This weekend at Triangle Reads I interviewed author Elin Hilderbrand about her latest novel The Rumor.
Hilderbrand is known for her fun, well-written summer novels, but The Rumor was fun for me on a different level. One of the main characters in her book is Madeline King, a novelist who is on deadline to submit her next novel but is completely, totally blocked. She has nothing to write about, but then her best friend starts up a steamy affair with her gardener … and her next novel begins to write itself.
Authors are instructed to write what you know. Hilderbrand knows publishing inside and out, and The Rumor is packed with authentic nuggets from that world: the heated conversations with her agent, the favor-trading between parties, the manuscript that gets passed around before the author is ready. She references the notoriously cranky Kirkus reviews and authors who plagiarize their teenage children. If you’re a serious reader, you’ll eat it up.
Hilderbrand’s book got me thinking about other novels that are enjoyably self-aware about the writing process, whether their end product is fiction, history, or memoir. This is my list; I’d love to hear yours in comments.
8 novels that are delightfully self-aware about the writing process
When one of Britain's most celebrated novelists reaches out to the young and relative novice Margaret Lea, Margaret has one question: Why? While she decides whether to take on the assignment, she begins reading one of the author's works: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is captivated by the stories, and puzzled by them because the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Margaret resolves to find out and takes the job. As she begins to write, all sorts of secrets begin to come out. Note: a few unsettling scenes if you're a sensitive sort. More info →
The bad news: this book doesn't come out till October 20. The good news: it's her best yet. In 1933, a young child disappeared without a trace. In 2003, a young detective stumbles upon the cold case and soon discovers its ties to one of England's oldest and most celebrated mystery writer. No spoilers here, but I will say that story is crucial to the plot, and the pages are filled with fascinating references to the fictional author's writing process and working life. Reminiscent of The Thirteenth Tale, for reasons you'll come to see. More info →
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan graduates from Old Miss in the 1960s and returns home to Jackson, looking for a topic to write about. She decides to tell the story of the Help. Skeeter was raised by a kindly black maid, as were many of her friends. Now they’re having babies and hiring black maids of their own. Skeeter interviews the maids of Jackson to find out what it’s really like to be a black woman who leaves her own babies at home so she can earn a living raising white women’s babies.
In 1991, while working at Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Paterniti encountered a piece of a famous cheese reputed to be the finest, most expensive in the world. Ten years later, he embarks on a quest to uncover the story behind it. The story artfully weaves itself right into the heart of Catelonian Spain ... until the real-life story becomes terribly confusing. From that point forward, this book is as much about the process of writing the book—complete with the details of dead-end research rabbit trails, tense conversations with editors, and several missed submission deadlines—as it is about the cheese itself. More info →
In Hilderbrand's latest novel, Nantucket novelist Madeline King is on deadline but has a huge case of writer's block: she needs a story for her next novel, and she needs it fast. Then her best friend Grace starts crushing on her handsome landscape architect. Madeline knows a good story when she sees it, and her novel practically writes itself. Hilderbrand's story is filled with fun and spot-on references to the publishing industry, covering everything from contracts and deadlines to agents and editors to the notoriously cranky Kirkus reviews. Madeline's husband even makes a joke about "that other Nantucket novelist" who writes two books a year. I'll let you guess who that is. More info →
This enthralling story spanning four generations is based on real events, and offers a fascinating look at both one family's history and the history of the American West. The narrator is Lyman Ward, an injured, wheelchair-bound man who fills his days by working on a history of his grandparents, and much of this "history" is the novel the reader holds. This interesting structure invites the reader to come alongside the narrator as he tries to puzzle out what really happened between his grandparents many years before. More info →
This dystopian novel is set in the not-too-distant future, when print is dead and and much of the population relies on implantable devices called "memes" to consume information and communicate with each other. That sounds unsettling enough, but things get really scary when a virulent "word flu" is unleashed upon the population: the infected lose their ability to produce or understand speech. Much of this book is written in the form of diary entries that the characters write in their efforts to first fight off, and then recover from, the linguistic illness. More info →
This novel follows aspiring writer Casey Peabody, who is mourning the sudden death of her mother plus a messy break-up in 1997 Massachusetts. Lost without direction, 31-year-old Casey waits tables to make ends meet while she works on her novel in a tiny, dingy rented room. While her friends have given up on their artistic ambitions in favor of stability and the next phase of life, Casey still harbors creative dreams and firmly grasps her youth. When she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle, it becomes all the more difficult to balance her art with "real life," and she just might reach her breaking point. This book was slow to hook me, but once I was in, I was IN. It also has one of the most satisfying endings I've read in ages. More info →
I can't do better than The New York Times, which wrote, "Ian McEwan's remarkable novel Atonement is a love story, a war story and a story about the destructive powers of the imagination." The story hinges on a horrible, life-altering lie told by a 13-year-old girl and its devastating ripple effects. I can't say too much about how the writing process plays into this story without spoiling it. But in a novel that's all about the dangerous power of the imagination, the characters' revealed imaginings for their own futures are breathtaking.