Readers, I love connecting with you each week to connect both our guests on this show and all our listeners with some great options for what to read next. And while every reader is different and I actively aim to recommend a broad sampling of styles, genres, and voices on the page, over time, I’ve found certain authors tend to pop up again and again in this space. In today’s show, I’m chatting with three of them!
Join me as I welcome Peter Heller, Tayari Jones, and Becky Chambers onto the show today. Each of these authors has made a unique inpact on our WSIRN ecosystem, from our listeners, to your guests, to our WSIRN team, and of course, me! This doesn’t mean they’re just authors I’ve recommended repeatedly, but also writers whose works show up consistently in guest favorites; occasionally, in guest hates; and often, in our broader conversation about the books that mean something to us as readers, and the books that impact our lives beyond the page.
In today’s conversations, I’ll chat with these authors who write the books we love to read, as we explore their writing lives, their creative process, and of course, the books THEY think our readers may enjoy reading next.
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 308.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week, we talk all things books and reading, and almost every week, we do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
This week, though, is extra special: we’ve invited three of the most recommended influential authors in our What Should I Read Next catalog for some book talk, and I can’t wait to share our conversations with you.
We premiered today’s conversations as part of a live event we hosted this season for our patreon community. That live event included more behind-the-scenes stories, fun What Should I Read Next trivia, and full video of each conversation you’re about to hear today.
If you missed joining us live, it’s not too late: this and all of our past live events are available to watch on-demand for active Patrons. Join our Patreon community at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext today to unlock even more of this special event, plus bonus episodes, printables to inspire your reading life, and more. Get all the details and join today at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
Readers, this show is about helping you find your next great read. And to do that, we end up talking, week after week, about authors and the books they write. In today’s episode, we’re bringing you conversations with three authors that mean something special to What Should I Read Next: three authors I happen to love, whose work has shown up repeatedly in this space—in guest loves (and the occasional guest hate), in my recommendations to our guests, in our regular explorations of the books that mean something to us as readers, and the impact they have on our lives.
If you’ve been listening to the show for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the names Peter Heller, Tayari Jones, and Becky Chambers. While their works differ greatly in genre, and style, they hold one key thing in common: they’ve generated enthusiastic reactions among both our readers AND our What Should I Read Next team. And, of course, from me.
In today’s conversations, we’re learning more about these authors who write the books we love to read—about their writing lives, their process, and, of course, the books THEY think our readers may enjoy reading next.
Let’s get to it.
Our first guest is Peter Heller, author of 2021 Summer Reading Guide pick The Guide. Given how frequently his books are discussed on the show, and this goes back years, I know I’m not alone in appreciating his smart, propelling fiction that sweeps you up with well-drawn characters in breathtaking settings. I’m so happy to kick things off today in conversation with Peter, and hear more about how he makes that magic happen.
ANNE: Peter, I'm going to welcome you the way we welcome all our What Should I Read Next guests and that's Peter, welcome to the show.
ANNE: Usually on the podcast we're talking with a reader who is unknown to our guests because they're not someone whose name appears on shelves at bookstores or in the acknowledgement sections of books or you know, they're not in the industry. So we always like to orient them in our listeners’ minds by just asking who they are and what they do and where they are in the world. I know that a lot of times after reading your works, readers feel like they know you, but I'd love to hear in your own voice who you are, what you do, and where you are in the world this morning.
PETER: It's great to be back. I had so much fun with you all last time, so thanks for having me, and I'm sitting here in Denver, Colorado on the west side of town. I'm looking out my window at a lake, which is incredible. It's just ... I'm looking at grass, lake, and then the Continental Divide, which is hazy with smoke. I spend a lot of time here and I spend a lot of time at a little cabin in southwest Colorado about a five hour drive away to fish and bike. I'm doing what I love to do every morning right now. I'm drinking my second cup of super strong French roast coffee [BOTH LAUGHS] in my surf mug. That's how I start every day at work. I write usually seven days a week, about a thousand words a day, and I start with the caffeine and we go from there.
ANNE: Your work has proven very popular with our What Should I Read Next guests, so every week a guest tells me three books they love, one book they don't, and what they've been reading lately and I recommend three books they should read next. So every episode is very much focused on one reader’s individual tastes, and yet when I'm recommending books, I'm drawing from the books I know, and I have read and often the books I have loved.
I found my way to your work through my husband, Will, who's a long time reader of Outside magazine and loves outdoorsy writing, nature writing, adventure writing, and he discovered your nonfiction, started reading your novels, and passed them off to me. I think Celine was the first one that I read, and that's the one we talked about in the Modern Mrs Darcy book club two years ago. I imagine that's a common path for readers to find your work, at least older readers who've been with you a longtime and it seems to be a path for your writing as well. You began in nonfiction and made your way to fiction, and I'm so interested in hearing you reflect on that progression as a writer.
PETER: Yeah. In a way, it was sorta the opposite. I mean, it started out ... My dad used to read to me when I was little before I went to sleep at night. He was reading a lot of poetry to me and he was reading e.e. cummings to me when I was like six. Thank goodness I didn't understand the poems because they're kinda body, you know, he would read Buffalo Bill's defunct, you know, how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mister Death, and I’d kinda like blinked up at him, like hm. But I loved the sound of the language and I think he was reading Yates to me when I was like eleven.
So I started out just loving the sound of language and wanting to be a poet and then somewhere around eleven or ten, someone gave me a book of short stories by Hemingway, and I was in New York City. I’m just a little kid, you know, in New York City. I loved the country. I had cousins in Vermont and I had spent as much time there as I could, so the big woods were more extreme, but I read these stories about Nick Adams up in the woods of Michigan and fishing for these beautiful trout, making cowboy coffee over an open fire. [LAUGHS] And I wanted to do that. Write fiction.
