Thanks to author Lynn Freed I was lucky enough to meet Mark Childress at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley a few years ago and he was everything you'd think he might be if you've ever read his books: funny, gracious and a hell of a storyteller.
From Mark: I know so many writers are superstitious about talking about work in progress that it has become a cliche, but hey I guess I am living that cliche. I find that if I pre-tell the story I’m trying to tell, to my friends and those nice people who care enough to ask, at some point I have already “told” it and the juice goes out of it that you need for the writing of the scenes. Does that make any sense?
I will say that I have fallen in love with characters before and usually they lead me where they want to go. This time is no different. It’s funny - this will be my eighth novel and it hasn’t gotten any easier at all. It is more rewarding, though, because I know whatever obscure little thing I put in there, somewhere there will be a reader who gets it. That is really cool.
I listen to a lot of music when I am reading but not when I am writing. I listen to classical music or sometimes old rhythm and blues in the morning to get my brain cells lined up in order. I like rock, too, and I have all kinds of weird tastes. The Beatles, both Elvises, Bruce, Joni. When I am traveling I go to the art museum like everybody else and try to learn something about the people from the art ... but generally you learn only about the artist. You don’t learn anything general, but everything specific.
There are some books I read over again, as soon as I have read it, because I can’t believe how good it was and I want to take it apart and see what made it tick. Other books, I delay and delay because I don’t want it to end. And then of course there are those that are like the second term of the Bush presidency, an endless dreary slog. I like to read Anna Karenina every couple of years. I like to read most of Dickens again and again. I’ve been on a David Foster Wallace kick since The Pale King came out. I cant imagine a year without reading some Marquez.
I just re-read The Broom of the System, David Wallace’s first book. I had a great time with In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Also a gripping crime novel by Jane Bradley, You Believers.
Every summer I teach writing workshops up at Squaw Valley. This year Annie Lamott and I were talking about books we absolutely inhaled as children. I started talking about a wonderful book called Follow My Leader, by a writer called James B. Garfield. It’s the story of a boy who loses his sight in an accident with a firecracker. He has to learn to deal with being blind, goes off to a special school to learn how to work with a seeing-eye dog. The details of the training were absolutely fascinating to me; I used the glasses we got from the eye doctor with our dilated pupils, and went around pretending I was blind like the hero the book. I read that book about twenty times, I’ll bet.
Afterward, at least two dozen people came up to tell me that was their favorite book too. Many of them had forgotten it until I mentioned it. Apparently it was a Scholastic Book Club perennial choice and a great favorite of kids everywhere. I highly recommend it, although it may seem a bit old-fashioned now. (I was really surprised to discover the hero’s name is Jimmy Carter!)
I’ve never written about a blind person yet, so I don’t think there has been any direct influence of the book. But I always try very hard to plunge the reader into the sensory experience of whatever is happening in the story. And I’m sure it’s because James B. Garfield did that to me, over and over, long ago.