss.
What is your ideal time and place to read?
Ideally? In bed, all day, with zillions of blankets and a big mug of coffee nearby. But my life is busy and very full, so that’s not something that happens often.
Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
That’s a hard one. As I massage a first draft into a second (and every draft thereafter, but first to second is where they seem to congregate) I try to be ruthless in changing or cutting lines or phrases that call to mind other writers. In my actual approach to writing, I think I owe a huge debt to Mildred Walker (another bossy parenthetical: go read WINTER WHEAT. I suspect that had she been Milton and not Mildred we’d all have been assigned it in high school), who would go into a work with a simple, moving (to her) fact in mind (a certain strain of wheat was a hybrid of Russia and US grains, for instance) and constantly write toward it. Often, I’ll write with an image or bit of scientific trivia I picked up who knows where that I know I want to include toward the end. The initial draft becomes an exercise in getting the narrative there.
How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
Badly, in that I don’t have enough time for either. If I have a block of at least an hour, I’ll error on the side of writing. Reading is something I fit in where I can. Audiobooks help; with two kids I spend a lot of time in the car. And I always carry a book or two on me. If I’m meeting friends somewhere I will try to get there early enough to read a page or so.
Of course, there are some books that are so compelling they devour my writing time (and all my free time) until I finish them. I used to beat myself up about that, calling myself lazy or not a real writer. But writers learn through reading and books that hook me that thoroughly are fairly rare and a wonderful pleasure, so I’ve learned to relax a little.
Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Another hard one. Audiobooks as so convenient and hearing a text aloud I can pick up on language level ticks and tricks I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m a better reader with ebooks, less apt to succumb to the temptation of peeking at the end and more likely to actually look up words with which I’m unfamiliar. But despite that, there is nothing like a physical book. Maybe if ebooks came with that paper and binding smell…
Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
There are so many books I want to read and re-read that I think I would paralyze myself if I attempted a rational and strategic approach. I do keep a running list of books to recommend and give to other people. I won’t be citing it here as we’re closing in on the Christmukkah giving season, but it is lengthy and quite detailed.
What are you reading now?
I had ambitions this year of reading DON QUIXOTE in Spanish (I’m about halfway through) and with less than two months before 2015 rolls in, my answer should be “I’m reading DON QUIXOTE in Spanish, per my New Year’s resolution.” But Ernie Wood, who I’ll be doing a reading with in Austin this January, just published his ONE RED THREAD. And Mary Doria Russell’s EPITAPH will be out soon, which means I’m re-reading DOC (which means I’ll probably wind up re-reading THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD; I can get obsessive). A friend just gave me Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s BITTERSWEET and everyone keeps publishing their best books of the year lists. Quixote has been around since 1605. I suspect I can get away with waiting one more year.
I’m Tracy Manaster Alifanz on FB, @tracymanaster on Twitter, and non-existent on Pinterest as I have neither the time nor the headspace. My debut novel, YOU COULD BE HOME BY NOW, is (per Kirkus) “a scintillating drama that’s touching, funny and impossible to put down” and (per my five-year-old twin daughters) “exciting because it has a little blue truck on the cover.” It’s available on Amazon and at your favorite bookstore.