Some Room to Breathe: In Praise of Quiet Books

by
Leesa Cross-Smith
4.11.18

Quiet books are often misread, misunderstood, or, sadly, missed altogether. If a book is labeled quiet in a review or in literary conversation, an author and her readers will likely see it as an insult—sharp criticism of some deep-rooted flaw in the writer’s storytelling abilities. But for me, someone who leans toward anxiety and is easily overstimulated, startled, and stressed out—especially these days—quiet books offer a calming space, a place of rescue. I’ve been told more than once that my writing is quiet, and I always take it as a high compliment because I know how much I long for moments of rest and reflection in the books I read, the movies I watch, the places I go, and the people I encounter along the way. I suspect I’m not alone. 

In my debut novel, Whiskey & Ribbons, a widow and her brother-in-law are snowed in together during a blizzard, forced to deal with the complications of their newish romantic feelings for each other after the sudden loss of someone they both loved ferociously. Throughout the book they circle each other, with their intense grief and their confusing feelings, from the warmth and comfort of their home. A lot happens—loud secrets, loud jealousy, loud emotions, loud sexual tension, loud love—but there is also quiet. It is a quiet book, and that’s just the way I want it.

In a noisy, confusing world where so many people love to constantly scream their opinions as loudly and as quickly as they can on social media, I am drawn to longer works that take their time. Ideas and situations that give me room to think. Characters and plots that require my patience and pay off in real, satisfying ways. I don’t like to be shocked or surprised on every page when I’m reading. I don’t necessarily need a big twist or reveal to be entertained. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good story—I’m not defending the boring and pointless—but I will always believe there is treasure to be found in small, quiet moments. In the rambling half-asleep conversations right before bed. The hushed confessionals on the way home from the awkward dinner party. A silent glance between lifelong partners. The whisper. 

There’s a song by Feist called “Gatekeeper” in which she sings, “They tried to stay in from the cold and wind / making love and making their dinner,” and I think of that often when I’m writing. I like writing about those simple, everyday things we do to get through our lives. 

I do some of my best writing away from my noisy laptop. I walk two to three miles in the morning at least five times a week. I usually walk alone and enjoy my solitude. It’s where I get my energy. I pause to take notes on my phone if I see something that sparks my heart. I walk in the rain and I walk in the cold. I walk when spring is just beginning to wake the flowers. I walk when the first leaves begin to turn and fall. I make note of these things, these cycles, and I remember them when I sit down again to write. I remember how important it is to my mental health to take the time to look around, to take the time to look up. 

After my walks, when I’m in that calming, comfortable writing space of my own, I can re-create that same sort of space for my characters in my books and stories. A room of their own. Most of the time I write in my quiet bedroom, on my made-up bed by the window. We have several huge trees on our property in Kentucky, and I love being by the window so I can watch the birds, the squirrels. I’m a birder, and birding requires quiet. Stillness. I can open my window when it’s warm enough and hear the birdsong, the wind chimes, the rustle of leaves. I can also see my garden from the window. The birdbath, my peonies, tomato plants and marigolds, the weeping willow at the edge of the yard. I have an essential oil diffuser that I fill with drops of lavender and lemon, sometimes rosemary and lime. Peaceful, quiet smells. I rarely listen to music when I’m writing—preferring instead the quiet around me—but when I do, I listen to period-piece soundtracks or classical music. Far From the Madding Crowd, Atonement, and Pride and Prejudice are some of my favorites. I also love Bach’s cello suites, Debussy, Mozart, Chopin. Music without lyrics but heavy with mood.

I have always craved quiet spaces, avoided loud noises and enormous crowds, but even more so in this mind-numbing, vitriolic political climate, where there is more than enough anxiety to go around. I work even harder to protect those quiet places in my real life and in my heart as well. I rely on writing and reading fiction that counters the inevitable anxiety of being human with some quiet—some room to breathe. Quietness can be a beautifully defiant radical act. Deliberately slow cooking, slow living, taking time to be grateful and to absorb things and aggressively avoiding the need to quickly comment on everything—these things spill over into both my writing practice and the stories and worlds I create.

One of my favorite quiet books is C. E. Morgan’s All the Living (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). The short novel takes place on a Kentucky tobacco farm during a devastating drought. There’s a small cast of characters (another thing I love in both books and movies). It’s a slim, sexy book full of summer heat and desire. Sadness and grief, too. The main characters are learning to love each other properly and learning to foster healing in each other as they tangle and tend to the violent, wild land that has been left to them. Morgan writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Sentences like “The smell of the hillside was redolent with honeysuckle and grass and some of the heavy tartness of ripe pears,” and “The oven’s heat pressed her like a hand from behind,” and “Aloma shrank behind the piano wall, sat there hunched in her ill ease, unable to reconcile herself to the tenderheartedness of mountain boys.” I love All the Living because it’s allowed to be the book it is. There’s no sharp hook here. It’s a tender story about a woman blooming into her best self and a man who’s trying to be better. All the Living takes the patient form of the topic it discusses. A farmer and his crops, waiting for rain. A woman, aching. There is a hilarious kitchen scene in All the Living that involves some underpants, an argument, and a hellacious desire to commit rooster murder. Lots of sexy, funny, exciting, suspenseful, surprising things can and do happen in quiet novels, but the reader also has time to let them soak in. 

