MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Summer is officially underway now, a time when many people get in some pleasure reading. And for many people, some light fiction is the first choice for a day at the beach. But our friends at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine had a different idea. Why not ask established novelists to write personal, non-fiction essays about summer?
Joining us now is David Rowell. He is editor of the Post's Sunday Magazine Summer Reading Issue, published yesterday. It features essays by five noted fiction writers. Rowell asked them to share personal stories of a past summer. David Rowell, thanks for being here.
Mr. DAVID ROWELL (Editor, Washington Post Sunday Magazine): Thank you.
MARTIN: This is becoming a very well known summer feature for the Post Sunday Magazine. And once again you've got some big name novelists to go for this idea: Ann Patchett, Rick Moody, Nicholas Montemarano, Nathan Englander, and Terry McMillan. How do you convince these fiction writers to go for this?
Mr. ROWELL: Yeah. Well, you know, I'm always struck by how easy it is. In fact, really all I'm doing is asking. I think on some level these writers like the challenge of working with the very facts and nothing else to try to make that experience come off in some meaningful way with some personal insight, basically for those pieces to read with the kind poignancy, perhaps, as their fiction.
MARTIN: You got the authors to read their essays also, which is lovely. And we only have time to hear one. So let's talk about Terry McMillan's piece. In case listeners have been, you know, on Mars and aren't familiar with the story. Best selling author Terry McMillan married a young man several years ago. She subsequently learned that he was gay. Their divorce became a messy public spectacle. In her essay for the Post Sunday Magazine, she writes about retreating to her vacation home, near Lake Tahoe, where she became obsessed with craft as a kind of therapy. Let's listen to Terry McMillan reading from her essay, "Excitement in Bed."
Ms. TERRY MCMILLAN (Author): It is now summer 2004. My friends have big mouths, and now there are people who want to buy my Sheets. I am still married, but my hands and eyes have given my heart and soul the detour they needed to replenish themselves. I have almost finished my novel. And when I do, I will also end this marriage. In the garage, I unroll a soft cannon of cotton. I spread the sheet and shake it out. Tomorrow, and weeks, and months, and hopefully even years from now, I will still see and make glaciers, forests, galaxies, blizzards, volcanoes, oceans, sand dunes, all flavors of melting ice creams, stalactites, flags of countries I never knew existed, copper fields, chocolate mines, and fire - blue and pink flames - peach air, violet mountains, sudden moonlight, more bronze snowfall, and I will always need an eclipse.
MARTIN: Now, was this awkward to call her up and say, gee, Terry, why don't write about like the most painful thing in your life? Tell us all about it.
Mr. ROWELL: Well, I met Terry at a reading about a year ago. And you just start off very general and say, here's the thing that I put together every year and would you consider writing for it? And she said yes, she was very excited about it. So when it came to the time where we started talking about what to write, I think I did find her at a time where she was writing non-fiction for the first time. I mean that divorce had been written about quite a bit in some scandalous ways and I think she wanted to tell her own side of it.
And so I knew we couldn't tell the whole story in a scope of a magazine piece, so we just talked about what one part can we take from that and really tell it fully. And the thing that I was drawn to was the thing that ultimately offered her escape. You know, she was going through a difficult time and she had found this kind of unusual project, what actually, I think, has gone on to be a side business for her. And it just meant everything to her, and so she had a lot of say about that. And you listen to these authors talk about the thing they're thinking about and you say, hey, that's a story, good, let's write that.
MARTIN: All right. I loved Ann Patchett's piece about trying out for the police academy, which I found particularly poignant because, you know, the LAPD is so much in the news for all their, you know, negative stuff, and for her to write about with such affection was fascinating. Now, this is terrible; it's like picking among your children. But did you have a favorite essay?
Mr. ROWELL: You know, I really love them all. I mean they're all different. They're all in - in this issue their own particularly personal. And, you know, Rick Moody is writing about 20 years ago where he had a breakdown and he went into a rehab place. I mean, Nick Montemarano is writing about - he was a security guard at a department store where he was kind of encouraged to kind of think…
MARTIN: To profile.
Mr. ROWELL: Ah, yes.
MARTIN: To racially profile.
Mr. ROWELL: Right.
MARTIN: That was deep.
Mr. ROWELL: And, you know, so they're all - and Nathan Englander is writing about the summer that's he's going to leave this country and go to Israel. So they're all writing a very significant things and there's a lot at stake. And so, you know, I like them all.
MARTIN: I can't wait to see what you come up with next year.
Mr. ROWELL: Ha.
MARTIN: He says ha. David Rowell is an assistant editor at the Washington Post Sunday magazine. He edited the June 24th Summer Reading Issue. You can find the essays and hear the authors reading their entries on our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. David, thanks.
Mr. ROWELL: Oh, thanks.
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