This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 6.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Nic Stone, recommending The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Ryan North, recommending Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Nic Stone is the New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin. Born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work. Her new YA novel, Odd One Out, explores old friendships, new crushes, and the path to self-discovery.
Trigger warning: Nic Stone’s interview includes discussion of suicide.
My name is Nic Stone, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeff Eugenides is my recommended.
The Virgin Suicides follows this family of five sisters, they range in age from 12 … no, they’re 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, and over the course of a year, all five of these sisters commit suicide. It’s very dark, and very … like, the morbidity level is a bit through the roof.
But, it’s narrated by these boys who are just intrigued by these girls. So, it’s written in like first person plural. It’s such a fascinating story.
When I started high school, I started high school at 14, I think like most people, and up until that point, I’d been a really avid reader. But then, I hit high school, and for four years of high school, the only three books I saw with African American characters, the characters just weren’t great to look at. And as the only African American person in my classes, it really … it kind of took the savor out of reading. And so for a while, I just stopped.
Well, at 16, I was sitting in my bedroom, and the way my bedroom was set up, I had this massively huge dresser that sat next to the bedroom door, and there were two ledges on the side of the dresser, and it had a domed top. So it was like this domed top with these two flat ledges at the sides. And my mother, my delightful mother, had lined up books on each side of the dresser. And most of them I hadn’t read, I hadn’t even looked at. But for some reason, The Virgin Suicides just called to me one day. I saw it sitting there, and I was 16, I was a junior in high school, and I decided to pick it up. And I did not put it down until I had finished it. It totally re-sparked this love of reading, because it was honestly the first book that I had read in who knows how long that I actually felt like I could relate to.
What’s wild is that these are all white girls in this very white town. There’s not a person of color anywhere to be found in this novel that’s set somewhere in like Bumblecrap Michigan somewhere. There are no black people at all. But seeing what these girls were going through, it like, it’s totally a YA novel. I’m sure Jeff Eugenides would balk at that, but it’s written from the perspective of these teenage boys about these teenage girls. It was the first novel I read that featured characters going through things that I was going through. You had all the angst and you had all of the fury, and the back and forth with parents. The parents were wildly overprotective, and these girls just wanted to have a good time and be young.
I was going through the same thing, and so to have these characters who I could actually relate to in some way was wildly world-changing for me.
Honestly, I think if Eugenides tried to publish the book today, it probably wouldn’t fly. I talk about it in high schools, with trigger warnings. It’s like you have to, when you talk about this book today, it’s in a very different context than when I read it, because we just live in a way different … this book was published in 1993. It’s going on 30 years old, which is really weird to me. So, I was in third grade when it came out, and like I said, I was in 10th grade when I read it. And it’s just one of those books that I think it existed before its time in a sense to me, because I feel like some of the themes and some of the things that these girls are going through in this book are totally relevant, or obviously still relevant, because I’m at 33 still dealing with some of the stuff they were dealing with.
But I do think that it’s a good book for certain high schoolers to read, and just to kind of get a picture of how adolescence hasn’t really changed all that much. The book is set in the 70s, and these girls are going through the same thing I was going through in 2001. And every time I read it, I’m like, yeah, I know there are totally teenagers going through this stuff now in 2018. So, it’s timeless in a way, and I’m really thankful that it exists. I totally, totally recommend it all the time.
The part of it that has informed my writing is the way that Eugenides plays with point of view. I like to play … and so in my writing, I do like to play with form, and I like to play with POV. So, Dear Martin, it just bounces all over the place with regard to form. There’s chapters that are straight prose, there’s epistolary content, there are chapters written in dialogue, there’s news clippings and all of these things.
And then in my second book, there are chunks written in second person. In my third book, I have perspective chapters from inanimate objects. So, books like The Virgin Suicides that are written so … they’re so incredibly written, but also are kind of unconventional, and in some way, shape or form, books like that have definitely informed my writing and just honestly the way I feel about storytelling, ’cause there’s so much you can do with a story, and so many ways to relay a story. And if you can, bells and whistles and all kinds of gimmicks and it works, do it, is how I feel about it.
I think another reason The Virgin Suicides hit me the way that it did when it did is because I was a teenager reading a book about teenagers. Even as an adult, reading that book, it gives me more insight into my own adolescence. And I think as a person who writes young adult fiction, like young adult catches a bad rap sometimes in the hoity-toity literary industry.
But I think that it’s important to acknowledge kind of the power and the magic of that particular timeframe in a person’s life. Because honestly, that’s what YA tries to capture. Is there fluffy YA? Of course. There’s also fluffy adult novels. There’s fluff everywhere, but the idea of young adult fiction as this kind of derivative of larger more complex literary fiction, it gets on my nerves. I think that books like The Virgin Suicides, books that kind of ride the fence, I would say, like they are written in such a way that they can appeal to … It’s crossover, basically. You have books that are written to appeal to adults, but they’re written about teenagers, and also obviously will appeal to teenagers.