I came up wanting to write fiction since I was a little kid and I would do stuff when I was twelve, like you know, read the dictionary and I heard Jack London put words up on his wall that he didn't know on cards and I did that. I did all the stuff to become a fiction writer. Got out of college. They didn't tell me in the English department that you can't make a living writing short stories and poems. [LAUGHS] They should have told me. I think it's sorta mean of those guys, and you know, I had to make a living. I was ... Back then I was sorta an extreme kayaker. I was kayaking crazy stuff, teaching kayaking, doing any job I could, construction, delivering pizza, whatever, writing poems, and a friend said you know, why don't you just write for Outside magazine? Combine your interests? So I cold called ... I picked a name of an editor from the masthead who sounded nice.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Who was it?
PETER: Laura Hohnhold, and there's three H's in her name, and I still ... I still can't put them in the right place, [LAUGHS] but she sounded nice, so I called the 800 number and I said Laura Hohnhold, please. She said just a minute, and I was like oh, crap. You know. She picked up. Laura here. I started talking really fast and I said look, I just had a short story published in Harper's, which was sorta true. [ANNE LAUGHS] And I said I kayak class 5 and I think you guys should send me to the Tibetan plateau to kayak this river that's never been done. And I think she was just so aghast and incredulous that she did. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Bold, Peter!
PETER: It was nuts. It was a rough trip. A guy died on the first day in my arms. That was one of the kayakers. It was rugged. Odd way to start in journalism, but it started this career of making a living as an exhibition writer for Outside. I wrote for National Geographic, for Men's journal. And I did that for years and wrote more and more environmental stories, but a few years ago, I was writing for business week. They were paying a lot, and I thought you know what, I think I've gone nine months where I can sit down and write the novel I've always wanted to write since I was eleven. And that was The Dog Stars. And I wrote it in a white heat, and it became an international bestseller and you know, it was a return. It was coming home, writing fiction to what I wanted to do all my life.
ANNE: I have a great question from our producer that you just met, Brenna. In looking at the scope of your work, you've written narrative nonfiction, post apocalyptic and adventure and thriller fiction, and it's all set in the wilderness. She wants to know, does this thread follow your reading life?
PETER: Ah, not at all. The two books I'm going to recommend that I'm crazy about that I read in the last year are extremely urban. I mean, they take place in the middle of big, big cities, so I love all kinds of literature. I mean, you know, as long as the writing's good.
ANNE: I believe we've talked about everyone of your books on the podcast in different capacities, but of course, you have a new book that's out. It's The Guide. Chelsey on our team wanted to know were you always going to write a pandemic thriller, or were you inspired while writing and editing during Covid lockdown? So many of us have been fascinated by how authors are choosing to incorporate Covid or studiously avoid it in their work, and I think for a while we thought oh, pandemic novels are just going to be a blip and we're all going to move on. It's going to be gone. That's not how it's shaken out, but I'd love to hear a little bit about how you did approach your most recent work.
PETER: Well you know I wrote a book about a pandemic. The first novel, you know, in 2012, The Dog Stars, and that was about a pandemic that killed 99.7% of people. It's a really severe one, so no stranger to that type of theme. So I wrote this book right in the middle of Covid. Smack in the middle of it. When there was one Covid. [LAUGHS] Just one. And I posited a world a few years hence in which variants are sorta sweeping the country in waves and they're dangerous and people who can afford it, the rich, are sorta isolating themselves up in remote, beautiful places doing what they love to do. It was odd, you know, I sorta get goosebumps when I think about it because I sorta anticipated this coming of the variants and didn't mean to.
You know, I start with the first line, I never plot because I always want to be as thrilled and surprised as the readers as I write, and I came up with a kayaker, so you know, what I love about running rivers that I've never been on or never have been described as you're coming around a bend, you never know what's going to be there. A cougar drinking or a flight of swallows or a waterfall or five men with weapons who don't want you there. You know, it could be all of that, and I want that in my fiction, so I just sorta start with the first line and let it rip, and I had no idea what this novel was going to be about when I started.
I really relate to Jack. People always ask me when I wrote The Dog Stars, which the protagonist is named Hig, they always said, are you Hig? And I would say, well Hig is 6'2 and he can cook, so it's [ANNE LAUGHS] But Jack, I really relate to. I mean, he's not me. I mean, I'm not a tenth as tough as he is, and he's a much better fisherman, but the way he engages the ... His sorta wariness of people, believe it or not, his ... The way he engages with his reading and poetry, with natural beauty, it's all kinda the way I do and so it's odd for a fiction writer, but these characters live, at least for me they live in my heart like real people that I've known and sometimes they're good friends and you know, Jasper in The Dog Stars lives like a dog in my heart that I had. You know, and I still grieve and so ...
ANNE: I appreciate you pointing out the similarities between you and Jack, and I hear you saying that he's not you, but you understand him.
PETER: Yeah. He's my buddy.
ANNE: This one's from Will. You've written nonfiction about fracking, flooding, illegal whale hunting, and worked on the cove about an illegal dolphin slaughter, but in your novels the doom and gloom isn't preachy and is clearly there to serve the plot, whether that's a forest fire, an active pandemic, a post-pandemic apocalypse, he wants to know is that intentional? Are you trying to avoid writing about THE thing lest it feel heavy handed, or are those aspects of life that you think about, so of course they pop up in your stories?
PETER: Right, no, no, it's really astute. I mean, for me fiction writing and art has to be a free space. You know, I did a lot of environmental writing stuff because really to me what's going on right now in the ecosphere is the biggest story. I think it's existential and I think it's something that, you know, has to be part of all our lives and so, of course it's going to be part of anything that I write. It's going to inform it because it's heavy on my heart right now. It's what I'm concerned about. You know, sixth grade mass extinction, climate change, habitat loss, it's all, you know, it's a huge story. It is the story. But I always want to operate as an artist in a free space where there's no agenda. So I just follow my nose. I follow where the energy is, where it's most exciting, where I'm having the most fun and, you know, whatever shakes out, shakes out. But it's always going to bump in to what I really care about of course.
