By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

I’m a “Goodreads” author and as such I get, from time to time, questions from readers such as: What books are on your summer reading list, and Who is your favorite fictional couple and why? The abridged answers are: I generally don’t do reading lists, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Dellarobbia and Cub from Flight Behavior. Sometimes the questions are like those I get at book talks, readers looking for the magic formula to becoming writers. Some thoughtful readers are simply looking for clarification. I’ve been asked how I knew so much about pit bulls and family dysfunction (possibly looking for some personal revelations), and, are my books available in a Kindle format? Answers: Research and observation; and, yes.  

Susan Wilson

However, I recently received a question that really kind of threw me: If I could enter any fictional world, where would it be and what would I do?

I found myself with a complete failure of imagination. I drew a complete blank. How could that be? I’m often accused of being a voracious reader, and of the thousand books I’ve read (give or take) why didn’t one pop into my mind as the fictional world I’d most like to visit? And then it hit me. I create that world for myself. Where I want to be, I go. In my work, I’ve invented some wonderful locations, Hawke’s Cove, Cameo Lake, Moose River Junction, Harmony Farms.  I’ve also written my characters into real places that I like, the Berkshires, Boston, etc. These places, real and imagined, are the places I can go and where I put my characters to the test. 

It is said that a good book takes you out of your world and deposits you into that of the author, which is a bit like being invited into someone’s active imagination. If you’re a good author, you are invisible even as your readers find themselves poking around in your thoughts. As an author, I try hard to create a world that readers wish to visit, if not inhabit, that is, come bide awhile with me. In essence, readers are already inside the book if the work is compelling enough. A good writer opens the reader’s inner eye, the seeing is all in the mind, but vivid for all that. The experience is as real as if the reader actually were standing beside the protagonist. 

Having said that, I think that perhaps that reader meant not so much the physical environment, but to be a part of the story that takes place within that world. The setting may be England, but the story is a lie well told that ruins a life – Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Depression era North Dakota and the hard scrabble existence of the disaffected poor in Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain. Would I want to magically drop into postwar England and hang out with Briony Tallis and Robbie Turner? The reader asked, what would I do, and maybe I’m just thinking like an author, but in such a circumstance, I could do nothing without changing McEwan’s novel. 

One of the cleverest book series I’ve ever encountered is that of Jasper Fforde’s heroine, Thursday Next. Our intrepid protagonist literally enters books to solve crimes. Miss Havisham is her mentor and the plock-plocking Dodo is her companion animal. Fforde’s imagination should be bottled and sold by the case to dried-up old writers like me. 

My eight-year-old granddaughter is a voracious consumer of chapter books that involve fairies. These are not the fairies of my childhood, Tinkerbelle and her ilk, but empowered girl-fairies with missions to accomplish, adventures to have. Basically they’re the equivalent of bodice-ripper romances or cheap detective novels for kids. She’s not ready to enter the thicker environs of, say, J. K. Rowling, but these little books are certainly a gateway read. And she is clearly drawn into this magical world. I can see it on her face. She is a child and as such is capable still of entering fully into an imaginary world. On another note, my three-year-old grandson asked me if I wanted to “watch” a book with him. I don’t know if that means he is already capable of being so immersed in a story that it feels like he’s “watching” it, or if he equates reading with screen time. Either way, indulge me here. It was cute.

I think that I have lost the ability to concentrate enough to lose myself. I read, and the birds on the feeder catch my eye. Go back to the book, read the same paragraph, and a squirrel takes an acrobatic stance to raid the feeder. I’m surfing, not immersed. I long for the days when everything around me faded into the background as I read. As a myopic middle-grader, my refuge was in the books that our school library offered. As I think back, that was one very well-stocked rural school library. I read Les Miserables. I stumbled over the French names, but I did it. I was at the barricades. I read Great Expectations and I was creeped out by Miss Havisham. I was encouraged by the sainted Mrs. Bean to read the hard books, the challenging ones. Give me an indoor recess and I was in heaven. I was in another world. Today I am too much in the world. Deadlines, chores, responsibilities, and, if I’m honest, social media, all vie for my attention. And then, increasingly rarely, but oh so magically, a book comes along that puts all else into the background, a book that does invite me into another world. Maybe it’s a world like my own, or a world very different, but the author’s voice and characters and setting are so compelling that I can break away from myself and become one with the book. Oh so rare. 

Stephanie Kallos is one author whose work blows my mind. She writes characters that beg to be brought home and introduced to the family. Sing Them Home, Broken for You and Language Arts are firmly on my list of top reads.  Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is another that took me out of my world and deposited me in a little town in Iowa peopled with, well, people I’d like to know. So I know it’s not impossible to be carried away by a book, it just has to be a good one, and by “good one” I mean one in which the author has successfully disappeared behind the curtain. No authorial ticks, just authorial sleight of hand, tricking me into forgetting that I’m reading. And that’s the book world I want to be in.



Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author. Her newest novel, Two Good Dogs, was published in March 2017.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.