I think that they highlight kind of the importance of books about young adults. And honestly, I will say I think they highlight the importance of YA as a genre. They give this … because there are some very complex things happening in the minds of teenagers, and I’m thankful for books like The Virgin Suicides that highlight that, and that adults are willing to read, because not all adults are willing to read a book like mine. But they touch on some of the same things. It’s the same timeframe of life, it’s the same kind of challenges and figuring out where you fit in the world, and how do I make my way when I’m being kind of oppressed from this side and pushed from this side, and you know, there are all of these things and these …. There’s so much stuff that teenagers have to think about, and I think that it’s important that we all kind of zoom in on that stuff and never forget what it was like to be 14, 15, 16, because that’s really when you became a person, I feel.
Of course, you’ve been a person since birth, but that’s when you became the person that you are to a certain extent.
You just mentioned The Hunger Games. That book actually is what started me reading YA in the first place. I had a boss … So, I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, or some other ridiculous white man novel, and my boss at the time, I was living and working in Jerusalem, Israel, and my boss recommended The Hunger Games. I read all three of them like over the course of three or four days. But they are so complex, you know?
I see the same complexity in The Hunger Games that I do in The Virgin Suicides. You have these kids basically trying to figure out what life is all about. And in this case, I’m not even talking about the sisters in The Virgin Suicides, I’m talking about the boys narrating the story. They’re trying to figure out what life is all about. They’re trying to figure out what are these girls going through, for the sake of having a mirror to figure out what they’re going through. And I think that books like this, books that focus on that 14 to 18 year old age range, they really do, they provide these amazing mirrors for us to really see ourselves and figure out, process our feelings, even as grown-ups.
And that’s an amazing thing to me, and it’s an exciting thing to get to be a part of. So yeah, man, books about teenagers are awesome.
Thanks again to Nic Stone for joining us and recommending The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Her newest novel Odd One Out, published by Crown Books for Young Readers, is now available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about her at nicstone.info.
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Ryan North is the writer responsible for Dinosaur Comics, the Eisner and Harvey award-winning Adventure Time comics, the #1 bestselling anthology series Machine of Death and the New York Times bestselling and Eisner-award winning Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series for Marvel. He’s turned Shakespeare into NYT-bestselling choose-your-own-path books, To Be Or Not To Be and Romeo And/Or Juliet. His latest book, HOW TO INVENT EVERYTHING, is nothing less than a complete cheat sheet for civilization.
Hi, my name is Ryan North, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is my recommended.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim goes to war in World War II and his experiences during the war and after the war. And it’s also a comedy.
The first time I heard of Slaughterhouse-Five or Vonnegut even in general was when my good friend Fria sent me the book. And I remember two things: I remember she put a little Superman sticker on the back, so I couldn’t see how much the book cost her, and I remember reading the book in my car. Just sitting in the parking lot reading and not know what to expect and instantly being drawn into the way the book was written; the almost casualness. I felt it was breaking every rule you’re supposed to have in serious literature, and it was such a breath of fresh air. It really taught me that you can really write what whatever you want, as long as you do it well.
One of the things that I liked a lot is very early on Vonnegut tells you that … There’s one character, Derby. He says, “Derby’s death is the climax of this book.” And he’s breaking I don’t know what the book equivalent of the fourth wall is. He’s breaking the cover page there. He’s telling you, “This is the climax of the book.” And it works as a joke because you can just imagine some student doing a book report on this book, and thinking what’s the climax? It’s there, telling you, and I love it.
But it also, it works in this weird way as the world’s most direct foreshadowing. And then, when it comes at the end, it’s almost a non-event because you know it’s been coming. He just sort of does it as an aside, but the structural aspect of that is something that I thought was amazing. It’s not really a scene so much as a way of telling the story. With Derby, he does it in a couple different ways, where you know something is coming, and when it comes, it’s still devastating. I think that works both in the book, and probably for bad things, in general.
I’ve read a lot of Vonnegut’s stuff. After this, after I read Slaughterhouse-Five, I started reading everything I could by him. And that’s the danger of Vonnegut, I think. You talk to writers and they say, “You know, if you read Kurt Vonnegut, don’t write for a couple of days afterwards, because you will write like Kurt Vonnegut.” He has this style that … I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s all thriller, no filler, where he just skips over the boring parts and tells you the cool parts, the interesting parts. And it makes for shorter books, but also makes for books that are unmistakably Kurt Vonnegut.
I had the good chance to find out about him while he was still alive, and read books as he was still alive, which is … It feels like a weird thing to think about as a privilege now, but it felt like we were friends. I think with most good authors you get this sense that it’s a friend telling you a story, and you’re just catching up with them. And getting to feel that with Kurt Vonnegut was great. I think he was a great writer.
The thing that really spoke to me with Slaughterhouse-Five that you don’t see as much in similar books like a Catch-22 is the … They both have a sense of absurdity. If you look at Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, they both have this idea that crazy things happen in difficult situations. But Vonnegut turns it up to 11. He’s got flying saucers show up, and it’s not the craziest thing that’s happened. He’s got space aliens. He has Billy Pilgrim traveling through time for reasons that are completely unrelated to the flying saucers and space aliens. Saying it like that, it makes it sound ludicrous, but it’s also a very serious story about World War II written by a man who was there in Dresden when it was fire-bombed. And marrying the truth of this atrocity with circular flying saucers and space aliens, and making it all work, it’s so impressive and it feels so natural. It feels like you’re just having a conversation with Kurt, and he’s telling you this story.
