Book excerpt

The Secret Miracle

The Novelist's Handbook

Daniel Alarcon, Ed.

St. Martin's Press

The Secret Miracle
SUSAN MINOT: Transport. Enchantment. Guidance. Pleasure. Beauty. Novelty. Entertainment. Charm. Poetry. Truth. Solace. Wit. Wisdom. 
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: I look for the same thing that I try to achieve when writing a novel--a well-told story. I believe that is the most difficult thing, to tell a story in an absolutely persuasive manner. To make readers live that experience--not just as readers, but to really experience it. For me the novels that achieve that are the most moving and leave a lasting impression in my memory. 
YIYUN LI: I look for a world--sometimes it is one as familiar as this one world we have, and sometimes it is a strange world that perhaps would only happen in a dream--but in either case when I read a novel I look to live in that world along with the characters. 
PAUL AUSTER: Passion, power, integrity, beauty. 
HARUKI MURAKAMI: If I want to read it again, it must surely be a good novel. 
CHRIS ABANI: The most important thing for me is that a novelist has a philosophical engagement with the world, some deeper question about their place in all of this that emerges subtly and beautifully through the work they do, regardless of what the apparent subject is. So for instance, Toni Morrison wants to understand what love is and what it means to us and the ways in which we understand it, use it, and want to control it.For her, trauma, violence, and hate are symptomatic of our inability to face and accept all the facets of love. Language, exquisite prose is also essential: I cannot read a book for the story anymore, no matter how compelling. I also love books that challenge our ideas of convention, novels are meant to be just that, novel. 
RICK MOODY: A certain kind of irreducible complexity, a mixture of very good and memorable prose, originality with respect to the form, and a density of thematic material. What I don't require and don't consider relevant: "likeable" characters, naturalism, epiphanic transformations, pilotting, or a rationale for what is going on around us in the world. 
ADANIA SHIBLI: I usually can only see the words, how they come to express what they express. I'm rarely interested in what they express; that is the being of the word rather than what it tells. 
COLM TÓIBÍN: A novel looks for something in me. Meaning, there is no type of novel I like or look for, or no set of emotional contours or contexts I look for. But if what a novel exudes has not been felt properly or seriously or deeply enough by the writer, then it will show and I will become tremendously bored and irritated. 
CRISTINA GARCIA: I look for poetry in a novel. And that means from the get-go it's singing to me in some particular, peculiar voice. And if that doesn't exist, it's hard for me to get interested. 
STEPHEN KING: Entertainment and good language. 
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: Emotions and ideas. I want a story that I can't put down, that makes me forget the real world but that, like Richard Ford said, brings me back better prepared to live it. I look for an experience that transports me to other lives, and returns me to mine after having looked at it from the outside. 
JOSH EMMONS: I look for well-crafted language and authorial intelligence; with these in place every story can provide the aesthetic bliss Nabokov said was literature's greatest reward. 
ALAA AL ASWANY: At this point I think of the novel as a life of the people, similar to our daily lives but more composed, more significant, more beautiful. What do I care about while reading a novel? The human experience, the human feelings, the human logic. This is the real challenge of the novelist. 
RODDY DOYLE: Surprise and reassurance. 
JENNIFER EGAN: The thing I most crave is to be sucked into a novel and feel that helpless sense that I can't stop reading, and that I'd do anything--give up anything, certainly a night's sleep--in order to keep reading. When I step back and look at what qualities in a novel inspire that sense of urgency (and I wish it happened more often) I'd say the top one is surprise. The surprise can arrive in many forms: a fresh, distinct voice; a story whose moves are counterintuitive or unexpected; the language stands out as being original, or innovative. What most excites me as a reader is the sense that I'm encountering material I haven't seen before. 
JOSÉ MANUEL PRIETO: A different way of looking at the world, one that expands my way of understanding it--not through factual knowledge (data, dates, historical events) but with a new philosophy, a unique grammar of existence. 
GLEN DAVID GOLD: Sheer entertainment. 
ADAM MANSBACH: Truth and beauty. Soulfulness. Honesty. Emotional resonance. Insight into the human condition expressed in prose that is original and well-wrought--and funny, when possible. Beyond that, I don't know that I have specific criteria; certainly, there are topics that will make me pick up a book, because they dovetail with my own interests--the complexities of race in America, for instance--or because they offer clues about some problem I'm trying to solve in my own work. But I'm also learning not to trust my own interests too completely; to only read the books with obvious appeal is to miss out on a lot. 
SAŠA STANIŠI: I look for a novel to entertain and enlighten me. 
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: After reading a great novel, I am not the same person I was before I read it. Now all that stuff we take for granted--great story, great structure, great language--that all makes for a really good novel. But a great novel is not the one that transforms the character but the one that transforms the reader. In a lot of workshops they tell you there has to be a movement in the narrator. For me, that's minor. 
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: I look for what I don't expect. Great novels make you change your mind about what you know, what you expect. They teach you how to read them, which is to say that they force you to drop your expectations and aesthetic prejudices, they force you to read in a way you are not accustomed to. I want the reading of a novel to be a transformative experience. 
MEHMET MURAT SOMER: For some time I've been discerning in my appreciation and my liking. As a reader I look at what I like, which is joy. It's very essential for me. And wit. I love to have a smile on my face, both while reading and for some time after, as residue in my memory.As an author, I appreciate many books, even envy the way they were written, but do not like all of them. I don't feel comfortable with slaps to my face or fists in my stomach. Perhaps because I'm still in my never-ending rose-colored phase. 
CLAIRE MESSUD: Ah--satisfaction and a challenge both. What exactly these entail it is impossible properly to elaborate; but suffice it to say that for me, no novel is satisfying without some challenge, whether narrative or structural or linguistic or intellectual or some combination of these; and yet, if a novel impresses me as all challenge--that's to say, without any tangible narrative satisfactions--then I'm unlikely to be won over. 