ANNE: What's a theme you're excited to explore in your work? Whether that's in something you're working on right now or down the road hopefully.
PETER: Well I just finished a novel, you know, kinda just off the next one, and I'm so pleased and excited about that, and it's about an enforcement ranger in Yellowstone National Park who loves wolves more than people. [ANNE LAUGHS] Gets him in trouble, so anyway. That's what that one's about.
ANNE: We’ve been to Yellowstone before. We're not going to see Celine, are we?
PETER: Uh, no. [LAUGHS]
PETER: No, it'd be neat, though, wouldn't be cool if there was a Hellerverse where next protagonist meets Celine. I would love that. [ANNE LAUGHS] That's a great idea. Can I use it? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: We're excited to read it. Peter, you know, we love to hear about what inspires the readers whose works we enjoy reading, so would you tell us about a couple books that you love and often recommend?
PETER: Yeah. I was just thinking about, you know, in this last year what books I was crazy about and the first one was, and I'm late to the party, you guys have all probably read it, but I loved Deacon King Kong by James McBride. You know, that takes place in the projects in Red Hook which is about, you know, two miles from where I grew up. I was crazy about it. The protagonist named Sportcoat drinks too much, sorta hapless but he's absolutely wonderful.
The second book is called Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata which really startled me. It's a slim little book about it's about this woman in Japan, in Tokyo, who works at a convenience store and she's got this sorta living symbiotic relationship with this little convenience store. [LAUGHS] And it's just a crazy book and I just loved it.
And then I wanted to recommend one more because I always, you know, sorta now and then touch back into the classics and I had never read this Brazilian novel written in 1899 called Dom Casmurro and it's by Machado de Assis. I mean, it was written in 1899. It's about young love. It's about betrayal. It is funny, witty, and it seems very avant garde as I read it. I was startled by this book. Those are three that I can recommend strongly.
ANNE: I've not heard of the Brazilian one. How did you pick that one up?
PETER: Well, I don't know. I had been reading some Brazilian crime novels set in Rio and I thought it was really interesting how they worked. I think I was googling you know the next one and this popped up as one of the great novels of the 19th century and I'd never heard of it, and it truly is. It's a stunning novel, and it's just a hoot. It's totally fun.
ANNE: That's high praise. Okay, finally, Peter, this might not be a fair question to ask, but for those who are new to your work, where would you recommend they begin?
PETER: Well The Dog Stars is the first one. It's a little harder to get into maybe for the first 15, 20 pages 'cause the writing's very fractured, this guy's sorta like speaking for the first time in nine years after this pandemic where he lost everything. I don't know. [LAUGHS] Celine, The River. I would read The River before I read The Guide just because you'll get to know Jack better in his context.
ANNE: Mmhmm. You can't go wrong basically, but I do appreciate your note about The Guide. Peter, thank you so much for joining us again. This has been a pleasure. Thanks for your great books. They really brought a lot into our lives.
PETER: It is always such a pleasure to talk to you. I'll do it anytime. Thank you very much.
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ANNE: Peter’s books have brought so much joy to my life; I had a huge smile on my face throughout our whole conversation. And you better believe I went right out and bought a copy of Dom Casmurro afterwards. (Maybe you’ll hear that book pop up on a future episode!)
Now for a guest who writes novels I’ve read again and again, whose voice I could listen to all day long, a writer whose compelling fiction is grounded in real-life experiences, and who believes honesty is the most important attribute for an author: Tayari Jones. I adore her and her work and am so excited to welcome her (and her typewriters) back for another chat.
ANNE: Tayari, welcome to the show.
TAYARI: Thanks for having me.
ANNE: Oh, the pleasure is ours. I know that you are familiar, not just your work, but your face and your voice to many of our listeners because you joined us to talk about Silver Sparrow in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club several years ago, which was such a pleasure. But we're so happy to introduce everyone else to you as a person and not the writer of words on a page. Were you to introduce yourself to someone unfamiliar with you and they said, you know, who are you? What do you do? How would you answer that?
TAYARI: Well I would tell them that ... Well, I'd probably tell them I'm a writer, but I would make sure that I told them that I was from Atlanta. I think I would also make sure to tell them I'm a teacher because I teach at Emory University and I teach more than I write, so although I'm kinda known for being a writer, in a day to day way, I'm a teacher.
ANNE: I love that answer, and I love that you mentioned Atlanta right off the bat because it seems from your work that you have a real love for that city, that it's very important to you.
TAYARI: It's my natural habitat. You know, I was born here and I lived here until I was like in my mid-twenties and I did not know that I was kinda like a quintessential Atlanta girl until I left. I mean, I think that's how you know you really are enmeshed with your hometown when you don't even know how special it is because you think this ... An indicator of a special world.
I think I love the south. I love the urban south. That's actually my favorite. [ANNE LAUGHS] The sweet spot is the urban south for me because you have everything you love about the big city, but also all the things that we love about the south, the ... You know, the hospitality is real, southern hospitality exists, but you know, you can always go see a show or do whatever you want here in Atlanta.
ANNE: What are your favorite literary spots or bookstores in the city you love?
TAYARI: Well, I love A Capella books. It's a small bookstore, but everyone in there is a book fanatic. I love Charis bookstore, which is the longest consectively opened feminist bookstore in the country, and it's here in Georgia. See people don't really associate the south with things like feminist bookstores, but we have Charis Books. On a completely other end, I really love going to book events at the Margaret Mitchell house.
ANNE: I heard you say before that people fairly regularly mistake your books for memoir, which is such a compliment, but I would love to hear you discuss which books that you've written is closest to your actual life? Which characters do you most relate to?
