Editor’s Note: I (Nancy) am happy to welcome author Deborah Michel as a guest poster in the On Reading column. Look for my review and a giveaway of her first novel, Prosper in Love, on Wednesday, May 23.
If I’d figured out early enough that careers exist where you’re paid to read books (publishing house editor? English professor?) I’m not sure I’d be a novelist today. I love to read. It’s embarrassing when I have to fill out the sort of questionnaires that ask you to list hobbies. My only answer: Reading. “Other interests?” Reading. “Sports?” It starts to make a person feel limited.
To me, reading always felt limitless, the whole world contained in books — I could learn everything from their pages. I was a precocious reader, and also shy. At a pretty young age I set out to learn everything I could about how to behave with others from the masters of the social novel: Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, George Eliot. It didn’t occur to me that a contemporary author or two might provide some pertinent information. Nor did it strike me until much later, my college years, that closing my book and getting out and actually talking to people my own age might be instructive as well. My bookish behavior didn’t raise any red flags in my family. We’re the sort who don’t mind standing in line at the supermarket; it’s just another opportunity to read the book we always have with us. I’d read under the covers late into the night, not fooling anyone at all, I’m guessing, by my claims that I needed the hall light outside my bedroom door left on because I was afraid of the dark.
Those big, baggy 19th century novels provided example after example of nice girls I’d want to know or be like, and how they behaved, and also showed me what sort of men were worthy of their love. It was always pretty clear who was a good choices for a mate, if you knew what signs to look for. And after reading enough I learned to spot them easily. Men who were vain, dismissive toward women, who thought about themselves too much, gambled money they didn’t have or were rude to their servants were clearly to be avoided. (Not bad guidelines for the 21st century, come to think of it.) When it came to the female characters, modesty was an important quality, but so was intelligence and inner strength. I loved that so many of Trollope’s heroines were opinionated and even stubborn. Jane Austen was pretty clear on what sort of feminine behavior was to be avoided. You wanted to be clever, funny and spirited like Lizzy Bennet, but not over-the-top flirtatious and giddy like Lydia.
Later, though, I learned something even more important from Austen. Reading a selection of her letters as an adult, I came across one she wrote the morning after a dance. She described herself as flirting too much, dancing and racing around in a way that sounded more Lydia or Kitty than Lizzy. This was a revelation to me, that the perceptive, sharp-eyed, sparkling-witted writer didn’t necessarily live up to the standards set by her own heroines all the time. Instead of making me think less of Austen, it made her all the more as a writer. I think it was at that moment that I realized that writing fiction really and truly was an act of empathy as much as imagination, and that the key to creating an alive, interesting world on the page was understanding your own worst impulses as well as your best. And I’ll admit, it’s usually when I’m writing those scenes and characters that tap into the parts of me I’m least proud of that writing becomes as much fun as, well, reading.
Deborah Michel, a seasoned magazine editor and freelance writer, has worked for many publications, including Premiere, Self, Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. She was the West Coast editor of Spy and served as a contributing editor at Buzz. Michel grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Dartmouth, and holds an MFA from Bennington. She lives with her family in northern California. Visit her online at www.deborahmichel.net.