Transcript: Gretchen Rubin and Cynthia Leitich Smith

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 4.

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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today we’re joined by Gretchen Rubin discussing Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and Cynthia Leitich Smith recommending Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley.


Gretchen Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She’s the author of many books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project. On her top-ranking, award-winning podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” she discusses happiness and good habits with her sister Elizabeth Craft.


My name is Gretchen Rubin and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is my recommended.

A Pattern Language is an unusual book. It’s about 253 patterns, which is what Christopher Alexander has identified as sort of aspects of architecture of homes, of offices that make people feel comfortable, that make a space feel alive, that make people gravitate to a certain place. It’s not things like, oh, it’s gothic architecture or your chandelier should be 30 inches off your dining room table. It’s these ideas, these sort of transcended ideas like child cave, windows overlooking life, garden growing wild, columns at the corner, staircase as stage. He shows a lot of examples from all over the world of architecture that shows things like cascaded roofs, and you look at it and you think, oh my gosh, how much do I love cascaded roofs. It gives a whole different way of seeing patterns in the kind of spaces that we inhabit.

It’s not in order. You can jump back and forth. You can just flip through, and it’s this combination of the super practical and technical, and then these weird poetic and even mystical ideas. Christopher Alexander is very judgmental and very opinionated, and so it’s just … It’s one of these things that the minute I read it, I was like I’ve never seen anything like this before. It just made a huge impression on me.

My favorite aspect of the book was his point, which you could take issue with but which I find very compelling, which is that wherever you go in the world and whatever kind of architecture people are using, there are certain patterns that just as part of human nature we respond to. Somehow it just taps into something in us that makes it meaningful. One of his things, one of my favorite things is one of his patterns is secret place. He says, “Every home should have a secret place where only the people who live there know
about and what’s in the secret place and then the people that they confide in.” This gives your house this kind of charge that you have the secret place. This is enchanting to me. My house has three secret places, which we love that they’re secret.

One of his principles is six-foot balcony. That people don’t feel comfortable on a balcony unless it’s at least six feet deep. Well, maybe your balcony looks like something if you live in Italy, and if you live in Japan your balcony is going to look different. The idea that there are these universal things that we all tap into, I find that just really interested to think

You know, it’s been so long since I read A Pattern Language, I don’t remember who recommended it to me. One of the things I love to do as a reader is somebody in another book will mention a book and I will follow up. When I read Thomas Merton’s book Seven Story Mountain, he mentioned in passing The Story of the Soul, which is Saint Thérèse’s spiritual memoir. I was like, well if he cared enough about that book to mention it, maybe I’ll go check it out. I think I read about A Pattern Language in another source, which now I can’t remember at all.

I haven’t reread the entire book because part of it is, like I say, is pretty technical and also applies to things like where should you build your public promenade in your city and stuff like that. The parts that apply to residences and parks and offices, I’ve read a lot of times. I’ll just sort of pick it up and flip through it and just see what it says. I got really obsessed with color. I’m writing a little book called My Color Pilgrimage. I looked in to see did Christopher Alexander have anything to say about color. He writes about light a lot. One of his principles is that people are much more comfortable in rooms that have light on two sides. I live in New York City, and I’m here to tell you it makes a big difference if you have light on
two sides. You feel it in New York City where so many places don’t have light on two sides.

I think I give this book more than any other book that I will try to foist on people. I often give people books. Because I do think it’s not like anything else, and especially if a person is about to move or going to renovate or is going to redecorate or is going to move to a new office where they have some control over how they set things up. This is a way of thinking about
space that’s different. I feel like I’m not a visional person. I’m sure there are some people where this all comes very naturally, but I’m not visual. For me, if I have to get it through words and probably because I’m like that, a lot of my friends are like that. I’m like, “If you read this book, it’ll help you understand what you like and what you don’t like, and so you can try to shape your space differently.”

It’s not like a narrative where you start at the beginning and read through the end. You can just read the parts that are interesting to you. Then, it’s fun to look at the pictures. There’s tons and tons of illustrations. You can look and see staircases stage. What do the staircases look like? Floor ceiling vaults, what does that look like? Zen view, deep reveals, radiant heat. It’s just fun to look through it. Marriage bed. They’re fun.