TAYARI: If you write a memoir, people want to catch you telling a lie. [ANNE LAUGHS] And if you write fiction, people want to catch you telling the truth. I think the book that is the most autobiographical probably would be my debut, Leaving Atlanta about growing up in Atlanta during the child murders. I actually appear as a character in that book.
ANNE: Really? Are - are you named Tayari in that book?
TAYARI: I'm named Tayari. I just have little small roles. I just kinda like, my child self kinda darts in a scene every now and then, waves, and runs back off.
ANNE: I love the way you describe that. Well we have talked about your work extensively on What Should I Read Next so every week, every Tuesday, a reader comes on and shares three books they love, one book they don't, and what they're reading now and I recommend three books they should read next, and we have discussed An American Marriage. We've discussed Silver Sparrow. We've discussed Half Light! I mean, you really packed a wallop in that short little book. I'm a chicken. I haven't been brave enough to read Leaving Atlanta.
TAYARI: Oh, don't be a chicken. Like nobody gets killed. It's really ... Leaving Atlanta is about what it was like to grow up during the murders. It's not true crime. It's really like what it is to be a child and to have this in the background. This is the best way I can explain it is that what does it mean to think about your training bra? [ANNE LAUGHS] And also, you know, a serial killer. Because we did both and that was important to me in writing that, to write about the childhood that we had, and childhood is a little amusing. I actually think Leaving Atlanta is my funniest book.
ANNE: Okay. I'm really glad you said that. How is it your funniest book?
TAYARI: Well being a child is funny. [ANNE LAUGHS] It's a predicament. And so I wanted to capture all the things that I remember about childhood as well, and it's just kinda funny. Think about the things you cared about when you were little and how intensely you cared about little things, like when I was a child, I wanted to be invited to a slumber party and someone dropped out and so I was basically invited off the waitlist. I was honored, and then my mother found out the pajama party was not supervised. That was the word she used, so she kept me home, which was her right, but she called all the other mothers, and so the whole party was called ... You know, called off. I was a pariah and I'll never forget that.
Because the book is about growing up in Atlanta during the child murders, part of the reason why my mother was so concerned about the lack of supervision was that we were in this dangerous climate, but the funny thing was what it was like for me to have to go to school that next day after my mother ruined it for everyone. As a grownup you completely understand why my mother had to call all the other mothers because they were friends. I didn't understand that my mother had friends. I thought they were just other mothers. I didn't know, but now I get it. I get it. But so, I was enjoying kinda capturing those moments as well.
ANNE: Well thank you. I look forward to reading Leaving Atlanta very, very soon, and then I'm sure we'll be talking about that on What Should I Read Next. We have found your books to appeal to so many readers, they're so widely discussable. I mean, I feel like you could read any of your works ten times and discover something new each time. They're so recommendable! Do you have any insights as the author of these works into what it is about them that really hits home with such a wide audience of readers?
TAYARI: Well, that makes me happy to hear. I think it's because when I write a novel, I just try to be as honest as possible because when you read, you want to feel like the author is telling you the truth, that the author is confiding in you because that's what makes you feel close to a real person. You feel close to someone when they tell you something they don't tell everyone, and so that's what I try to do when I write a novel. I try to get at what is the honest experience of it.
Like in An American Marriage, it's a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated and I feel if I were to have written a book about one woman's brave sacrifice, you wouldn't feel close to that because we as readers aren't brave all the time. Women secretly desire their own lives even though we're held up as sacrifices the way we are respected, sacrifices what we are revered for, but in real life we also want our lives and so in talking about that, I think made it where readers could relate to it because it is the secret that goes unsaid, which is that women want to be free.
ANNE: Being honest sounds so simple. I mean, you just tell the truth, but I imagine that's incredibly difficult to do on the page, telling a story. Do you catch yourself being dishonest sometimes, and how do you navigate that as a writer?
TAYARI: This is what I tell my students all the time. Writing and publishing are two different things. You can write whatever you want and then when you decide what to take out because you're afraid, you can do that later, but never think about it while you're actually generating work. The page is private, and then you can fix it later, and what I find is that once you get it out, it's not as scary as you thought it would be. Everything is scarier when it's in your head.
ANNE: That's really interesting. I thought some of the difficulty would be even not fooling yourself, you know, like the honesty itself couldn't be just the fear of sharing, but actually the difficult part being honest with yourself and the work and not just with an audience.
TAYARI: Well, I feel like being honest with yourself once you start writing, that truth wants to come out. The real thing is when you try to hold it back and so I think of this censoring as a dumb instrument. It's like the strainer you use in the kitchen. The strainer in the kitchen does not discriminate and you can strain out good stuff as well as bad stuff, so you can strain out your best writing because you're really trying not to tell that secret about your family and you accidentally strain out what makes a story good, so I just say just let it flow. Write early in the morning. I feel like that helps. When I write at five o'clock in the morning, I am less reserved. One, my brain is still in the dream state, and secondly, the fact that I feel like I'm the only person in the world that's awake [ANNE LAUGHS] makes me feel safer and like I'm in a more private space.
ANNE: Tell me more about your writing routine.
TAYARI: Well before I go to bed, I clean the desk because I feel like if you have everything in place before you wake up, it's just like when you go to ... If you have to go to the gym. If you have your gym clothes laid out, you're way more likely to actually go, and then I type on typewriters. Can you see them behind me? One, two, three, four, five typewriters up here. I've got a couple of them downstairs.
I love composing on typewriters. I feel like I make so much noise. It's so satisfying. Feel like you're getting something done and unlike the computer, when I compose on the computer, I'm going so fast I don't know what I've written. It's almost like when you eat so quickly, the plate is empty. Obviously you're the one who ate it because no one was there but you but you don't remember it. That's how I feel when I compose on the computer, but on the typewriter, I slow down and I just feel more present.
The best typewriters are from like the '40s and '30s because typewriters were luxury items, so they had lots of bells and whistles. By the '50, they were making them for kids to take to college and they started ... They just kinda went downhill.