That’s what I love so much about this book; the idea that you can take comedy and take stuff that’s funny and also talk about really serious subjects in a way that doesn’t belittle the subjects. You don’t feel like you shouldn’t be joking about this too. He’s using the jokes to relieve the tension of what he’s talking about to get your guard down.
I feel there’s a thing as I grow older, where … I grew up and I always hated brussel sprouts, and once I became a teenager, and started living on my own, every couple years I feel like, “Do I still hate brussel sprouts?” And I buy them and eat them, and I think, “Oh, these are horrible. I still hate brussel sprouts. They’re awful. They’re one vegetable I hate.” And then a couple years ago, I tried brussel sprouts in a restaurant and instead of just boiling them, like I’d always done, they sauteed them and they were delicious. I was like, “Oh, I’m just cooking the brussel sprouts wrong.” Which is a big aside here to say every couple years I wanted to make sure it’s still good. To be like, “I loved this book as a kid, I sure hope it holds up.” Or, “I loved this book four years ago, I sure hope it holds up.”
And I’ve never been disappointed with this book. It always holds up. I’m always like, “Oh, this is stuff I forgot. This is stuff I didn’t remember being quite as good as it is.” It’s a great treasure to have a book you can go back to and re-read and not only does it hold up, it’s slightly better than you thought it was. Your opinion of it it decays a little bit over time, so you assume past me wasn’t as smart as present me, so past me clearly had some bad opinions, and I’m the better one with the better opinions, but it’s still good. I sort of re-read it as confirmation, and also to see the tricks that Vonnegut’s doing and to appreciate the prose and the structure of what he’s done.
I talked earlier about the danger of reading Vonnegut is that you start to sound like Vonnegut. And the danger of liking what Vonnegut does in this book a lot, is you start to do that in your own writing. But I don’t think that’s a danger, that’s a positive thing. He does this thing with the story where he basically tells you, “This is what the story’s going to be, and then here are some scenes from that story.” Not in chronological order, but in an emotional order most of the time. And at the end, you understand the story, but you didn’t have it told to you as you normally would. And thinking of that just now, and thinking of another book …
I wrote a Choose Your Own Path version of Shakespeare, or two of them. One about Hamlet, and one about Romeo and Juliet. That’s kind of the same thing, thinking of it now. We all know what the story is, and the book sort of … When you’re doing it as a Choose Your Own Adventure style book, you’re making the choices. You know what the story is, and you’re going off in different directions, but you’re both experiencing the story in a new way, and you know kind of where it’s supposed to go, and you’re sort of dancing around the story, seeing it from different angles as you’re being told the story. Not to say that Slaughterhouse-Five, if you haven’t read it, is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You only get one story, and the author’s made all the choices for you. But sense of, “Let’s see this story from different angles, and let’s dance around it and see what comes out”, I think you can see that in my own writing that I super lifted here from Kurt.
And also, I’m acting like I’m on a first-name basis with Kurt. I’m not. I just think he’s great.
Another thing I like about Slaughterhouse-Five is that it kind of ignores genre in a lot of interesting ways. I guess it’s non-fiction, but it’s also kind of biography. Kurt puts himself in as a character. He’s says, “That’s me. That’s Kurt Vonnegut. I’m the author of the book you’re reading.” Which is great. It kind of plays by its own rules. And I guess it gets filed under fiction, just generally. I don’t know how you further sub-categorize it.
Whenever I read a new book, I’m kind of always hoping that it’ll be a book that I’ll fall in love with, obviously. And that it’ll be a book that I can keep on my shelf and always have it. There’s only a couple books that I have on my shelf, and I’m like, “These books will be here until I die, because I’m going to re-read them at some point in the future.” I think when you’re reading a book, you’re always hoping you’ll find the next book that is like that. That is a story or a place you can go and revisit whenever you want, and you’ll be fine.
I only re-read books every, at most, once a year, because … Usually, it’s longer than that, actually. Because I don’t want to spoil them. I don’t want them to become familiar. I want there still to be surprises. And I guess the nice thing that humanity gives us is that we forget stuff all the time, and I can forget minor details and come back and be surprised by them once again.
Thanks again to Ryan North for joining us and recommending Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. His latest book How to Invent Everything, published by Riverhead Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at ryanqnorth.
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about a book whose structure was entirely new to her:
I do modern Chinese history. I also write novels based on ancient and modern Chinese history, but this was sort of a first time that I’d read historical fiction about an Asian experience that wasn’t speculative. It was everything that was written about happened, but it was so, still so creative, and so compelling. I remember just being very wowed by this format because I’d never seen that subject material handled that way before or this specific way of writing where you don’t have one main character, and it’s 100 different stories being told at once, so I thought that was really cool.
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