This is a transcript for Recommended Season 5 Episode 4.
AD READ: Pretty Guilty Women by Gina Lamanna
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today, Jen Wang has chosen Where the Red Fern Growns by Wilson Rawls and Courtney Maum has chosen The Ensemble by Aja Gabel.
Jen Wang is a cartoonist, author and illustrator living in Los Angeles. She is the author of The Prince and the Dressmaker, Koko Be Good, and co-author of the New York Times Bestselling graphic novel In Real Life with Cory Doctorow. Her work has also appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, The Believer, Hazlitt, Slate, and McSweeney’s. She has also written for the Adventure Time and Lumberjanes comic series. She is the co-founder and organizer of the annual festival Comics Arts Los Angeles. Her newest book is STARGAZING, a heartwarming middle-grade graphic novel.
My name is Jen Wang, and Where the Red Fern Grows is my recommended.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a book a little boy named Billy. I think it takes place in the late 1920s in the Ozarks. He is obsessed with getting these two hunting dogs that he’s going to train and teach them how to hunt. And he does that and they end up winning a championship hunting … annual hunt. It’s just this really great, simple story about just a kid who loves dogs and has a dream and is able to work really hard and achieve it. It has a bit of that sports story arc. But it’s also, as I think a lot of people are familiar, it has a very sad ending, which is one of those really classic tear-jerker scenes. But yeah, it’s a book that I always really enjoyed and I think about a lot still, just because I feel like it’s so simple and compelling and just … especially if you’re someone who loves animals, it’s really hard not to want to gravitate towards.
I think it was just one of those books that was around because it’s a classic. It was written in … I think it was published in the 1960s. I think I was in a phase where I was reading a lot of books about either horses or dogs. I was reading a lot of the Jack London books. So I think on the cover has a little boy in the woods with two dogs on it. It was just always around and I wanted to read it, I think. And I think there must have been … I think my copy might’ve even come from like Scholastic Book Fair or something.
I think I initially … like I wanted to read it because it had dogs on the cover obviously, but I think once I started reading it, what I really liked was that … I think it’s around that age, middle grade, middle school where you’re starting to really discover your own independence. And the character in the book has a lot of agency. He spends a lot of time … like you go through his whole thought process of how am I going to get these dogs? What am I going to have to do to earn the money to get them? And he works two years and saves up all this money from just doing random gigs to get these dogs that are on discount basically, on sale. But because he comes from … he’s very poor.
Like his family is like … this is a little before the great depression, I think. But they’re like, we’re not going to spend money on these really pure purebred expensive toys basically. And then he’s able to do that. And then you go through his thought process of like how he’s going to train them and the sense of achievement he feels when with his dogs are able to successfully work with him. And then he feels that sense of failure when they are not able to. And it’s just a really, I think, compelling way to talk about your dreams and your goals and how you work to achieve them when you’re that age. Because there’s not … I think there’s not a lot of control in your life when you’re a kid, but there’s certain things that, I think, you’re starting to kind of … you’re trying to … you’re branching out, you’re kind of seeing who you are beyond your parents or your friends and what you want to do.
I think I was interested in writing and storytelling at that age, but I don’t know that I specifically thought about this book as this is what I want to do. I think I was just reading a lot and this was a book that just really got me for whatever reason. And again, I was reading a lot of books about animals at the time and I think, I imagine … I think I was doing writing where I’d write a story about wolves or something. So it was … maybe it’s just the kind of thing I liked to read.
I don’t read a lot of kids’ stuff. And I think partly it’s because I spend a lot of time in that mindset when I’m trying to work on my own books, that I feel like I need to have a little break or something. I know a lot of people who work in kid lit read a lot of kids’ books and maybe I should be more, but I think just because I have sort of a limited reading time, I just ended up … It’s like I need to read like some nonfiction book or something or … I’ve actually been reading more graphic novels lately. I think because I sort of want to just kind of catch up with what people in my more specific and narrow field are doing. Because I kind of fell off that for a while and it’s been actually really nice to read graphic novels again.
