What are You Reading?

One of the frequent and one of my favorite questions asked of me is “What do you read?” Like those who ask, I am always curious as to what others are reading. The first place my eyes go when I enter someone’s home for the first time is to bookshelves and coffee tables in search of my host’s reading materials. I’m never judgmental; I just like to know. My biggest regret regarding the growing crossover to e-readers is that I can’t look at the book covers of strangers as they read. Over the years, I have been turned on to so many new authors and books by the fetching covers I saw in someone else’s hands. Like most people, I hate to think that I’m missing out on something, especially the latest and hottest authors and books.

So what do I read? In terms of daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals, every day I read my hometown newspaper, The Sandusky Register, either the Cleveland Plain Dealer or The Toledo Blade, and I love, love, love the USA Today. The weekly magazines I read include Newsweek, Time, The New Yorker (on my Kindle), Sports Illustrated and my guilty pleasure, People. Bi-monthly or monthly reads include The New York Times Book Review, Writer’s Digest, Runner’s World, Tennis Magazine, and Atlantic. In addition I have my favorite web pages and blogs: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Publisher’s Weekly, The Guardian, mediabistro, agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog, Eric’s blog at Pimp My Novel, and agent Mary Kole’s blog at Kidlit.com. For clarification’s sake, when I say “read,” I don’t mean every article; I only read those that grab my interest.

As for books, my longtime practice has been to be reading in two books at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction. During summer when I’m not teaching, I pour through anywhere from twenty to thirty full-length texts. I’m not an especially fast reader, and the older I get, the shorter is the duration of my reading periods. When school is in session, I’m usually re-reading classic texts in preparation for lectures; this drastically limits the amount of time I have available for pleasure reading.

Regarding genre, for nonfiction I lean towards biography and memoir. My taste in fiction runs towards the literary rather than bestsellers. I don’t think I’m a snob; rather, I’m the product of my literary training. I prefer character development, themes, and the execution of technique over fast-paced plot, but I always say and firmly believe that any reading is good reading. No one should ever apologize for the books in their hands or libraries. Also, because my first two novels are in the genre, I try to stay abreast with popular YA authors/titles. My personal favorites are John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and pretty much everything by Laura Halse Anderson.

Recently, I’ve read and loved, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Currently, I’m making my way through two works: the historical novel Wolf Hall and Ferris’s first novel Then We Came to the End.

Lesson for the day, if you want to be a writer, be a reader first and always.

Check out my author’s page at www.tyrothbooks.com

What are You Reading?

One of the frequent and one of my favorite questions asked of me is “What do you read?” Like those who ask, I am always curious as to what others are reading. The first place my eyes go when I enter someone’s home for the first time is to bookshelves and coffee tables in search of my host’s reading materials. I’m never judgmental; I just like to know. My biggest regret regarding the growing crossover to e-readers is that I can’t look at the book covers of strangers as they read. Over the years, I have been turned on to so many new authors and books by the fetching covers I saw in someone else’s hands. Like most people, I hate to think that I’m missing out on something, especially the latest and hottest authors and books.

So what do I read? In terms of daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals, every day I read my hometown newspaper, The Sandusky Register, either the Cleveland Plain Dealer or The Toledo Blade, and I love, love, love the USA Today. The weekly magazines I read include Newsweek, Time, The New Yorker (on my Kindle), Sports Illustrated and my guilty pleasure, People. Bi-monthly or monthly reads include The New York Times Book Review, Writer’s Digest, Runner’s World, Tennis Magazine, and Atlantic. In addition I have my favorite web pages and blogs: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Publisher’s Weekly, The Guardian, mediabistro, agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog, Eric’s blog at Pimp My Novel, and agent Mary Kole’s blog at Kidlit.com. For clarification’s sake, when I say “read,” I don’t mean every article; I only read those that grab my interest.

As for books, my longtime practice has been to be reading in two books at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction. During summer when I’m not teaching, I pour through anywhere from twenty to thirty full-length texts. I’m not an especially fast reader, and the older I get, the shorter is the duration of my reading periods. When school is in session, I’m usually re-reading classic texts in preparation for lectures; this drastically limits the amount of time I have available for pleasure reading.

