Jenn Stroud Rossmann discusses Myers-Briggs shelving methods, the characteristics of a story, and family relationships.
The home-improvement projects of our suburban split-level have ranged from stripping unfortunate wallpaper to mitigating the pinkness of the 1960s Pepto-tile extravaganza that seems to comprise at least one bathroom in every home in New Jersey. One of our first projects — and the one that made me feel sort of okay about moving from California to the East Coast — was to have a set of built-in bookshelves installed around our fireplace. The shelves gave a little character to the previously mantel-free hearth, and also made a good home for a nice fraction of our book collection. Once the books were home, I stood a chance of getting there myself.
Coming to know someone by the looks of her bookshelves seems to be a premise of this column at The Coil, and it also justifies the bulk of my collegiate dating decisions. Today, my shelves pretty much announce that this is an INTJ house, with all residents firmly on the rational “Thinking / Judging” side of the Myers-Briggs psychological profile spectrum. Our books are alphabetized by author, and at least once a year we work through the whole lot to integrate the newly-arrived stragglers into the system. Ours is not a household likely to experiment with shelving books by color or with turning them spine-in. Let the “Feeling / Perceiving” ESFPs have those adventures.
The shelf pictured contains many of the strongest influences on my writing and my novel, The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh. Those I’ve read on my Kindle or loaned out with evangelical zeal are absent from the photograph, but not from this reader’s heart.
When, as an undergrad, I first discovered Raymond Carver — my professor, Leonard Michaels, suggested I would enjoy his work, which I suspect was a gentle way of saying the stories I wrote were dimestore knockoffs of a master I hadn’t even heard of — and Lorrie Moore, I felt a world of possible stories crack open. A story could be about a small moment, carefully observed, or it could be about the moment you had a chance to change your life, and didn’t. And … a story could be funny. I love the stories of Z. Z. Packer, Danielle Evans, Amy Bloom, Jim Shepard, and Carmen Maria Machado. James Alan McPherson’s Elbow Room is perfection. Oh, and Grace “Everloving” Paley, y’all. Just sit down, and let all these voices spin you a tale.
I’ve long enjoyed the novels of Tom Perrotta, who braids a narrative from multiple point-of-view characters. These novels have bemused affection for each of their characters, sort of tenderly satirizing them in the most empathetic way possible. Perrotta’s books, similar to Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House and Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, are big-hearted, wise, and warm, even when they’re acknowledging human darkness. Celeste Ng is also an expert at this encompassing understanding, though instead of a roving close-third-person, she deploys the kind of omniscient narrator that seems like it ought not to work anymore, but it definitely still does.
I am preoccupied with family relationships — between parents and children, between spouses, between siblings. I am especially interested in the tension between the person you are and the person whom your parent, partner, or sibling wants you to be. My novel contains a variety of these pairs that alternately attracts and repels each other, especially two adult sisters with divergent approaches to motherhood and their careers. I think of Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here as one of my touchstones for the mother-daughter relationship in particular. Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is an act of novelistic empathy so profoundly attuned to one woman’s hopes and letdowns; the language is beautiful and the scenes quietly singe your heart.
For audacious structure, pacing, and all-round cleverness, I honor Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. Each of these novels has a kind of modulation moment that shifts the whole book into a different key, and I can attest that the pleasure of the initial surprise is undiminished by rereading.
The antic energy and spinning plot-wheels of Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith are talismans for me when I get too deep in the “subtle revelation of character” hole that I’m so comfortable being in. “Make things happen,” these novels remind me, “and while you’re at it, try to emulate these authors’ vocabularies, intellect, and wit, too.” It feels like every other page Chabon uses a word so obscurely perfect that it should never be used by anyone ever again. And Smith’s intellect radiates, giving her reader big ideas, politics, and philosophy, as well as propulsive plot.
I reread Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine during the writing of this book, and found myself again romanced by Erdrich’s sweep and layering of stories. I love the echoes across generations, the long-held family grudges, the chorus of voices she channels. It’s also the book that is supposed to be up for discussion at my novel’s neighborhood book group meeting; things don’t quite go to plan.