by Amy Hale Auker
In spring 2006, I left the Texas panhandle on an extended camping and hiking trip with my ten year-old daughter. Seven weeks of sleeping in a tent in state and national parks in the western United States. From southern New Mexico to the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. We got a motel room every seven to ten days for laundry and bathing. Then we’d restock our cooler and go again. (For the complete story of that trip, you’ll have to wait for the book.) Before we left, I asked family and friends for reading recommendations—and spent a small fortune filling a box with books. And so, Kerouac, Garrison Keillor, Edward Abbey, Jeanette Winterson, Stegner, and Mary Oliver hiked into my life. I will never forget reading Sexing the Cherry in our tent in Zion National Park, and even now, I turn to certain passages the way one would open a box of hand-crafted chocolates. I also read Cormac McCarthy and a McMurtry book I had never taken the time for. I read Kingsolver’s essays and some Michael Pollan.
I was both ruined and reborn. No more small and safe for me.
In 2008 came the next person and next event to change my reading life. I moved in with my now husband , and we combined our libraries. Piled on the dining room table were copies of Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Sun. He comes from a family of avid readers and they are just as likely to loan me Henry Miller as Jane Smiley. I discovered Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeffery Eugenides, Philip Roth, John Irving (hallelujah), Ann Patchett, Annie Proulx, Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Strout, Thomas McGuane, George Saunders, and Jennifer Eagan. I bounce off of Elmore Leonard from time to time and have gone back to revisit Cather and Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich because I no longer have to check them out of the library. And when Collum McCann came into my life, I spent weeks with Let the Great World Spin. I read every short story published in the New Yorker and then seek out other things those writers have written.
Every essay starts out with a good question. This one started with why did I switch genres from creative non-fiction to fiction, and why do I choose to write literary fiction? I love the personal essay, the lyric essay, and I know that I will always write them, but that kind of writing is often exhausting. The me, me, me, what do I think, what do I think theme is quickly exhausted. Plus, there are some stories that I cannot tell in an essay because they are not mine to tell. When I was standing before our bookshelves five years ago, waiting on the long slow molasses of the university press to finally get Rightful Place in print, my husband mentioned that he reads to be entertained. So, I set out to tell the stories I can’t tell as my own. I gave those stories to my characters, the characters who can make those stories come alive.
Though I live in the West and write from the West, often about cowboys and life and work on a ranch, I don’t enjoy reading westerns where bullets fly or someone highjacks a train or a stagecoach or a campfire in every chapter. I don’t enjoy reading a romance where within five pages we know who is beautiful, who is ugly, and that there will be a proposal or a wedding at the end, after much difficulty, of course. The truth is that when the bullets stop flying and the wedding is over, someone must clean up the mess. In the cold hard light of a morning after the honeymoon, the plumbing backs up in the bathroom and down the hall. Sometimes cute puppies die and sometimes young men have epiphanies and sometimes the weather is more real than the news. And fifteen years into a relationship there are hurdles and hearts that look completely different than wedding cake and vows. None of us have bows on the tops of our heads, tying us up into easily defined packages.
One of the lessons Elmore Leonard brings to us is that there are no villains. There are no heroes. There are humans on a human journey with no beginnings and no endings. The exploration of the human heart, the human journey, as well as our strong ties to sense of place bring me back again and again to the page. I value good writing, the strong and capable use of language, as well as breaking the rules in just the right way to bring power to the page. I fall back on the theory that I should write the book that I want to read. Have I done that yet? No, not all the way. I wonder if even Colum McCann has achieved that. And yet, each time I pick up my pen or put my fingers on the keyboard, each time I struggle with the questions of character, plot development, and structure, I know that when the writing time is done, when I retreat from office to couch in front of the fire, a book will wait for me there. And someday, I hope, someday, to write the book I want to read.
(Note: I left out so many great writers that I love, so many great books that I am firmly attached to, but the name dropping had to stop somewhere!)
Amy Hale Auker writes and rides on a ranch in Arizona. She is the author of Rightful Place, 2012 WILLA winner for creative non-fiction. Her first novel, Winter of Beauty, was released by Pen-L Publishing in October. You can read a current essay of Amy’s in the January 2014 issue of Cowboys&Indians magazine, on newsstands now. http://www.amyhaleauker.com