Midweek Notes from a Practicing Writer

My Nephew Inspires New Thoughts About My Own Youthful Reading

UnknownEarlier this summer, my young nephew told me he had a movie (on his iPad) that he wanted me to see.

“You’ll like it,” he said. “It has aunts.” (It took me a moment to understand that he was not touting the presence of “ants.”)

As I settled next to him on the sofa, I discovered that the movie in question was “James and the Giant Peach.” I had never seen the movie, nor had I read the original book, by Roald Dahl, on which the film is based. (Just a few minutes into our viewing, I was compelled to check with my nephew: “You’re not suggesting that I’m like THOSE aunts, are you?” ;-))

So when this precious child celebrated his birthday last week, I presented him with not just the video game he requested, but also a copy of Dahl’s book. (I refrained from sharing, just yet, my discomfort with Dahl’s anti-Semitism.) And as I thought about the books that my nephew most enjoys reading (or having me read to him), I had an epiphany of sorts:

Even as a child, I read remarkably little “non-realistic” work. The books I devoured were either (realist) historical fiction, à la the Little House series; (realist) contemporary fiction, à la Judy Blume; “classics” in realist style like Heidi and Little Women; and biographies and history. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, I also started reading “Holocaust literature” pretty young.) The Chronicles of Narnia didn’t interest me. I read no LeGuin. No Dahl. I didn’t get to know Winnie-the-Pooh’s friends until I was a grown-up. I have yet to read Alice in Wonderland. My biggest stretch, back in the early years, was probably Charlotte’s Web.

It has taken me until now to perceive a possible connection not just between these early proclivities and my adult reading preferences, but also between my childhood reading and my eventual writing. Put simply: I cannot write outside the realist mode. I am not a “magical realist,” a “speculative fictionist,” or anything the least bit untethered to reality. As much as I admire those fiction writers who can write along those lines, I simply can’t do it.

What I wonder now is: Might I have been able to do so had my reading way back when been more “diverse” in this context?

A Lovely Surprise

Unknown-1I’ve been reading Shelf Unbound for all five years that it has been around. When I received an email about the new issue yesterday, I was in the middle of a few other things, so I didn’t click over to read it right away.

Soon enough, though, I discovered that this special anniversary issue includes a collection of interviews that previously appeared in the magazine. Including one with me, about Quiet Americans, from June/July 2011. (A story from the collection follows the interview.) And if an interview with me isn’t enough to draw you in, consider that other conversations resurrected from the magazine’s archives feature authors such as Paul Harding, Edwidge Danticat, Matt Bell, Kevin Powers, Eduardo Halfon, and Karen E. Bender.

Happy Anniversary to Shelf Unbound, and thank you for all of the kind attention—including that amazing honor back in 2011—you’ve shown me over the years!

A Visit to the Newseum

I made a quick trip to Washington last weekend and finally visited the oh-so-impressive Newseum, which I’d argue is a must-see for any writer, whether you specialize in journalism or any other type of writing. (Frankly, I’d argue that it’s a must-see for ANYONE.)

I’ll leave you with a few of the photos that I snapped as I toured the building.




6 thoughts on “Midweek Notes from a Practicing Writer

  1. Matt says:

    Ha! The term “magical realist”–I’ve never heard it. I laughed, then I thought, how much more fascinating and fun a place the world would be if we randomly added “magical” to more titles and occupations. Who wouldn’t want someone to describe them as magical? (A magician … perhaps. But only if the magician was a grammarian who frowned on redundancy. Unless, of course, the grammarian was magical.)

    I’d never considered how early reading habits effect or even dictate later reading habits. It makes sense. Yesterday I read an article about the way what we read shapes our worldviews. As an underachiever, my high school reading list was essentially X-Men comics. On the bright side, as an adult, the world of books and authors is my oyster, which I with fingers shall open.

    I can imagine spending hours in the Newseum one day.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Matt, thanks for your comment. And yes, save *several* hours for the Newseum when/if you get there!

  2. Clive Collins says:

    Another stimulating post, Erika. Here are a couple of links to pieces on Dahl you and others might find to be of interest:



    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks, Clive. I’ll look forward to checking those out.

  3. Ellen Halter says:


    I’m like you in that I don’t care for fantasy or magical realism. Unlike you, I loved the classic fantasies as a child. These included Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Poo. I don’t know what happened, but as I grew, I craved the realism of the Little House books and the Ramona books.

    The older I get, the more “real” life seems more fascinating than any fantasy anyone can devise.

    Ellen Halter

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      It’s odd, Ellen–my mom and I have talked a bit this week about how her childhood reading habits may have shaped mine (she still hasn’t read ALICE IN WONDERLAND, either!). So much fun food for thought here. Thank you for sharing your comment.

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