TAYARI JONES: I am drawn to novels about families--I love the permanence of the relationships, the way they tend to box the characters in, forcing them to really stretch the relationship to the snapping point. I like sad and difficult stories. If something is blurbed as a feel-good story, I go running the other way. I want a story to give me hard truths. I want a novel that isn't afraid to follow a story to its true end, even if what is discovered there isn't good news. 
T COOPER: Sometimes it's no more complicated than wanting to get out of my own head for a spell. But I suppose I also want the usual: to be surprised and moved, inspired to think about some small thing in some different way--and I guess I also secretly want a novel to inspire a little envy (I know it's the right book when I find myself ensnared in a desperate love/hate relationship with it). 
DINAW MENGESTU: In general whenever I'm reading I'm looking for language first--for a strong, distinct, accurate, and even beautiful prose style. After that I think I tend to look for novels that feel like they have a real engagement with the world, for novels that look beyond certain conventions or settings. 
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: A great story. Good plot. Beautiful language. Good pacing. I want a novel to grab me by the throat and not allow me to put it down. 
GEORGE PELECANOS: An original voice. 
NELL FREUDENBERGER: I look for characters in a novel. This is my bias, but beautiful sentences or a particularly compelling setting (and I'm a sucker for books that take place in countries, cities I've never visited) isn't enough for me. I like that shock of recognizing things about human beings that seem to be true, even if I've never been articulate enough to put them into words myself. I think of George Eliot as the master of this particular novelistic skill. 
JONATHAN LETHEM: A sense of a created world with its own internal life, and a consistent possibility of surprise. 
SUSAN CHOI: In reading I tend to follow hankerings, instead of reading what it seems I should read, and these hankerings are usually as irresistible and unexplainable as the craving to eat Chinese instead of pizza. Sometimes all I want is fussy drawing-room stuff, and sometimes all I want is politics-in-the-jungle stuff, and so I cast about, usually fairly blindly, for the book that I think will satisfy. 
RODRIGO FRESAN: I guess I look for the same thing I've always looked for--a guaranteed possibility of traveling to other planets without subjecting myself to brutal physical training. 
RIVKA GALCHEN: Apparently the opening of Aristotle's Metaphysics is generally mistranslated as something like "Philosophy begins in Wonder," or "Philosophy begins in Curiosity," but apparently (I wouldn't know, but I'm told) the Greek actually means something more like "Philosophy begins with the Uncanny." That is, it begins with the momentwhen we are able to see what is familiar to us as, in fact, strange. And I guess that's kind of what I'm most attracted to in novels, regardless of how it's accomplished. (Maybe by all the characters being rabbits, or maybe through a Nabokovian focus on detail, or maybe through exaggerations of colloquial speech ... there's endless ways, I suppose.) I love it when a novel constitutes a world that I both recognize and don't. Or when a novel makes vivid to me what normally would have no luster. Or vice versa. Or when a novel takes a situation or person that I feel like I know and reveals some sort of alien underbelly. I love, for example, the way that Kazuo Ishiguro opens his novel, The Unconsoled, where you're on the elevator with the bellhop for what just seems like way too long, the dialogue there goes on and on, and the suitcases start to seem immensely heavy, and as a reader you're like, all right, I recognize this universe--it's just like mine--but it's not mine, time moves weirdly there, maybe I recognize it from a nightmare or dream that I have forgotten. It's like the freakiness of seeing yourself in one of those reverse mirrors, those mirrors that show you to yourself not the way you're accustomed to seeing yourself, but instead in the way that everyone else sees you; you see yourself as you in fact appear, and it's totally unsettling! Or like in Kafka's Amerika, the brilliance (maybe accidental, but I suspect not) of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword and the Brooklyn Bridge connecting New York to Brooklyn--those kinds of wrongnesses that work just right. 
A. M. HOMES: I like to be made to think, I like to laugh, and I am desperate to be dazzled. 
MICHAEL CHABON: Flawless sentences, well-stocked with living words and phrases. A sense of living another's life. A good story but not too much of a good story. Intricate pattern that feels offhand. 
ANN CUMMINS: I look for wily, psychologically messy characters with a natural inclination toward trouble. I like interesting, unpredictable sentences and paragraphs. I love dramatic fluidity where sentences, characters,events--all--combine to create a page-turner, but I want to turn pages as much to reflect on style and ideas as to discover how the plot will be resolved. 
YAEL HEDAYA: Power, claustrophobia, a narrative that is a bit violent, grabs you by the neck and won't let you go. For me, it's more in the voice than in the plot. 
MICHAEL CHABON: Three in a month; seventeen at a time. 
ANN CUMMINS: I might start a dozen or so in a month; I might finish one. 
SHELLEY JACKSON: I probably finish ten to fifteen books a month. I'm not sure I can even count how many books I read at a time. Lots. The house is full of books with bookmarks stuck in them. I can see about ten from where I'm sitting. 
AMY TAN: Depends on what I'm doing, meaning, what I happen to be writing. I might go for months without reading anything from beginning to end because most of what I'm reading is research. There are many months when I have a stack of manuscripts beside my desk, and these are always requests from people. I'm trying to get better every year at saying, "No, I can't read this for you," but I think I actually get worse every year. 
ADANIA SHIBLI: Five to seven books, depending on how long they are. And I usually read five books, at least, at the same time, but in different hours of the day. 