ANNE: Oh, that's so interesting. I knew that among typewriter aficionados the old ones are beloved, but I didn't realize there was quality.
TAYARI: But not too old because like I have this really ... It's all I can do to keep from holding them up, but I have this really adorable typewriter from 1919 but the problem with it is that they hadn't quite figured out how typewriters worked [ANNE LAUGHS] so it's very beautiful to look at, but it doesn't run very well, so by the '30s, they had figured them out and were still making them well.
ANNE: Does your favorite typewriter have a name?
TAYARI: They all have names. Like the one from 1919, his name is Andre, and the one I like the best, she's kinda a deep purple in color, so her name is Genie because her color is aubergine.
ANNE: Coffee, tea, none of the above?
TAYARI: Coffee. I even have a coffee machine up here.
ANNE: Really? In your office?
TAYARI: Mmhm. When I was a little baby writer, I went to an artist colony in Switzerland and everyone had one and I thought it was the neatest thing. This was like in 2003 and I saved my little money because I had no money. I saved for a year and I bought one. I loved the coffee, but it always felt like evidence that I had an interesting life because before my writing life, I never really traveled, and so I associate my writing life and my adult spirit of wanderlust. I associate them.
ANNE: Well, you told us that you really think of yourself as a teacher.
TAYARI: Yes, my parents are professors also. It's the family business.
ANNE: Well I really enjoyed your critical introduction to The Street by Ann Petry which I finally read this year and your introduction really made me even more excited to read the story. I would love to hear what books you're really excited about your students reading?
TAYARI: I am in love with The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. There are a hundred, something like a 163 characters in this book. I looked it up online and she makes every character really pop, even like a character who will only be in the story once. As a writer, I was trained that you shouldn't bring anyone into a book that you're only going to see once. She just threw that out of the window. She brings as many people into a book as she wants, but she earns their keep for each one. I've dreamt about these characters after I was finished with the book, and I also, like with The Street, I also learned something. I didn't know about the termination era when the native tribes were being basically they wanted to like remove them from the record. I didn't know about that. Even though I was learning about it as I read the book, I wasn't aware of myself as learning something because I was so drawn in to the drama and the people and the love stories and the weather and the everything.
ANNE: I haven't read that Louise Erdrich.
TAYARI: It's so good! It's really good, and you know what, this is the one that I think could be a movie. It has everything, like they have to go to ... All the characters have to go to Washington, D.C. to argue that their tribe not be erased from the record. It's also kinda funny. It has travel. It has a mystery. It has not one, not two, but three compelling love stories. Three! When it was over, I just wanted to applaud. I see why it won The Pulitzer. It's fan-tas-tic.
ANNE: She's so prolific that I'm always torn between all the books I haven't read and all the authors I haven't met and okay, I'll read that, so first Leaving Atlanta, then The Night Watchman. What else are you excited about that you urge on your writing students?
TAYARI: I haven't pushed this on them yet because I just read it. I read Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. What I loved about it is a way that an ordinary person can write a memoir because sometimes people want to tell their story but they say, oh I'm just a regular person, I mean, what am I going to say? But the writing is what show ... The writing elevates just her girlhood, her coming-of-age, into something that is meaningful and universal. Everyday people, you just ... I think sometimes you just feel like well, I'm just me. I don't know, but the fact that you're just you is what is going to make your story pop.
ANNE: I have a bookmark in that book at about page maybe 75. It's been a hard year! And that is a hard book, but you told me, you told me that I could persevere.
TAYARI: Oh, I see. Yeah. Things weren’t going so well by page 75. I'm looking at it right here, but no, it's ultimately, it's a triumph story. It reminds me kinda of Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings where the characters, they go ... They suffer, but they come out the other side and I found, I find this difficult book very helpful to me during this difficult time because it reminds me that just hang in there and be true to who you are and you can come out, you can come out the other side. I loved it. I just wanted to eat it.
ANNE: I love to see someone come out the other side. So thank you for that. Tayari, what are you working on now?
TAYARI: Well, I am writing a screenplay for An American Marriage. Screenplay writing is all different than novel writing because a novel asks yourself like what does jealousy feel like, what does longing feel like? And a screenplay says what does jealousy look like? What does jealousy do? What does jealousy say? All different questions, but it's been a pleasure to do it because how often in your adult life do you learn how to do something new? Like completely new, so that's been great.
And also I'm writing, I'm working on a novel. I don't want to jinx it, but I will tell you that okay. This is about writing, and it's not about writing. I bought a bicycle. Not one of the fancy ones where you lean down and click your shoes in. This thing has a basket and a bell, like a childhood type bicycle, and I ride it 14 miles a day. As I was riding the bike, it came to me what this book is about. I had people but I didn't have anything for them to do, and I now know what the book is about! I am so excited! I feel that now that fire has caught, I should be able to whip through it.
ANNE: I don't want to be impatient, but when can we read it?
TAYARI: When I finish it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That's a wonderful answer. Okay, final question. Is there anything you would change about any of your books that are already out there that readers have already read and continue to read?
TAYARI: Yes, and if there's not, it means you're not growing.
TAYARI: There's a moment in Leaving Atlanta when the policeman comes to tell the children about safety and the children are really annoyed because the policeman's like don't get in cars with strangers and kids are like of course, well duh! Absolutely we would not. And the narrator kinda makes fun of the policeman and teases the policeman about his weight, and I wouldn't do that now. Like I wouldn't make that joke on someone, so I would change that. So there are little things that as you become more mature there are ways that you'd approach storytelling differently.
ANNE: As we say goodbye, I'd love to hear just one thing -- we talked about that keep going energy in terms of Ashley Ford and your biking bringing you joy and helping you in a hard year, what else is bringing you joy these days? Book related or not at all.
TAYARI: You know, I have started reading books that I read as a child and reading them again and it has been such a pleasure, like I reread Charlotte's Web. It was so good. Wilbur. [LAUGHS] I just ...