There’s something about these really classic stories that just … You’re able to just … like even before I reread it, I would be able to explain to someone, including all the way to the end, the tragic ending, what this book is like. How it’s structured. And I think there’s something about the simplicity that just kind of works and you’re able to add a lot of detail and texture and kind of fill in the context, which are things that are less memorable but really feel things out and … I don’t know, I think there’s something about having a very basic story and just working from there, that’s like a good way to think about writing. Because I feel like, at least for me, I’m sort of more interested in sort of how a character behaves or acts, and less interested in the world building type stuff.
Which I think those stories can be really great and amazing, too, but I think for me at least, I think thinking about a more simple, linear storyline and just sort of adding texture is a good way for me to think about how to structure something.
It’s hard for me to think of a favorite scene because a lot of it is so, I think, influenced by how I felt when I was reading it as a kid. But I think I was really into just the beginning of the book where it’s about Billy sort of really strongly desiring these dogs and he knows they’re expensive and his parents are like, “No, we’re not going to get these dogs.” And then he finds a magazine that has an ad in the back for two. He specifically wants two. And just like the thought process of how he’s going to achieve that.
And he goes through the different little jobs that he takes up and saves up over time for. And I think I was just really into this kind of almost nerdy, tactical kind of … Yeah. Like thinking of how am I going to get this thing that I really want? And I think it’s a very kind of inspirational way of looking at just achieving your goals.
I think a lot of maybe other kids in this situation just would have not done it because it would have just had to have been something his parents did for him. But he just knew he had to do it himself and he did it. And I think it’s still something that I think about a lot. Like the whole setup of the book and why I was really obsessed with it.
I think just that sense of agency is really powerful when you’re a kid and you’re 10 years old and you’re like, “Wow, I can do a thing.” And it’s, “I can earn money and I can make this thing happen.” It’s really cool.
It’s very relatable.
That was Jen Wang, recommending Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Her newest graphic novel, Stargazing, is published by First Second and is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at alooghobi, that’s a l o o g h o b i.
AD READ: The Years That Matter Most by Paul Tough
COURTNEY MAUM is the author of the novels Costalegre, Touch, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as BuzzFeed; the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the learning collaborative, The Cabins, and she also runs a service called “The Query Doula” where she helps writers prepare their manuscripts and query letters for an agent’s eyes.
My name is Courtney Maum. The Ensemble by Aja Gabel is my recommended.
The Ensemble is a debut novel from Aja Gabel, and I like to think of it as Trust Exercise set in the music world and not quite as dark as Trust Exercise. In it, we meet four friends, Jana, a violinist and the leader of the quartet, Brit, a violinist, Daniel, a cellist, and Henry who is a sort of prodigy. And we follow this group over numerous decades as they play together as a quartet, a classical music quartet, and we follow sort of some amorous intrigues that come up between them. Competition over who has the most talent. There’s some physical challenges that arrive.
And I used to play piano myself. I mean, I wasn’t nearly as talented as anyone in this book, but it really meant something to me to read about the dedication that these people put into their craft, but then you’re not alone. You’re not a solo pianist. It was really moving to think about how four minds and bodies sitting on a dark stage, the things that can happen, throw them off course or to make it so that they’re performed work as a resounding success. It’s written incredibly beautiful. It’s just one of those flawless reads and I think it’s a book for everyone regardless whether or not they like classical music.
I started seeing The Ensemble, let’s see, did it come out last year? I think it was the summer of, it was on a lot of lists and the cover was just beautiful. I’m a big fan of yellow, yellow is a color that makes its way into my life in important ways. When I need extra power, I use this yellow nail polish. And this book has this just perfect yellow cover with a bouquet of flowers. And then when I read the blurb about what the book was about, where I live in Connecticut, the Yale School of Art and Music relocates to my town in the summer. And so for half the summer we have sort of, if you can imagine Breadloaf, but it’s all classical musicians. These are the people who populate my town in the summer. So I was really drawn for personal reasons to read a story about professional musicians playing in a quartet because I’d spent many years watching these up and coming musicians learning more about the craft themselves.
