“Family” is not something you often feel at writer’s conferences. But when I first spoke to Sharon Oard Warner back in 2003 about the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference she founded in 1998, I told Warner that it seemed as if she had created a sense of family there. Some 300 writers from around the globe attend the annual event to study, connect, collaborate, and celebrate. “You’re right,” Warner said in reference to the family comment.
Family matters to Warner but not in typical ways. Her latest novel Sophie’s House of Cards pivots around what happens when a sixteen-year-old becomes pregnant. Of the novel, We Are Water author Wally Lamb notes that the novel includes everything he seeks in fiction: “sympathetic characters whose imperfections are recognizably human, a strong sense of place, and a story that lingers long after you’ve closed the book and moved on to others.” The daughter of a troubled mother with five siblings, Warner has made family from teaching and hosting a stellar conference, which is more of a community.
What books have shaped Sharon’s life and way of thinking? In this Books That Matter feature, you will discover the story that changed something profound in her, the character she still imagines being, and the book she thinks every child should read.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Sharon: A book that moved me profoundly is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. The editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine, Bauby was also a father to two young children—a man in the prime of life. Then, in December of 1995, while behind the wheel of a new car—his son in the passenger seat beside him—Bauby suffered a catastrophic stroke. (Just before losing consciousness, he managed to steer his car to the side of the road.) Comatose for two weeks, Bauby awoke to the horror of what it called “locked-in syndrome.” The 44 year old was left paralyzed and unable to speak, a prisoner of his own body until he managed to move his left eyelid. Dictated by Bauby to a transcriptionist, one blink at a time, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a 132 page masterpiece of a memoir.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
A detail I recall from the book is the method of transcription, wherein a young woman recited the frequency-ordered alphabet while intently gazing at Bauby’s motionless face. She was watching for a blink of his left eye, and upon seeing the movement, the transcriptionist repeated the letter back to him. “A?” Another blink. So it went, a painstaking process that required roughly two minutes per word, four hours per day, for a total of ten months. The takeaway for the rest of us able-bodied writers: never complain again about the difficulties of composition.
The book you’ve imagined living inside of is what?
As a child, I adored the book, Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The copy I remember reading and rereading was illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith. I’ve just discovered that the text and Wilcox’s illustrations are available here. When my sons were in elementary school, I read Heidi to them. Their lackluster response disappointed me, though it shouldn’t have. Why on earth would my two boys identify with Heidi? Now, Huck Finn, he was another matter.
What character do you still imagine being and why?
The little girl who was me yearned to be Heidi, who lived in a hut perched on a mountain top in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather. She herded goats alongside her friend, Peter, and read aloud to Peter’s blind grandmother. Heidi’s life circumstances were anything but idyllic. Having lost both parents as a young child, she didn’t allow early tragedy and selfish Aunt Dete to dictate her life choices.
You will read anything written by whom?
I will read anything by author Sue Miller. My favorite of her novels is Lost in the Forest, which I have studied for craft features, particularly plot and structure. That book holds up. Take it apart and examine the structure. Look at the 10% point and the 90% point to learn all about plotting. (If this talk of percentages is confusing and/or intriguing, do look up another of my favorite authors, Jane Smiley. Her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is intelligent, useful, and inspiring, so much so that I own several copies of it.)
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
A few years ago, my husband bought me a Nook for Christmas. I love to read in bed, after the lights are out, but my vision is awful. Book lights don’t do it for me. The Nook is perfect for bedtime reading. During the daytime, I read books with spines. The percentage is about 50/50.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
Books with spines will continue to exist at about the same rate as people with spines.
If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read?
If I had five days off to read books (for fun) next week, I would read something old, Death Comes to the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, and something new, The Wives of Los Alamos, by Tarashea Nesbit. What do these novels have in common? Both are set in New Mexico, both are by women writers, and both have a real-life, historical underpinning.
Which book would you want every boy/girl to read? Why?
The book I want every child to read is the Diary of Anne Frank. I first encountered it in elementary school, and it taught me two truths about human beings—that they can be brave and that they can be brutal. Those who doubt the presence of good and evil in the world must sit down with the Diary of Anne Frank.
The little-known book you most relish and champion is what?
The little known book I most relish and champion is a short story collection by Lynna Williams entitled Things Not Seen. Back in 1992, I reviewed this book for the Dallas Morning News, and I still remember several of the stories, the most striking of which is “Sole Custody.” That’s a story I wish I’d written.
The book you are most embarrassed to say you’ve never read is what?
The book I’m most embarrassed to admit I’ve never read is Ulysses by James Joyce. For years, I was plagued by dreams where I was thrust into an uncomfortable role, that of a visiting lecturer on Joyce. Rows of students sat waiting for me to expound on the exploits of Leopold Bloom. What to do, what to do? In at least one dream, I served up a distraction. In lieu of a lecture, I strolled down the aisle with bags of popcorn.
SHARON OARD WARNER is an author, teacher, and the founder of the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. She published a short story collection, Learning to Dance and Other Stories, and the novels, Deep in the Heart and Sophie’s House of Cards. She has also edited an anthology, The Way We Write Now, Short Stories from the AIDS Crisis. To learn more about Sharon Oard Warner, visit sharonoardwarner.com.