ANNE ENRIGHT: As I try to answer this, I realize how very eccentric I am getting about the question of reading. It is with reluctance that I admit to reading anything at all. My books are stored upstairs where visitors don't go: no one gets to peruse my shelves. I think it would be true to say that in childhood I read up to three books a day, in my early twenties I could read a book in one sitting--without moving, eating, or getting dressed--and that, as late as my thirties I could finish one book and start another in a full day of reading and nothing but. My recent statistics, however, are that I had two children and four books in seven years--meaning that I wrote four books in that time, not that I read four. In fact there was a year (2003? 2004? It's a bit of a blur) when I realized that I had written more books than I had read in the last while. It was, undoubtedly, a high-focus time for me, but I have met women since who abandoned reading when their children were small. Already tired, they said books just put them to sleep. But I also think I have never seen it in a book--the thing I needed to read, just then, and this feeling makes me agitated and restless: it makes me want to write the book where someone could find the thing I needed to read in the last seven or eight years. This restlessness could be the mark of a writer, but it might just be a mark of my age--it can be hard to find a man over forty who still reads fiction, for example, unless they are in the book business. These days I read almost exclusively for work. I am editing The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story and various short-story collections are piled in heaps around my bedroom. I also read new work by young writers, especially Irish ones, to see if I can give them an endorsement, because I like to keep that show on the road. I read nonfiction to feed my future books, and I also read, or at least look at, books that have a similar theme to the one I am writing at the moment. Or I may not read these so much as smell them, now and then. Some of these are totemic volumes that sit on the shelf closest to my desk, and some are more idle orderings that come in through the letter box and lie, half-read, all over the house. 
I suspect that the Internet is really eating into my reading time. Ithink women come back to heroic reading when their kids are more grown, but I worry that, by being a writer, I have spoiled one of my great pleasures. At least I didn't open a restaurant (or a brothel). 
CHRIS ABANI: Now with a busy travel schedule, I only read about three books a month; but I read them all at the same time. 
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Between three and four. 
SAŠA STANIŠI: I don't like to read that much. Maybe a book a month. I fall asleep often when I read. Might be some kind of allergic reaction. 
CHRIS ADRIAN: I hardly ever get to read novels but end up reading goofy stuff for school or work that can be inspiring on the writing side in a weird way. It teaches you nothing about narrative or structure to read a depressing series of pediatric oncology case studies, but somehow being involved with these things sends me to my desk. I read a lot of different comic books in any given month, but perhaps these do not count so much. 
RODRIGO FRESAN: I guess about eight. And generally, I read about four books at the same time. 
ANDREW SEAN GREER: I am very slow and deliberate, since I'm looking for techniques to take. So I end up reading a book a week, along with a longer book I always have in my office--War and Peace, Middlemarch, something. 
JENNIFER EGAN: Only one at a time per genre, but ideally I'm reading fiction, nonfiction, and poetry all at once. However, with two little kids in the house, I'm often getting a lot less reading done than I'd like to. I don't really count the number of books I read--probably a good thing, because I'd only be depressed that I'm not reading more of them. 
GLEN DAVID GOLD: It's all over the place. For years I've been reading Casanova's memoirs. In the words of my friend Bill, he's like the world's best traveling companion. I read a ton of nonfiction for my work, and fiction to relax (or to get highly competitive; it turns on a dime). But for the last three or four months I've been unable to read any fiction whatsoever. I seem to have reader's block. I'm not sure I know why. 
SUSAN MINOT: Sometimes I'll finish three a month, or one every three months. I read about five or six or seven at a time. 
ADAM MANSBACH: It varies greatly. Am I traveling? Writing? The father of a month-old baby? I tend to go on benders and read ten or twelve books in a month. Then I might only read a couple the month after that. Sometimes I'll be reading two or three at once, but unless they're widely divergent or there's a specific reason, like I'm teaching one of them, that might be an indication that none is fully holding my attention. 
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: I read a book a week, more or less, but never more than one at the same time. If I don't like one, I abandon it and I begin another. There are lots of good books to be read. There's no need to obsess yourself with the bad ones. There are also good books that you read at the wrong time. In those cases, it's better to wait and try again later. 
AKHIL SHARMA: Two or three. I try to read only one at a time. This forces me to finish books that I find boring (The Magic Mountain). This also forces me to concentrate on each book and helps me gain what I can from each book. One of the dangers of reading multiple books at the same time is that it can become like channel-flipping. 
JOSE MANUEL PRIETO: That depends, if I'm on vacation, sometimes I read one or more books a day. If not I take longer, but I read similarbooks. I'm always reading a few at a time on different topics, and in particular, popular science and thought. Nowadays I find that more interesting than fiction, novels. 
YIYUN LI: I read two books at a time, a novel and then a collection of short stories. I read four or five new books in a given month, but more of my reading time is spent on rereading. 
MEHMET MURAT SOMER: It depends on the length of the books and where I am reading them. I can read more on trips. Airports, planes, beaches are perfect for reading. At home my attention is taken up by so many other things ... . If I don't like what I am reading, I leave it after twenty pages. I usually read two books simultaneously, the second one in bed before sleeping unless somebody charming is present. 
RODDY DOYLE: Between five and ten. I'm reading four at the moment. 
SUSAN CHOI: Lately, with two kids under the age of four, it's more a matter of how many months it takes me to read a book. But I usually have a few going at once: one main preoccupation, one chunk of nonfiction I dip in and out of, and a few story collections that I'm working my way through. 
TAYARI JONES: I probably read a book a month. Although, if I am on vacation, I can read four chunky thrillers in a week. How many at a time? Whether it's reading or writing, I am pretty monogamous. 
ALAA AL ASWANY: It depends on the kind of books. Sometimes, for example, there are very heavy theoretical books that are very useful and important, that I keep reading while I am reading other books. I could give you an example: I kept visiting the very important book called The Decline of the West written by a German thinker named Oswald Spengler. He spent twenty years on this book. It's almost impossible to get throughit at one time, but with poetry and novels, I usually read them all the way through. I begin a book and I finish it. 
