What do you want to read/What should I read

Okay, I admit it. I took to Twitter (@JimMcCarthy528) for help coming up with something to blog about today. What? You’ve never had writer’s block?

Mm-hmm. I thought so.

Two questions that popped up close together: Anne Marie wanted to know what I look for in signing new writers. And Caroline asked for books I’ve read recently that I would recommend. I got some other good questions that I’ll save for later (including a rather controversial one, so keep an eye out), but these two fit together nicely.

Yesterday, I finished reading Barbara Demick’s narrative nonfiction title Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It’s a stunning book that peeks behind the heavily protected North Korean border by way of extensive interviews with defectors who made it to South Korea. As I read it, I kept thinking that I desperately needed to do look out for more investigative journalism which, for anyone unfamiliar with my list, is not at all what I usually do. Now, the most exciting thing about being an agent is that you’re free to try anything. I represent a lot of young adult, paranormal, and pop culture titles because I love them, and that’s where I’ve had the most success. But for the right book, I’d be willing to try any genre.

So what would make something the right book? Let’s go back to the Demick title: what she does so brilliantly is convey the history of this nation since the Korean War primarily through the stories of six individuals—an eclectic group that is nonetheless each relatable. If there’s one thing I most look for in new material, it’s people I can relate to or understand. I look for human stories above all else. The ways in which people act or react fascinate me—how individuals are fallible, where people’s goodness comes from, what makes people do terrible things… The psychology of it all is a point of endless fascination whether in worlds real or imagined.

Similarly, Demick takes a look into a world that so few people outside of it know anything about, and that’s what drew me to that book to begin with. I love a great look into a culture I don’t know about. It’s why I adored Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. Or Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls. They’re both novels about communities extraordinarily different from anything I’ve experienced, but there’s a sense of kinship that comes from becoming able to understand these characters–what their backgrounds are, how they came to be the people they are. Something about that collapses down the human experience in a way that feels almost magical to me.

I read to be entertained, of course, but I also read to understand the world. Whether it’s from a thriller like Gone Girl where Gillian Flynn expertly captures the sociopathic eye or a fantasy novel like DGLM’s own Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart which uses an alternate universe and a realm of magic to explore issues that are very real, characters and how they interact with the world around them are key. Nothing will draw me in faster than well-drawn, complicated, fascinating people at the core of your work, fiction or nonfiction.

5 Responses to What do you want to read/What should I read

  1. First of all, nothing wrong with writer’s block. I was beating myself up for skipping a blog post last week, but I’ve had a crazy-busy couple of weeks and didn’t have anything of note to say besides “Revising my book. Gonna be doing that for a while.” So I didn’t. I figured it was better than forcing out something stale and shallow.

    Secondly, all of those books sound fascinating, but especially the one about the North Korean defectors! I write science fiction, and there is definitely a wealth of literature in that genre that focuses more on big ideas and plot, but still I feel that the best books in any genre are those that have characters that resonate and make you contemplate something about humanity. It sounds like your recommendations all do.

  2. Oh, I just read the opening pages of NOTHING TO ENVY online and I’m definitely going to download it!

    My husband is fascinated with North Korea and I suppose his fascination has rubbed off on me. I’ve only read one memoir written by a North Korean defector (THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG, which is an eye-opening read) and I’ve been looking for more books on the subject. So thanks for the rec!

  3. D. C. DaCosta says:

    I’m very glad to learn of “Nothing to Envy” and will look forward to reading it. I believe that the division of Korea was one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never had writer’s block…just “no time” to write.

  4. Anu Kalgudi says:

    suffers from writer’s block too, and wishes Twitter could find her a cure.

    I don’t know why, but Henry James’ ‘Portrait of a Lady’ came to mind when I thought of complicated people. That book was painful to read. ‘David Copperfield’, on the other hand, is one of my favourite books of all time. I wonder if that makes me somewhat of an idealist? Hmm…shall ponder upon that briefly.

  5. Kellie Lovegrove says:

    Oh writer’s block, how I hate thee. Whether its writing a report or fiction you have cut me off more than once.

    I love your description of “Nothing to Envy” and plan on looking into it. I think we all love stories that grab us because we want to know the reason that someone does or says something. I also think those usually end up being the ones most enduring as well. So many of the long gone authors did that (Dickens, Shelly, and Wilde to name a few). Its always wonderful to find those stories now; especially when I read so many that, while fast paced and enjoyable, come up lacking in character development.

    Oh, and while reading your blog, I was reminded of a book I read in college I thought I’d throw out there. Its called “Life and Death in Shanghai.” Its a biography by a lady who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution in China. Not Korea, I know, but it covers some deep issues (like her being a Christian during a time when it could have gotten her killed and what became of her daughter while she was in prison) and was one of the few assigned readings I actually enjoyed.

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