Who wants to join a year-long class to revise their novels? Optimistic that if I build it, they will come, I spent yesterday drafting a course description and syllabus. Of course, I also spent the day with my teenager and in a freelance consultation on a memoir and trying to learn Excel and and and. When the dog needed a walk, I decided we all needed one, and I did what all mothers do, which is everything at once. Any more, I’m not even sure I could do one thing at a time.
The dog was no help, but the daughter—oh, the daughter was magnificent. Our topic was short novels that my hypothetical class could not only read but also dissect. To better understand their own novels, we would isolate all the working parts of a few good books, starting with the first line. Generally speaking, the entire book is in the first line. The entire book is also in the point of view, verb tense, structure, plot and subplot, characters, language, and ending. Come to think of it, I should probably be teaching a course called Mapping the Novel Genome.
Eliza and I took turns urging Zelda along—the dog is twelve now and it’s 90 degrees here, so putting one paw in front of another is something of a chore. Meanwhile, my daughter started listing short books for my consideration. “What about To Kill a Mockingbird?” That was her opening suggestion! Most excellent idea and daughter. I’d been wanting to reread Harper Lee’s masterpiece, which in addition to being short is also a first novel. And not only that, many first novelists gravitate to that structure: an adult looking back on a traumatic childhood experience.
Next up: “Or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Everyone’s already read it, probably.” Another gem. It’s enlightening to take apart a well-constructed book that has made it to the top of everyone’s list and to revisit technically a book you read for pleasure. All that and humor too—really, it was a great idea. Maria Semple uses quirkiness to serve her plot, which is rarer than you might think. So many writers confuse imagination with outlandishness. As with everything else, there needs to be a reason that a character has two heads or that gravity no longer works in your fictional universe.
I was still playing out the joys of Bernadette when Eliza said, “What about that book about the girl growing up in the South? It’s on the bookshelf by your computer.”
That bookshelf is for some of my favorites. “Ellen Foster?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I read that.”
So I was doing something right. Ellen Foster, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is also a first novel, and there’s reason to believe that if either were released today, it would be classified young adult. The winning voice that Kaye Gibbons conjures for Ellen Foster and the character’s clear quest—to get herself adopted and to be rid of her dad—could well-serve a revising writer. I still remember the malaproprisms Gibbons invented for Ellen: her dying mother suffered from “romantic” rather than rheumatic fever as a child, which underscored not only the mother’s weak heart but also her horrific marriage.
The hits just kept coming: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I chimed in with Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Unlike the first three suggestions, which Eliza had read, these were books on her wish list. Now they were on mine, too. I was only planning on choosing three novels, and if you haven’t noticed by now, every single book she proposed was written by a woman. To be fair, she’d recommended Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451, great short novels, which I’d rejected because I wanted to stick with realism, and I’d suggested The Great Gatsby, which she rejected because she didn’t like it. Did I need to find a novel written by a man because it was written by a man? Frankly, I’m always paying attention to keeping my lists balanced—I serve as one of the curators of the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series, which aims for a diverse and thrilling mix of writers. Eliza didn’t think it was important, and certainly literary journals, national newspapers, and writing conferences don’t break a sweat including a representative number of women.
Which is why I was surprised at her final suggestion. “What about a Terry Pratchett book—any one of them.”
Here was the only proposal that didn’t fit. Pratchett writes long, clever fantasy novels, and our entire dog walk we’d been discussing the need for short, realistic books. That’s when I remembered her surprise when she discovered that Terry Pratchett was a man’s name. Back then she’d told me that he wrote so well, she’d assumed he was a woman.
Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! (FSG, 2013), named a 2013 Notable Book by the Washington Post, which called it “a family novel for smart people.” She is also the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, which won the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and she is cofounder of D.C. Women Writers. www.mkzuravleff.com