JOSH EMMONS: In a good month I read four books, which is fewer than I'd like but realistic considering how much other literary matter warrants attention: magazine articles, instruction manuals, poetry, album-liner notes, blogs, short stories, flyers, junk mail, etc. Ideally I have three or four books going at once, a mix of fiction read strictly for pleasure, nonfiction helpful for whatever I'm writing, fiction that friends or other people have given me, nonfiction to fill in gaps in my education, fiction the prose and momentum of which is inspiring, and nonfiction that promotes through its message or content better ways to think and live. Because we're all protean creatures whose inner worlds are defined by what we ingest mentally and spiritually, by reading widely we're able to write widely, which, when all goes well, will produce work that expands and confirms what we suspect is true of others and our surroundings. On a more practical level, reading randomly and systematically teaches us about subjects we'd normally not know about and so can inform and improve our work. By picking up a history of bauxite mining in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, for example, you'll be able to explain why your Finnish immigrant heroine loves saunas and fears cancer and considers ocean waves to be too violent. 
YAEL HEDAYA: I cannot read more than one book at a time, and lately, I can't find the time to read at all, which is very sad for me, since reading was such a huge part of my life once. 
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: I don't know--a lot. I don't count. I often read two or three books at a time. 
CLAIRE MESSUD: I wish you'd asked me that question seven years ago, before my children were born. Up to that point, I read a great deal; and I made a point of finishing a book I had begun, even if I didn't care forit. In my life since, however, my reading time has been hideously curtailed. I'm still not sane unless I'm reading something; but it may take me weeks or sometimes even months to finish it. And I'm afraid I'm guilty of abandoning books along the way. That said, I'm rarely reading more than two books at a time; and I'm usually really reading only one. 
COLM TÓIBÍN: Because I write long pieces for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and always have two or three pieces on the go, I will read for those pieces every day. I read books by my friends. I don't read half enough at random anymore. There are some short stories or poems I will become obsessed by and will reread every day for a month or maybe more. I always have a project of my own that I am reading for, often uselessly. 
A. M. HOMES: I am often reading for work, reading applications for things, reading for contests. Currently my reading for food for thought has been seriously limited--which isn't good--I'm starving for that kind of stimulation. 
DINAW MENGESTU: My reading habits can vary widely depending on my own writing. Often when I'm writing well, I'm reading constantly--as many as three or four novels at a time, which comes to about twelve to fifteen books a month. There are of course spells, though, when it can take me weeks to get through a single book, or when I can't seem to find the proper novel to match my mood. 
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I always read one book at a time. I used to read about ten books a month before I had a small child at home. Now I average two or three. 
GEORGE PELECANOS: Typically I read four or five books a month. There is my "A" book, usually a novel, which is the one that makes its way with me around the house. And then there is usually something(nonfiction, biography, or a film book) on my nightstand, for the reading I do before I go to sleep. 
JONATHAN LETHEM: As a teenager I devoured a book a day, typically. I'd always dedicate myself to one at a time, easy to do when you're simply plowing through them from start to finish in a series of five or ten uninterrupted sessions, as I often did--and easy when you're reading pocket-sized paperbacks, which never need to be anywhere but on your person. I probably averaged three to four hundred books a year for a while there. Of course, I was often reading shorter novels, and plotty novels as opposed to novels dense-with-language. And my reading was sometimes dangerously cursory--rather than linger on sentences, I'd fillet books for their skeletal essence of story and character and concept.Now I probably manage about five or ten books a month, a combination of novels, which I read much, much more gradually--and are often longer or denser than those I used to fillet--and nonfiction, which I tend to read as hungrily and sloppily as I once read fiction. I'm often in the middle of two or three books at once, and I don't always have them with me--so there might be a book in the office I'm reading slowly over weeks while something else by my bedside is going very quickly. 
NELL FREUDENBERGER: I don't like to read more than one novel at a time, but I'll sometimes read nonfiction (especially if it has to do with what I'm writing) along with a novel. I'm always reading a novel, but I've never made a monthly tally. 
CHRIS ABANI: Reading widely is what is immediately useful to my work. 
SHELLEY JACKSON: I consider all reading useful to my work. Even cookbooks and yoga manuals give me ideas. So do spam mails and slips of the tongue. Language is language, and it's all up for grabs--the difference between a line in a novel and one spray-painted on the side of a truck is only in how you read it. 
MICHAEL CHABON: I don't; I err consistently on the side of the latter. 
RICK MOODY: There's no science to how I read, which is how I like it. One of the big challenges of the midcareer time of life involves carving out reading space for myself--that is, to the best of my ability, untouched by the industry and by expectations of friends and colleagues. My intention is to read exactly what I want to when I want to. It is, after all, the adventure of reading that got me writing in the first place. 
STEPHEN KING: I never read for work, unless it's quick Google-gobbles (today it was some stuff about Martin Scorsese). I only read for pleasure. 
ADAM MANSBACH: It differs for me with each project, as does how widely I'm willing to cast the net of "immediately useful." Usefulness, I'm learning, can come in unexpected ways; the utility of a Thomas Hardy novel to my own current novel about graffiti writers battling mysterious demons in the tunnels of New York City and consuming entheogenic rain forest drugs is not something I could have predicted had I not picked up The Return of the Native, grudgingly, on a friend's suggestion. 
ANDREW SEAN GREER: I focus mostly on what is useful for my work--but by that I don't mean research and similar novels. Reading widely is the key to finding ways of telling a story that might solve a problem, so anything might work. I do put down wonderful novels if they're not helping me with my own. It's not their fault--it's my own. 
HARUKI MURAKAMI: I read books for fun. 
JOSE MANUEL PRIETO: One way or another, all books end up being useful in my work. When I'm researching, I read in specific ways, about a particular theme, but the truth is one never knows what type of reading will give an idea you can use in the book you are currently writing or a future one. 
RODDY DOYLE: I read for pleasure in the early mornings and late evenings, and research--often a pleasure----during the working day. 
