Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories, out this month from Press 53. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Butter, Subtropics, The Rumpus, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Hunger Mountain, among other journals. She writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, OR, and beyond.
For a writer, I feel like I am a terrible reader. And by that, I mean I don’t gobble up books the way many writers and avid readers do. My attention span is short and my interests are either so myopic or so varied (I’m not sure which), that I rarely feel like as soon as I finish one book, I can dive straight into another. I also like to sit with a book after I finish it—to let myself continue to live in the story. Like, after I finished All the Light We Cannot See, I didn’t want to be immersed in any world other than the one Tony Doerr had built.
After finishing a good novel I’ll read creative nonfiction essays, instead (right now The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction is the go-to tome on my nightstand), and then maybe some short stories to get me back into that idea that another story and other characters exist. And, often, I just won’t read anything for a couple of weeks. I used to feel like sort of a failure for this, and that made me wonder where we got the idea that the literary litmus of being a “reader” is the novel. So what if I only read five novels a year? I also read short stories and essays—some published, and some by students and friends—and poetry and memoirs and articles about everything from TV to black holes (I’m really into black holes).
That being said, I have recently started reading a novel. I needed to immerse myself in a good story. A kind story and a story with beautiful language, so I finally cracked open I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer. It’s been out for over a year (that’s the other thing about my reading habits; it takes me forever to get to whatever everyone else has already consumed), and I don’t know why it took me so long. It’s about everything I believe in: the fluidity and bumps of love, sexuality, and health—our bodies—and how all those things inform each other in unexpected ways. It has a retrospective narrator, and even though the arc mimics the non-linear patterns of memory, it’s never confusing. It actually makes me feel closer to the protagonist, because I feel like I’m right there with him, inside him, as he’s looking back on these events.
Also on my nightstand is Sarah Tomlinson’s memoir, Good Girl, which is based around her fraught relationship with her absent father, and also about surviving a school shooting, sex, self-esteem, rock and roll, and depression. That’s where my main interests—in literature, and in life—lie. I’m intensely curious about the ways in which life breaks us and how we try to become unbroken again—often in incredibly broken ways. It’s not the self-help version narrative where you suffer a trauma, and then do some specific “work,” and then you’re all better. We humans are more complicated—more screwed up—than that, and Sarah is very honest about it in her memoir.
And after the little jab at “self-help,” I admit that for the last year and a half I’ve had Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön by my bed. She’s published over fifteen books that are largely repackaging of the same concepts—how to be compassionate with yourself and others, and how to find peace amid the constant chaos. The different titles and formatting of these ideas hit me in significant ways at different times in my life. Whether it’s Start Where You Are or When Things Fall Apart or Living Beautifully, her down-to-earth wisdom always grounds me and helps me more fully inhabit my heart, but not in a way that makes it more painful. In a way that makes me more . . . well, me.
And, always, beside my bed is a copy of Discover Magazine. Always, are black holes, these dense, super powerful entities that we can’t see, but know exist because of the way they warp time and space, because of the way everything—objects, light, even sound—disappears after crossing the event horizon, never to be heard from again. That’s what I want to dream about after I turn off the light.
What floats your dream boat just before lights out? Any recommendations for Liz?