As a reader I’m very attracted to unusual structure and unusual formats. I read a lot of books that are written in odd ways. That’s probably one of the reasons I was so taken with this book. I will seek out books, looking for things that have unusual structures just because no matter what the book is about, I’m always interested in an unusual structure.

A Pattern Language has had a big influence on me because I read about happiness and how people can make their lives happier. Part of it is like, what does he say about what makes people feel good in a place? How can I
use that in my life, or what would I say to other people? Like I said, we have secret places in our house because of what he wrote. When we were thinking about renovating our apartment, there was a proposal that we would move the kitchen, but then I was like, but this kitchen would move from the sunny side of our apartment to the less sunny side of our
apartment. I was like, “No, no, no.” Because Christopher Alexander had gotten me so obsessed with light. I was like, I would never do that, and I’m so glad that I didn’t.

I read really recklessly. I’ll go to the library all the time, so I’ll just throw anything in in my bag. I read a lot of stuff. I read a lot of fiction. I’m a huge fan of children’s literature and young adult literature, so I read a lot of that. Then I just read a lot of … Like I said, I will read about a book in a book that I’m reading so I’ll read that. I love biographies and memoirs. I love books with odd structure. I’m interested in science and history. I read a lot of
weird stuff. Because I use the library a lot, I read a lot of books that are kind of … nobody’s really talking about anymore. It came out 20 years ago and nobody really remembers it, but to me it’s like there it is on the library shelf. I’ll take that book. This is the kind of stuff that I’m always looking for, is something that maybe I don’t … I hear about it almost accidentally
and then I go check it out, and then I find, my gosh, what a treasure that I’ve discovered sort of haphazardly.

I try to really just follow up anything that looks interesting because I never know where I’m going to find something that I just love even though I didn’t necessarily know that … I wasn’t necessarily expecting that it would be a fantastic book that I found.

Well, one thing I would just say is that sometimes people, as soon as
we all get in a rut or we get …. we have a bad run of books and we sort of lose track of how great it is to read. One of the things I always try to do is I’m not interested in a book, stop reading it, and then go find a book that I’m more enthusiastic about because that has really helped me read more and read with more excitement and enthusiasm, because I only finish
something if I really love it. The thing is, there’s nothing that is so much fun as to read a book that you love, but sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs before you hit the prince of a book. I just always say to people, “Keep looking for that book.” Because once you find that book you love, there’s just nothing better than the pleasure you get from a great book.


Thanks again to Gretchen Rubin for joining us and recommending A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Her book The Four Tendencies, published by Harmony, is available now wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at gretchenrubin.




Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times best-selling YA author of the award-winning adventure-fantasy series, Feral and Tantalize. She also is the author of several award-winning children’s books, including: Jingle Dancer, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, and Indian Shoes, all published by HarperCollins. In addition, she has published short stories, nonfiction essays, and poetry for young readers. She is a citizen of Muscogee Nation, based in Austin, Texas. Her upcoming contemporary realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, is her first book with a Native protagonist since 2002.


My name is Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley is the book that I’m recommending.

Apple in the Middle is a story of Apple Starkington. She’s a Turtle Mountain Band Chippewa girl who’s been raised away from her native nation. Apple’s bi-cultural. She’s both native and white, although she’s tribally enrolled so she’s a citizen of her indigenous nation. This thing is she has been raised by the non-Indian side of the family. She goes home to visit her maternal grandparents and connect to her people, to her mother’s memory, gets sort of a broader, more grounded understanding of her whole self, and she also gets acquainted with relatives who are new to her, faces some inherited conflicted from her mom’s personal history, and kind of emerges as someone who is more comfortable in her own skin.

I’m very active in the children’s and YA conversation on the internet, on Twitter, on Facebook, all over the place, Instagram. I was so excited to see that there was a new native woman author in YA lit. We are rare creatures. As much as I love everyone who’s in there, it’s been a narrow group. We really can use some new voices and some growth. I believe I reached out first, and Dawn and I hit it off immediately. I was blessed that she sent me an advanced copy of the book to take a look at. I was familiar with her as a voice in the Native American literature/YA literature conversation and the conversation around books for young readers more broadly on the internet, but I hadn’t read anything that she written per se.