SUSAN MINOT: I have no real reading plan. I graze. I will return to books that I know speak to something I'm working on, or that offered me something that I'm hungry for, otherwise I find new books by keeping a lookout and reading about books and browsing around. Sometimes I will NOT read books that I think might be too close to what I'm working on. (One must find one's own way ... . ) 
TAYARI JONES: I never know what is going to be immediately useful. I read a book because I want to read it. Sometimes that is a really smart book and sometimes it is a middle-brow mystery. What always surprises me is that there is always something in there that benefits my work. For example, the mysteries remind me to keep the plot moving. 
PAUL AUSTER: I do very little research for my novels; therefore, very little extra reading is required to write them. While working on a novel, I tend to stay away from reading fiction, concentrating on history, biography, science, politics. Since I spend my day in an imaginary world, it's good to find the real again when my work is done. 
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: Everything I read is immediately useful to my work. Reading helps me stay inside literature all the time. It makes me think in a way that is conducive to writing. In fact it is the samethinking process. I read compulsively--preferably a book of my choice, but anything would do. I've read, with great interest, nutritional information on cereal boxes. I regularly read wedding announcements in the New York Times. Hell is being stuck at an airport without a book, surrounded by blaring TVs. Reading is a mode of engagement with the world without which writing is impossible. 
CLAIRE MESSUD: Again, because of the abbreviated reading time aforementioned, much of my broader reading has been deferred. It's a great and rare treat to sit down with a book I am reading purely for pleasure--whether it's Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro--these days. Many of the books that I read I am reading for research, or to review. Even these, I read appallingly slowly. Recently, I had the great thrill of reading and rereading much of the oeuvre of Joseph Conrad, supposedly for a review of his biography; but in fact I took such a long time to read them all that I was too late to write the review; and hence had the retrospective pleasure of having read the novels for my own pleasure and general education. It felt great. 
COLM TÓIBÍN: I don't read widely anymore, or not as much as I would like, and also I teach a literature class every year over one semester and this means I read two or three books a week for that, books that I have usually read many times before. 
T COOPER: I don't differentiate much between reading that is good for my work and reading that is just plain good for me. Sometimes I get on jags where I read only magazines and periodicals (the New Yorker or Harper's or the Atlantic, or even just the New York Times, etc.), and that enriches me as much as a novel might during whatever phase I'm going through.I remember a point when I was teaching high school writing and English, and it just clicked for me how important it was to tell students simply to read the newspaper every day. I think at that point I'd just finallyrealized how important it was for me to do the same (I was still a young, aspiring writer myself at the time). I know everybody's decrying the death of print journalism, but there's something about old-fashioned reporting that's unlike any other form of writing ... . You just get the opportunity to hear from a chorus of voices you don't always get to hear from in your daily life, and I think this chorus truly has the potential to enrich one's fiction. It has mine, and countless other authors I know--some who have literally built stories out of headlines, and others in more indirect ways. 
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I now mostly read what is useful to my work. But sometimes I do read a book that simply sounds interesting for its own sake. 
JENNIFER EGAN: It's difficult. As with most things in my life, I rely mostly on instinct. I'm not especially good at grand schemes. I find that reading is a lot like eating--there are times when I'm really in the mood for certain books, and times when I'm almost physically averse to reading them. I try to read things when I crave them, because that is most fair to the books and to myself. This strategy usually results in my reading a mix of books that relate directly to whatever I'm working on and books that have nothing to do with it. 
GEORGE PELECANOS: I don't read as much crime fiction as I used to, and I don't like to read it at all when I'm writing a novel. My work involves getting out of the house, talking to people, and, most importantly, listening, because you have to get the voices right. Yes, everything you need to know in terms of factual research is probably available in the library or on the Internet. But there's no substitute for breathing the air and feeling the dirt. 
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I consider almost any good book to be immediately useful for my work. Almost all my books are inspired by otherbooks. When people ask me "where do you get your ideas?," it's usually from other books. I use style, I use all kinds of things. Now for the last one I had to do something specific because I was looking for a story, so I got a lot of books looking for the story. So yes, that would be immediately useful for my work. But for the most part when I am writing I tend to limit myself to what I consider great writing. I'm writing so much that only a great book will get me going. 
NELL FREUDENBERGER: I don't balance. I'm sure I should, but in terms of fiction I have no discipline: I just read whatever I want. 
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: Reading a lot, and from a wide variety of sources, is immediately useful to my work. Ideas are everywhere. In fact, I read a lot of magazines and newspapers; I read in English, French, Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese; I read essays, children's books, screenplays. I'm omnivorous. 
GARY SHTEYNGART: It's a catch-22. If you commit yourself to writing novels that require a lot of research, you will lose out on the reason you became a writer in the first place--the love of good books. There's just not enough hours in the day, so the least you can do is disable your WiFi signal every Tuesday and Thursday and give yourself the gift of two good Chekhov stories slowly read. 
LAILA LALAMI: There isn't one novel I go back to, but there is a writer I always return to--J. M. Coetzee. He is a consummate craftsman and I often reread him for pleasure or for work. I like to see how he handles particular craft elements. For instance, I love to reread the opening to Life & Times of Michael K to look at how each sentence is put together,how it connects seamlessly with the one before or after it, how it works all at once to advance the story, create character, move time forward or back, etc. His sentences are marvelously beautiful and incredibly efficient. I also often reread Waiting for the Barbarians to study the way in which each character is fully examined and portrayed, with neither harshness nor indulgence, just a deep understanding of the human condition. 
