Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Victoria Zackheim: Day Three

I’d like to continue this exploration of the anthology, a literary form sometimes overlooked by readers, and occasionally even dismissed. I implore you to take a few from the shelf, open them, and look at the Table of Contents and the introductions. You might be―I’m guessing you will be―surprised by the exciting variety of writers who contribute and the subjects they’re willing to tackle.

When I ask writers to reveal something about themselves—whether it be infidelity, contentment (or discontentment) with life, or overcoming the emotional trauma of injury and illness—I find that, while there’s that common thread—that is, men and women writing about their lives—the diversity of style and approach is startling: sardonic and biting, outright funny, heartbreaking and poignant. Like life. Whether I’m coaxing memories from a 75-year-old grandmother in Israel or a Pulitzer author about to reveal something about her cheating husband, I’m still asking them to probe into flesh-and-blood issues.

During my travels, and in the course of speaking to groups, I’ve been privileged to meet many people. I’m always moved when those of my age and older share with sadness how their parents and grandparents took to their graves the truths about who they were, who their families were. I see these as lost opportunities for us to truly understand who we are today. How many times do children ask about our history, only to be told "Why do you want to know? Life is good now, why look back?" We look back because we realize that we are a composite of everyone who came before us, every bit of tissue and blood and bone, every hope and dream and fear. I truly believe that every horror our ancestors suffered, every joy they experienced, in some way now lives in us as well. In an anthology of personal essays, authors want their readers―and yes, in many cases, their families―to know who they are. For many of the authors in my anthologies, their genre is more often literary fiction, so writing about their lives adds something special to their work….something challenging and perhaps a bit threatening. This might explain why, at nearly every bookstore reading on the east and west coasts, more than a dozen of the anthology’s authors usually show up to read from their work. That’s the power of an anthology…creating a community of writers willing to bare their souls to a community of readers. The other element of this is that writing is a lonely life and the opportunity to leave our computers and meet with other writers is great fun.

For today’s recommendations, I heartily suggest:
The Diary, by Eileen Goudge, NYT Bestselling author with more than 3 million books in print. A gifted author who writes can’t-put-them-down novels. You can click on the title and preorder from Kepler’s. It’s available April 7. Here’s part of the bookstore’s description:

When the two grown daughters of Elizabeth Marshall discover an old diary of their mother's in her attic, it comes as a shock to learn that the true love of Elizabeth's life was not their father. This is the mystery the two daughters must unravel as they stay up late reading the words penned by Elizabeth so long ago. Their mother can't give them the answers: After a massive stroke, she lies mute and near death in a nursing home. Only the pages of her diary can provide clues to what really happened.

Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland. (Paperback) Gulland always comes through with rich writing, well-developed characters, and plots that keep you reading. (Note: When you click on the title, it takes you to preorder. It says hardback, but it’s paperback.) An excellent novel for adults and young adults.

According to Kepler’s:
The author of the internationally acclaimed Josephine Bonaparte trilogy returns with another irresistible historical novel, this one based on the life of Louise de la Valliere, who, against all odds, became one of the most mysterious consorts of France's Louis XIV. (The trilogy includes: The Many Lives And Secret Sorrows Of Josephine B., Tales Of Passion Tales Of Woe, and The Last Great Dance On Earth. )

Some of my favorites
When I teach a writing course or meet with book groups, I’m always asked about the books I read. The problem with naming them is that there are so many left unnamed. I’m certain that the moment I post this, I’ll regret a book left off the list, or an author whose work I admire. Having said this:

Books that changed my life:
Giants in the Earth, Ole E. Rolvaag: I read this at age 14, and it was the novel that shot through me like electricity and made me understand the power of words.
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner: His words sing to me. In a way, this novel dared me to write.

Books I’ll read again…
Old Filth, Jane Gardam: A novel that rivals perfection, gorgeous writing.
Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley: Unique and memorable voices, I wanted it to go on for another 500 pages.

