Friday, June 12, 2009

Shanthi Sekaran

Shanthi Sekaran was born and raised in California, and now splits her time between Berkeley and London. A graduate of UC Berkeley and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she was first published in Best New American Voices 2004 (Harcourt). Her first novel, The Prayer Room (MacAdam Cage), was released in February 2009.

Earlier this week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Since I began writing my own fiction, I’ve become a terrible reader. I am impatient, intolerant and slow. I often read phrases four times over, with varying degrees of attention, and I constantly question the author’s choices. Probably to my own detriment, I have no qualms about throwing a book behind the sofa and forgetting about it if it doesn’t enthrall me in the first chapter. My favorite books are the ones that grab me by the throat and make me breathless with the need to write, that make my heart race like I’ve had too much coffee. When a book does get me, I devote myself to it. I fall in love with it. I learn what I can from it. And then I file it, alphabetically, in my very narrow bookcase.

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

Nobody belongs here more than you: it was just what I needed to hear that day when I picked this book up in a Berkeley bookstore. It’s hard to explain the appeal of these short-shorts. They are, in some vague way, welcoming. They make me think of a beautiful woman sitting on a red-white picnic blanket, pouring me a glass of lemonade; and yet the stories themselves are about the lost, the abandoned, the befuddled. I never used to understand people who thought Morrissey was uplifting; now I do.

White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

I always try to read the Booker Prize winner, just to see what’s considered “good”. This book is beyond good, venturing into the realm of greatness. It’s deceptively funny and easy to read; it isn’t weighed down with the density and near-impossibility of many modern classics.

I’d have to rank White Tiger’s ending with my other favorite, from Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ It manages to encapsulate the novel’s nuttiness and drives home a final cheeky punch. It’s a little daunting to think how much a final sentence can actually accomplish. Adiga’s final lines lift the book from good to great, and make me laugh out loud.

God’s Own Country, Ross Raisin (US title: Out Backward)

I’m educating myself with this book. It’s the story of a young Yorkshire loner who falls for the new girl in the village, the well-bred daughter of a family of “towns”.

In my own writing, there’s nothing that intimidates me more than having to write a boy-meets-girl scenario. It could so easily turn into something boring, cliché, straight out of a Dawson’s Creek episode. And yet, real-life love is never boring or cliché, at least not to the people experiencing it. And so, I’m faced with the challenge of transferring that excitement to the page, where my only tools are words.

Ross Raisin tells the story of a friendship/romance from a very limited 1st person perspective. He’s been brave enough to use a Yorkshire dialect (not as incomprehensible as Emily Bronte’s Joseph, but definitely not the Queen’s English). I’m just in the middle of this book, so I can’t say much more than that.

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

After a six year dry spell, I’ve recently begun writing short stories again. For years, I was unable to bring a story to any sort of reasonable conclusion; the scope of short fiction, and how a writer was supposed to gauge it, were a mystery to me. I think that if you’re going to write short fiction, you need to read a lot of it. You need to get a sense of the ebb and rise of a story, how to gracefully build a plot, size it, and bring it to a natural, satisfying close.

The Book of Other People is a collection compiled to benefit the charity 826 NYC, and includes the work of Zadie Smith, Vendela Vida and Jonathan Safran Foer, three of my favorites. The writers in this collection were assigned the task of primarily writing character, whether these characters inhabited a full story, a monologue, or a graphic piece. This freedom of form has made this a more interesting read than your standard fiction collection. I never quite know what lies in store, and I generally finish reading each piece wanting more.

Three Junes, Julia Glass

This novel tells the story of two generations of a Scottish family. It’s a steady, strong read, and it reeled me in gently, so I didn’t even realize how committed I was to reading it until it was nearly over. Julia Glass strikes me as a patient writer, one who has done her research, her thinking, and has taken the time to build a novel, layer by layer, into something beautiful, quiet and whole.

At the top of the pile:

Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy: I enjoyed Van Booy’s first book, The Secret Lives of People in Love, an unapologetically lush, emotionally riveting collection of stories.

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin: I’ll be living in Brooklyn for the month of September, so this will be one of my geeky preparations.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead: It just sounds like it’ll be good, doesn’t it?
Read an excerpt from The Prayer Room, and learn more about the author and her work at Shanthi Sekaran's website.

--Marshal Zeringue