Monday, June 28, 2010

Cornelia Read answers our Top Five

Cornelia Read, author of the novel, Invisible Boy, answers Water Street Bookstore's Top Five:

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Ah, my faux-Deco mirrored nightstands from Target up in fashionable Greenland... Well, let’s see:

Half a glass of Cran-Grape Crystal Light (pint glass with the PEA lion-rampant seal imprinted on the side, acquired last September for a buck from the sale table in the school bookstore.) And oh, how I wish it were filled with Guinness instead...

Nicotine lozenges (I quit smoking four years ago, but can’t seem to give up the alternative. Hey, it’s my last remaining vice. Um, well, other than sloth, lust, and being generally chaotic enough to have fully earned my ex-husband’s description of me as “the lightning rod for entropy in the universe.”)

A tiny bronze sculpture of a shoe with
mouse ears on it,
by my cousin Susie Read Cronin (image link).

Faithful Place by Tana French
Gatsby’s Vineyard by A.E. Maxwell
Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi Life Sentences by Laura Lippman
Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell
A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefield

2. How do you write?
From high school through my first couple of newspaper jobs, I used to listen to EXTREMELY LOUD music while writing. Sometimes it would be early Allman Brothers or Hendrix or The Violent Femmes, sometimes Puccini or Beethoven. I think ultimately it served as white noise—blocking out the noise of traffic and sirens outside my dorm rooms or apartments, neighbors throwing frying pans at each other.

Now that my brain is far older and feebler, I find music too distracting. The toughest moment of writing for me is the transition from my actual life to the butt-in-chair typing part, every single day. It always takes me at least an hour to get some momentum. If I were listening to music, I’m not sure I’d be able to make that segue.

Once I hit the sweet spot/writing groove, though, music would be beside the point—I’m oblivious to everything but (possibly) air-raid sirens. You could drive a clanking tank-tread bulldozer with a payload bucket jammed with shrieking monkeys into the center of my living room, surround it with several dozen Busby Berkeley kicklines of tap-shoed Rockettes, and drag Mahalia Jackson and Maria Callas in for a glass-shattering ABBA playlist sing-off, and the only time I’d look up would be when I got down to the dregs of my iced coffee and needed a refill.

I am blessed in that writing is my full-time job at the moment. I hope it lasts—publishing is the kind of racket in which you are well-advised to practice what I like to think of as “involuntary Zen.”

Career-wise, my Plan B is probably Wal-Mart in Epping. I figure I blew my chances at becoming an international jewel thief when I got fingerprinted one Sunday morning ten years ago in Belmont, Massachusetts, after having been pulled over for a DMV/proof-of-insurance snafu.
I burst into tears when they took my mugshot down at the police station, since I’d only run out of the house to buy milk and coffee cake at Star Market and was wearing mismatched socks with plastic garden clogs, ripped jeans, and my husband’s paint-spattered sweatshirt.
The stern older cop said, “Young lady, crying is not going to get you out of this!” To which I replied, “It’s j-j-just that if I’d... known you were... going to [stifled sob] take my picture, I would have b-b-brushed my hair.”
After that they felt so bad they let me wait in a detective’s office reading true-crime paperbacks until my husband showed up with twenty bucks to bail me out.
So, yeah: Wal-Mart. Plan B.
3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.
Probably when I wrote an essay on the injustice of jailing Angel Davis and the Christmas Carpet Bombings of Vietnam. I was in second grade. That was also the first time I used big-kid binder paper—the vertical kind, instead of the wide-landscape pulp stuff with room for a big picture at the top.
My teacher Mrs. Boys told me I’d done a great job on the essay, but then again she taught us Russian folksongs so we’d “know what to sing come the revolution.”

That year I also had a poem published in a local little review, The Poetry Shell. This was a haiku, which unfortunately (as my mother pointed out) rhymed.

4. What are you working on now?

Valley of Ashes, my fourth novel, set in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996. It’s chock-full of: murder, infidelity, autism, toilet-training young twins, arson, utterly annoying hippies, utterly annoying psycho conservatives, and why journalism doesn’t pay. I think it’s going to be THE feel-good book of 2011. Your mileage may vary...

5. Favorite recent find?

A hardcover 1936 auction catalog titled The Splendid Library and Collection of Historical and Literary Autographs of the Late Mr. and Mrs. William A. Read. I found it at Colophon Books on Water Street, here in Exeter--just in time to buy as a forty-seventh birthday present to myself.
William Augustus and Caroline Seaman Read were my great-grandparents (“small preppy world,” as my pal Muffy Srinivasan would say.) Before leafing through this catalog, I’d had no idea the two of them were book people at all.

He founded a Wall Street investment bank that came to be known as Dillon Read. This firm underwrote bond issues for New York City’s first subway line, Germany’s World War I reparations, the sale of Dodge Motors to Chrysler, several sketchy Latin American governments, and the Triborough Bridge.

The next generation had a fabulous time squandering his sizeable self-made fortune, but it’s this hundred-eighty-seven-page list of books and documents “the heirs” sold off in 1936 that most breaks my heart: highlights include the first four folio editions of Shakespeare, “highly important letters of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and a remarkable collection of witchcraft manuscripts,” and a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Edgar Allan Poe, thanking him for dedicating The Raven and Other Poems to her.
There’s even Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s copy of George Chapman’s The Whole Works of Homer (circa 1616), “bearing numerous notes in his hand... enclosed in a crimson full crushed levant morocco solander.”

The catalog’s foreword claims that “[T]he treasures and delights of a collection such as this... must be seen standing on shelves in noble battalions to be appreciated as the monument it is to the memory of two keen minds whose desire was to build a world of refuge and fill it with the most thrilling records of history and the most glamorous figures of literature.”
I leaf through this catalog, the last evidence left of this couple’s collection, and think “and their kids sold it all off in 1936—so you know they got top dollar. I mean, the height of the Depression? IDIOTS!”

It’s not as though my grandfather was short of cash, at the time. He used to have his chauffeur carry a fresh hundred-dollar bill at all times, so he could blow off paying tolls. None of the tollbooth cashiers in the Thirties could make change for a hundred.
That robber-baron bounty trickled down to my generation about as well as the fruits of Reaganomics did to your average migrant farm worker. As my protagonist/alter ego Madeline Dare would say: “My money is so old there’s none left.”

1 comment:

  1. Once again, thanks for this great idea! I can't tell you how much I love learning about the way that other authors work!