Writers on Books That Left a Mark

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
From the May/June 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Stephen King’s The Body. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. What do these books have in common? They’ve all inspired other writers to start writing, and are now part of Bookmarked, a new series of books about the works of literature that have left a lasting impression on the lives and work of contemporary writers.

The series, a project from Brooklyn, New York–based independent publisher Ig, is comprised of short personal books from a variety of writers, each exploring how a particular work of fiction helped shape his or her career. “It’s a simple idea,” says Kirby Gann, series editor and author of the first volume, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, which was published in March. “The series celebrates classic books on a personal, intimate level, as opposed to capital-C Criticism. So much book talk strains toward the scholar and grad student, approaching the subject from an objective, theoretical stance and seeking to apply certain critical standards or requisites. That method is important, of course, but it leaves plenty of room to address books on a more democratic, imaginative, and even intimate level, no matter their pub date.”

The second installment in the series, which also came out in March, was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by author, columnist, and radio personality Curt Smith. While Smith’s response combines criticism and autobiography with a cultural and historical examination of the many themes of Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Gann approaches A Separate Peace on a more personal level. “A Separate Peace was a book I loved as a teenager—essentially the novel that made me want to be a writer—and yet I had never returned to read it again, until now, some thirty years later,” Gann says. “It became apparent to me that if I were now reading the novel for the first time, it wouldn’t have affected me a great deal. So what interested me was rediscovering the boy who had found the novel so transformative and exploring why it affected him so deeply.”

This is one of the unique aspects of the series: Neither Gann nor his series coeditor, Ig editor in chief Robert Lasner, knows exactly what form each book in the series will take. And this, they say, is exactly the point—to enable writers to share their personal experience with a work of fiction in any form they want.

The idea for the project came about one afternoon when Gann and Lasner were discussing their love of 33⅓, a series of books about music, each volume of which explores a specific album. Launched in 2003 by Bloomsbury, the series now includes more than a hundred titles on records ranging from Blondie’s Parallel Lines to Koji Kondo’s music for Super Mario Bros. “You can find memoirs of how the music affected the author’s life,” says Gann, “or a deeper, rock-historian’s view of the album’s lasting value, an argument over where it should be situated in the pantheon of classics.”

“Kirby and I agreed it would be a fun idea to do something similar with classic novels,” says Lasner. “So I e-mailed him one day with the following question: ‘If you were to choose one novel that was fundamental to you as a writer, what would it be? Just tell me what pops into your head.’ Kirby wrote back, ‘A Separate Peace by John Knowles.’ ‘Perfect!’ I declared. ‘Give me thirty-five thousand words by…well, he didn’t meet the deadline, so let’s keep that to ourselves. That’s how Bookmarked got started.’” Like 33⅓, each installment of the Bookmarked series is short, under two hundred pages. Forthcoming volumes include Paula Bomer’s take on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Aaron Burch on Stephen King’s The Body (the novella on which the movie Stand by Me is based), and Michael Seidlinger on Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The editors plan to publish at least four books in the series per year. Though most of the titles have so far been solicited, the series is open to queries from writers who have published at least one previous book.

“We’re attempting to broaden the conversation about loved books,” says Gann. “For an individual writer, the project might be seen as an opportunity to write in a way that’s unfamiliar and out of one’s comfort zone—the chance to try a different mode for a bit and share something you love.” As for readers, the editors hope that each title in the Bookmarked series will serve as a brief introduction or companion to an inspiring work of fiction—and at the same time offer a glimpse into the life and work of not just one but two writers. “Any project that celebrates great books, especially from an informed point of view of a fellow practitioner,” Gann says, “is of great importance.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is a senior editor at F(r)iction, founder and editor in chief of poemoftheweek.org, and the founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of the poetry collection Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is andrewmk.com.


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