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Molly Giles is the author of a novel, “Iron Shoes,” and two collections of short stories, “Rough Translations” and “Creek Walk.” She teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Melissa King, who also writes and lives in Fayetteville, recently interviewed Giles about what Giles likes to read. This Q and A is the first in a series by King that will appear on occasion in the Arkansas Times’ First Thursday literary section.
Q: Read anything good lately?
A: “Truth and Beauty” by Anne Patchett. This memoir of a friendship between writers Anne Patchett (“Bel Canto,” “The Patron Saint of Liars”) and Lucy Grealy (“Autobiography of a Face”) held my attention from beginning to end. Lucy, who had been disfigured in childhood by cancer and subsequently underwent 38 painful surgeries on her face, was lovable, brilliant, and dangerously needy; Anne was the steady friend who supported her — and later, writing after Lucy’s death by heroin overdose, betrayed her.
Q: Sold … I’m definitely checking that out. What are you reading now?
A: “Light Years” by James Salter. It’s so densely poetic and beautifully written that after two days I am only on page nine, which is the trouble with densely poetic and beautifully written novels. I keep stopping to reread. Hopefully the plot will downsize to sex and violence soon …
Q: Who are some of your all-time favorite authors or books?
A: I love short stories, so my favorite authors include Alice Munro, John Cheever, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Edna O’Brien, Ellen Gilchrist, Jhumpa Lahiri, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, John Updike, Aimee Bender, Katherine Anne Porter, Dan Chaon, Lorrie Moore ... so many others.
Q: Who is your favorite lesser-known writer or book?
A: Gina Berriault, a reclusive San Francisco writer who finally won the National Book Award a year or so before she died. A beautiful writer. Check out “Women in Their Beds,” a collection of her selected short stories, including her best known one, “The Stone Boy,” which later was made into a film. It’s about a boy who accidentally shoots his brother and is so traumatized he can’t talk about it; he is accused of being heartless and eventually of course he becomes so.
Q: What Arkansas writers do you admire?
A: Ellen Gilchrist is a friend and colleague and I think her short stories are perfection. Donald “Skip” Hays is a deep and funny writer, Bill Harrison’s work is imaginative and elegant, Charles Portis is a gift to the world, and of course Donald Harington’s novels are always good.
Q: What books did you grow up reading?
A: I loved a book called “Bring Em Back Alive” by Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who caught his own lions. I read all the horse and dog books I could get my hands on. I also read and reread “Jane Eyre,” “The Secret Garden,” all the Louisa May Alcott and Nancy Drew books. And I was addicted to comic books.
Q: How do you find out about books?
A: There were always books in my house growing up. I was lucky in that way. My mother was a writer; my aunt read to us. I walked to the Sausalito library on my own every week from the time I was 5, and my grandmother picked up second hand books for five cents at street stalls in San Francisco and brought them to me every weekend in a string bag. My high school English teacher is still in touch and just sent me a collection of stories by a writer I had never read and am deeply enjoying, A.E. Coppard. My students are probably my best sources; they have steered me to wonderful writers.
Q: Do you have a favorite bookstore?
A: Yes, Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville. It is one of the reasons I moved here from San Francisco.
A: Nah. I really came because of the TCBY yogurt shop, but it closed down.
Q: Do you have a “guilty pleasure?”
A: I assume you mean reading. I read People magazine on the exercise bike at the gym and pedal slower and slower, fascinated, even though I have no idea who these glossy youngsters are or why they are marrying/divorcing/adopting and going into or coming out of rehab. I also love cookbooks, which I read in bed, and autobiographies of minor movie stars. One of the low points of my teaching life, and there have been many, was being caught by my most gifted student as I coming out of the Fayetteville Library with nothing in my arms but Martha Stewart and Mia Farrow.
Q: Is there a book you didn’t finish recently?
A: Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” Didion’s husband died suddenly last year at the same time that their daughter was in ICU (her daughter has since also died) and the book recounts the hard time Didion had as a result. It’s a definite tragedy, and I am sympathetic. But … going public with personal grief makes me twitchy. Isabel Allende did the same thing in her memoir about her dying daughter, Paula, and I couldn’t read that either. I keep thinking of the money they are making.
Q: What are you planning to read next?
A: A friend gave me “Are Men Necessary?” by Maureen Dowd. I am amazed that the book is so long.