Book Talk Interview with Grace VanAkin

Here's my July interview on Grace Van Akin's monthly Book Talk on her Whimsy & Joy blog. 


Welcome to Book Talk!  This month's guest is writer and musician Nancy McMillan, owner of Whistling Hawk Studio and author and recipient of the 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award for March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Farm.  

Grab a cup of your favorite coffee or tea, settle in to your most comfortable chair and join me as I learn about what Nancy is reading right now and more!

What books are currently on your nightstand?

  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer.  A delightful romp of a romantic comedy about a gay novelist who leaves on a gallop across the world to avoid his former lover’s wedding. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year.

  • Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, a historical fiction novel I’m reading for my book group. We’re focusing on the Divine Feminine this year.

  • All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This one is still sitting on my nightstand.  It’s my reward for when I finish the first draft of my novel, hopefully by the end of the summer.

  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.  I’m impressed by the important work Brene Brown has down around shame and her guidance in living wholeheartedly. She does great Ted Talks, too.

  • The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer, a travel writer who decided to explore the power and pleasure of stillness. This is on my to-read-next pile, along with Doerr.

  • The Time In-Between by Maria Duenas, a transporting piece of historical fiction featuring a seamstress whose life becomes enmeshed in politics during the Spanish Civil War, leading up to World War II.

What book first got you hooked on reading as a child?

It had to be Winnie the Pooh, read to me as I sat on my father’s lap in the wide armchair in our living room. For my own reading, it was probably Charlotte’s Web. To this day, I cannot kill a spider. They must know that because they frequent my studio. And I’ve read that they’re the animal totem of writers, with their weaving skills.

How do you choose what to read?

For fiction, recommendations from friends and other writers who know my tastes. I always pick up the free magazine Book Talk at my local library and find interesting new reads there.  I also pick up Indie List, a list of chosen by independent bookstore folks, at the wonderful The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot. We are so lucky to have this treasure in our corner of Connecticut. 

For non-fiction, I let my intuition guide me.   I don’t read a lot of memoir, but the last one I read, Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser, was outstanding. There is usually at least one book about spirituality on my nightstand.

Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?

Although the first book I wrote was non-fiction, my first love is fiction, and I mostly read novels and short stories.  I’m in the middle of writing a novel, so I choose carefully, to avoid either being intimidated or unconsciously stealing ideas from other authors.

I do not care for science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. The exception is the Harry Potter series, which I loved.  I began reading H.P. because my piano students were all raving about them, and I was hooked immediately.

 Do you reread books?  Which ones and why?

Oh, how I wish I had time to reread books.  I will mark sections to return to, especially if the author was able to accomplish something I’m trying to work out in my own writing.

In the early eighties, I read a book called Departures by Jane Bernstein. When I finished it, I opened to page one and reread the entire book.  I was going through a rough patch in my life and that book spoke to me in a way that gave me comfort and hope.  I even wrote the author a letter--you can tell this was a while ago--and was thrilled when she answered.

If you could be a literary character, who would it be?

Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird, for her intelligence, and perhaps because I was a tomboy, too. There’s a part of me that still longs for the freedom of that age.

Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?  What about their writing appeals to you?

I’ve read almost all of Ann Patchett’s books and love every word she’s written. I fell in love with Bel Canto, went on to read The Magician’s Assistant.  By then I was hooked.  State of Wonder is a miraculous book.  Her two non-fiction books, Truth and Beauty and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage are exceptional. I love that she owns a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books, and blogs about books. 

Her writing is natural and elegant. She has great insight into human nature and creates complex characters who are so real you feel like you know them. Her writing is seamless, which is my favorite adjective to describe both my beloved novels and pieces of music.  Patchett’s books read like they were delivered to her in one piece. I forget I’m reading when I’m in the middle of one of her books, which is the experience I strive to give my readers. 

Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?

Ann Patchett, to be in her presence and absorb some of her writing mojo.

Geraldine Brooks, an outstanding historical fiction writer, whose brain I would pick for how she writes her extremely well-researched books.

William Trevor, the master of the short story, to pick his brain on how he creates unforgettable, sometimes haunting, stories. Plus, he’s Irish, so he’d liven up the party. 

Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?

A Wrinkle in Time, which I read when I was about ten, set the course for the way I lived my life.  Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time.  A few years ago, I reread it and was gobsmacked with how much the message of the power of love, and the idea of multiple dimensions beyond what we experience in our daily lives, put me on the path I’ve tread all my adult life.  I was excited to see the film version released earlier this year, and ultimately disappointed in it. 

Are there any books on the craft of writing that you recommend to others?

Yes.  Here’s the list I recommend to my writing students, in this order:

The Elements of Style, E.B. White 

(A wonderful illustrated children’s biography about EBW called Some Writer came out this year. Highly recommended.)

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland

Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

And the best way to learn to write: Read. A lot.