Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Magic of a Good Book

Long ago, before I realized that Carolyn Keene (my God! We shared the same first name—it had to be an omen!) was a pseudonym for a number of writers and before the idea that I might ever try to tell a story on paper with squiggles of ink called words, I fell in love with reading. I read everything I could put my hands on. Some of it, most naturally, got me into trouble with my mom, but reading was a key that opened doors which could be accessed no other way.
This past weekend, I was in Jefferson, Texas for Kathy Patrick’s Girlfriend Weekend. This is an annual event held to honor Kathy’s reading groups, the Pulpwood Queens, “tiara wearing, book-sharing” women with a mission. They want to get more people to read, and even more interesting, they want to influence the publishing world in an effort to bring back (or see more of) the kinds of books they love to read.
It’s a noble mission, and one that’s interesting from the point of view of the writer and the reader—that addict looking for that fictional fix, that drug of words that pulls me under the surface of real life and holds me there for several hours in a place of intense pleasure.
To speak of reading and books as having the power of a drug is so natural to me. What’s unnatural is a person who doesn’t enjoy reading. Not unnatural as “bad” or “wrong”—I only mean different from me.
And I wonder how my love affair with reading started. Why me and why not my brothers? My older brother, Andy, was a terrific athlete. He was educated, but his world was friends and action and what is more traditionally considered male behavior. My younger brother, David, studied to become an accountant and displayed a talent for complex electronics. While he can read instructions (but he doesn’t have to!) he doesn’t read for pleasure.
We all three grew up in a family of story-tellers. Both of our parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, put us to bed with stories, either read or made up. Even today, I remember the incredible joy of hearing my father’s voice telling of Leo the Friendly Lion, or my mother leaning forward, her mobile face dramatizing the story of the ghost that haunted our home.
My grandmother told quite a few ghost stories herself, but she also told us the stories of her childhood, a six-year-old girl who came across the Atlantic on a boat from Sweden. In her lifetime, she saw the world change from horse and wagon to space travel. While her stories were often fact-filled, they also contained a bit of moral tutoring.
So the three of us children grew up with the same oral tradition of stories. We were read the same fairy tales from Golden Books and later from the Collier’s Children Encyclopedia of tales and fables, along with horse stories and adventure tales and an occasional—if we begged hard enough—story of murder from an Alfred Hitchcock magazine. (My mother was a big fan of Hitchcock’s directorial skills.)
Why, I wonder, did I become such a reader while my brothers followed a different path? And how did I take the step from reader to writer?
I do believe that books were a safety zone for me, a place where I could identify with the fearless protagonist. I could be the cool chick with the convertible and the boyfriend who never interfered. Real life was not that easily managed. In my imagination, I could try out the different roles that seemed beyond my reach in a hot, isolated Mississippi town of 2,500 souls.
When I read Mark Twain and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, I was breathless at the use of language, as well as the deft manipulation of story.
That O’Connor could make me laugh at a story where a grandmother was killed—where I actively wanted the old bag to die! Or a story where a one-legged woman is duped by a man who collects prostheses—I could not get enough of it. As I explored these characters, I also began to investigate my own boundaries. My vision changed, and I saw the places and people around me in a different way.
I began to look at my world through the eyes of a writer. And I started to entertain the first thoughts that maybe, just maybe, one day I might try to write a short story.
I got a BS in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi and went out into the world to write facts—“the truth will set us free.” My parents were journalists, and I was brought up to believe that newspapers are the watchdogs of the community. That is not a popular belief among elected officials, whether it is small town Lucedale or Washington D.C.
And I learned a valuable lesson. Writing is not about being popular or about being liked. Writing is about the truth. Even if told in the fabric of fiction, the writing that matters for me is so bare bones honest that the author feels striped naked and standing on public display when the work is finished.
This is the kind of writing that speaks to me. And I wonder if this is the kind of story that Kathy Patrick and her reading queens want publishers to put on the shelves more often. Certainly those books are currently being published, but they sometimes don’t get the print runs or the attention of “name-brand” authors.
But the wonderful thing about our society and the publishing industry is that an individual can make a tremendous difference. That is the most inspiring thing about Kathy Patrick, who has worked as a bookseller, publishing sales rep, critic, and now published author herself (all while maintaining her own hair salon/bookstore). She is determined to be heard—and she’s going to have fun in the process. She will also impact the lives of many authors and readers along the way, because her love of books is contagious.
While Kathy’s bookshop/beauty salon is in one sleepy little Texas town beside the Big Cypress River, she is impacting folks all over the nation with her message about reading and books. She has been bitten by the magic of words. For some of us, that compelling link is reignited each time we read a paragraph and feel ourselves begin to yield to the story.
This is magic, and each time it happens I am thankful.
For some fun photos of the latest Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend’s Weekend, check out www.pulpwoodqueen.com I managed to avoid the camera, but a good time was had by all. My website is www.carolynhaines.com and for those of you in the frozen north, I’ll be in the Chicago area Thursday-Sunday for the Love is Murder conference (www.loveismurder.net) There will be some fine writers there, and once again I hope to fall in love with a new story or character. What better way to spend a winter weekend in the Windy City.

FEVER MOON--Book Sense Notable Pick
PENUMBRA--One of Top 5 Mysteries of 2006--Library Journal
REVENANT (RT--4 1/2 stars and Top Pick in mystery, suspense and thrillers)--Carson Lynch is unforgettable, and her first-person, Chandleresque narration is a treat. Add a
brain-teasing mystery, a lot of angst and a generous amount of black humor, and you have a genuine page-turner.


Unknown said...

Yes. that is exactly what I was talking about concerning books and stories. Every time I read a book by yet another undiscovered author, perhaps, the first time author or one that has never really been discovered in a big way, I think what if this book is the next "To Kill a Mockingbird". What if this book was never to be discovered and read.
Years ago author, Mark Lee, was speaking to my book club on his years of working as a foreign correspondent. (Read "The Canal House" as it's marvelous.) He told us that sometimes he would come upon a tribal war out in the middle of nowhere in the jungle. He told us that if he had not written of this tribal war no one in the world would ever had known it had happened. That struck me very much the same way. How many books are sitting on a shelf out there never been read that are our nation's next treasures. No one today is really working on helping undiscovered authors get discovered in a big way. Maybe a few passionate publishers, one's that are in the business for more than just money.
Let's face the facts folks. Publishing is all about the hype, the marketing, the numbers, the given. So what if The Pulpwood Queens did get to be so large they could make a difference. Every day I read words such as Carolyn Haines. Words that I could never express what I could have ever dreamed of to say. Words that are put together in such a way I catch my breath and then read them again for the beauty.
Thank you Carolyn Haines for spreading the word, that reading is important and that our stories need to be shared. You shared with us your wonderful story and we need to thank too Karin Gillespie for giving us this gift of this venue!
Onward book soldiers is what I always say. God Bless authors and God Bless good books. Now let us all get to reading in a big way!
Tiara wearing and book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs and now, (yes, me too) author of The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life, Grand Central Publishing

ZAZA said...

Amen, sisters of the word. Amen!

(and speaking of spreading the word on good writing - you can hear Karen Gillispie this Saturday on Backstory at www.backstoryontheradio.com or live from Nashville at 98.9fm - and Carolyn later this month talking about the power of words, reading, and story!)