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: The writer I reread most often is Saul Bellow. On drowsy mornings when I don't really feel like working, I reach for his prose like jumper cables. He is a constant for me, and so is Jorge Luis Borges, especially now, in my wife, Aura's editions of the collected works, nearly every page filled with her margin notes, so that really, it's like reading them both, in constant dialogue.Lately, because of the book I'm writing, I've been returning regularly to a handful of books with first-person narratives, which are especially helpful to me right now, especially Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Colm Tóibín's The Story of the Night, Murakami's Norwegian Wood. For this book I've needed to cast off writing habits that maybe come too easily to me--a sort of digressive playfulness or jokiness that is inappropriate for this book, as it was for the last one, come to think of it. There is a beautiful unaffected austerity (that doesn't really apply to von Rezzori, of course), honesty, and gravity--lightly borne, if that's not too contradictory--in a lot of the prose that I like to read right now. 
AMY TAN: I do--and I usually try not to read it from beginning to end. One of them is Love in the Time of Cholera. Another one is Jane Eyre. I love Charlotte Brontë's truthfulness. 
HARUKI MURAKAMI: Some books I read again and again. What does it teach me? I want to write those kind of books myself, if I could. 
ANNE ENRIGHT: I used to read Ulysses every five years to see how much I might understand, and what I might make of it, this timearound. I look at Lolita now and then--I am interested how the novel has changed as society changed around it. I was both fascinated and bored by it when I read it first, at the age of twelve; I was crazy about it in college, and now ... I think it just makes me cross. But I still like its failed structure--how the second half fritters itself away, and how this doesn't actually matter. It is a book that I am somehow creatively intimate with. 
PAUL AUSTER: Don Quixote. I have been reading this masterpiece every seven to ten years for the past forty years, ever since I read it for the first time as a college student. Cervantes explored every possibility of narration in this immense book. It's a source of inextinguishable inspiration for me. 
RODDY DOYLE: I reread Dickens regularly. To remind me of why I try to write. 
SHELLEY JACKSON: Beckett's The Unnamable, for the ghastly humor with which it yanks the rug out from under its own feet; its pungent, contrary, stagger-on sentences; and its exemplary bravery. 
JONATHAN LETHEM: There are many I go back to (and to skip ahead to the next question, yes, there are often different touchstones for different projects). Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, White Noise, The Great Gatsby, The Long Goodbye, The Trial, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are a few examples--and certain stories by Thurber and Barthelme and others. I'm often seeking a specific trigger of visionary language or imagery that I can rely on to remind me of why I'm chasing the effects I'm chasing in my own writing. Of course, what they often end up teaching me when I return to them is how much I've changed, in seeing them differently--and how many different books can hide inside the same book, available to different versions of myself at different readings. 
ALAA AL ASWANY: I reread all the Greek novels every three or four years or sometimes less. And every time I read The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway, I discover things I couldn't understand before because I was too young: The older you get, the more human experience you get, then the more you understand a novel. 
ADANIA SHIBLI: There are few. There is The Epistle of Forgiveness, written by Abu al-Alaa' al-Ma'ari at the end of the tenth, early eleventh century. Al-Ma'ari is considered to have used in his writings the widest range of vocabulary in Arabic literature. This work is actually believed by many theorists to have influenced Dante and led him to writing The Divine Comedy. I also go back occasionally to the Arabic translation of the Bible by al-Yaziji and al-Bustani made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which also presents a wide range of words, yet in modern Arabic. I also go back to reading Ulysses by James Joyce. These three books accompany me wherever I go. They in a way are like a "flask" of words that keep me going on and able to rediscover language and its magical abilities.Sometimes I also get attached to a newspaper and would carry it for one or two months, to read from it. The simplicity of newspaper language is sometimes a break from language. 
STEPHEN KING: I go back to the John D. MacDonald novels from the fifties, like The End of the Night and One Monday We Killed Them All. Great stories. The Travis McGee books are small beer compared to the stand-alones (the greatest is The Last One Left); the stand-alones are real American literature--rough, sure, but so's Thomas Wolfe. These books taught me how to write stories. 
JOSÉ MANUEL PRIETO: Yes, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. I don't tire of reading it, as much for what it says as for how it says it. For years it has been my nightstand book and the truth is I've never been able to find a substitute in that sense. 
CRISTINA GARCIA: I go to Chekhov when I'm depressed about writing. And then I go to Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo when I want to be astonished and inspired by what's possible. That's the range, and then there's a lot of other people in between. Chekhov somehow always lifts my spirits in terms of the human condition, even with all the very melancholy people he writes about. There's just something incredibly redeeming about him and how he writes. 
YIYUN LI: There are a few novels that I go back to regularly: Two Lives, Fools of Fortune, and The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor, and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. There are many things to learn from Disgrace, and I can reread that novel a hundred times, but when I work on my novel I go to that novel to relearn pacing and rhythm. The Trevor novels offer everything I need for writing a novel--mood, narrative voice, wisdom--most importantly I think Trevor's work offers me a haven where I do not have to worry about interference from other people's narrative voices (and sometimes noises I pick up here and there). 
SUSAN CHOI: There are certain novels that, for whatever reason, become inextricably bound up with certain projects of mine, and I read them so intensely for that period that I sort of demolish them. This happened to me with The Great Gatsby while I was writing American Woman. The uncoiling spring of that book's plot, the awful momentum that takes hold of the characters (and during the torpor of a heat wave!)--these seemed to me like the engines of those fateful cars the characters drive: intricate and powerful but ultimately dissectable, and so I took that book apart trying to figure out how he'd done it. Literally. At one point I had the book in pieces and the pages spread all over the floor. I went crazy. And what did I discover? That Fitzgerald's seemingly inevitable, flawless plot is in fact deeply flawed. The characters are obliged to do something utterly unbelievable, for the sake of the action, and yet it's almost impossible to notice this because the writing is wonderful. Moral:great writing is more important than flawless plot. Write well and you can get away with anything. 
MEHMET MURAT SOMER: Several. And the list is very eclectic. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Those Who Walk Away next to Honoré de Balzac's Vautrin, Turkish author Aye Kulin next to Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. All for different reasons. I've learned different things from each and every one of them. I also realized that over time I forget novels. Not the one-sentence summary of course. But after some time, when I read it again, it's as fresh as the first time. Even early Harold Robbins or Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, both of which I count as exemplary for their sense of pace. 