I live directly across from the campus. So when I go to my mailbox, which is very often, they have these picnic tables set up right across from my house. And also the musicians, they stay with local residents every summer. So a lot of the musicians use my backyard to come back and forth from their host family’s house to their practice sessions. And then also we have this local lake. And none of the musicians come for whatever reasons, most of them are not here with their own vehicles and they don’t have bikes. And it’s a little bit of a haul to walk to the lake. So my husband and I are always picking up these stray musicians who are too polite to try and hitchhike.
And so little by little we get to know them. In fact, a couple of weeks ago we picked up four musicians from the lake, and I had my little daughter in the car who we take to their practices and stuff. So she thinks that these people are rock stars. And I asked everyone to go around and say which instruments they played. And this young woman who happened to be just beautiful as well, so my daughter who loves princesses thought that we were dealing with a princess. She plays the bassoon, and I’m not sure why, but my five-year-old is really excited about the bassoon. And this young woman said that she would come over and play the bassoon for her. And I thought like this is just, how extraordinary. What a privilege.
My reading life as a writer is I’m a little bit all over the place. I would say maybe 35 to 40% is sort of obligatory books I have to read because I’m hoping to blurb them or I’m going to review them or in a situation like right now where I’m on book tour. I do try to read the books of the people that I’m going to be in conversation with. Or if I’m moderating a conversation myself, I think it’s the least you can do to be aware of your colleague’s work.
And then of course I have friends who have books coming out and I want to read their books. And then when it comes to pleasure, I mean sometimes I’ll follow these lists that pop up around the internet. But what I do, actually, I live just steps from my local library. And the acquisition department there is just unbelievable. And so mostly when I have time, like okay, I want a great new read, I just walk into the library and I look at their recommended reads table.
And what’s neat about this library is that you’re as likely to find something from a Simon & Schuster as you are something from Coffee House Press. They really have incredible tastes and they’re very good about purchasing the books of independent presses. So really I sort of use my local library to point me in the direction of what I should read next. And then often I’ll get it at the library and then if I’m really like it, I’ll purchase it from Indie Bound or something like that.
It’s funny, I find myself reading often the books that I’m most absorbed by are the books that I could never write. Like I can’t … I’ve tried. I’ve written drafts of what I think of as like sweeping epics that traverse multiple decades with many different characters, and each chapter’s from a different character’s point of view. And I can’t do it. I really, for me, excel at voice-driven work and perhaps in a heightened timeline, a sort of squeezed timeline. So it’s sort of a vacation for me to gravitate towards readers, not readers, excuse me, writers like Aja Gabel or a Maggie Shipstead, for example, who write … Or even Zadie Smith, who manage to create these symphonies, really. And Michelle Hoover comes to mind, too, as someone who does multiple characters’ points of views really well. I just think I’m a kind of first-person or close third voice writer.
Do I have an elevator pitch? I mean, I guess my elevator pitch would be what I said at the outset that it’s Trust Exercise set in the music world and a little less dark. Last summer, I was talking it up all over the place. And I’m bringing it up again now because the particular, the soapbox that, I don’t know, have chosen to mount on this particular book tour is a backlists deserve our recognition and time and excitement. And there’s so many great books that came out last year, two years ago, five years ago, that … And they had various degrees of success, but most books get about two weeks in the limelight and then the publisher just moves on. The readers move on, and that’s fine. It makes sense. There’s books coming out every Tuesday, but these books, they need us to revisit them. Otherwise they do disappear off the shelves.
So I was talking with my agent the other day and dreamt up a wonderful new position in publishing, which would be the backlist publicist, someone whose job is just dedicated to promoting the backlist of the publisher that they’re working for. I think that would be so cool.
That was Courtney Maum, recommending The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. Her novel Costalegre, published by Tin House Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at cmaum, that’s c m a u m.
Many thanks to Jen Wang and Courtney Maum for joining us and sharing some favorite reads.
Thanks also go out to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you’re hearing, please do drop by on Apple Podcasts to leave us a rating or a review. We’re always happy to see the feedback, and reviews help other bookish listeners find our show. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us feedback, personal favorites, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.