I adored Apple herself. Her voice is chatty and confiding. It’s very now. She’s high spirited, tender hearted, funny, vulnerable, quirky, courageous. Kind of a goof sometimes in a really relatable way. She makes mistakes and learns from them like anybody else. I was pleased to see a native teen on kind of the spectrum of degrees of a culturalization. Apple doesn’t know a lot about her native identity, but her mom’s side of the family is generally very warm and welcoming and patient with her. I particularly loved all the chatter about her cousins and large extended family and trying to figure out how everyone was connected.

Honestly, there’s really nothing like it. I mentioned before that native voices are really underrepresented in Young Adult lit, and that’s more true of native women authors and native girl characters, especially written by a tribal citizen and rooted in lived experience. Beyond that, just in terms of general images of native kids in YA lit, Apple is from a relatively affluent background on her father’s side of the family, and we don’t often get to see that sort of socioeconomic diversity in the body of literature. Middle class native people are really rare in books for young readers. Mostly I loved the intergenerational relationships. Elders aren’t particularly written well in children’s YA lit across the board. We have a lot of very strange ageist and stereotypical depictions out there. Dawn spoke as an example of pushing against all those biases in the best ways, and really showing elders as three dimensional vital members of the community.

I just read the book for the first time, but I will absolutely be recommending it. I’d say to a prospective reader that Apple in the Middle is a rare contemporary story about a well rounded, likable native girl coming home to herself and her heritage for the first time. It’s ideal for those who like humor and elements of mystery. A sort of classic YA for readers age 12 and up.

The closest I could think of would be Eric Gansworth’s debut YA novel called If I Ever Get Out of Here and his latest, Give Me Some Truth. They’re both set in native community per se, but really the voices of those books are so different, Eric’s protagonist and Dawn’s, and really we want people to read broadly and as many different voices as they can.

Reading Apple in the Middle really underscored for me the need to raise awareness of native literary style and sensibility. I enjoyed the fact that since Apple the character is new to her native community, she’s the one who’s navigating mainstream misconceptions. A young reader can have that bi curious experience or point of view, and it’s a clever reversal of expectations. In that, there’s also flow of time and an emphasis on daily life that you often see in native writing. It’s not non-linear, but you can feel the weight of past and the promise of the future with every scene.

Dawn’s writing is also nicely submerging. It draws you all the way in. She’s not doling out culture in bite-size nuggets. She’s not holding back out of fear of overwhelming on Indians with unfamiliar dynamics. She just really puts you in Apple’s experience and lets you feel it. Her native characters, they’re not flawless. They’re three dimensional people. They have strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else. I just feel like native teens will really relate to that, and that all teens will be able to make a leap and really benefit from the insights of that lived experience.

I read just about everything. I read across age markets, genres, formats, fiction, non-fiction. I love speculative and realistic fiction. I just re-read Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, which spoke to my inner geek girl. Native stories, especially contemporary and futuristic are a priority. I know that they’ll challenge some readers and they’ll pitch against comfort zones, but to me, they really feel reflective and empowering in a way that makes me hopeful about the future.

I just liked to emphasize again the need for many native voices. Writing from lived experience, that’s something I love that Dawn has done in writing Apple. I’d love to see more . I’m really grateful for her voice, and Jim Bruchac’s and Eric Gansworth’s and Tim Tingle’s and Erika Worth’s. I think sometimes it feels like we’re shouting into a hurricane, and that the voices, the narratives get drowned out, but looking at Dawn’s voice, each new voice, we stand a chance of being heard, and that’s good for all kids, especially indigenous ones.


Thanks again to Cynthia Leitich Smith for joining us and recommending Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley. Her forthcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, will be published by Candlewick Press on October 9 of 2018, and you can preorder it now. You can follow her on Twitter at cynleitichsmith.

Next week on Recommended, one author talks about her favorite Nabokov novel:


I had a lot of airplane flights on the year or so that I read this book, and I can think of multiple instances I was on a plane and laughing out loud and people looking at me, sort of willing me to shut up, because I could not stop giggling, like a bit of a crazy person. It is hysterically funny. And I had not thought of Nabokov as a funny writer.


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