This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 10.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Jane Sherron De Hart
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today Joseph Fink picks Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth, and Kate Gavino discusses It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.
Joseph Fink created and co-writes WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE. He is a writer and editor, and the co-owner of Commonplace Books. His new novel, Alice Isn’t Dead, is a fast-paced thriller about a truck driver searching across America for the wife she had long assumed to be dead.
My name is Joseph Fink and “Vacation” by Deb Olin Unferth is my recommended.
Trying to summarize this book is very difficult. It’s a book that meant a lot in my life but it’s just not a book I have reread recently.
It is about a woman whose husband leaves and she follows him to either South or Central America and then it kind of becomes about travel as the title might suggest, “Vacation”. It’s about why we travel and what we hope to find there and what we actually do find there. But it follows its own dream logic. There’s not so much of a coherent plot that I could describe.
I was 22 and I had just moved to New York. I didn’t know anyone. I was kind of taking this leap and I bought this book because it was five dollars and it had an interesting cover. I had not heard of it. I had not heard of the author but it was cheap and I didn’t have a lot money and it has a cool cover. And it kind of changed my life.
At the time, when I moved, I thought of myself as a writer. I thought of myself as someone who knew how to write. And then I read this book and I realized she is doing something that I don’t know how to do. Like, I don’t even know how to begin to know how to do this. She just uses language in a way that I never really seen anyone use it before. It’s this kind of magic trick of language. She regularly will starts sentences so that you think you know where it’s going and then the sentence will land somewhere completely different. It kind of twists away from you even at the sentence level.
I read it and I knew, I have to learn how to write like this. So, it started over my education in writing, I think. When I started writing “Welcome to Night Vale”, this book, “Vacation” was absolutely one of the main influences in terms of the language we were using.
I think I reread almost as soon as I finished it. I think this is one of those books where I finished it and then just started over at the first page and read it again because I just … I didn’t understand what she was doing and I wanted to learn how to do that.
But I haven’t actually read it in probably about eight years, at least six or seven. Doing this recording makes me want to read it again. It’s a scary thing recommending books that you haven’t read in a long time because I could very well reread this and it just wouldn’t work for me anymore. Books have to spark with you at a certain point in your life. A lot of times you don’t like a book not because it’s bad but because it’s just not the right book for you in that exact moment. And this was the right book for me at that exact moment. It was exactly the right book.
This kicked me in a moment that I needed it. And it, I think, set up my career in writing in that it showed me a type of writing that I could get really excited about and ultimately could get good enough at that I’d do it as well. She’s not the only one that writes that way and I have since found other writers but she was kind of the first one that opened that door of showing me how you can use language in this way that is, in itself, the show. That it is less about the story you are telling and more about just the kind of clever tricks you’re pulling with the language that you are telling it with.
I don’t know if I thought of myself as a type of writer. I thought of myself as someone who wanted to be a writer and was willing to hustle and do whatever. To do that I’d written comedy columns for websites. I had written I think a couple of novels that were sitting on my hard drive that will never see the light of day.
I think that was the thing. Even though in my head I was already a writer, I hadn’t really figured out what my voice was yet. And this wasn’t the only book that helped me do that but it was definitely one of the ones.
This passage, I think, is one of the ones that really meant a lot to me. Also, when I was reading this, I think it helps to understand that my father was dying and had been for quite a while. So it was one of these things, it had been going on for a while but also it could happen any day. That’s not a great headspace to be in and it’s the headspace my family had been in literally for years. I mean I had moved to New York, also I didn’t have any money and I didn’t know anyone and I came across this passage that just ended up meaning a lot to me. Just going to read it. It’s only about a page long.
“In an earthquake, if trapped, the experts advise do not light a match, do no move or kick, do not shout. Use a whistle or tap on a pipe. Yes, one should always carry a whistle in earthquake country because you might be crushed under a building and not able to holler for help but only able to breathe lightly into your whistle. Or you might be buried alive under the bricks and have just enough air to toot, while your voice, should you have the strength to scream, is absorbed into the dust and paint. Or you might be flung far from civilization and have two broken feet so that you can’t walk back. And two broken arms, so you can’t drag yourself over the dirt. But you do have this handy whistle, which, if you are too far to be heard and rescued, can be used as solo entertainment while you wait to slowly die.