CHRIS ABANI: Toni Morrison's Beloved. The language is to die for, the use of semiotics and image is unparalleled, the conflation of multiple characters into one while still maintaining individuality, the social, historical, racial, and gender engagements. It teaches what I still need to learn. Also, Salman Rushdie's Shame, Peter Orner's Esther Stories, Brad Kessler's Birds in Fall, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying. I learn everything I need to know about character, scene, language, and experimentation from these writers. 
ADAM MANSBACH: If I had to pick one, it would be Baldwin's Another Country because there is an emotional precision to his inhabitation of each character. He's got a big cast, diverse in every way, and their inner lives and interpersonal relations are so sharp, from dialogue to gesture to inner monologue. He's making larger points, enormous points, about race and gender and sexuality and art, but he does it in subtle touches and intimate moments. He's able to leech the brutality out of tenderness, and vice versa. That book understands astoundingly well how closely those two things are linked. 
A. M. HOMES: I go back to John Cheever; I think line by line he's brilliant. And he's working in both long and short forms and, well, I just think he's it--Cheever and Richard Yates. 
RICK MOODY: There are books that I return to philosophically and consult episodically even if, on occasion, I don't reread them in their entirety. Moby-Dick, The Recognitions, The Crying of Lot 49, The Rings of Saturn, Beckett's trilogy, To the Lighthouse, the New Testament, Montaigne's essays, A Lover's Discourse, etc. The lessons are probably the same in each case. Don't compromise, don't back down, don't be faint of heart, don't curry favor. 
SUSAN MINOT: William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Anything by Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, J. D. Salinger, Nabokov ... . They recapture for me that first inspiration I got from literature, which reminds me on an instinctive level why I write. And they demonstrate mastery. 
MICHAEL CHABON: Moby-Dick. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Long Goodbye. I want to live in their worlds; in their language; in the lives and consciousnesses they portray. 
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: No. I often get tired of even my favorite authors. It's like analyzing a magician's tricks: sooner or later they don't surprise you anymore. I'm a very promiscuous reader. 
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: Lolita by Nabokov; A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš; Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald; Madam Bovary by Flaubert. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. I also go back to Chekhov's stories. The list is long. These books rekindle my love for literature and reading, reenergize the magic. After I get depressed with the abundance and shallowness of the front-table books, I go back to the novels and stories I love to remind myself what it is all about.I don't study them--for you can study crap and learn a lot. But, reading them, I redefine my aesthetic, I formulate what it is that I want from my books. 
CLAIRE MESSUD: There are a number of novels I go back to again and again. Portrait of a Lady is one of them because Henry James is never more simultaneously lucid and rich in his exploration of character than in that book. I go back to Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, because I love it, even as I recognize that any parsing of its structure reveals it to be an eccentric shambles--that's to say that in rereading it I am constantly reminded of how important a mess is to a great novel. Life is not tidy, and books should not be either. There are others too--I go back to Anna Karenina, again for Tolstoy's lucidity and complexity; and I go back to Proust, because I still haven't finished the darn thing. 
YAEL HEDAYA: Until recently, I used to read Yaakov Shabtai's Past Perfect again and again, every time I began writing a new novel. It was my ignition book. Shabtai writes very long sentences, has a breathless narrative that I myself use. I love his work. When I was at a point in my career where I was deeply influenced, I was influenced by him. 
COLM TÓIBÍN: I go back to The Portrait of a Lady, to Pride and Prejudice, to The Great Gatsby, to The Sun Also Rises, to Amongst Women, to name but five, not because they teach me anything--I hate teachers (except myself)--but because they fill me with pleasure. 
T COOPER: There are so many. But I guess one that comes to mind is Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig. Specifically, I go to this book to be reminded of all that can be done with dialogue. What's absolutely necessary, what's flabby or expository and should be excised, and just how much story can be conveyed without my "telling" the reader anything. The characters do it all through dialogue in this book. 
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Toni Morrison's Sula. It's so epic and economical and I can read the whole thing in one night. I learn a great deal from it about writing idiosyncratic and memorable characters, how to use time in a novel. Her language is so vivid and poetic. 
GEORGE PELECANOS: True Grit by Charles Portis, for the storytelling and the incredible voice of Mattie Ross. It is an underrated novel and an American classic. 
RODRIGO FRESÀN: Yes, Melville's Moby-Dick, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Add to those John Cheever's stories and a bit of Denis Johnson. As far as what they've taught me, I prefer to not have a clear idea. I'm also not interested in finding out the exact influence they had, have right now, and will continue to have on me. In truth I prefer to think of all those titles as if they were an indissoluble and irreplaceable part of my DNA. 
NELL FREUDENBERGER: I go back to stories more than novels, especially Grace Paley's and Alice Munro's. I think I'll reread novels more as I get older, but for now there always seems to be a lot I haven't read. I do go back to particular chapters in novels: for example, the one in Anna Karenina when Vronsky and Anna visit the Russian painter Mikhaylov, and we briefly see the two of them through his eyes. Tolstoy shifts the point of view briefly and abruptly so that we see his characters through an entirely different lens. Another chapter I go back to is the first in the second part of Peter Carey's Illywhacker in which Goon Tse Ying begins to teach the narrator how to become invisible. I like the way the whole novel (narrated by a notorious liar) integrates the fantastic into a realistic story, but I'm not sure I could learn from it--I think I go back to it because the narrator's voice is so powerful. 