Another quiet book I love is A Parchment of Leaves (Algonquin Books, 2002) by Silas House. It is also set in Kentucky, and like Morgan, House describes things in a gentle, quiet way that never for one moment left me bored. I read it in a matter of hours, not moving much from my chair. It wasn’t the twists and turns that kept me reading, although there are some of those. It was the language of daily life. Making dinners, nights around the fire, the relationships among women, the mothering, the sun setting and rising again. House takes his time and writes about the sky and how it changes from moment to moment, the smells. He writes, “Today the world smelled like honeysuckle and clean water. The shade was so cool and fresh that anybody could have laid down right on the grass and went straight to sleep.” And he writes, “The night was so black that it looked like you could cut a patch out of it with a kitchen knife.” I love those descriptions, that feeling like I’m experiencing every little bit, no matter how small. Loud books can do this well too, of course, but not quite in the same way, and I was pleased to learn that House agrees.

“Good literature examines the way the biggest moments of life happen in the quiet moments,” he told me. “I think the characters I create tend to be quiet observers, people who might lead quiet lives but are very sensory. I love the idea of examining what some might think of as ‘small, quiet lives.’ To me, those are the most interesting people. I certainly wouldn’t mind that label being applied to my work. I think that quiet is often thought of as a negative in our culture, but actually it is a quality we need more of in our world.” 

I asked House about his writing process to see if, like mine, it included proactive periods of piece and quiet. “The biggest part of my writing process is going for walks, usually in the woods,” he said. “I wrote my first three books with babies on my lap or at my feet, so I don’t really need a lot of quiet during the actual act of writing, but in preparation I need stillness, I need the woods. Even though I’m not physically putting words on the page, that’s where I get most of my writing done. Whenever there is a scene of nature in my books, I go out and experience that. In Parchment, for example, there’s a scene in which Vine is picking blackberries and she gets hot and sits down in the creek with her clothes on. I did the same thing, to totally capture that experience, from the thorns biting into her hands while picking berries to the heaviness of my clothes when I walked out of the creek. I call that ‘spiritual research,’ and it allows me to go far deeper with my characters than I’d be able to otherwise.”

Like House I wrote my first book, Every Kiss a War, with a child or two on my lap or underneath my desk. I vividly remember feeding my son crackers as he sat at my feet while I was finishing the story collection. I was used to the noise, the distraction—at times delightful, at times out of control—because it was the real chaos of being a stay-home mother of two small children. Now that my children are older, in school all day, I have reclaimed my quiet spaces. I don’t require them in order to work; I prefer them. I wrote Whiskey & Ribbons over a long stretch of both quiet and loud seasons of my life, but I wrote the final draft in the quiet of my bedroom. And I set the book during a blizzard—the characters snowed in, unable to venture far—to force stillness and reflection. I was inspired to dig deeper and allow them to slowly explore their truth, their grief, their lives next to each other as they become a new family.

Quiet books and movies can mean something different to everyone. When I use the term “quiet” I mean “not constantly stressing me out.” I mean books that are comforting to me when I’m worried about things or when the world is too much. I enjoy quiet period pieces in which it takes the lovers an entire year to reunite, but I know everything will be okay. I love movies in which there are only two or three characters I have to keep up with. I love the little leaning-in conversations in hotel lobbies over dark red wine that may not necessarily reveal every secret in the characters’ hearts but that let us get to know them better. Slowly. The sexual tension left to crackle, the words tickling the tips of tongues. 

It stresses me out when I read a book and there’s so much happening on every page, I feel like I have to put it down. A death every chapter, an emergency hospitalization, a missing child—all these heavy, anxiety-inducing things that don’t allow me to escape the real world at all. Reading those things makes me feel like I’m simply reading the news. Yes, I want truth, but also I want beauty and slowing down, especially in my fiction, in the worlds I create. Because I am the one creating those worlds. And since I have so little control over the things that happen in the world outside of my personal life, writing quiet stories and quiet books and developing my own quiet writing practice helps me deal with a loud world even when I’m away from my computer or books. I can still go there in my mind, remembering the sweet little scenes I’ve read and worked on. Remembering the ways characters and stories can teach us all how to take a break from reality when we need one. That’s why so many of us read. That’s why so many of us write.

While researching quiet novels, I came across a group of cancer patients, warriors who pass book titles around that are a comfort for them. Books that feel safe to read during chemotherapy or in waiting rooms or super-stressful times. I’d love for someone to stumble across my books in an airport or a doctor’s office and feel like they were safe, feel like the story was soothing to them in some way. I’d be honored to know that some readers consider Whiskey & Ribbons to be a quiet novel they can return to, one that whispers. I’d be honored to know that readers feel like they truly get to know the characters in my book because they were able to spend so much quiet time with them. The same way most of us feel like we get to know one another better when we share quiet space and listen to what others are saying. Really listen. I choose quiet and tenderness in my work because the world is loud and hard enough.

As an introvert, I get my energy from quiet and solitude, and those are things I look for in the books I choose to read, too. Here are a few more of my favorite quiet novels: 

Call Me by Your Name (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) by André Aciman 
The Mothers (Riverhead Books, 2016) by Brit Bennett 
Circle of Friends (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Maeve Binchy 
The Past (Harper, 2016) by Tessa Hadley 
Lions (Black Cat, 2016) by Bonnie Nadzam
The Blue Hour (Counterpoint, 2017) by Laura Pritchett
Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing, 2016) by Teri Vlassopoulos 

These are books that lean toward the deep-blue night-whispers, the pauses in conversation, the reverent, the contemplative. I like having the space to take a breath and process what has just happened, what is surely (and not-so-surely) to come. And while I understand the desire to read and write a gripping page-turner that you can’t put down, I am writing in defense of the books that handle grief and brutality and the rough beasts of life in tender ways. Books that don’t feel the need to scream. Books that can whisper while still telling their stories fully and beautifully. Books that can be, especially upon the comfort of rereading, safe places in an unsafe world. Books that let us linger. Books that recognize and reveal the storms raging around us but also let us rest in the eye of it for just a little longer.

 

Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, 2018) and Every Kiss a War (Mojave River Press, 2014). She lives in Kentucky.