In our last episode, we talked with author and teacher, Lewis Buzbee, about his MFA experiences and teaching. This time around, we talk with Lewis about his successful new book, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop,” about the art of being “well read,” and we decide, once and for all, whether or not there’s actually a novel inside everyone.
How did “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” come to being? What were its formative moments?
As you know, I worked in bookstores, with a passion, for 10 years, and for 7 years after that I was a publisher’s sales rep who called on bookstores. It’s just been in my blood, for whatever reason. Happenstance, most likely, a fortunate happenstance. And as a writer, one always considers one’s experiences for material. But in 1992, or thereabouts, I was asked to write some general essays about bookselling for American Bookseller magazine. Those were a lot of fun, and I knew then that I had to write this book. I knew what it would be called, and how it would look even, and am happy to say that’s all turned out to be true. But other than that, I really didn’t know where to start. I quit the book business in 1994 and started teaching, and it wasn’t until 2000 that I really had a clear vision of the book. I think it took that distance to get the picture I wanted. I knew that a memoir of my own bookselling career would be fairly tedious, and I felt that a larger view–an historical view, a wide cultural view–would benefit the book. I wanted to write a book about the bookstore in general, to write about all bookstores. I wanted to write a memoir on behalf of the bookstore. I needed the time away to find that larger focus.
In the book, you talk about how you came to books and literature through “The Grapes of Wrath.” You also talk about almost immediately picking up and trying to write a story after reading that particular book. Do people who love to read always want to write? And vice-versa?
Well, I can’t say for sure, but it would certainly seem that way. When I was teaching continuing education courses, I frequently heard new students–anywhere from 20 to 70 years-old–say that they’d always wanted to write, that they’d always been readers, and at some point, they knew they had a story to tell. Sadly, I also heard as many of them tell me that they’d started out writing only to have this notion squashed by any number of people–parents, teachers, friends, failed writers who’d given up. Everyone? Probably not. But a lot, that’s my guess. If you were a huge baseball fan, say, and watched and went to game after game, wouldn’t you at some point but a glove and yearn to play catch? Maybe start a team? It’s inevitable. But with this addition. Everyone who knows how to read already has the tools, that is, they have written something before–poems in school, essays, business reports, letters. It’s part of being human, telling stories, and when you’ve got the tools, well, why not?
Does every avid reader have a writer inside crying to get out? Should they all get out?
Don Delillo says that the novel is a truly democratic art form and claims that every person has a novel in them, at least one novel. Sure, I’m willing to buy that. Every person certainly has a unique path through reality, and each of those paths suggests some important testimony, some witness to a life on the planet.
Should each of us write a novel? There are some who would say no, that that’s best left up to, well, to whom? Professionals? No, every writer is an amateur, and the best writers retain–you can feel it in the urgency of the writing–something of their amateur status. Because that is, in the long run, what we want, urgent messages from others. A lot of teachers I’ve worked with bemoan the burgeoning of writing classes and programs, claiming that somehow it crowds the market. But I would disagree. I’ve had something close to 1,000 students in my twelve years teaching, all wanting to write–all writing, by the way–and while not all of them, in fact hardly any of them, are going to become “successful?? or even published, I can’t see the harm. Each of these students has written something of interest, something of their lives, a piece of testimony that wasn’t there before. They’ve investigated the world and their place in it. How can that be bad? And all of them will be better readers, more engaged readers. Why shouldn’t everyone write, tell their story? It’s better than building bombs.
While in graduate school, I always struggled with this sense that I wasn’t as well-read as my fellow students. I definitely feel better read now that I’ve finished… How do you come to a sense of being well-read or not?
One never feels well read. It’s a constant struggle to feel that you’re making inroads. Because every time I read one book, it only uncovers five more books I want to read. There’s only one thing for it, the time and persistence it takes to read. It’s an odd concept, though, feeling as if one’s well read. For who defines that? You read and read and read, and always fall behind. It’s actually a great thing, this falling behind, to feel that you will never run out of great books to read. How sad to feel all-read out.
There seemed to be a consensus amongst the staff at USF that writing went hand-in-hand with reading. Is this consistent among all MFA programs? Is there any room for exceptions to those rules? Do you absolutely have to be a voracious reader to fulfill a dream of being a writer?
I know one good writer who doesn’t like to read. Claims that he hates it and only reads what he has to. He’s a failed concert pianist who took up writing as a means of self-expression. And he’s the exception. Do you have to be a voracious reader to be a writer? I don’t see why you’d have to. But I just can’t figure out why you’d want to be. Most writers are compelled to write because of their reading, the sense that words have immense and beautiful powers. And from this reading, their own stories start to emerge. I just can’t understand why someone would want to be a writer if they weren’t also an habitual reader. I mean, why would you want to? So, as a rule, yes. As a piece of common sense, though, reading is naturally tied to writing. I certainly wouldn’t want a brain surgeon who was some kind of maverick and didn’t keep up with what other brain surgeons had done and were doing. All trades learn from apprenticeship on one level. Reading is the key element in a writer’s apprenticeship.
And, with that, I thank Lewis Buzbee for sharing his time with me. He recently informed me that “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” has gone into its third printing. No surprise to me. I’ll be honest, when I picked up a copy, I was a little anxious. What if I didn’t like it? That would have been a serious blow to teacher-student relations (not that it’s a requirement for students to enjoy their teachers’ work). But I didn’t need to worry at all. TYLB is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Buy, steal, or borrow a copy and check it out.
Explore more of Lewis Buzbee on the web: