Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Palate Cleansing

by Marcus Sakey

So yesterday I sent the draft of my new book to my editor.

This is a very good thing. But it’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what happens now.

My typical process when I finish a book is to tuck it in a drawer for as long as possible, then read it in one sitting. Then I combine my own notes with feedback from buddies, writer friends, and most particularly my agent and editor, in order to edit the thing.

But while in one sense I'm highly focused on the book, at the same time, something else is happening. I'm beginning to let go of it.

This isn’t a simple process, a flip of a switch. When you’ve lived with a story for a year, it takes time for it to drift from your head, which needs to happen in order to leave space for the next one. So during that time, besides editing, I like to read a lot. I mean a lot.

I read all kinds of books, in every genre. But during these periods I focus on books that will inspire me. Not novels I want to emulate per se, but books that take the broad genre I write in and do something innovative with it. That do more than just present a thrilling tale—they do it in an interesting way, or put a twist on it, or cross the border into other genres.

Novels like these are palate cleansers. They perk up my brain, get it receptive to new ideas and new directions.

For example, yesterday I reread WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. It’s a lovely book, one of those that you can heartily and universally recommend. And it’s a hell of a palate cleanser, because it takes what is at heart a traditional boy-meets-girl and weaves in a wonderfully realized world, some compelling musings on growing old, and healthy doses of cross-genre material. The result is magic.

Thing is, of course, it’s not easy to find books that are at once innovative and commercial. That’s the sweet spot for me during this period: much as I love David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell, much as I dig postmodernism, or the textual play of a book like HOUSE OF LEAVES, it doesn’t work as a palate cleanser. I need books that balance invention and accessibility, that startle and surprise while also seeming familiar.

That, in the Hollywood parlance, do the same thing, only different.

And since I’m part of this wonderful community, I thought I might ask you for some recommendations. What have you read that did this well?

I’m especially interested in books that have a strong commercial appeal, but they don’t need to be straight-ahead thrillers—just a hell of a tale that’s also got something to say. Books like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, or THE STAND, or THE HUNGER GAMES.

What have you read that you couldn't put down--and couldn't forget?


Alison said...

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.

Awkward Librarian said...

To keep with the YA lit angle, anything by Laurie Halse Anderson ever, but particularly "Wintergirls" and "Speak."

Or John Green's first book "Looking for Alaska."

David Heinzmann said...

Marcus, Congratulations on finishing the draft. Here are a few ideas in varying degress of compliance with your parameters, none of them new:

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
True North by Jim Harrison
Children of Light by Robert Stone

Vicki Pettersson said...

Lit Fic: Janet Fitch. Amazing stylist. Every word means and does so much.

Crime: Megan Abbott.

Horror: Joe Hill. HORNS is just out, but HEART-SHAPED BOX is amazing too.


Boyd Morrison said...

World War Z by Max Brooks is a favorite of mine.

Bethany K. Warner said...

Pick up Michael j. White's brand new debut "Weeping Underwater Looks A Lot Like Laughter."

I don't know yet whether it'll stick with me for a long time (just finished it a week ago) but probably the best new thing of 2010 I've read so far.

Martel said...

Marcus -

Congratulations on finishing the book :)

I'll second THE HUNGER GAMES and its sequel CATCHING FIRE. I also really loved DOPE by Sara Gran.

A couple of others that work as palate cleansers for me are THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton, and NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman.

Many times I find myself reading short stories when I need to take a break from longer works. THE COLLECTION by Bentley Little and PEACEABLE KINGDOM by Jack Ketchum are a couple of my favorites in that category.