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Books as life Back
By Julie Kaewert
A talk to benefit Mullen High School Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Denver
We’re all here tonight because we love books - and Mullen High School, of course. I thought it might be fun to explore, in this wonderful setting where we’re surrounded by books, the idea that the books we choose have a lot to do with who exactly we are...and who we will become. This is an extension of the idea that art imitates life; I propose that life can also imitate art.

I recently had the chance to get my books off of the floor and onto some library shelves. As I organized them, I saw my life passing before my eyes on the spines. First, of course, I organized the Diane Davidson and Francine Mathews shelves—two fellow Colorado authors I admire, whose friendship I treasure.

Then there were the other main categories:
  • British culture, London, England in general
  • Writing
  • History of printing, bookmaking, etc.
  • Literature of the Midwest, Nebraska - Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather
  • Christian/spiritual/Bibles/hymnals/history of the church
It might sound obvious that our books would reflect our interests. But I’m going to take it a step further: books help us become who we are, help us discover our deepest interests. Our books go to the very heart of who we are in a way that no other possession does. If you came into my house, you’d see skis in the garage, piano in the living room, photos everywhere, furniture, dishes, clothing, and some CDs. They wouldn’t give you a very clear hint about my personality. Books, on the other hand, define us and even our future.

You’ll want to consider your own collection, of course, but I’ll illustrate with myself as an example: - The Willa Cather interest goes back to growing up in Nebraska, learning firsthand about the east-west conflict (called the Midwest Metaphor, for you Cather scholars), and my greatgrandparents on both sides pioneering in Nebraska. There is a pull stronger than I can describe to the literature of Cather and others like her; it’s in my bones, maybe my genes. I am continually trying to write my “Nebraska” book, it’s an itch I have to scratch.

- The early hymnals and Bibles, German and Swedish and English, go back to the pioneer churches near where I grew up, where we went to funerals and weddings as children, and where Willa Cather’s characters celebrated their greatest and most horrible life events. There’s something a little eerie about the fact that with all the places there are to live in the world, I’ve now ended up in a town north of Boulder where there was once a Swedish settlement. The Lutheran church to which we now belong preserves and holds annual Christmas services in its own Swedish pioneer church not far from our house.

- My books on writing probably stem from a mother who wrote for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in the forties and fascinated us with her stories.

- A fascination with the history of printing goes back to a job I had twenty years ago with a book publisher who enjoyed setting books in hot metal type in his barn.

- The thrillers used to attract me because I enjoyed them during bouts of escapism. Now, through having and reading them I’ve become a student and writer of them. If I hadn’t lived with all those books around me, I never would have become a writer in the genre.

It’s a little like navel-gazing, but studying yourself through your book collection is a fun exercise in self-understanding. Consider all the book club books you’ve read. Most of mine are lined up on the book-club shelves I’ve designated, because they don’t mean much to me. They don’t resonate with my deepest interests. But a few have been placed on the shelves nearest and dearest to me.

The books we are attracted to, and even love, can actually have an effect on the course of our lives. In the way you can easily miss the forest for the trees in life, it’s taken me ten years to figure out that this is the theme of the novels I write. My series character is Alex Plumtree, a book publisher in London who is a true bibliophile. He’s inherited an extraordinary collection of books, which he frequently enjoys in his library. In each novel he is destined to live out part of a classic in his library. In doing so he discovers something about himself or his family. He also learns something about the book that was heretofore undiscovered that has an impact on politics or history or literature.

Everything I’ve just said is directly related to the two questions I’m asked most often by readers: Where do you get your ideas, and how do you write your books?

The books I’m interested in give me the ideas. Here are a couple of examples:
  1. While researching British culture for a book called Untitled, I once read an article in the Financial Times of London about the Roxburghe Club, a group of aristocratic bibliophiles. Reading about the group led to the mention of Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was instrumental in the establishment of the Roxburghe Club. So my protagonist lived out the vignettes of the Decameron, mostly morality plays with lighthearted and sometimes slightly raunchy episodes. They were perfect for a novel, just as representative of life today as in the 16th C.


  2. On a trip to London to research a book called Unsigned, I visited the British Library and its printing museum in the basement. On the way out I couldn’t resist visiting the bookshop - and what was sitting there but a book about the Beowulf manuscript, one of the British Library’s claims to fame. I had always heard of Beowulf; scholars have been fighting over its date of origin for a long time. It had also been tossed out of the upper storey window of a burning house, and other adventures. But best of all, Beowulf is the story of one good man fighting a huge monster named Grendel - which again translates perfectly to today. In my book, this battle became Alex Plumtree as Beowulf fighting an evil, monstrous attempt to consolidate world publishing.
As for how I write the books, once these ideas have come, it all goes back to the classic work and its setting. If I am ever stuck, I have only to do a bit more research on the work, the history of the time, London of the time, and the story arises perfectly from the raw material, like one of Diane’s cakes.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that the books you surround yourself with, tonight and always, might have more to do with the course of your life than you think. If you are a parent, this becomes a particularly vital issue! When I think back to the books my husband and I grew up with, there’s no question that there’s a direct relationship between the books and who we became. At my husband’s home there were many volumes on political history, including the complete works of Winston Churchill. My husband majored in military and political history in college, and went to live in England as soon as he could. He still drinks tea every morning out of his Chartwell mug, from Churchill’s home in Kent.

There were books on naval history, and ship design; my husband became an avid yachtsman and rowed all four years on the varsity crew.

There were books on aeronautics and space exploration, and the early days of flight. (His mom flew in the early days when cabins weren’t pressurized and the passengers nodded off from lack of oxygen.) Now he’s an avid pilot and is still building models of aircraft with our girls.

As for me, you can see exactly where all those shelves of Nancy Drews and Trixie Beldens got me.
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