"1-On-One" with author Theasa Tuohy
Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Theasa Tuohy, author of The Five O'clock Follies.
Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?
That's hard to imagine. But I'm not sure I know what a "good" reader is. Someone who reads a lot of books? Someone who lives inside what they read? Someone who becomes the characters, understands their joys and sorrows? Someone who can rattle off plot lines, and author's names, and has read everything on the best seller lists?
According to a report of the Independent Book Publishing Association, over five million American adults belong to reading groups. What, do you believe, is the basis for this country’s love for literature and books?
When you lose yourself in a book, it's your own makebelieve. In movies or theater, it's someone else's vision.
Have you ever belonged to a reading group?
No. For me, reading, again, is my own personal world. lt belongs to me. Someone who read my novel recently and said she loved it, demurred when I asked her to go on a book site and say so. She said that once a reader loves a book, it becomes their personal possession and no longer belongs to the author. Interesting concept!
What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?
I should think it would be ideal to talk about complex issues, things that one can't quite grasp on one's own. On the other hand, also great fun to chit chat about the characters, sort of like backfence gossip. I found it fascinating to sit back and hear what several readers were saying about the characters in my novel. They really got into it, should she have done this? Why did he do that? Come to think of it, maybe I am missing something by not signing up and sharing more tete-a-tete!
What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?
I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years of researching the press in Vietnam for my novel, I'm still drawn to books about that war. I'm carrying around with me, and keep reading snippets, of Once Upon a Distant War, by William Prochnau. It's a very detailed account of several reporters in Saigon. Also reading, by Tamin Ansary, Games Without Rules, very interesting history of Afghanistan. I've always thought of it as such a wayward and lawless country, and Tamin gives it an entirely new prospective. But that's what reading is about, isn't it? I keep thinking I should pick up something for just a read, like Gone Girl, but never seem to get around to it. Can never pass up a new Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. But embarrassed to read them on planes, because I keep laughing out loud.
If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?
That's difficult, but probably The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy. I read and reread that book so many times because No. 1, I just loved it. But also, I kept trying to figure out how he handled his point of view switches – going from one character's head to another. Fascinating.
If you could have dinner with 3 writers (dead or alive) who would they be and why?
Tobias Wolff, because I loved his In Pharaoh's Army. Sorry, I keep going back to Vietnam. Agatha Christie because I'd delight in seeing if she's as much like her quick witted, droll characters as I imagine her to be. Shakespeare because I'd love to ask him how much manuscript he had before handing the script over to actors. Plays are such collaborative projects, I'd grill him on how much, how often things changed once a show got into rehearsal.
Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?
No. Because when they are badly written, I simply can't go on. I've tried, more than once, to force myself into something that is badly written but wildly selling, and I just can't do it.
Favorite book when you were a child?
It's hard to remember, because I read a lot. Little Women leaps to mind. But I also devoured Nancy Drew.
Favorite heroine in literature and why?
Probably Lady Ashley – Brett – don't you think? From The Sun Also Rises.
Favorite hero in literature and why?
That is so hard to say, because one's tastes change so much as one gets older. Swashbucklers, then sweet thoughtful men. Then there's Sebastian Dangerfield (The Ginger Man), hardly what one could call a hero. But, wow, what a fascinating, complex character. How about Holden Caulfield? Who knows?
Favorite first line from a book?
I hate to be trite, but probably the ones that stick are the ones everyone talks about – "It was the best of times...." "Call me Ishmael." My very own favorite, I don't even know what book it's from. Would love it, if someone could help me solve this mystery. When I was young, I read a book that started out: "I'm sitting here writing this in the kitchen sink." That blew me away, and made me think that maybe being a writer would be fun after all. Up to that time, I would comment to myself that it would be awful to be a novelist because, as I would say in my head, "you'd know how the story is going to turn out." That seems to carry over to this day, because I work without an outline, just sort of make it up as I go along. Most of my writer friends say that's totally nuts, they all seem to work with outlines.
Favorite last line from a book?
I don't know. Last lines are always sad because the book is over.
Book that changed your life?
Don't know. Maybe the one that started out "I'm sitting here writing this in the kitchen sink." Or maybe Big Story, a research tome by Peter Braestrup about the press and the Vietnam War. I found it in a slush pile in the newsroom and dug into it and it got me started on The Five O'Clock Follies.
Words to live by?
I read somewhere that Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter upon hearing she was going to major in literature: Why do you need to go to college to learn how to read? Reading for me is each person's own thing. A personal, secret pleasure.