A number of authors responded to my questions about their reading. Here’s Libbie Hawker – author of Calamity: A Novel and many other historical novels – to tell us a little about what she reads and share her perspective.
Please tell us a little about yourself: Female, 38 years old, USA. I read more nonfiction than fiction, but that’s mostly because I’m a historical fiction author and I have to do a lot of research. I read approximately one book per week.
In your opinion, what is the power of fiction? To cause readers to connect to important subjects or concepts more deeply than they may do by reading nonfiction.
What kind of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of? I like historical accuracy and stories that show the humanity and complexity of characters. I am not drawn to the tired old trope of the “plucky princess” who bucks societal norms without any consequences. I also strongly prefer beautiful prose to a plainer, more “accessible” writing style.
What aspects of an author’s writing make you feel like you’re ‘immersed in the novel’s world’ and/or ‘transported in time and place’. Weaving details of the setting into scenes so that they feel natural, rather than bombarding the reader with massive “info-dumps” a’ la Herman Melville. (I cut Melville a lot of slack–it was a different era.)
Which books read in the past year or so stand out for you and why? Among historical fiction: The River Widow by Ann Howard Creel (I got to read it in advance, to endorse it.) A setting that doesn’t feel tired among a historical fiction market that tends to stick with “sure things” where setting is concerned; beautiful prose; a unique dilemma/situation for the main character to navigate, which I haven’t seen a million times before.
How do you decide what books to buy? What influences your book purchases? Cover and title remain the strongest motivators for me. I am not drawn to books with boring, meaningless titles (like “[character’s name]’s Story,” which I have seen a zillion times)–this is probably why I still can’t force myself to read A Man Called Ove or Edgar Sawtelle or Eleanor Oliphant. Characters’ names just don’t make me give a flying J about the book. A great cover will still draw me in like nothing else: artistic composition and a sense of intrigue.
I am influenced by word of mouth, like most people, but I tend to be rather “unplugged” from social media so I’m not sure how much WOM I actually pick up. But sufficient buzz will percolate even to my luddite self; I am finally going to start reading Where the Crawdads Sing because I can’t seem to escape mentions of this novel.
Is there anything about where you live or your particular background that influences your fiction choices? I don’t know. Maybe! I had a rough childhood and I am drawn to darker stories with tearjerker elements, but I don’t know whether the two things are connected.
Oddly, although I live in the Pacific Northwest and I love my region passionately, I RARELY read fiction set here. Not sure why. Maybe it’s just too familiar to me and I don’t feel intrigued enough?
If you’re an author, please tell us how your reading informs your writing. I am always on the hunt for authors who are superb stylists–masters of prose, but employing subtlety and taste. Less if more. I love to study these authors, whether they write historical fiction or some other genre, because my goal has always been to become a great stylist, recognized for exceptional prose. I think it’s important to read and carefully study the authors who are already achieving the goals you have set for yourself.
I’ll be perfectly honest, here, too: I do a lot of “hate reading”–reading books I know will strike me as totally ridiculous and will make m roll my eyes. Or books that are intentionally written to be laughed at, like Chuck Tingle’s stuff. I think when you write for a living, you need to blow off a little steam now and then, and let yourself laugh at the art, or remind yourself that there’s some howlingly bad stuff out there, too. I love reading, as all authors do–but I also can’t be 100% serious about words 100% of the time. Not after working on my own books for five hours a day.
If there is anything else about reading fiction, the kind of books available today, or the way reading is changing that you’d like to comment on, please do so. Audiobooks!!! About 75% of my consumption of books is now via audiobook instead of reading print or on my ereader. I love being able to “read” while I’m walking, gardening, or cleaning the house.
What are you writing now? I’m currently working on two books: one to self-publish later this spring, RIVER IN THE SKY, which is another one set in 18th-Dynasty Egypt and features the “rags to riches” story of Tiaa, a young non-royal woman who not only became the Great Wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep II, but was (unusually) his *only* wife. And I’m working on a novel for Lake Union Publishing set in the early 1970s about the difficulty women faced in stepping out of the domestic sphere and into a new world of career opportunities during the second wave of feminism.
Both stories sound excellent, Libbie. Not sure how you keep two sets of characters and plots straight as you write! Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on reading. What did you think of Where the Crawdads Sing? PS – never heard the term ‘hate reading’!
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.