Guest Blogger This Week: Lisa Adams, co-author of 'Why We Read What We Read'

Posted: December 17, 2007 in Uncategorized

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I’m thrilled to hand over my forum to Lisa Adams this week, co-author along with John Heath, of the recent wonderful book about current bestselling books and why people read them. Lisa will be guest posting on Wednesday and Friday.

To kick things off, here is an interview I conducted with Lisa. If this whets your appetite, you can visit her website and learn more about the book. The authors also maintain a blog featuring lots more updates on subjects related to books and reading. Check it out!

LG: What inspired you to write ‘Why We Read What We Read?’ What message do you hope readers will take away, after reading it?

LA: We wrote Why We Read What We Read because we were just plain curious about bestsellers and reading habits. We knew the titles of many bestsellers and had even read some, but we noticed that our own reading did not correlate very well with the official lists. (Man, has THAT changed!) What were we missing? What has America been interested in, and how in or out of touch were we? We really had no clue about the overall picture—the kinds of books people were reading, or how they tied together across genres. And what we found was so shocking, dismaying and hilarious all at once that we just had to share.

Mainly, we want readers to learn a bit about what’s going on out there in American bestsellers and have a fun time doing it. Most previous books on bestsellers have been scholarly and straightforward, but that just wouldn’t do for silly people like us. We wanted the book to be entertaining in its own right, so we had to go for spunky and irreverent. And we certainly hope people enjoy that.

Buried in the spunkiness, though, is a serious message: the way we are reading is actually pretty dangerous from a democratic perspective. When you have a whole society of people choosing to read books that attempt to deny/eliminate complexity and confirm what readers already believe, you don’t end up with a community that knows how to discuss or resolve real-world problems. It actually does matter if, how, and why we read.

LG: How long did it take to research such an ambitious, informative book?

LA: We started working on the book in spring of 2003. We were all gleeful and excited and so we began our research and wrote the first few chapters over a period of several months.

That’s about the time we realized we had made a serious mistake in writing a time-sensitive book. Our chapters were pure genius (we agreed on that), yet wicked people kept putting out more bestsellers, thus requiring us almost daily to alter our brilliant prose! We knew we had two choices: 1) finish the dang thing, or 2) spend our lives rewriting it.

Or did we? We opted for hidden choice #3: seeing if anyone was actually interested in publishing our book. When we got our contract with Sourcebooks, we had six weeks to write the last three chapters! We had tried to keep up with our reading, but Lisa still had to read something like 30 novels last December. And John had to read another book by Ann Coulter. It was insane, but at least it stopped the endless revising.

So, concept to publication, it took about three and a half years.

LG: Was it difficult collaborating on this project?

LA: After the first year it became increasingly difficult to work together, since we had each taken out a restraining order on the other.

No, seriously, it was so much easier than either of us expected. As writers we have different strengths, but they both work well in a silly, snarky book like this one. We knew the style and structure we wanted. So the collaboration was great. For each section, one of us would take a stab at a first draft, and the other would then edit. Sure, we had our disagreements over various words and passages, but one of us always managed to intimidate the other into submission. The collaboration worked because each of us genuinely appreciated what the other person brought to the book, and in the end it was better than it would have been had either of us gone solo.

LG: What’s your background? How did you come to be so interested in the subjects of books and reading?

LA: No secret here: we’re just big nerds. We’ve always been book-lovers. John’s a nerdy literature professor, and Lisa is a nerdy writer and a nerdy writing instructor. Even our dog is nerdy, constantly pointing out passages in Marley and Me in a vain effort to prove she could be worse. We fantasize about having our own library all the time.

But we’re also fascinated by American culture. We kept hearing people talking at social events about the books they were reading, and we started to wonder how much their choices overlapped with our own and those of the majority of Americans.

LG: Which authors do you admire? What books have most shaped your life?

John: Although there have been numerous books, both novels and non-fiction, that have been influential, it’s more a matter of style and tone. The authors who first made me want to read, and especially write, were the great New Yorker authors of the 20s and 30s: White, Thurber, Parker, and Benchley, as well as the biting wit of Mencken. Clearly I’m hopelessly out of date, which is why Why We Read What We Read was such an eye-opener.
Lisa: I remember lying face-down on my bed as a kid, sobbing my eyes out because Mary—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s snotty sister, who happened to be my favorite character in the Little House on the Prairie books—had just gone blind. Though I had always loved books, I think it was at that moment that I realized how real they were to me. They’ve always been part of my life, my thinking. Nowadays I love just about anything that is both beautifully crafted and thematically compelling. The topic or genre isn’t as important as the construction of the language and the exploration of the characters and/or ideas.

LG: Is there anything you’ve read this year that’s been particularly impressive, and that you’d recommend?

LA: Since we’ve mainly been keeping up with the bestseller lists this year, we probably haven’t come across too many hidden gems—but we quite enjoyed The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr (a surprisingly fascinating book about the science of smell).

LG: What sort of writing schedule do you keep? Are you disciplined about it, and how do you balance life and writing?

LA: Oh man. We wish we could say we write every day, but that’s not even close to true. The ironic thing is, as wonderful as it is to get published, the revisions, editing, and post-publication PR kind of suck up all the time and energy that you’d normally put in to writing. So that’s mainly what we’ve been doing this year. In general, we both have flexible jobs, but not a whole lot of spare time. We simply try to write as much as we can, taking advantage of the windows of opportunity that open. And, of course, we play the lottery.

LG: What writing projects are you working on now? What’s next for the both of you?

LA: Prepare for a freakishly eclectic list!

Right now we are starting work on a vocabulary textbook for middle schools, to be followed by a romantic comedy screenplay. (Yes, two great tastes that go great together.) Then separately, we’ve always got various works in progress. John co-writes musical plays for elementary school classrooms and is working on a book about the ancient Greek tragic vision (fun stuff!), while Lisa is chipping away at her adult and juvenile fiction.

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