ANN CUMMINS: One of my favorite books is Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, though I've only read the English translation. It's just aslip of a book, more a novella than a novel. It starts off with a great dramatic hook--a man, an entomologist, goes missing while searching for bugs in dunes. The protagonist is a jaded, logical, lonely specimen, dissatisfied in his relationships with women, with his coworkers--in some ways, with the workings of his own mind. The dunes with their constantly shifting sands become annoying and then terrifying for this scientist. The villagers are communal, willing to sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole. While this theme of the tormented individual at odds with society plays out in many wonderful books, I love this one, which is akin to Camus' The Stranger, because it shows the incremental changes in perception one person experiences when thwarted. It's a layered book reflecting psychological and social schisms in Japan after Hiroshima, where the landscape is desolate. The community shovels sand, futile and metaphorically interesting work for a humbled, defeated society. So I love the book for all of the thought-provoking metaphoric layers, but I love it mostly because it's a page-turner, full of dramatic tension. The writing's economical. Every word drives the story. I wish I could write a book as elegant and riveting as this one. 
CHRIS ADRIAN: So far they have been. For the last novel, I kept going back to Moby-Dick and the Bible. Part of this is because there is always someone who wrote about what you want to write about fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and it is nice to get to know the ways in which you are destined to fall short of your goal, and deal with the misery of that, and move on. A bigger part is that there is a great deal to learn from the people who have already done what you want to do better than you will ever be able to do it. The novel I'm working on now is a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in the present in SanFrancisco, so I keep going back to the play again and again, and the story itself is an odd sort of response to the play. 
ANNE ENRIGHT: Yes, but they come around again, a few books on. 
SUSAN MINOT: Not really. They don't have to do with subject, rather with literary excellence. 
CHRIS ABANI: No. I read them all, all the time. I also forgot to mention that I love poetry and physics and math, so those too. I read those randomly. 
STEPHEN KING: No touchstone books. 
AKHIL SHARMA: I've only written one book and there was a certain style that was a touchstone for that (Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky). With this new book, my old style isn't working and so I need to learn a new style and this is causing me to think a little bit more about Chekhov and Joseph Roth. 
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: No. It's all one big, continuous project. I do sometimes read books that are demanded by what I am working on. This is not research--it is more of a mood thing, and very similar to the method (if it were a method) of picking music I listen to when I write. 
SHELLEY JACKSON: Yes, each project has its particular literary godparents, and I turn to them repeatedly--to catch a rhythm, sharpen my attention to a certain formal problem, or just remind me to be as true to my own peculiar vision as I can be. 
CLAIRE MESSUD: I'm sure that if I returned to my earlier books I would be able to enumerate the books that had been so important in the shaping of those projects. For example, I remember that Peter Brown'sbiography of Augustine was hugely important to me when I was working on The Last Life. But there are other books--novels, mostly--like those aforementioned, which at least thus far have traveled with me through life and remained important always. 
HARUKI MURAKAMI: No touchstone. I just love to read them. That is all. 
JOSE MANUEL PRIETO: I think so. You more or less have in mind the book you are modeling, the one you want it to be similar to, without it ever being like it. But that book, that serves more or less as an admitted model, exists. For Rex, for example, it was partly Pale Fire by Nabokov, for its relation with commentary as narrative technique. But also a not very well-known work by Proust, Pastiches et Melanges, as much for the writer as imitator as for the story it tells, about a diamond forger. For Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, curiously, I didn't have any, but I did read an infinity of epistolary books, as anyone who has read it will note. 
MICHAEL CHABON: No, they are pretty much eternal. 
RICK MOODY: There are always new lessons. The writer who feels that he or she is now fixed on certainties and is impervious to the surprise of the new is probably delusional. There are new discoveries along the way for me, as a reader, sure, but they are not yoked to specific writing projects. Discovery just happens. 
COLM TÓIBÍN: For The Master, the novel I wrote about Henry James, there were about forty of them. For the other books I often don't know until afterward the extent to which I have been depending on another book for my book. 
DINAW MENGESTU: There are a few novels that I find myself returning to over and over again. V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and Duino Elegies by Rilke have all been consistent standards in my reading habit for the past several years now. Each is beautifully written, and each has a certain emotional weight or personal significance that reminds me why I love literature, and what it can do when it's done well. 
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: Yes. In my novel Prudishness, John Cheever was decisive. In Red April, the book From Hell by Alan Moore, and the novels of Ian McEwan. In The Fourth Sword, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. Now I'm into Philip Roth and Martin Amis. My interest in English-language literature is a constant. It's more direct, economical, and personal than Latin American literature, which tends to be more elitist and baroque. 
MEHMET MURAT SOMER: Not for me. I don't have any touchstone books, films ... . Perhaps only music, which affects my mood. I consider myself a monumental project, not my novels. If I am well-fed, intellectually as well, I can craft them. 
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes. For my last book, which was a memoir, Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude were my touchstone books. I took turns reading those three books over and over as I was writing. 
RODRIGO FRESÁN: No. They are simply places to return to and places I will never leave. 
NELL FREUDENBERGER: No, I don't think so. I think foundational books--the books that made you want to be a writer--teach you things that you apply every time you write something. 
RODRIGO FRESÁN: No. But I have to acknowledge that prolonged exposure to the very parasitic--for all the right reasons--Vladimir Nabokov as a certain risk. And on more than one occasion, certain key absences make a mark on the style as much or more so than certain current or assimilated present influences. I'll go further: maybe that is what style is in the end. Maybe, now that I think about it, a writer's style is nothing more than the ghost of his shortcomings rather than the reality of his virtues. I'll try to explain myself. You end up resigning yourself to what you can do, and throwing aside what you'll never be good at, and so others perceive as achievements what in reality are the dregs within reach, with luck, each time ennobled and purified. What a writer does and what he wanted to do are two different things, and, as time passes, what he does solidifies into the only thing he can do well, what he does like no one els

Daniel Alarcón is the author most recently of Lost City Radio, which was named a 2007 Best Book by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others.

826 National is a network of youth tutoring, writing, and publishing centers located in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston.