by Terence Taylor
We all have one. You know you do. Don’t lie.
That too tall stack of books we’ve sworn to read, promised to authors, friends, ourselves… Hard and soft covers, fiction and non-fiction, horror, fantasy and sci-fi — mine have sat piled three feet tall on a vertical shelf near a front window for two years where they gather dust in accusation. “Read Me!” they scream. And weep. And beg. Today I listen. I will pick them up, one by one, read each and here tell the tale of where that takes me. It is a road that will never end, as new books are added to the stack to replace those finally done.
Ironically, I decide to begin with my own neglected novels, the first two books of the Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. I have been working on the third, Past Life, for the last year, and am at a point where I have to re-immerse myself in my warped little world to move forward. Only modesty prevents me from actually reviewing their contents, that’s all been covered well by others. I would rather tell what it feels like to revisit my own work years after the fact. They say you can’t go home again but sometimes you have to go back to move on.
I read the first book in soft cover trade paperback, not the e-book edition on my iPad. It feels good to hold a printed book again; the text is smaller than I remembered, the thick off-white pages full. It’s weird at first, then familiar and comfortable, like snorkeling in warm water. After the initial shock of recognition as I re-read my own writing I find myself drifting in and out, remember why I said something a certain way here, or conjured a particular image there, then slide back into the narrative. I find that I know the story, but not the structure, and there are still surprises.
I have been away from reading for a while.
Yes, I write fiction, but also work in video production. I recently spent two years working on a documentary called An Unknown Country. I was the producer, editor and motion graphics designer. Each day of that time was spent putting a feature-length narrative together over months and then cutting it down from three hours to ninety minutes. By the end of each day, books were too much for my weary brain to handle. All I could do to unwind was read comics on the Marvel Unlimited iPad app. The appeal of the imagery and minimal text carried on well past the film’s completion, as I consumed decades of the Marvel back catalog over the next year, the digital graphics delightfully crisp and colorful on my retina screen.
I was saved from addiction when the credit card that paid for it expired, ripped me away from the many (sometimes too many, and too similar — how many fight scenes with quips and quips about them making quips can you take?) storylines of Marvel’s Battleworld back to reality. My head cleared as if from a lotus dream, and I stopped myself from renewing the account. Doom and his opposition could wait. I would read books again.
The first of the Vampire Testaments goes into my bag and I start reading it as I take the subway into the city for a day of appointments. Lucky enough to work at home for the last year, I’d lost the subway time I had always used to burn through books, waiting on platforms, travelling on the trains. I’d missed it. This broke the seal. Once I started, desire to know what was next carried me forward. I read at home while the computer rendered video files, in the bathroom, at the barber’s. By halfway through I am fully engaged in reading again and not thinking at all of what is ahead in the book, though upcoming events always lay on the edge of awareness.
I know the ending, of course, but the exact path between where I am and there feels mysterious and vague, with only occasional glimpses of key moments in the fog ahead. My head fills with the images my mind makes of the words as I read, and I am home again.
I grew up as an avid reader. My father was in the Air Force and from first through fourth grades, the years I began reading, we lived in Evreux, France, a provincial village about forty miles north of Paris. France had TV, but we did not. My father was never a fan, and he saw no point to his family spending time watching it in French. For entertainment my mother took us to the library every Saturday. My year younger sister Michelle and I found books for ourselves, and during the week after we’d read our own and each other’s, we read hers. We both read beyond our grade level, quickly, with comprehension, so my mom read mysteries and historic romances, made sure she wouldn’t regret hearing whatever she’d read back from her kids in public.
At the age of ten I picked up a paperback she’d brought home from a weekend in Paris with a friend, a new novel written by a Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov, called The Master and Margarita. It had lurid cover art of a black cat that winked salaciously, a big ass pistol gripped firmly in one paw, irresistible to a kid raised on The Hobbit, Narnia, the Borrowers, Ray Bradbury and Bullfinch’s Mythology. It opened with a prediction and a decapitation — I was hooked and read on in gleeful wonder, and I am sure, semi-mystification, then forgot about it for decades.
A few years after my first two novels were published the book came up in conversation (more often than you would think) and I was reminded of the title and the cover. I went to my local Park Slope library where I found a well-worn soft cover copy, the 1997 Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, highly recommended. I read it in a day or two, amazed at how well I remembered images and events from my first reading, as it re-opened in my head. The train track decapitation, the madhouse, the Devils’ Ball at the end…
At ten, I could not possibly have understood the satire of the first half of the book, largely jokes about politics and the practicalities of finding food, clothing and shelter in Soviet Russia, or the passion of the tragic romance in the second half, but I recognized it for what it was, a darkly skewed Fun House Mirror of real life that reflected the deeper truth.
What shocked me was realizing that this book had evidently been imprinted on my young brain and that it had informed the path my writing had taken since my first short story. The same voice Bulgakov had used in his novel to relate the state of his contemporary Russia — social satire in a deceptively prosaic style overlaid with supernatural elements that made it possible to exaggerate Russia’s excesses to epic scale as it slid into darkness — was the same sly tone I’d used in Bite Marks and Blood Pressure to describe a socially divided New York in the mid-1980s and then two decades later, the works that gave me my voice as a novelist.
I had found my literary father in a sixties Soviet author.
When I went to return the book, the librarian scanned it and informed me that this copy had been scheduled for disposal, too worn to return as it turned out, and that if I wanted it I could have it. It sits proudly on my shelves today, a magical gift from my child self that came to me when I needed to see it again and consciously reset my course with it. Thinking of that rare and prized gift from the universe now as I enter the third novel of the trilogy reminds me of what I need to learn from re-reading the first two. What was I trying to say and how did I say it? How do the new story and characters change any of that?
When I finished editing An Unknown Country, I started writing again, for real, better than the thin stories I’d squeezed out for my crit group to justify my inclusion while working on the film. My prose was clean again, the narrative more focused. I’m finally back up to speed after a story sale to an anthology and the bliss of an email query from the trilogy’s agent on when the third novel might be done.
Reading made me want to write and makes me a better writer. I’m here to remind fellow writers that it feeds you — you see styles and stories you like or don’t and knowing why you do or don’t improves your own work. From a purely marketing point of view you see what’s already been done, what holes you can fill. Non-fiction always gives you tools to write with, even when read randomly, and there will be a few of those on my list here I must read for my current novel. For readers, this column lets you follow as I work my way back into my childhood love of books and see again how they affect me, shared so you can see how they might affect you. This column is part review, part commentary as issues arise in what I read, and part therapy, as is any good writing.
More than anything, I hope to make this fun to read, entertaining and informative, the goal of all my work. I return to my first novel, which now needs only whisper to get my attention, eager to read the next. If you aren’t currently in the middle of a book, for whatever reason, go to your own stack of the unread and listen for it; though you know what they have to say…
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.