Every year on April 23rd, World Book Night provides volunteers with specially-printed free books to distribute in their communities. Each volunteer selects a title from a list of thirty adult, YA, and children’s books, then picks up twenty copies from a local bookstore or library. Which book would you choose?
On Monday, fellow Horn Booker Shara and I went to the Cambridge Public Library’s World Book Night kick-off celebration, which brought together three local-ish authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh (The Language of Flowers), Lisa Genova (Still Alice, Left Neglected, and the forthcoming Love Anthony) and Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book, American Gods, Coraline, Sandman, etc., etc.). All three have books on this year’s World Book Night list. Being sadly badly versed in adult literature these days, I’m not familiar with Lisa’s or Vanessa’s books, but I look forward to reading them. The authors discussed their habits as readers, how they got started writing, and their creative processes. Some highlights of their conversation:
- Vanessa told of carrying a book of flower meanings by Kate Greenaway in her pocket for years, eventually composing a poem of paper strips strung together with actual flowers — an early precursor to her novel.
- Lisa left a career in neuroscience research to write fiction. Her former occupation informs her novels, which feature characters coping with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism. An added perk? Her PhD gives her insider access to the latest research. (“Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Genova…”) During the writing of Still Alice, about a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Lisa was in daily communication with twenty-four individuals affected by the disease.
- When asked what book he’d like to distribute for World Book Night, Neil said he would insist on speaking with the recipients about their personal tastes in order to recommend something specifically for each of them.
- The moderator asked the authors which books they wished they had written themselves. Lisa: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Vanessa: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Neil said that as a child he “wanted to be the person who had written The Lord of the Rings” but that actually writing it seemed like too much work. He fantasized about falling into a parallel world where Tolkien didn’t exist and taking credit for the novel himself; he carried it with him at all times in case this opportunity presented itself.
- All three authors said they don’t outline or plot books in advance; they only know “what happens” for a section of each book at a time. Vanessa quoted E. L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Neil spoke about the joy of surprising yourself with your writing and offered an anecdote from the writing of Anansi Boys: the main character unexpectedly got into an elevator, and Neil knew that once he exited the elevator he would be murdered — and the novel would be over. It took Neil two months to find his way out of this predicament.
- An audience member asked Neil if people take his children’s books less seriously than his adult books. He joked that winning the Newbery made people take him quite seriously for about a year. He takes his writing for children as seriously as (if not more than) his writing for adults, because books have even more potential to change your life during childhood.
Lisa and Vanessa had a strong fan showing; the woman in line in front of me had planned her entire garden around The Language of Flowers, and at least one book club who had read Left Neglected was in attendance. But, like me, many attendees were there to see Neil Himself. Despite the long signing line, he was very gracious as I babbled at him when my turn came.