(Drawing of Jane Mickelson by Vanessa Waring)
A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.
Jane Mickelson decided to be a writer as soon as she could read and write. Addicted to story in all its permutations, she wangled jobs focused on books, reading, and writing from her teen-aged years on. Jane’s short stories, reviews, essays, poems, and articles have appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals and been included in anthologies.
What was your early reading experience like?
Here’s an early memory: I’m riding in the car with “grown-ups.” While passing a large roadside billboard, everyone but me begins to laugh and joke about the text. It’s my first revelation that part of the world is closed to me. Fortunately, I’ve an older brother who gives in to my pleas to teach me to read; by kindergarten, I’ve already been initiated into what will become a life-long passion and, in adulthood, profession.
Were there favorite books you read in childhood?
Childhood tastes were primarily for fiction, especially what today is called Fantasy. I loved P. L. Travers‘ Mary Poppins series, with their references to mythological themes and characters (Travers a mythologist herself) and the Narnia books, of course, but also any story where children had magical adventures, such as the novels of E. Nesbitt, and in the 1950s, Edward Eager‘s Half Magic series. I read Tolkien only after his books were published in the U.S., but I’d already been enchanted by his poetry which appeared earlier in several anthologies. There was also a good series of biographies of prominent women, written for young readers, people such as Louisa May Alcott, Jane Adams, Amelia Earhart. Of course, I read and re-read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A wonderful but lesser known British author, L. M. Boston wrote a hauntingly lovely series, The Children of Green Knowe, that I adored and later read to our kids.
Do you like to read paper or eBooks? Audio books?
There are three ways I read: alone from a book; from audio books; reading aloud with my husband at bedtime, taking turns as narrator and listener. We began our nightly reading about 25 years ago, and most frequently choose novels, both new and classic. Currently, we’re reading Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, based on an old Russian folktale but set in early 20th century Alaska. We’ve read memoirs and several histories, though avoid anything too distressing or gruesome (don’t want to invoke nightmares!). It’s a peaceful shared pleasure and a great way to end the day.
One book at a time? Several?
I’ve two separate piles of books. One on the bedside table, purely for entertainment; the other, in my office, that usually contains research for a current writing project, and for preparation to interview a guest on the radio program “Questing,” over KWMR.
What are you reading now?
Right now, I’m reading Kelly Barnhill’s Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, and loving it. Her short stories are quirky, weird and otherworldly, and her novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon won the Newberry Award. While the latter is written for young adults, it’s definitely worth a read by adults as well.
I’ve also just finished listening to an audio version of Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, a multi-generational tale of a family descended from a Ghanaian Yasanti woman. It begins in 1700s Africa and goes up through the later 20th century, alternating voices. It’s well written and compellingly narrated. Audio books are a boon for insatiable readers; I listen to them whenever driving any distance, doing yard- or housework.
Do you have a favorite genre?
My childhood tastes have continued. Well-crafted fantasy tales still appeal. We seem to be living in a time when books in that genre, written for adults as well as kids (though many adult friends eagerly read the Harry Potter novels) are vastly popular: multi-volume series such as Game of Thrones, Outlander, Red Rising, Marie Brennan’s Onxy Court (a personal favorite of mine), the Hunger Games, or anything by Neil Gaiman are proving that getting older doesn’t mean we can’t still play with and speculate about other possibilities.
Years ago I worked in a bookstore that carried only science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. We sold a pin-on button with the phrase: “Reality is for people who can’t handle Science Fiction” [but I would include the word “Fantasy”].
As a mythologist, I’m also intrigued by how many fantasy authors are using characters from various pantheons and mythologies, not only for adult but for young readers as well. The Percy Jackson novels are best sellers for kids, have been made into movies, and are even generating spin-off non-fiction books about the Greek gods and goddesses. Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has been made into a highly successful t.v. series. His main characters are goddesses/gods who came to North America along with the people who immigrated here over the millennia, bringing their faiths with them.
Any thoughts on current books written in the fantasy genre?
There’s a newer trend in fantasy that appeals to my love of folklore: novels that use old fairy or folktales as template. Noami Novik’s Uprooted and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale with its sequel, The Girl in the Tower, are based on Slavic traditional tales and are lyrically written, well-told novels for adult readers. I hope this trend continues.
While I’m enjoying many of the novels mentioned above, there’s an aspect to these highly popular series that troubles me: so many of them are dystopian, set in a future portraying a damaged, sometimes even dying or destroyed, planet Earth. Often it is only the young characters–many in their teens–who can save the day, solve the problems, and help their species survive, but all too frequently the outcome is achieved through violence: “might makes right” wins again. To me, this is an indication of the genuine fears and apprehensions for the future that the younger generations of our very real world are experiencing right now.
Are there any books that you return to or re-read?
There are some books that I’m glad I didn’t read until well into adulthood. A while back I finally read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and know that if it had entered my life earlier I wouldn’t have had the eye/ear to fully appreciate the beauty and brilliance of her writing. A. S. Byatt’s Possession remains a favorite, and is a novel I look forward to re-reading. Her capture of the style and cadence of Victorian poetry and prose is so accurate that she could be Eliot’s heir.
I want to continue the rest of Proust’s great opus. I was reading it to a good friend who could no longer read to himself. Halfway through the third volume, he died, and somehow I didn’t have the heart to continue on my own, but have promised myself to return to it someday.
You’ve mentioned many works of fiction. What are some of the non-fiction books that you’ve read recently?
There are several non-fiction books that I’ve found fascinating and highly recommend. Rebecca Solnit’s memoir The Faraway Nearby often moved me to tears, not only because of her writing quality, but also because it reflected so much of my own life experiences and interests. The World Without Us, by science writer Alan Weisman, and historian Charles C. Mann’s 1491 followed by 1493, are not only page-turners, but also give us an idea of what our world was like and could be like in the future. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History describes the development of scientific understanding of DNA–fascinating. Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is a must; part bio of the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt and part history of human interaction with the environment.
For me, reading is a way to travel through time and space, and to gain intimate understanding of other peoples’ lives. The emotional quality of reading intrigues me; why do we mourn the death of a fictional character, grow anxious or joyous over an invented situation in a plot? Reading allows me to step outside my own time and experience life through someone else’s adventures. My deepest appreciation is reserved for authors who are highly adept at depicting both characters and story through unique and gifted writing.
I hear you’ve had past experiences working in the world of books. What were some of those?
Here are some favorite jobs over the years that focused on reading: 3 summers as a young “gypsy” librarian on a bookmobile; clerking at 3 very different book stores, beginning at age 17; 5 years as a “Reader’s Service” librarian in a public library; 5 years as a radio book reviewer. As a writer, I’ve had the perfect excuse to read about concepts, eras, people, and places that intrigue me. Over 25 years as a voice actor, I experienced the delight of reading aloud to people whom I might never meet but to whom (I dearly hope!) my reading brought pleasure in the form of narrated audio books or by voicing media software.
And I must thank our children (and now grandchildren) for the immense joy of sharing with them books that brought so much into my life as a child.