"1-On-One" with author Emily Colin
Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Emily Colin, author of The Memory Thief.
Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?
I really, truly don’t think so. I don’t have a BFA or MFA in creative writing, so a lot of my personal education about how to craft a sentence or build strong characters has come from reading. I’ve read voraciously all my life, and it’s had a huge impact on my ability to write, edit and revise. When I was younger, I wasn’t able to analyze why something moved me or didn’t—but I certainly took note, and I read my favorite books over and over, the way people will listen to a particular song or watch a movie that strikes a chord in their hearts. Today, I still read certain books repeatedly—to see how an author accomplished a plot twist, built suspense, or set a scene. Other writers are, I think, our best teachers; but we have to be willing to learn, to approach the page with an open mind and a critical eye.
Long ago I read a piece by Stephen King—I can no longer remember where or in what context—where he said that writers read others’ work with either ‘a grinding envy or a weary contempt.’ (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive any liberties I’ve taken with the original prose.) I’ve found this to be true; there are times when I read something and find it to be unbearably clumsy, and other occasions when I know, with painful clarity, that I couldn’t have accomplished what someone else has set down on the page.
For me, reading other writers’ work is a crucial part of how I learn, how I expand my artistic horizons and deepen my understanding of language. And when I speak to groups of writers who are just starting out, this is what I tell them: Read, read, read. Find out how others make the magic happen; it’ll help you more than you know.
Have you ever belonged to a reading group?
I do belong to a reading group. I started a book club over ten years ago, when I first moved to Wilmington, NC—a small coastal city where I knew no one except my four-month-old Rottweiler mix. Unable to find a group of folks whose interests resonated with mine, I started a women’s group focused on volunteerism, music reviews and literary discussions. All these years later, the women’s group has dissolved, but the book club is still going strong—with several of the original members. In fact, the only folks who’ve left the club have done so because they moved away—and one of them misses it so badly, she’s planning to attend our meetings via Skype!
What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?
Hmmm. This is a tough one, because so much depends on the membership of the reading group and their focus, as a whole. I suppose I’d say this: Choose books that will make you think. Select titles that you wouldn’t normally read, because of their genre, subject matter, or something else entirely. Stretch yourself as a reader; expand your boundaries. In my book club, it works well to choose a mix of titles—heavy and light, fiction and nonfiction—so we don’t get burned out. We’ve read a very wide range of titles—everything from Twilight to The Color Purple to the graphic novel Persephone. Nothing’s off-limits, and I think that’s what makes our group so much fun.
What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?
I am in the midst of Kim Harrison’s new book, Into the Woods: Tales from the Hollows and Beyond. My son and I are listening to the audiobooks of the Artemis Fowl series; right now we’re in the middle of The Time Paradox. On my to-read bookshelf are The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I’m finishing Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Oh, and on my wish list: FL Fowler’s Fifty Shades of Chicken. I need some new recipes!
If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?
Could I bring a series—does that count? Because if so, it would definitely be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series—which has seven titles in it thus far, with an eighth slated to come out in 2013. For one thing, each book is so darn long; I’d be occupied for quite a while. And for another, her writing is layered and rich, with complex, intersecting storylines and a good deal of historical information. I’m not typically a history buff, so I’ll admit to skipping over those sections in pursuit of the story itself. Marooned on a deserted island, I’d have no excuse but to read every word!
If I couldn’t take Outlander—then maybe Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. The illustrations are amazing, and I’ve always loved the Museum of Natural History in NYC—my old stomping grounds.
Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?
Ha ha. Oh gosh, so many things. Let’s see. The entire Fifty Shades of Grey series, of course. Multiple books by Nicholas Sparks, even though I wind up more depressed when I’ve finished them than when I began. The latter volumes in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, despite the fact that, for the most part, they have devolved into orgies featuring wereanimals of all descriptions, vampires and a zombie animator turned slut. I have a dreadful habit of needing to see a series through to the end, even if it’s degenerated horribly from its original incarnation. Case in point—having read all four Twilight books (there’s an admission for you) I just went to see Breaking Dawn in the movie theater. I paid over ten dollars to watch a movie with the following opening line: “We’re the same temperature now.” Seriously—I have a problem.
Favorite book when you were a child?
The Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, hands-down. My middle name is Anne, and for my second birthday, one of my friends gave me the first Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books—in an effort to be cute, I suppose. I liked Anne, to an extent; but Emily mesmerized me. I still have those books, and I reread them from time to time—maybe I should’ve included this in the answer to your previous question!
If you have children, is this the same book you read to them? If not, what is your favorite book for your children?
I have a seven-year-old son who is dyslexic. It’s very important to me that he loves literature, despite this—so we do a lot of reading together, and listening to audiobooks as well. My favorite books for him are the ones he adores, since it makes me so happy to see him engaged and spellbound by a story. So far we’ve had the best luck with The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Artemis Fowl; and a series by Patricia Wrede called Dealing With Dragons.
Favorite heroine in literature and why?
Hmmm. I don’t tend to think about books this way—but maybe Emily of New Moon, since I’m thinking of her? She’s brave, she’s creative, she’s not afraid to be different; she finds strength in loneliness. Ask me again tomorrow; I might have a different answer.
Favorite hero in literature and why?
Today, Harry Potter. I have a habit of rooting for the underdog.
Favorite first line from a book?
From Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Book that changed your life?
Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, both for its own sake, and for the merciless ribbing I took from a literature professor in college when I admitted that I loved Anne Rice’s writing. This was in the first creative writing class I ever took, during my junior year at Duke, and the professor gave me such a hard time over the course of the semester that he succeeded in destroying my faith in my own writing and my judgment, to boot. I didn’t write again creatively for many, many years after that class—not, in fact, until I sat down to craft the first words of The Memory Thief.
Words to live by?
I’ve got a bunch. Here’s a quote by Albert Einstein that I love: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is a miracle.” And one by Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost.” I love this quote by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Here’s one by Mark Twain that always makes me laugh: “Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company.” And then this one, by Cicero, which your readers might appreciate: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Emily Colin lives in North Carolina with her partner, their son, two reprehensible canines, and a betta fish. In her other life, she serves as associate director at DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit organization that provides multidisciplinary arts programming for youth in need. The Memory Thief is her first novel.