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My Nose in a Book, or How Reading Taught Me to Write

April 18, 2011

 We’re so pleased to welcome author Caitlin Kittredge to our blog today as part of her blog tour for her first young adult novel, The Iron Thorn. Caitlin shares the story of how she found books that she connected to as a teenager, and what ultimately inspired her to become an author. Be sure to check out The Iron Thorn, a blend of mystery, fantasy and steampunk set in a dark city called Lovecraft.

 I am a writer, but I was a reader first.  I grew up in rural Massachusetts.  We didn’t have a TV, and even radio reception was spotty.  I read a lot of books—some books geared for kids (Nancy Drew will forever be my spunky girl role model) but most not.  I was a kid in the late 80s, a teen in the late 90s—before the concept of “YA literature” exists as it does today.  Most of the novels available for teens when I was one were “issue” books (and your teenage self can only read so many books about drug-addicted or suicidal peers before it becomes a real downer) or series romances like Sweet Valley High.  So I read adult.  My mother kept giant, illustrated volumes of Greek and Norse mythology on the shelf, and I learned to read, one vowel-heavy name at a time, from the folklore of ancient Greece.  I got my first taste of epic heroism from the stories of Perseus, Thor and Odin, my first taste of supervillainy from Loki and Hades.  My mom also kept around a complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a pre-edit version where people still got their feet chopped off and evil witches still got locked in the oven.  I never had a negative reaction to the stories, but I remember thinking the Big Bad Wolf got a bad rap.  Goldilocks too.  You don’t just break in and mess with people’s stuff. 

 Amazingly, I turned out all right.  When I exhausted the tiny (literally, one shelf) YA section of our local library, around age 11, I started reading old.  I read Starship Troopers, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Wuthering Heights and all of Shakespeare’s plays—at least all of the ones that involved either A) ghosts and faeries or B) murder.  So maybe I got a little bit twisted after all…

 No denying it by the time I was an actual teen—I loved fantasy fiction.  I loved a good scare, I loved a ghost story, I craved stories about the dark side.  I ventured into the adult SFF/Horror section and read every Stephen King book on the shelf, but it was Misery that stuck with me.  Not Annie Wilkes, the romance-obsessed grotesque who chains down her favorite writer to finish a novel but the actual mechanics of being a writer, even the ugly bits—the deadline stress, the lack of inspiration, feeling boxed in and of course, dealing with your number-one fan kidnapping you and breaking your ankles.  I wanted that—I didn’t care about the negatives, but I had never wanted to be a writer more than when I closed the back cover of Misery.  I was 17.  I’d tried to write novels before, always floundering around and never finishing anything more than a few pages.  Now, though, I had a goal—I wanted to feel the way Paul from Misery felt when he was working on his manuscripts.  Minus the broken ankles.

 I devoured all the other King books I could find—Christine, Pet Sematary, Firestarter, and a host of others.  I drew away from real-world based horror and began reading more books by fantasy authors from the 1970s and 1980s, all full of elves and dwarves and magic swords and Dark Lords.  I gave Tolkien an honest try, but he’s what killed my love affair with Big Fat Fantasy novels.  This just wasn’t for me.  I kept thinking there had to be fantasy lit out there with the spirit of, say, Elmore Leonard rather than Elrond the elf.  And just like an enchanted object in a quest fantasy, a friend in my sociology class handed me a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Vol. I and said “I think this might be right up your alley.”

 I was blown away.  I had no idea that a story like that could be told, so sharply and coherently, being huge and magical and philosophical while at the same time being so concise and accessible and human.  This is what I want, I thought.  I want to write the modern fairy tales, the folklore of the post-noir, post-wonder age.  So I tried.  And I tried.  And I still never got more than a few pages into anything.  I was trying so hard to imitated all of those formative influences, from Gaiman to King going all the way back to Heinlein, Chandler and the Prose Eddas, that I was drowning.

 I graduated from college with two half-finished paranormal romance novels and a boatload of frustration.  I started working a job where I barely had time to sleep, never mind read, and my desire to write fell by the wayside.  Until I started to miss it—the sense of escape, and that desire, that need that I had first read about in Misery to tell stories.  My mom, ever the helpful one, gave me a copy of King’s On Writing and that was partly what helped a revelation happen: I didn’t have to do anything except tell a story.  A story I liked, that made me happy to write.  It didn’t have to be brilliant right out of the gate.  It didn’t even have to be very good.  I just had to write it.

 I finished the first draft of my first published novel, Night Life, less than six months later.  It was terrible—rough and uneven and with an ending that showed up as abruptly as one of those brick walls in a cartoon.  So I spent another six months fixing it, and reading a lot of books with a similar feel.  These books, I discovered, were called “urban fantasy” and they took their cues not from swords and elves but from detective novels, from folktales, from the great old pulps of the 1920s and 30s.  This was where I belonged, I quickly realized, as I read all the Kim Harrisons, all the good Anita Blake novels, Charles de Lint and Emma Bull and Charlie Huston and on and on and on. 

 I sold Night Life, wrote 7 more books, and had a fairly steep learning curve up to my current book, The Iron Thorn, which is my first YA novel.  YA exploded while I was writing, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  Every time I walk through the bookshop and see the shelves upon shelves of YA fiction of every stripe, I hope with all my heart that another teenage girl or boy is feeling the same spark I felt at age 17, the need, whispering over and over in their head I must do this.  I must tell stories. 

 Around the time I finished my fourth novel, I revisited my Stephen King habit, and picked up The Dark Half, another book about writers.  This time, I was struck by how familiar the book seemed—I didn’t have the strong yearning to be Thad Beaumont, the writer tormented by his pseudonym’s identity while struggling to sell another book, but I sure as hell sympathized with him.  Deadline stress?  Yes.  Barely making ends meet while trying to find time to write?  Oh yeah.  Your murderous pseudonym’s popcorn fiction selling better than your more personal stories?  Okay, not that part.  But, I realized as I read, this was all true.  And I’d experienced most of it, minus the stalked-by-a-psychopath bit.  I was a writer, which should have been evident, seeing that I had three books in print and another in final production.  But it didn’t sink in until that moment, while I was reading.  I’d done it. I was a writer, with all the associated neuroses and joys.

 Reading taught me to write.  It taught me to value stories.  It taught me to tell my own.  If you want to write, be it YA, adult, horror, literary fiction, fantasy, chick lit—that’s the best advice I can give you.

 Just read.  The rest will come.

If you want to follow Caitlin on the rest of her blog tour, please visit the following sites:

SUVUDU—Tuesday, April 12th

The Compulsive Reader—Wednesday, April 13th

The Story Siren—Thursday, April 14th

Fantastic Book Review—Friday, April 15th

Confessions of a Bookaholic—Saturday, April 16th

Random Acts of Reading—Monday, April 18th

Sparkling Reviews—Tuesday, April 19th

The Book Butterfly—Wednesday, April 20th

Steph Su Reads—Thursday, April 21st

Bitten by Books—Friday, April 22nd
Page Turners Blog—Monday, April 25th

Cleverly Inked—Tuesday, April 26th  

Adventures in Children’s Publishing—Wednesday, April 27th

Kiss the Book—Thursday, April 28th
The Children’s Book Review—Friday, April 29th

Library Lounge Wizard—Saturday, April 30th


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 12:59 pm

    Preach it!

  2. Heather P. permalink
    April 18, 2011 11:46 pm

    Awesome post! I am sharing this with my 7th and 8th graders.

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