Reading as a writer is a strange and mysterious thing. It is different from reading for pleasure yet can also be extremely enjoyable. Sometimes when I have just finished a manuscript, I will pile up all the books that went into its creation and stare at the strange and seemingly random journey that brought me to the completion of the project. Reading is so important to writing that I even thanked some writers (Lidia Yuknavitch, Lisa-anne Gershwin), writers who I have never met, in the acknowledgements of my new novel because their books were invaluable to the process of writing An Uncertain Grace.
I am discovering more about my method and have begun to relax into my erratic process of reading-for-my-writing. I find that the books clump. I tend to read a lot of books in several different areas to keep me on track with the research and writing of my own. My current project is still a great amorphous lump of ideas, fragments, tangled threads. It is my job as a writer to knit these threads into a unified whole but at the moment it just looks like the cat got into the knitting basket.
I am trying to bring disparate ideas together. There is something about my grandmother in this book, and her grandmother before her. The project is about cultural inheritance through story and also through genetics. As a result, I am looking at fairy tales from my strongest cultural influences, Slovenia and Syria. I am also looking at genetic inheritance and the inheritance of gut bacteria so at the moment my research is wide – sprawling from the macro to the very, very micro.
The books I am reading in order to write my book can be clearly divided into groups. Fairy tales, books on cultural memory and storytelling, books on quantum physics, books on the microbiome, books on genetics, books on cosmology. To keep all these threads alive, I leap from group to group, reading a chapter here and a chapter there rather than reading any whole book at once. I am trying to merge all these different ideas together in my head and to find connections between them that I wouldn’t notice if I read one book at a time.
I know that none of these areas fit together neatly, but in a couple of years all of this erratic reading will pay off with a novel that will hopefully look like something unique even though I have stuffed hundreds of other people’s books into its making.
In my current research, some of the books I am reading are standouts for being both useful for my project and also incredibly interesting in their own right. It is difficult to put one down to continue reading another but in my strange, plaited process, it must be done.
Three of the most interesting books so far are Lynne Kelly’s The Memory Code, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby.
The Memory Code explores myths, song, dance and the cultural artefacts of indigenous people as methods of committing encyclopaedic knowledge of cosmology, plants, animals, history and kinship to memory in cultures that do not have written language. I have been reading a lot of physics books (for the previous project) that are dismissive of myths and fairy tales, looking at these forms of traditional knowledge as fixed and therefore unscientific. Lynne Kelly turns all that on its head by explaining that through story, song, dance and art, indigenous peoples were able to remember vast amounts of information without written records. Vitally important facts are embedded in easy to remember story and song, and the landscape is used as a tool for instant recall. It is a really interesting and readable book and a welcome antidote to some of the science books that, although wonderful in their own way, are infuriatingly dismissive of traditional knowledge systems.
The Gene by Mukherjee is a thorough and fascinating exploration of the discovery of genes all framed around the author’s own genetic worries. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder run in his family, seeming to strike randomly. Mukherjee sets out to unpack what is going on in the genetic makeup of his family by going right back to Aristotle, Darwin and Mendel and looking at scientific explorations and experiments that have led to our current understanding of genetics. Mukherjee’s previous book Emperor of all Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and I can see why. This book is grand and sweeping and gently but unflinchingly wrestles with big ideas. This is a book to read for its lyricism as much as for its subject.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby is a wonderful title as are all the titles of Petrushevskaya’s books. Her work has been banned in Russia, despite the fact that she writes fairy tales rather than political treatises. But there is something in the blackness of her subjects, the bleak amorality of the characters that seems to be a comment on Russian history and culture. In There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby, people lock their daughters and grandparents in their rooms waiting for them to die from plague, soldiers die but are unaware of their own deaths, jealousy leads to infanticide. Magic happens, but it is not the magic of children’s books. It is a creeping erosion of the very laws of nature. I have never read anything like these stories and the tone and themes feel so central to what I am working on that I have lined up four more of Petrushevskaya’s books so that I will always be reading one for the duration of my project.
I have many other books on the go and I am lining up dozens more. All of this is the rich compost that will travel through the guts of my imagination and hopefully help fertilise the tiny sprout of my own book. I know I am not alone in this strange process. When I speak with other writers about this project of reading for my writing, they nod and show me their own erratic towers. What an odd job we do, and how precarious. If I had missed the work of Kelly, or Petrushevskaya or Mukherjee my own book would be poorer for it.
Krissy Kneen is the award winning author of the memoir Affection, the novels Steeplechase, Triptych, The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine, and the Thomas Shapcott Award winning poetry collection Eating My Grandmother. She has written and directed broadcast documentaries for SBS and ABC television. Her most recent novel is An Uncertain Grace.