I reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life every five years or so, but my Bird by Bird advice has to do with reading, not writing. I’m always surprised when aspiring writers blithely proclaim that they don’t read much contemporary fiction! I remember years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when a show of hands with a group of short stories writers revealed that about two people had bought a short story collection in years and that the writers didn’t really read short stories! So my advice is read. Read voraciously. Read and get jealous. Get competitive. Read like a student. Read critically and generously. There are two novels (both with Bird titles) that I recommend and which I hold up as the most perfect versions of what they set out to do. The first is a small Hungarian classic called Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi, published by New York Review of Books. Set in 1900, it’s about what happens when the homely daughter of a middle-aged couple goes away for one week. Their small lives suddenly expand in ways they would never have imagined. Their daughter has kept them on a tight rein, but when she leaves they return to who they were in their youth, which includes drinking and eating rich and sumptuous meals. When she returns a week later…well, although there’s hardly any plot I won’t spoil it for you. It’s a novel that manages to be totally economic and utterly monumental. I love what Deborah Eisenberg said about it; that it “ seems to encapsulate the world’s pain in a soap bubble.” If you want to write a short novel, read Skylark. And of course no one in recent memory has written a Dickensian novel, spanning years, as ambitiously and brilliantly as Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch. I work for Little, Brown, so this is a novel I’ve read a few times, but I just listened to the audio, which is outstanding. And it took Donna ten years to write it. So, I guess my second piece of advice would be to take the time you need to write the novel you’re writing.
—Judy Clain, vice president, editor in chief, Little, Brown