Books That Speak To The Heart
Girls in Trouble, Caroline Leavitt: Beautifully written, heartbreakingly honest, touching on the subject of open adoption.
Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis: A moving and very important book about mother/daughter relationships and the difficult adjustments of immigrants to America, and their children to their immigrant parents.
A Stone Bridge North, Kate Maloy: Memoirs don’t get much better than this.

Young Adult
Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude: And Other Commandments I Have Broken, Rosemarie Graham. Any book by Graham is recommended.
The Musician’s Daughter, Susanne Dunlap. From the author and musicologist who gave us the lovely novels Emilie’s Voice and Liszt’s Kiss.

Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Tamarkin: Excellent writing, fascinating story, even if you’re not a fan!

In Closing
Please click on Comments and tell me your favorite books, fiction and non-fiction. I’m always looking, and other visitors to this blog will appreciate the suggestions.

Oh, and those two questions:
Victoria, is there some kind of competition and you’re running for Anthology Queen?
I swear, this was never my intention. But after The Other Woman, ideas started popping into my head!
Did you really throw up on Ann Curry, on the Today Show? No, but I dreamed of doing this, and those nightly dreams sometimes included an Exorcist-like spinning of the head! She was lovely, very kind and encouraging.

Until tomorrow!


  1. I love both Caroline Leavitt's and Gayle Brandeis's writing, so I'll have to look up Kate Maloy, too. If I may add a new favorite: "A Reliable Wife" by Robert Goolrick. A sensual, dark (and very fun) new novel.

  2. Hi Victoria,

    Anthologies are also great for writers! They make it possible for us to be published and reach readers without having to take on the whole publishing industry hurdle alone. The best ones actually CREATE writing communities; a couple of my best friends now are people I met because we were in the same anthology. I think of anthology editors as scouts and advocates, especially for writers starting out or without mainstream access ... sort of like literary agents but (alas) without the pay!

    Anyway, as my first book comes out (this week!!), I'm so grateful to those who published me years and years ago in anthologies & journals; their encouragement and early support helped bring me here.

    Minal Hajratwala
    LEAVING INDIA: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

  3. Thank you so much for the mention, but more than that, thank you so much for the other suggestions for reading--I am accumulating quite a list, thanks to you!

  4. Minal, congratulations on your book launch!!!

    And what you said about friendships forged through anthologies...absolutely. Each book becomes a little community, a family of dear friends.

  5. Thanks for the Mistress of the Sun mention, Victoria! I'm enjoying this dialogue.

    Sandra Gulland

  6. Thank you so much for mentioning my book, Victoria--I'm very grateful (and I'm also grateful for your other book recommendations, and your spectacular anthology queendom.) :)

  7. Hi Victoria,
    I loved Book of Dead Bird and Self Storage by Gayle Brandeis, so I'll check out the others you recommend esp Leavitt who taught another week-long course I took at UCLA.
    I just read Oscar Wao, winner of a couple of awards last year, by Junot Diaz. I really didn't enjoy a short story by him that I had to read in another class, but this book was different. Balanced on the knife edge between insight and pathos, but never tipping over that line to make you pity the overweight hero. I am going to have to reread it for craft now that I finished reading it for story.
    PS Paris is still cold and wet. How about Greek Islands?

  8. Thank you so much, Laura--I'm thrilled to know you loved my books. I recently read Oscar Wao, too, and was totally wowed by it. Can I join you and Victoria in the Greek Isles? ;)


  9. I loved what you said about compiling the anthology and how all writers needed to approach the blood and heart issues, regardless of their age or experience--your great talent here,Victoria, speaking as one who worked with you on a story I really was too ashamed to confront within myself, was your gentle compassion. How you made me feel safe working on it with you. I think the talent of an editor of anthologies is often overlooked and yours is formidable!

  10. Thanks for the good recommendations - I'm looking forward to reading a number of these.