“So bring your whistle. Of course, it is always possible that you wind up with your arms stuck under a slab of concrete so you can’t reach the whistle so it is best to keep the whistle in your mouth. No one with a whistle cuts an odd figure, no one with a whistle cuts an odd figure though it might be difficult to speak with a whistle in your mouth, not to mention, how are you supposed to eat with a whistle in the way or take a drink or sleep on your face. Advice, make someone else hold the whistle. But what if you don’t have anyone else, what if you are all alone. In that case, sit with your whistle in your mouth. Don’t eat or sleep. Don’t examine the celebrated contents of your surroundings. Don’t do anything. Wait for the earthquake. The earthquake is coming.”
“Vacation” is a book I have recommended all over the country. I do book tours quite a lot. So I am about to tour and go on a 17 city book tour and “Vacation” is one of those books that I think I have recommended on every book tour stop that I have ever gone to. I am just single-handedly selling this book.
I am keeping it in print just by personally selling it to everyone across the country.
Usually I just talk about it at length because it’s a book event so I can kind of do whatever. I mean, I don’t know, I think my elevator pitch for this book is the language it uses. That is does things with language that, it’s like what a magician does with a handkerchief. It takes an object and makes it extraordinary and that’s what she does with the language.
You know, if you are looking for a satisfying whodunit, it’s not that. The story kind of twists around itself in this very dreamlike fashion and you kind of have to just be okay with that. But I think if you are willing to go with that, it really rewards you.
Thanks again to Joseph Fink for joining us and recommending Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth. His novel Alice Isn’t Dead, published by Harper Perennial, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at PlanetofFinks.
Kate Gavino is a writer and illustrator. She is the creator of the website, Last Night’s Reading, which was published as a collection by Penguin Books in 2015. Her work has been featured in BuzzFeed, Lenny Letter, Oprah.com, Rookie, and more. Her second book, Sanpaku, follows a young woman named Marcine who becomes obsessed with an ominous condition known as Sanpaku. Gavino gives voice to the insecurities that abound in teens of all cultures, while exploring this Japanese theory through her own Catholic, Filipino background.
Trigger warning: this segment includes discussion of suicide.
my name is Kate Gavino and It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is my recommended.
The book is about a guy named Craig who is 15 years old and he goes to a really competitive high school in Manhattan and the book follows how stressed he is in his day to day life. He fights with his best friend, he has a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend, it’s just kind of typical teenage problems that I think almost anyone can relate to in some way. As he’s dealing with that there’s lots of rising anxiety and stress in his life, he starts seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist and he starts taking antidepressants and it kind of leads up to him really stressing out about school, about his love life, about his friends, and he eventually checks himself into a mental hospital. The book kind of follows the four or five days he spends in that hospital and how he learns to balance the stress in his life and how to be more open about his anxiety and his depression with his family and his friends.
It’s just a really honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a teenager dealing with anxiety and depression and also just dealing with your mental health and it’s … I think it’s just a really open and honest book and I first read it when I was 19 and I’ve loved it since then.
I think I first saw it on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble when I first moved to New York and I was just browsing the shelf and I remember it was placed in the adult fiction section even though in other book stores since I’ve read it … I’ve noticed it’s mostly considered a YA book. I was just reading the back flap and I thought it was interesting that a large chunk of the book took place in the psychiatric ward of a hospital and it dealt with depression, anxiety, and … I think this book was published in 2006, so there are kind of less … there are fewer books dealing with those subjects, especially targeted towards younger adults, and I think that’s kind of what jumped out to me the most.
I’ve written and drawn about my own struggles with anxiety and depression and I … one thing that I’ve always appreciated in reading other peoples stories about it is how open and honest they are and one of the reasons I love this book is it normalizes a lot of things like seeing a therapist, taking medication for your mental health, and just talking to other people about it. I always just talk about how open this book is and I think that when I first encountered this book I don’t think that I thought a lot of the things in the book were normal to me, like seeing a therapist or taking medication and I just moved to New York from Texas when I first read this book and found it in New York, so I was feeling pretty alienated from a lot of things. So this book kind of felt like home to me a little bit in the sense that it introduced me to a world where it was okay to start seeking help for things and asking questions about your own health.
