I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, as many of my generation did, and was inspired by Angelou’s poetic prose. She spoke to me in a way that many other writers I read in high school did not. Maybe this was because she was poet and a prose writer, and I love that combination (tho I did not know that at the time). But I think it was something deeper. She wrote from her heart and although she was 40 years older than me, and I grew up a white woman in the Midwest, I felt close to her when I read her work. Her life felt real, in the way that the lives of other writers did not.
I didn’t realize until I read her obituary that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was her debut. What a debut it was! She went on to publish a series of memoirs, but I have only read the first one. I now have more books to add to my list.
As I scour the Internet reading about her life and accomplishments I thought I would share a few links that stood out.
- This interview from the Paris Review, in 1990, gives a glimpse into her writer’s life and how she wrote Caged Bird.
- USA Today did a nice round up of powerful Maya Angelou quotes. In reading them, I’m moved by her ability to accept life as it is, while simultaneously believing that we all have the power for great things, no matter where we come from or how much defeat we absorb. She was a mentor to Oprah, and in reading the quotes, I can see the influence. Thank you Maya Angelou for this one:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Interview for Beautifully Said Magazine (2012)
- Did you know that Maya Angelou tweeted? Her final Tweet was: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
May you rest in peace. Your voice, and debut, will live with us forever.
By Nickolas Butler
Thomas Dunne Books, Macmillan, 2014
Set in Little Wing, WI, Shotgun Lovesongs tells the story of four young men in their 30s who grew up together in a small Midwestern town. The narration rotates between five main characters: Hank, a farmer and father; Kip a lawyer who has just returned to Little Wing from Chicago; Ronny a former rodeo champ and recovering alcoholic; Lee, a rock star with worldwide fame; and Beth, Hanks’ wife. The story explores what happens to them, and their friendships, as they age and some become more successful than others. Butler deftly captures small town life in the Midwest and through the character of Lee explores the consequences of celebrity.
This is an engaging book that gives a unique glimpse into the thoughts and psyches of four men who made very different life choices and yet all continue to live and spend time together. A good part of the action takes place around weddings, and I enjoyed seeing “the wedding” from a male point-of-view. I found the beginning of the book a little slow, but once it got going, I was taken by and rooting for all the characters. And being from the Midwest, I enjoyed reading a book set in Wisconsin.
Butler lives in Wisconsin and is a poet as well as a novelist.
Ruth Reichl’s debut novel, Delicious! comes out this week. Although I have never read any of her food books, when I read about this novel I found myself thinking, “I want to read that. I bet it’s good.” Why would I think such a thing? Why would Ruth Reichl be any better of a novelist than someone else? Her book has a chick lit set up (a genre I like, but don’t love or read a lot of), and is about a woman who works for a food magazine in New York that gets shut down. But there is a mystery in the story, in which the protagonist, Billie, finds correspondence between a 12-year old and James Beard, which leads to a deeper understanding of the history of food. I enjoy a book with a subtle mystery, so I think this is what caught my interest, and because Reichl’s an accomplished journalist and food writer, I’m assuming that this twist will be intriguing. Hence why I’m interested in buying this book and might read it over another.
But this is what makes it so hard for people who don’t have public identities to break through as a novelist and why publishers like to publish works by known entities – there is already a brand in place. I guess it’s sort of like using a big name actor in a Broadway play, instead of a younger, less well-known actor. An unknown debut novelist has to write something so unique and enticing that people who know nothing about the person will want to devote hours, and possibly days, to a story they might not feel connected to. That barrier lessens when a celebrity writes a book. And even if a celebrity’s debut novel isn’t great, the fact that she or he wrote one can be news in itself and helps sales.
What I’ve discovered while writing this blog is that there are lots of accomplished debut writers out there and only a few bubble to the top. Some of the books that don’t get attention are not as strong as others, but I don’t think there is room for all the accomplished writers to get the attention they deserve. This might be true in all fields, but what makes it hard with novels is that if your first novel doesn’t sell, it can be very hard to get another book published.
So how to find the noteworthy debuts out there? Later this month I will publish my top tips for finding debut books. And in the meantime, for those who like novels about food, Delicious! goes on sale tomorrow.