ANNE: That makes me so happy to hear.
TAYARI: And so I've been revisiting those books and reminding myself because when I couldn't figure out what this book I was writing was about I started remembering well what was it that made me enjoy writing in the first place and I just went back into those childhood classics, I went back to my beloved Judy Blume. I've been doing that and it has reminded me of who I am.
ANNE: That's so delightful and deeply life affirming. Thank you for sharing that with us, and thank you so much for your work. It's wonderful. I'm so glad to live in a world that has Tayari Jones novels, and for joining us today to talk about it.
TAYARI: Well this has been a pleasure, and I just, I just love your show and keep doing it, keep talking to people about books because sometimes when you're a writer, people try to tell you oh no one reads anymore. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know, they're like oh my God, a kindle is going to come and drown you in a bathtub. [ANNE LAUGHS] If you're Black, they're like a racist kindle is going to drown you in the bathtub [ANNE LAUGHS] but it's not true, people are reading and the kindle should not be feared. Reading brings people together and you are bringing people together around books, so on behalf of everybody I just want to say thank you.
ANNE: Ah, well I'm glad it brought us together. Thank you so much, Tayari.
TAYARI: Take care.
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ANNE: Oh, I had so much fun talking with Tayari. She’s so warm and wonderful, and I’m inclined to do whatever she tells me at this point! I think that would serve me well.
Readers, you know that our third and final author guest is Becky Chambers—but up until she joined us on-screen, our patrons only knew her as our “mystery guest”. We had fun sharing clues leading up to the event, and a handful of patron sleuths guessed correctly! You know who you are.
You may have heard about her bestselling novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet on the show, or read about her new novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built in the Summer Reading Guide. Listen to us chat about writing friendly novels that welcome us all into an unfamiliar world we may actually want to live in.
ANNE: We're so glad that you are here. Thank you so much for joining us.
BECKY: Hello. I'm so happy to be here.
ANNE: Let's say I'm your neighbor you don't know very well and we bump into each other at the grocery store and I say oh hey! Hi, you look familiar! What do you say to me next?
BECKY: [LAUGHS] I say hi, I'm Becky Chambers. I'm a science fiction author. I'm based in Northern California. I'm best known for my Wayfarers series. I've written other standalone works as well, and my most recent work is A Psalm for the Wild-Built which is the first of my Monk and Robot novellas.
ANNE: I raise my cup of tea to that. [BECKY LAUGHS] Tell me a little bit about who you are as a writer and as a reader.
BECKY: So as a writer, I've always been a writer. That's just the way I express myself. That's the way I communicate. That’s the way I think. I have loved science fiction ever since I was itty bitty. I can't remember life without it. It's just a part of my makeup at this point. It's deeply ingrained. I want people to read sci-fi, and I know that this genre can be intimidating for people who aren't familiar with it, who didn't grow up with it, who have the impression and not wrongly that you need a background in STEM or especially you know say, physics or astronomy or whatever in order to follow along. I want to make this wonderful, vibrant world of books a little more accessible to people who haven't ventured here before.
I do a few things with my work. I try to provide as much as I can for sci-fi veterans to really sink their teeth into but also plenty for newbies. I want it to be as user-friendly as possible. I want it ... I want these to be worlds you can effortlessly slip into. I want you to be able to jump in anywhere and I want you to be able to follow along regardless of when the last time was that you took a science class.
The other thing that's really important for me is futures that feel good because [ANNE LAUGHS] the future is scary right? And for good reason a lot of the time. And I don't say that to knock dystopias or grimdark because it's important that we share those stories too. But I try to be the counterpart to that. I want to write possibilities or alternatives or you know, oftentimes straight up fantasies, but I want the future to feel like a place that you not only could inhabit safely but that you want to. I want to be the thing that happens after the disaster. What is it that makes surviving the disaster worth it? What is it that makes the struggle worth it? Here's something to point your compass toward.
ANNE: I want that on a t-shirt right now. "Futures that feel good." [BECKY LAUGHS] Yes please. Did you know when you started writing The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet that you wanted to give readers a door in not to just a wonderful world, but also that you wanted to like swing the door open to all readers, not just necessarily, tell me more about knowing that 'cause you were young were you not when you started writing that book.
BECKY: So I started the first bits and pieces of what became The Long Way when I was 20 years old. One of those things I literally had a shoebox filled with notes and notebooks and stuff, just these pieces. It took me a good seven years before I could sit down and actually put it together. [LAUGHS] You know, part of that is just learning to be a better writer, you know, just developing the skill as well. You can have good ideas but you might not know how to make it a thing. But that was something that I knew from the jump is I want this to not only not be scary, like there are discussions in that book of physics and wormholes and all this stuff and I make it as simple and easy as possible. Wormholes are explained with a bowl of oatmeal and things like that.
I wanted it to be as accessible as could be, but that also extended to mine being an inclusive universe as well, and that to me is just obvious, you know. I'm a queer writer. I wanted to make sure that everybody was welcomed here. Why would I write a future where people like me aren't? You know, that extends to everything. I'm not interested in writing futures for humanity that don't include all of humanity. You know, who is that for? What is that? So all of that goes hand in hand with you know, me putting a big neon sign on the front of my books saying you're welcome in this future. You can come live here. Come hang out in space.
ANNE: Tayari Jones was just telling us as you saw that she wants to write books that feel above all honest and reading your work I feel like they're above all hospitable and like you said welcoming. Tell me what it means to translate that idea that you wish to embody into actual words on the page. How do you go about doing that?
BECKY: For me it always starts with the characters. Characters come first, always, always, always, always. I don't outline, and I rarely know what the shape of a book is going to be until I actually get into it. I have a background in theater and that really informs the way I write and then I typically do dialogue first. I will just write this very bare bones, you know, he said, she said back and forth, back and forth and then go in and fill in the quote-unquote "blocking" around it.