I think one of the most striking things about this book is that it caused a lot of people to start reaching out for help about mental health and kind of like paying more attention to their own mental health as well, when the author himself also actively struggled with his own depression and anxiety as well and unfortunately in 2013 he committed suicide and I can’t really remember an author death or even just like any kind of death of a famous person that’s affected me more than his death. I think one of the really kind of uplifting things is that after he died, I was working at the Brooklyn Public Library at the time and his family approached the library a couple of years later, like two or three years ago, and they wanted to open up a writing scholarship for teen writers in his name.
So I was able to work on that program and kind of help promote it and it’s still going on to this day where every year they publish like a small journal of teen writers and they give money prizes to some of the writers, so I kind of … I really love that his legacy is still living on in his home town and I was able to kind of see it in the wake of his death.
I think it’s just a testament to his work that it’s still affecting people to this day, like his books are still being turned into movies or Broadway shows and his death is an incredibly sad … came under really sad circumstances but I think it’s something that he talks about in this book, is that dealing with your depression and anxiety is kind of an ongoing process and there’s never like one happy ending where if you get a girlfriend or you get good grades that’s going to solve your anxiety or depression, it’s an ongoing process that you have to continue to deal with.
Another thing I just really like about the book is the relationship between Craig, the main character, and his family. I think that’s something that I was really … that really struck me when I read the book, is just how open and open to dialogue his family was about his mental health. In the book his dad kind of struggles with it a little bit but ultimately his family was super supportive of him getting help and making sure to have open conversations about it and my family was like … my family was similar in that way so I think it’s great to have that in a book, showing that your family can be behind you 100 percent and it can still be hard, but at the same time you have that support as well.
I think it influenced me in the way that it made me more comfortable in writing about things that I was uncomfortable with and … because when you’re first starting out at a writing program, you’re like hyper self conscious about what your fellow students are going to think of your work and there’s always like immediate first impressions. As like a woman of color people will immediately think oh, you’re going to write about your race or your gender, and it makes … just makes you really self conscious about sharing your work with others and I loved how honest this book was. It took me a couple of years to really write openly about like my own mental health and this book is fiction but I think it gets at lots of truth that I think that were especially poignant to me at the time.
I recommend it to people that are looking for works of fiction that deal with mental health and I even recommended it to people who are just looking for ways to write about teens in kind of a genuine and natural way, because one of my favorite things about this book is that and it’s unexpected considering it deals with such dark topics but something that I think is just really important is just finding the humor and the absurdity in so many dark situations. Even if you are going through something as dark as dealing with suicidal thoughts, there is … even if it’s something you don’t notice until after the fact, like … sometimes absurd or humorous things going on at the same time and I think that Vizzini captures that in his teen writing perfectly. So I recommend it where people say that they’re having struggles writing about teens or in a teen voice.
I actually reread it before this conversation was going to happen and I think I read it every couple of years. I remember after Vizzini’s death in 2013 I immediately started reading this book again and like … I’ll always notice new things each time I read it, but I think the final lines always get me every time and they’re just like so sincere that they still read as new every time I read it and I think that’s kind of compelled me to reread it each time. I want to get to that last page again.
Thanks again to Kate Gavino for joining us and recommending It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. Her graphic novel Sanpaku, published by Archaia, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at kategavino.
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about a book that she’s returned to over and over again as a masterclass in craft:
One of the hardest things to do when you’re writing is construct a scene with numerous characters and convey the action and thoughts of what each of those characters are doing in relation to the other without constantly flipping perspective, or sliding in and out of different people’s heads. And so in that dinner party scene, it’s a masterful example of how to do something like that. How to keep the tension high at all times, how to see what each character is doing to advance their agendas and their contradictory motives. So I actually study that scene line by line to see what he’s doing, to see if I can do it any better or do it even half as good. And I find it really helpful.
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