Regarding genre, for nonfiction I lean towards biography and memoir. My taste in fiction runs towards the literary rather than bestsellers. I don’t think I’m a snob; rather, I’m the product of my literary training. I prefer character development, themes, and the execution of technique over fast-paced plot, but I always say and firmly believe that any reading is good reading. No one should ever apologize for the books in their hands or libraries. Also, because my first two novels are in the genre, I try to stay abreast with popular YA authors/titles. My personal favorites are John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and pretty much everything by Laura Halse Anderson.

Recently, I’ve read and loved, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Currently, I’m making my way through two works: the historical novel Wolf Hall and Ferris’s first novel Then We Came to the End.

Lesson for the day, if you want to be a writer, be a reader first and always.

Check out my web page at www.tyrothbooks.com

Thanks!

Warning: this is probably the least original yet most appropriate article I’ve written; however, in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought it a good time to identify those in the writing/reading community to whom I am most grateful. So in no particular order, here is my list.

  1. Readers – duh! – without whom there would be no purpose for that which has given my life so much more purpose in the past year.
  2. Twitter and Facebook. I had so resisted social networking prior to signing my book deal. Afterwards, I dove in begrudgingly, believing I would only use these mediums for marketing purposes, but I almost immediately found myself a member of real communities full of cool people. I’ve reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and have interacted with so many people I never would have encountered again or for the first time had I not joined these sites.
  3. Libraries. I love them, especially my hometown, Sandusky Library. It is my greatest source of pride in my community. I lost track of how many times I checked out the same biographies on Byron and Keats while I was working on SO SHELLY. In a time when we pay for the air to inflate our tires and to have bags checked on airplanes, I’m still amazed of the variety of FREE materials and activities our libraries provide. In my mind, they are examples of democracy at its best. Without question, my personal heaven is a library. Please support your local library.
  4. Bookstores. I love them second only to libraries. I admit that I have an e-reader and I love it, but some of my best hours have been spent scouring the shelves of bookstores with gift cards in hand. The only thing I love more than the potential of a blank sheet of paper is the excitement of beginning a new novel. I hope they never go the way of record stores. I so miss them.
  5. Book Bloggers (especially YA bloggers). A year ago, I didn’t know that this group existed. Now, I read any number of them daily. These bloggers (often quite talented writers themselves) have more passion for literature and storytelling than most English majors and MFA’s I’ve known. Their love of books is sincere and almost never self-serving. Their opinions are honest, and the vast majority of them do their absolute best to be positive about and appreciative of what are often mediocre books. Truly, if it is word-of-mouth that sells books, many of the initial murmurings come from their keyboards.
  6. My fellow writers, published or not. You guys are amazing! I can’t even begin to explain how your talent and dedication inspires me and goads me back to my writing desk. I have never known a more welcoming group as sincerely interested in helping one another advance their careers than I have found in the writing community.

I’ve left the obvious family, friends, my agent, my editor, and my publisher off this list – not because I’m ungrateful but because they are acknowledged in my novel. So, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Life is good!

Visit my web page at www.tyrothbooks.com

Cold Feet

One of life’s greatest ironies occurs when what we believe is the worst possible thing that could happen turns out to be the best. With So Shelly poised to hit shelves in less than three months, I’ve recently found myself gripped by the fear that the converse must also be true. Actually, the proverb already exists, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” Although landing a debut novel with one of the largest publishing houses in the world is a dream realized, the possibility that Shelly’s publication will change my life in ways I’d prefer it didn’t is a persistent fear.

Readers often mistakenly make too strong of a linkage between an author and his characters. They assume that what the characters think, feel, and desire provides a mirrored image of the author. Although I wouldn’t deny that pieces of me are reflected in each character in Shelly, no single one captures my essence. I fear that family, friends, students and their parents, and local community members will find many of the ideas, opinions, and behaviors of my characters unsavory and will associate each of those ideas, opinions, and behaviors with my own. However, I’m a big boy and I can  take it. I’d never write a thing if I worried too much about others’ opinions of me and my work.

