I like to read before I write.
I like to write first thing in the morning, when my mind is still clear of daytime preoccupations, when I'm still close to the dream-state of sleep. And in that state I like to read before I start. I choose carefully. Right then, what I read is important.
There's a thin, porous membrane between reading and writing, and right then it's particularly porous. Whatever I read will enter my mind and my work: that voice will echo in my head, those rhythms will slide into my sentences. This reminds me of where I'm trying to be, and offers me a path to get there. It becomes a kind of touchstone. With each book I've written I've found myself using a particular book as a portal, a way back into my own work.
While I was writing This Is My Daughter I read The Journals of John Cheever. At that time we lived in Katonah, where I had a big study over the top of our garage. By the window was a big red plush armchair and Cheever's book lay on a table beside it. In the mornings I'd sit down and open the book at random. Since it was a journal, it didn't matter where I started or finished. I was thirsty for Cheever's extraordinary candor, his sense of loss, his compassion. His voice was clear and strong, and utterly authentic. Early in his career, he wrote about a reading he'd given at Princeton. Only a few students showed up, and he wrote humbly that this was because he was not well-known, and that perhaps he never would be. I was struck by his honesty, by the permission he gave himself to acknowledge pain and uncertainty, fear, sweetness, yearning. All that was important to me while I wrote my book; his became a kind of threshold for the place I wanted to be while I wrote my own.
While I was writing Sweetwater I read a new translation of Anna Karenina. While I was writing the end of that book I spent a month in Maine. It was January, and the days were cold and snowy, and the nights came early—perfect writing weather. I wrote all day and at night I sat by the fire and read about Anna, the dooming arc of her life. What I loved was the way Tolstoy focused, so tenderly and brutally, on the real moments that make up our lives. The way he revealed a whole world through those brief and brilliantly illuminated scenes. I couldn't get enough of that. It made me want to be Tolstoy, and I kept thinking of imitating his form, and writing chapters made up of a few pages, or a few paragraphs. I didn't do that, but I did feel as though I was drawing something from his glittering intensity.
While I was writing Cost I read Michael Cunningham's The Hours. I'm a Virginia Woolf fan, and I was dazzled by the way Cunningham channeled Woolf in that book. His writing seemed like a modern version of her voice, with its deep, lyrical, interior focus. I was mesmerized by his vision, which was also hers, the way the inner life, our thoughts and emotions, are interwoven among the outer life of facts and actions. His writing is beautiful and modern and often funny. I picked that book up, too, at random. I knew it all. I loved the scene in which Virginia's niece and nephews find a dead bird in the garden. "It might be the missing link between death and millinery," Virginia muses. I loved the way he moved so easily between the inner and the outer world, and I loved the poetry of his sentences. When a critic mentioned the Woolfian echoes in Cost I was delighted: both Woolf and Cunningham were my mentors.
When I was writing Sparta I read Ian McEwan's Atonement, but only one section. I was writing about men at war, and I wanted to hear a writer I admired on the same subject. The Dunkirk section in Atonement is brilliant, partly because McEwan wears his knowledge so lightly. He mentions that he used certain books for source material, but the account is as smooth and fluid as a memoir, as though the experience was his. I wanted to remind myself of this possibility. I wanted the sense of dropping into the ocean of someone else's sensibility. I wanted to remind myself that I could immerse myself completely in another's experience, in another place and time—war. That I could see the world through the eyes of someone utterly different from me. In this book McEwan is a chameleon, and his own persona, his own character and his life all seem to vanish as he moves inside someone else's life. As I wanted to do.
Who knows how fiction writing works? It's a mystery. But reading before writing offers me an interior channel to the place where it can happen. It allows me into someone else's world, and reminds me how I might make my own: the books I read make a path to the books I write.