I engage with ideas and projects in fits, focusing on one topic for an intense period followed by a break with an alternate obsession. I may have been like this all of my life, but it came into focus as a CS/English double major in college. Instead of choosing one major and thesis topic, I pursued two, working on the first to the point of excess then immersing myself in the second.
Around Thanksgiving, I binged on Melina Marchetta’s novels. Jellicoe Road is one of my all-time favorite YA novels (I don’t care what anyone else says, it’s perfect), and I’d enjoyed Saving Francesca and loved Finnikin of the Rock.
Over the course of three days, I read The Piper’s Son, Looking for Alibrandi, Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn and was blissed out on Marchetta’s plots, characters, and prose. For those who like political fantasy, the Lumatere Chronicles are unexpected and brilliant. For contemporary YA, read the rest of her work. She pushes her characters, and they react fiercely and messily.
As a writer who tends toward skeletal first drafts and adds with every pass, I love the size, scale, and patience of her writing. She builds tension by taking her time and forcing the reader to wait, wait, wait for the payoff, and then she nails those money notes, as my voice teacher called them. (Side note: Here’s an excellent interview with Marchetta)
Now I’m back to reading for setting, another unintuitive area for me as a writer. (Yes, I do have strengths, but I have to work for the rest.) I’ve returned to my Swiss lit kick, this time revisiting a novel I first read when I was 20 or so and reading Madeleine L’Engle’s entire œuvre after discovering a section of her adult novels at Wellesley’s library. From the opening of And Both Were Young:
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING, Philippa?” Mrs. Jackman asked sharply as Flip turned away from the group of tourists standing about in the cold hall of the château of Chillon.
“I’m going for a walk,” Flip said. Her father put his hand on her shoulder. “I’d rather you stayed with us, Flip.” She looked up at him, her eyes bright with pleading. “Please, Father!” she whispered. Then she turned and ran out of the château, away from the dark, prisoning stones and out into the sunlight that was as bright and as sudden as bugles. She ran down a small path that led to Lake Geneva, and because she was blinded by sudden tears and by the sunlight striking on the lake she did not see the boy or the dog sitting on a rock at the lake’s edge, and she crashed into them.
“I’m sorry!” she gasped as the boy slid off the rock and one of his legs went knee-deep into the water before he was able to regain his balance. She looked at his angry, handsome face and said quickly, this time in French, “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t see you.”
The book is set just outside of Montreux, and I was delighted to now recognize settings and to catch the humor of the chapter title, the Prisoner of Chillon. I followed with Bloomability by Sharon Creech, set in a region of Switzerland I haven’t yet explored, but the students at the school visit Hermann Hesse’s home in Montagnola, which is on my list of literary destinations. Despite the difference in setting, the novel is filled with a Swissness I appreciate and touches of place and culture I recognize:
We had lunch together in the café. “You’ve got to try this raclette stuff,” Guthrie said. “Viva raclette!”
I stared at the raclette: potatoes and pickles swimming in a sea of melted cheese. “I wonder who thought of this combination,” I said.
“God did!” Guthrie said. “It’s the best. Such the best!” He’d already said this about the ski lifts, the snow, the views, the runs down the mountain.
Part of why I first fell so hard for Louise Glück’s Vita Nova and Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love was that they perfectly captured Cambridge and Boston of 1998, and in reading them, I recognized both the city and myself in that particular space and time. L’Engle’s books have been my companions since I was seven years old, and I enjoyed having a new entry point into a book I read over a decade ago.
At the moment I’m reading Olivia Laing’s To the River, a narrative nonfiction book about the river where Virginia Woolf drowned. While I’m familiar with Woolf’s books and diaries, I’m now reading for place, and Olivia is a master of description and of sentences, the flow of her words more poetic than the usual intersections of poetry and prose, the prose poem or the verse novel:
A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.
Sometimes immersion is a languid process, not a swift dive but a savoring of ideas and rhythms and language and memory. There’s an ecstasy to Olivia’s language that I’m enjoying, of place impacting a writer’s mind and permeating her language, thereby evoking a reader’s response.
Setting, like character, has emotion and is emotion in the forms of both prompt and reflection. We change where we go just as we are changed by where we go.
(PS: For a shorter, self-contained piece, Aeon Mag published her poignant essay on art and loneliness.)