Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ideal reader

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Portrait of the author as a young man

A few days ago, an interviewer asked me to describe what I saw as my target audience. In response, I fell back on the answer that writers tend to give in such situations: I said that I write the kinds of books I’d like to read. In both literary and popular fiction, I’m drawn to layered, fairly complicated books with a lot of detail and information, and these are inevitably the novels I’ve found myself writing as well. They’re emphatically books for grownups, with occasional adult situations—so it might seem strange, then, for me to confess that my ideal reader, if I’m being truly honest with myself, isn’t a grownup at all. In terms of which reader would give me the most satisfaction, I’d say that it’s a kid of twelve or so, a little too smart for the books at his or her grade level, who isn’t quite ready for adult fiction, but stumbles across my books by accident. It may seem unlikely, but it’s happened at least a few times. And whenever I hear about it, I get very happy.

That said, I’d never try to write a book geared specifically toward children. (Well, “never” is a big word, and I can’t rule anything out for the future, but it isn’t currently on my radar.) Rather, I’d like my novels to be read by kids for whom they’re not entirely appropriate. In my own case, my life was shaped forever by the first adult novels I read: I burned through most of the approved books in my grade school classroom in short order, and moved on to Orwell, King, and Eco. These books were considerably above my own reading level, but I’m glad that nobody warned me away from them. That’s why I’m simultaneously envious and somewhat concerned for kids today, who have entire bookstore sections devoted to young adult literature, which are pitched a little too directly at their interests and age group. These books fill an important need. But I’m still glad that my own limited options forced me to move more or less directly from The Headless Cupid to The Name of the Rose.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

In short, I was telling the truth when I said that I write for myself, but it’s really for a version of me that was at its best when I was ten or eleven years old. For most of grade school and middle school, I read voraciously and soaked up information like a sponge: as I recently told my wife, I sometimes suspect that most of what I know was acquired between the ages of eight and thirteen. I read a lot of junk, of course, but also novels that stayed with me. And I read them at a time when I was likely to take them for granted. Looking back at the works of art I enjoyed the most, it’s striking how long it took me to realize how deeply strange Foucault’s Pendulum or Blue Velvet really were. And although there’s a downside to skipping over the intermediate stages—you end up with a somewhat skewed picture of the possibilities of art as a whole—there’s no denying that I owe a lot of the person I eventually became to reading books and watching movies that no responsible adult would have recommended to me at the time.

Not coincidentally, this was also the moment when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Becoming a novelist is really a way of extending my childhood, when I wanted to know something about everything and made up stories about the world without even trying. You can’t always write with a child’s eye, of course, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things since then about craft. But the example is still one that haunts me, and many of the choices I’ve made in the following decades were with eye to what that kid would have wanted. I try to write stories that I think he would like—which, again, doesn’t mean writing for his age level—and I do my best to shape my life, to the extent that I can, into something that lives up to his expectations. I haven’t always been true to him, and there have been years on end when he would have been surprised, and possibly disappointed, by how I was spending my time. But he’s still the best guide I have to what I want to be when I grow up.

Written by nevalalee

March 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

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