So the first few months of writing a novel for me are really just making people talk to each other. Bouncing characters off of each other, figuring out what sticks, what doesn't and eventually I reach this sorta, this singularity point, right? This critical mass of material at which point I say now I know who these people are. Now I know what this story is. Now I know what's happening, and I fill in the gaps from there.
ANNE: Okay, so to put it into practice a little more concretely your new book that came out on my birthday. Thank you for that gift.
BECKY: You're very welcome. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: A Psalm for the Wild-Built, more to look forward to in this series. What was the seed that got you thinking about those characters and about that story?
BECKY: A Psalm for the Wild-Built is very different from my other work in that it is not a space-y book at all. It's about a traveling monk in secondary world called Panga who meets a robot out in the wilderness. I had been really keen to write something solar punk for a long time. I was hungry for a more terrestrial story. As much as I love space, I was hungry for something that was really you know, had its feet in the dirt and really spoke to the concept of a planet as a spaceship, a moon in this case as a spaceship, but you know, I wanted something, pardon the pun, but very grounded, you know, I wanted something that felt tangible and real and applicable here even though it's existing somewhere else, but within that, I'm almost always most interested in everyday characters.
I don't write stories with chosen ones or big dramatic heroes. I want the everyday. I want the ordinary. I want people who are worried about what to make for dinner, whether they're going to get the job or anything like that, so Dex, my protagonist is, you know, they're a person who just can't quite find their groove and doesn't know why. And Mosscap, the robot. I just love robots. I love them to bits. I always have and they just fit. I have an equal love for nature and technology and I don't see them as polar opposites. I don't see them as posing concepts or things that need to be in conflict with each other, so bringing these two together was just my way of expressing that.
ANNE: Tell me more about your longtime love of robots.
BECKY: I mean, so I grew up with both Star Wars and Star Trek. Mine was an equal opportunity house. [ANNE LAUGHS] There was no conflict there. I literally cannot remember life without those characters, so R2D2 and C3P0 obviously like very close friends of mine and Data on Star Trek is, you know, was I think my first artificial intelligence, the first android that really captured my imagination.
And I think also, you know, growing up my family was very involved in STEM and space science and so you know, engineering and machines and all of that were very much a part of the background of my childhood. So all those things just went hand in hand and I've just always loved the idea of machines that think for themselves that we can talk to, that are unlike us and yet teach us a little more about who we are.
ANNE: Our team member Brenna calls your books kind sci-fi and I've also heard your work referred to as hope punk. Who are your own heroes in this corner of the sci-fi world?
BECKY: I don't know how I would've gotten to this job if it weren't first for Ursula K. Le Guin. I was handed The Left Hand of Darkness when I was in my teens and that just blew the whole lid off for me. I was already a fan of sci-fi but that showed me what sci-fi could really be. She did an incredible job of writing science fiction that was not about planets blowing up. It was not about saving the galaxy. It was about people and it was about societies and it was about culture and about the mess, the beautiful mess of all of that. She continues to be an enormous inspiration for me. On the nonfiction side of things, Carl Sagan.
BECKY: Was another huge one for me. And not just as a writer but as a person. The way he communicated the awe and beauty and mystery of the universe completely shaped my worldview and is a quality I try to, I mean, nobody’s ever going to be on his level but you know, it's a quality I try to emulate when I do talk about science and space in my own work. I want you to feel that quality of we are insignificant but that doesn't mean we aren't important.
ANNE: On that note, something that I really loved about the Wayfarers series is that humans are not the center of the story. We're the latecomers. We're not central figures. We're not models for the galaxy's politics and culture. What inspired you to make that choice?
BECKY: This is a perfect segue because actually this is a very Carl Sagan-y, it sorta idea, I mean, the whole thing that he championed right is this idea that we're not the center of the universe. The universe isn't made for us. It's arrogant. It's hubristic for us to think so and I truly believe that. This idea that, you know, the world is for us that the galaxy is for us to spread out into. I think that an endeavor as labor and resources intensive as space exploration requires cooperation by design. You have to be able to work together, and in that there has to be a huge degree of humility setting aside your differences and being able to build something greater together.
And so in Wayfarers, yeah, that was an extremely conscious point on my part that the humans are the underdog to the extreme we don't really have anything to offer. We show up on the galactic doorstep needing help. That was just a reflection of that for me that the universe isn't built for us and that we need to, if we are to survive as a species, we need to swallow an enormous piece of humble pie and recognize that this place isn't for us. We share it with countless other species. That's a truth we have to recognize if we're going to thrive out there.
ANNE: This is from Angela. How do you feel about being in a genre, genre fiction instead of just being really good fiction? Sometimes I wish genres were ignored so more readers can find such great books.
BECKY: I mean, I hear that because, you know, we do tend to get hung up on our various camps like the different tables that we all sit at lunch. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know, there is something to be said to make sure that you know people are going to you know, find the type of book they want to find, right? Like if you're looking for spaceships and you find I don't know true crime instead that can be a little bit jarring, so I do think that you know categorizing is helpful.
I am proud to be a science fiction writer. Like there's nothing else I ever wanted to be. To me it's not ... The two aren't mutually exclusive, like I wish that sci-fi as taken as seriously as, you know, as other genres as, you know, we obviously [LAUGHS] take it very seriously within the genre itself but yeah, I don't have a problem with it at all but if people want to categorize me as just a good writer, full stop, I [LAUGHS] certainly wouldn't argue.
ANNE: We think a good book is a good book and we're glad you're writing what you're writing. [BECKY LAUGHS] Here's a question I didn't expect from Christine: If I used one of your books in my literature course — that she's teaching — what would you suggest?
BECKY: Oh, gosh. I would suggest To Be Taught, If Fortunate which is a novella of mine. It's a standalone so it's easy to just pick up and you don't have to, you don't have to worry about the surrounding world or reading a whole bunch of other books. I will admit I think it's one of my better written books so that would be my choice.
