ALL of us cherish the books that affected us in childhood—the love stories that made us pine, the tragedies that made us cry, the epics that opened our eyes to the enormity of history.
Pushcart Prize-winning novelist and avid reader Ann Hood managed to narrow down her favorites to a list of 10 for her latest work, Morningstar: Growing Up with Books. A slim, lovely tome that pairs a well-known title with a life lesson, Morningstar is both a memoir and a love letter to the stories that shaped her writing and her life.
The author of The Knitting Circle, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and the recent New York Times bestseller The Book that Matters Most, Hood grew up in a decidedly un-literary Italian family in Providence, RI. The burgeoning bookworm spent her allowance on Nancy Drew mysteries and free time at the public library, finding joy in Louisa May Alcott, John Steinbeck and even ‘70s pulp fiction king Harold Robbins.
Now a faculty member of the New School in New York City, Hood will be in Georgia this month for the Decatur Book Festival, along with her husband, culinary author Michael Ruhlman. The couple will road trip to Savannah for Hood to deliver the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home’s 2017 Ursrey Memorial Lecture this Friday, Sept. 1.
Since 2008, the annual series has featured notable literary names, including Allan Gurganus, Robert Olen Butler and Roxane Gay.
Connect spoke to Hood last week about her thoughts on Flannery O’Connor, why there’s no shame in low-brow lit and which books she believes will endure through the next generation.
So many great books on this list! Why did you choose to start with Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar?
Ann Hood: Well, my novel that came out last year is The Book that Matters Most, about a woman in crisis who joins a book club. On the promotional tour, every interviewer asked, "What book matters most to you?" I didn't really have one answer, but I found myself replying off the top of my head with Marjorie Morningstar. So I reread it and found myself sitting on my sofa crying, remembering both the girl I was when I read it the first time and the person I had become.
More importantly, it reminded me of the power of literature: How this book about an upper middle class Jewish girl growing up in New York helped my story, a blue collar Italian kid in a mill town in Rhode Island. I thought back then that Herman Wouk had looked into my soul. It so captured the yearning I’d felt as a teenager, both a romantic yearning but also a yearning for a life different than the one you’re born into—that’s the power of a good story told well.
So I wrote this essay that was included in the press package of the book, and my editor became so enchanted with it. She said, “There’s something there in the books you read as a teenager.” So I sat around rereading a bunch of them. I chose 10, but I could have chosen 50!
How did these books influence you as a writer and someone who teaches writing?
Well, they’re not all high literature [laughs]. But as autodidact and a teenager, I had no idea what to read in what order or when. What I figured out by reading books like The Grapes of Wrath but also Paper Lion and The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart—just popular books of the time—was that a good story can hypnotize us and teach us things.
Even Harold Robbins?
Even Harold Robbins! Although I have to tell you, A Stone for Danny Fisher was a difficult one to reread. [laughs]
That makes me feel better about reading every Jackie Collins book when I was a kid.
I have a funny story about that—when I was living in New York, my boyfriend's father was a renowned Melville scholar, a very literary guy. He comes home one day and says, "Oh, I found this book on the bus and I became so enthralled by it that I missed my stop!" And he holds it out, and it's Danielle Steel! So there you go—as long as the story is good...
What are your guilty pleasures now?
I'm a big fan of crime fiction. I love finding a new crime writer who has 10 books already and I can sit down and read all of them. As a writer, my weakness is plot; that's what I have to work hardest at. I love crime stories because I look at the suspense and think, "How did you that?"
What book inspired you to be a writer?
I know that The Bell Jar ends badly, and I understand all that happened to poor Esther and Sylvia Plath. But the descriptions in that book, of being in New York, of being one of those magazine editors...the writing life was so intoxicating to me. It was out there somewhere.
Is the writing life still New York-centric?
That's hard to say. I think that illusion is still in place and that young people who want to be writers still imagine being in New York. But of course, when I go to Portland, Oregon, there are so many writers who live there. But I don't know if it's supplanted or replaced New York.
There’s an electricity there, there’s a history of writers. It’s sort of like Paris in the 20s—so much of it is legend now. But you can still go to a reading every night of the week.
What does it mean to come to Savannah, childhood home of Flannery O’Connor?
It’s so huge. It was like a dream come true when that email landed. The first Flannery O’Connor story I read was in ninth grade and of course, it was A Good Man is Hard to Find, and I realized I was inspired by her before I even read her!
When I was a kid, some of the early stories I wrote were very macabre. One of them was a girl coming from school—this grew out of me having a very boring childhood—in winter and she sees something red and fuzzy sticking out of the snow and she digs and realizes it’s a mitten, and she finally gets it out and there’s a hand in it [laughs].
Her sense of the gothic was something I could tap into. I took a class on Southern Literature in college just to explore more Flannery O’Connor. When I went to Lourdes, I read her amazing writing about her trip to Lourdes, which has one of the best quotes ever, something along the lines of—I’m paraphrasing here—that her only revelation was that she had better crutches than other people. [laughs]
And like a lot of writers, I have read and reread The Habit of Being. It is such a delight and an honor to come to Savannah, and I can’t wait to see the home.
What books do you think the generation coming of age now will continue to revere and treasure?
I have a 13 year-old girl, and I love that her school reading has been much of what mine was: She’s read To Kill a Mockingbird, and last summer she read The Outsiders. I thought, "Hmm, how's that going to go over?" I thought it would seem dated, but she loved it. She also read for her own fun Fahrenheit 451, and she references it over and over again. So I think that the classics still are important in affecting this generation. She's also read The Hobbit and she loves Harry Potter, so I think there will probably be more fantasy books on their lists. But then again, we had Narnia...
What are you reading now?
I have just gobbled up in rapid order all the novels by an Irish writer named Maggie O'Farrell that I can't recommend enough. They all have this quality of a story in the past having a great impact on someone in the present, and she weaves in and out of time in such marvelous way. I just finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; I was immersed. I also read the Shirley Jackson biography, so I'm now rereading her fiction. And I'm way into Naples '44 by Norman Lewis, because my next novel takes place in Italy, or at least some of it. Reading books is always the way to find out more.