Writing the Books I Need to Read
by M.A. Harper
M. A. Harper, a farmer's daughter, lives in New Orleans and enjoys a few other things besides reading and writing, like parties, NFL football, friends and family, the movie "Ghost World," and cats.
I've always been a compulsive reader, even as a child. I read at school, on the bus, in trees, in the bathtub. But bringing a book to the dinner table was frowned upon in my house, so I had to amuse myself by discreetly reading the backs of cereal boxes whenever my mother wasn't looking. I knew by heart all of the ingredients in Frosted Flakes by age eight, plus the correct abbreviation for avoirdupois.
What I sought in fiction was more than a way of just passing the time, though. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was already discovering that the best novels both take you out of yourself and bring you back to yourself simultaneously -- don't ask me how. But I know it when I see it.
I remember, in my teens, being struck by a throwaway phrase in some book I was lost in describing a silence so profound that a character could hear his "nose whistling." And I thought, "Omigod! Somebody else's nose actually whistles! And here I've been thinking that it's only me, a quirk of my own strange nose!" And I immediately felt less alone, more included. Oddly but deeply satisfied.
Since I'm not by nature a confider of my own personal woes or problems -- mainly because even the best of friends can blink and go "huh?" at some honest but oddball revelation -- good fiction has provided me all my life with solace and the raw materials for reaching self-understanding on my own. So, in a very real sense, what initially propelled me into becoming a writer was a basic need to read some books that hadn't been written yet.
For instance, my first novel, For The Love of Robert E. Lee, emerged from my own inability to integrate my southern background into my liberal adult persona. Believe me, if some other author had written this book and then all I would have to do would be to buy the thing and not write it, I would've just kicked back and enjoyed it at my own present-day dinner table. Self-knowledge through escapism: hey, what could possibly be better? Cheaper than therapy, and way more fun.
Naturally, when confronted with my mother's newly-diagnosed Alzheimer's disease some years later, the first thing I did was to go to the library, only to come up empty-handed. Good nonfiction books existed on the subject, but they brought me neither temporary escape nor inclusion. How-to manuals, they left me feeling inadequate when I couldn't always follow their instructions and I felt myself more alone, not less. What I needed was the solace of a good novel shining some light onto this dark path both I and my mother were walking together, but there was none. So whenever I found the time to write, The Worst Day of My Life, So Far was the book that began to take shape. I wrote it because I needed to read it.
I can't tell you what the world's best novels are, but I can name a few that I've needed to read and happily already exist. I've both lost and found myself in Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood, and Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy books illuminate, mystify, and entertain me to no end -- I've read all three twice, and will probably read them again. A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in The Garden is another favorite. As I've said, I read widely and my tastes are eclectic, so let me mention a recent science fiction addiction of mine, Tad Williams' four Otherland books. I'm also a lifelong Tolkien fan.
My own next novel -- another book I desperately need to read but have to write it first, scheduled for publication on Halloween of 2003 -- is a ghost story. Don't ask.
A May/June 2001 Book Sense 76 pick:
"It's hard to imagine someone writing a novel about Alzheimer's, but Harper has done it beautifully. Ultimately a heart-warming story of family commitment, this book reveals the totally bizarre world of both patient and caregiver."
- Molly Beck, Quail Ridge Books and Music, Raleigh, NC
Author photo by Pat Jolly