ANNE: Shannan cares deeply about when the next book of the Monk and the Robot series is coming out. Well she knows it's coming next year. She's already got it pre-ordered. is it too early to ask if there will be another she wants to know?
BECKY: So I am definitely leaving the door open for more Monk and Robot stories. Right now I am working on something else, so it's not immediately in my plans, but that world is still very much out there.
ANNE: I wasn't going to ask this one, but darnit, Brigid, it's so good. Love all the unique food and drinks in the Wayfarer series. How do you come up with this stuff? How do you come up with such clever snacks and meals and which would you want to eat?
BECKY: Oh, great question. I don't know how to come up with them. I just sorta sit here and stare at my ceiling until something hits me. [BOTH LAUGH] There is an element of my job that is just making stuff up, but I think the food is so important in science fiction because it's the most visceral thing, right? Like whenever you travel in the real world to somewhere new you want to know where it is you're going to sleep. You want to know what it is you're going to eat, right? And so these are always things I make a point of hitting when I'm describing a new planet or a new spaceship or whatever. Here's what your room looks like and here's what you're going to snack on.
I think it makes the reader a little more comfortable and it makes it a little more relatable too. Also just because I don't want to live in a future that's just protein cubes. That sounds heinously boring so in my personal life [LAUGHS] I'm big on comfort food and so it just ... It tracks to me that you know, you'd have that on spaceships too. As to what I'd like to try, any of Dr. Chef's cooking from The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: On that note what is the drink that fuels your writing?
BECKY: So I think I'm the only writer in the world maybe. I'm not sure about who doesn't use - drink caffeine, but I am drinking tea all day long and it's always something to suit my mood. I would say peppermint is the thing that I reach for most but it depends on the day.
ANNE: Are you brand loyal? What are your favorites?
BECKY: Uh, no, I'm not. I'm brand agnostic. I will [LAUGHS] I love to just pick things up as they catch my eye. I especially love like weird little teas, like something at the farmer's market or you know, when I'm traveling or something. I'll usually grab stuff and try it even if I hate it later on.
ANNE: We love to hear what the authors who write the books we love to read choose to read for themselves and we're wondering if that same thread of care, connection, and hope in your reading?
BECKY: You know, I'm fairly omnivorous in what I read so I mean, it's definitely a quality when I find it that makes me go ooh. I do like to make sure that I'm not reading just within my own lane.
BECKY: You know, I'm down for a story that's going to kick me in the kneecaps or you know [LAUGHS] but yeah, the things that are my favorites, or the things that, you know, are the ones that make me grab somebody by the shirt collar and say you gotta read this, they tend to fall into that category.
ANNE: I'm so sorry to say this but this is our final question. Would you please share with us one or two book recommendations that you love and think that we ought to know about? Any genre. Just books you love. Oh, you are ready.
BECKY: I'm ready to go. I've got a stack right here, so the first is This Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki. This book is stunning. It's absolutely beautiful. It's a mashup of fantasy and science fiction, do not let that scare you off if you're not a reader of either genre. This is ... Just the prose in this book will knock your socks off. It is absolutely gorgeous.
Also on the nonfiction side of things, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald which I just finished. If you like nature writing. If you like essays. If you just want to cry and feel a little more connected to the universe around you I highly, highly recommend.
ANNE: Thank you so much for sharing those. I have Vesper Flights downloaded to my audiobook app right now. I think the universe is telling me something.
BECKY: I think so. Hint, hint.
ANNE: Okay. Ah. Becky, I lied. What are you working on right now?
BECKY: [LAUGHS] So I can't say too much because it hasn't been announced yet but I am working on a new novel. It's standalone. It is very alien and very weird and it's really nice to be back in that territory so. That is all I can say at the moment, but it’s ...
ANNE: That is more than enough. Thank you.
BECKY: It's really fun to be working on something from scratch, so.
ANNE: We can't wait to read it and thank you so much for taking the time to come and talk to us today.
BECKY: My pleasure. This was so fun. Thank you.
ANNE: I look forward to the day that that super weird alien book pops up on What Should I Read Next.
BECKY: [LAUGHS] Well, I look forward, too. I guess I'll have to finish it now.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Readers, I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Check out the full list of titles we discussed at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/308 and let us know what you think in the comments!
If you enjoyed this episode, check out our Patreon community for more exclusive bonus content—like the crowdsourced list of recommended tea blends that our members shared during our live conversation with Becky Chambers! Visit patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext to learn more and sign up today.
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Be sure to join us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext to see what’s new on our shelves, connect with other What Should I Read Next fans, and keep up on all our episodes and events. And, be sure to follow me at annebogel. That's Anne with an E, B as in Books, O-G-E-L for the latest insights into my reading life.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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• Celine by Peter Heller
• The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
• The Guide by Peter Heller
• Deacon King Kong by James McBride
• Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
• Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
• The River by Peter Heller
• An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
• Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
• Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
• Half Light by Tayari Jones
• The Street by Ann Petry
• The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
• Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
• I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
• Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
• Author Judy Blume (try Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret)
• The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (The Wayfarers Series #1) by Becky Chambers
• A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot #1) by Becky Chambers
• The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
• Author Carl Sagan (Try Cosmos)
• To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
• Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
• Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
• Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
• Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
• Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
• WSIRN Ep 1 with Jamie Golden
• WSIRN Ep 282: I’m a little bit obsessed with reading with Jeremy Anderberg
• WSIRN Ep 225: What your neighborhood should read next with Elizabeth Barnhill and Alison Frenzel
• WSIRN Ep 240: Saving the world, one series at a time with KJ Dell’Antonia
• WSIRN Ep 257: Let’s build your holiday book list with Beth Buss
• WSIRN Ep 259: The formula for a 5-star read with Emily Van Ark
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