Is it just me, or does there seem to be a wave of "intersecting lives" novels lately? I'm talking about novels which are structured around characters and place and which move forward episodically, rather than via a driving, suspenseful plot, a genre which is also sometimes called "a novel in stories." Two of the most decorated books of recent years fall into this category: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Other recent entries include A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and the forthcoming The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse.
Within minutes of becoming a grandmother at 58, I realized that my take on my new role in no way resembled a Hallmark greeting card. I didn't know exactly what sort of grandmother I would be, but I was fairly certain that I would not turn into some sweet, silly, sexless, cookie-baking, compulsively knitting stereotype.
Because I'm a writer and and writing is how I make sense of my life, I started taking notes. There was plenty to write about. For one thing, I had no idea how I fit into the new order. It seemed as if my newborn granddaughter, Isabelle Eva, was mine but not mine--emphasis on the not. I knew her parents loved me, but how much did they want me around? How much did I want to be around? And how best to cope with the five other grandparents, all vying for the attention of one small infant?
Elif Shafak, the most widely read woman writer in Turkey whose books include The Bastard of Istanbul, explains how Sufism influenced her latest book, The Forty Rules of Love ...
My interest in Sufism began when I was a college student. At the time I was a rebellious young woman who liked to wrap several shawls of "–isms" around her shoulders: I was a leftist, feminist, nihilist, environmentalist, anarcho-pacifist.... I wasn't interested in any religion and the difference between "religiosity" and "spirituality" was lost to me. Having spent some time of my childhood with a loving grandmother with many superstitions and beliefs, I had a sense the world was not composed of solely material things and there was more to life than I could see. But the truth is, I wasn't interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it.
Shortly before my first novel was published, I walked through a bookstore with my son. "Once my book is published, I'm not going to be able to do this any more," I told him. Wander into a book store and pleasantly meander the aisles. It was hard to articulate, but suddenly I realized that the next time I walked into a bookstore -- and likely all the times thereafter -- I would be self-consciously focused on one thing: my own book. Did they have it? Where was it placed? Should I offer to sign it? (Was I presentable?)
And it was true ... Going in and out of bookstores became stressful, loaded with angst. I felt I'd been robbed.
When I worked in publishing just after college, my fellow peons in the editorial department used to play a game where they'd walk into a random bookstore and see who could pull the most books off the shelf that thanked them in their acknowledgments. I never played the game, and I always suspected I would have killed at it. Ever since then, I have always turned to the acknowledgments first when beginning a book, just to see who I can see. And in turn, I've become a huge appreciator of the genre.
My all-time favorite acknowledgments are in one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, Timothy Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name. In order to understand the acknowledgments, you've got to understand the book. Tyson, then a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote about the civil rights movement with a muscular, hard-hitting argument: violence, or the threat of violence, played a far more central role in desegregation than we generally would like to admit. But this is no distanced academic treatise. The book opens with a sentence that Tyson's childhood friend uttered to him one spring day when he was ten: "Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger." Tyson grew up in Oxford, North Carolina, where his father was a white Methodist preacher, and his history is also a deeply personal memoir of his family's experience of a racially motivated shooting and the riots and activism it prompted. To understand everything that happened, Tyson would go on to study history at Duke. He would write his masters' thesis on the events in his hometown, and he would eventually rewrite it all from a personal perspective of anguish, outrage, and pride. The making of Blood Done Sign My Name literally drew on every aspect of Tyson's soul, as a child, as a student, as a teacher, writer, and scholar. The acknowledgments burst with heart and passion. They run to eleven pages.