Part 1 of Emotions Bled Through, Almost Unexpectedly: Dennis Mahoney & Kate Southwood in Conversation is here.
Kate Southwood: As I mentioned above, I think reading is crucial to learning for writers. Are there any writers you’d single out as having been good teachers to you? Not necessarily childhood heroes—the writers who made you want to be a writer—but writers you’ve read as an adult, since you began to write novels, yourself?
Dennis Mahoney: I’m such a bad person to ask that question, since I never know how to answer. I’m the same way with lists. I couldn’t you tell you my favorite book, album, or movie. Figuring out which ones have influenced me the most is even harder, and it changes based on whatever I’m currently writing. But I’ve noticed that stories and styles that differ from my own tend to be the ones I gravitate towards. Which is odd, because you’d think an author writes what he or she generally enjoys reading.
This brings me to something you just said: that you read as a novelist, studying what makes a story tick so you can learn how to improve, as opposed to reading for fun or personal enrichment. I do, too — I can’t help it — but I often resent my brain for it. I envy readers who can devour a book for the hell of it, the way I might watch a movie or TV show (although I’m trying to vivisect those stories, too). I seem to read less than a lot of my friends because I’m slow, and I bring that professional baggage. And there’s a danger in overthinking it all mid-story, because I’m not being affected quite the same as a pure reader. Maybe this is why a lot of literary novels dazzle other writers, but leave the average reader unfulfilled? There’s a risk of becoming too writerly.
Back to your original question: some of the best reading experiences of my life have come from authors and stories that don’t resemble my own work. Patrick O’Brian. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I wholeheartedly loved the Potter series. Lately I’m on a Shakespeare kick. I’m able to read those authors purely as a reader, and with real joy. And since I’m not picking them apart along the way, they probably influence me more. They get me excited about making stuff up. I’m mainlining the effects, so then it’s those effects — love for a character, immersion in a fictional place — that I try to create in my own fiction, and not necessarily with the same techniques.
But that line is starting to bleed, because I’m reading more genre, more “popular” stories, and my own writing is tipping in that direction. In other words, the stories I read to Stop Thinking Like a Writer are now significantly changing the kind of writer I want to be. I haven’t felt this excited about writing in a long time. It certainly helped that I finally got a novel published, but my next novel was going to different even before that happened, and it’s more inspired by stories I’ve loved instead of studied.
KS: This all serves to illustrate how individual the writing process—and writers—can be. You and I are alike in not being able to pinpoint favorites, and I suspect that’s how it should be: fluid, not fixed. On the other hand, we’re dissimilar in that you say you prefer to read writers whose work is different from yours. But again, that’s how it works for you, and I suspect that if you hadn’t known that, you might not have been able to complete and publish a novel.
I’m carrying around two separate loads of the “professional baggage” you describe. My first Masters is an Art History degree, which makes me either a great date at a museum or a horrible one, depending on how you look at it. It pains me sometimes not to be able to just look at a painting or sculpture and experience it without having to analyze it, but I can’t undo my training. Since I realized I do the same thing with books, I’ve tried to relax about it, because I know it’s not going to change. I read for fun in the summer, when my daughters are off school and I’m sort of off duty as a writer, re-reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ mysteries (I do this every year, like a literary pilgrimage) or catching up on my non-fiction reading. Those are some of the things I can read for pleasure, as you say, with real joy.
One serious and lamentable problem I have with books that I have loved, studied, and been influenced by is that I tend not to like other books by the same author very much. That probably has to do with authorial voice more than anything else. Take a few of the books that fall into this category for me: The Gathering, by Anne Enright; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson; Atonement, by Ian McEwan. The authorial voice and even presence in these books is very strong, which is why each one absolutely floored me, but ultimately I hear that same authorial voice in their other novels, which essentially makes it impossible for me to fully enter the stories.
This is vexing for me as a reader, because I don’t believe for a moment that these authors’ work is so uneven, but it’s also worrying for me as a newly published novelist: will the same thing happen to me as a writer that has happened to me as a reader? Will my second novel feel too much like the first one? Perhaps that’s not even a bad thing—having a strong, readily identifiable authorial voice hasn’t hurt any of the writers I mentioned, and it certainly didn’t hold Faulkner back—another of my idols.
I suppose ultimately you need to write what you need to write, and in the way you need to write it. Readers return to favorite writers for all sorts of reasons, and, frankly, as one of your readers, I’m excited to hear that you feel your writing is evolving, if only because I’m eager to see what else you’ve got up your sleeve.
DM: About the individuality you mentioned: I recently joined a panel of local authors to talk about writing and publishing, and I thought it was really funny how different we all were. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me. It’s not like everyone in other professionals is similar. Think of all the different personalities on those Alaskan crab boats, for example. But it did surprise me. Despite sharing a profession and a home region, we all seemed obsessed for different reasons, aimed for different things, had different preoccupations. We got along fine, but when it came to precise whys, whens, and hows, none of us had matching constellations.
I suppose I’ve been surrounded by relatively like-minded writers for a while — I have long-time email friendships with a few — largely because we’re friends first and writers second. A lot of my friendships are founded on shared tastes and sensibilities; we laugh at similar things, love the same books or movies. Getting published this year put me in contact with many other writers, like you, and I’ve enjoyed the variety of similarities and differences. The similarities might help to reinforce what works for me, and the differences might give me a new approach, something I wouldn’t have otherwise tried.
Fascinating that you often don’t connect with multiple books by the same author. Most readers seem to crave that sameness of voice. I read Empire Falls and was thrilled that Russo’s earlier novels had that same wonderful Russoness. And I’ve already mentioned how I love a good series. It’s good you’re worrying about your next book feeling too much like Falling to Earth — you’re trying to keep things fresh — but I’d guess that most of your readers are hoping for the old “more of the same, but different”.
I’ve found my voice has changed slightly for my next novel because the subject matter is so different, and it’s historical, and I’m erring on the side of melodrama instead of subtlety. More exclamation points! But really, it’s more that the story and characters are bolder, so the language is naturally bolder. I may eventually dial it down in revisions. I’m most impressed by an author who vanishes, whose style calls so little attention to itself that the focus must remain on the story. Who cares about us, right? With most of my favorite books (all?), I remember the characters much more than the Dazzling Author Presence.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.