The bigger fear is that, if read too simplistically, Shelly may seem to condone, even to encourage, many of the very notions it seeks to condemn or at least caution against, and I may be viewed as some sort of perverted psychopath. Although it’s not straight satire, Shelly does address a large number of foolish, even evil, societal ills faced not only by teens but also by adults. My goal as a writer is the same as my goal as a teacher: to force readers/students to question everything they’ve ever considered right, good, or true. In doing so, I aim for one of two outcomes. Either the values one entered my novel/classroom with are made stronger by opposition to my challenge to their validity, or those values are newly seen as untenable and in need of replacement by values more consistent with reality. It’s a lofty end result for which I reach, but I think it’s the goal most worthy of pursuing as an author/teacher.

Regardless of my fears, Shelly will soon be laid bare, and the “slings and arrows” may follow. I’m more than good with that. If my honest attempt to contribute a unique and challenging piece of literature costs me a few relationships or sidelong glances but successfully engages its readers, I figure I win more than I lose. In the end, I have no choice but to trust my readers. I’ve always believed that the biggest mistake teachers make is underestimating their students. I would be a hypocrite should I not apply that same wisdom to my readers. Most people are smart and, for the most part, “get it.”

Reviews: It’s Just a Book

Hoping to learn from his experience as a debut novelist, I recently contacted Jay Asher, the author of the bestselling YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why. Jay graciously responded with the advice to keep a thick skin because there will invariably be reviewers who will dislike my work as there were with his own widely-acclaimed novel. The likelihood of negative criticism is made great by the sheer number of potential reviewers. Today, anyone with internet access can dismissively reduce the product of an author’s agonized labor to a “starred” rating on such sites as Amazon or Goodreads among many others; therefore, the potential for public scorn is exponentially greater than the days when the art of criticism was left to professionals. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the democratization of book reviews. But with so many evaluators, the probability is that no writer will emerge from the crucible of criticism unscathed.

Despite the fact that my debut novel, SO SHELLY, is over two months from publication, I’ve already felt the sharp sting of a negative review. A reviewer on Goodreads scored SO SHELLY a “1” of “5.” Ouch! What was cool, however, is that she also wrote a very intelligent explanation and actually complimented the plot structure. Although the “1” may have been a little harsh, she made thoughtful and compelling observations and actually made me go “Hmmmm?” Whether she was aware of it or not, I don’t know, but she successfully perceived the most significant “meta-textual” purpose/theme of the novel: a “hostility” towards the mediocrity and sameness of too many YA texts.  I greatly appreciate her insight and the time and consideration it took for her to draw and to share her astute observations.

This may sound strange, but if I’m not to receive a 5-star review, I would actually receive the score of “1” than say a “3.” A “1” is a visceral and extreme response. It, at least, indicates that the novel was provocative. To merit such a response, the text , on some level, had to be disturbing or offensive for the reader/reviewer, and for my money, good art almost always disturbs, offends, or both. All art of lasting value pushes the limits of acceptability and contributes to the continued redrawing of the outer boundaries of theme and style. On the other hand, a “3” is a tepid reaction. It’s an “Ehhhhh,” not good, not bad. A “3” is completely lacking in value. I’ve always contended that, if I can’t be loved, I’d rather be hated than inspire mere indifference.

In truth, regardless of my writing talents or lack thereof, I most likely preordained a number of negative reviews by my choice of subject matter. SO SHELLY resurrects Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats as modern-day high school students. Because the novel is historically-based upon the lives and personalities of these rather polarizing figures (especially Byron and Shelley), it is inevitable that some will take offense to their scandalous and iconoclastic behaviors as I have re-imagined them in the contemporary world. Some reviewers will transfer the disgust they feel regarding the immoral behavior of these characters to their judgment of the novel’s worth. That’s cool. I get that.

Was it Truman who said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”? Well, I love the heat of critique. I love both the internal and external dialogue it engenders. In the end it makes for better writers and readers. I’m beyond grateful that there are so many devoted readers who take the time to contribute to the discussion of literature. Most importantly, I always remember that, in the end, it’s just a book.