by Vincent Louis Carrella
Hello Book Passage readers. As a writer fortunate enough to live in Marin County I have the unique privilege of living near one of the world's truly great bookstores. Book Passage is a bastion of words and ideas, stories and passion, community and ideals, that embodies not just what it means to be a reader, but what it means to be a participant in life itself. For it is through books that human thought and the human experience flow between us and connects us all.
This coming Sunday I have been granted the distinct honor of reading to you from my debut novel Serpent Box. I will be blogging here all week in hopes of sharing with you what the book means to me, but before I do that I hope to convey to you not just plot and theme, but the very essence of writing and reading as I have come to understand those twin pursuits.
Two days ago I read from Serpent Box to a small group of readers at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a small store, tucked away in a strip-mall and overshadowed by large chain retail establishments all around it. As I entered the store I quickly felt at home. I immediately sensed the pulse and unique personality of the place, and as I wandered the stacks I began to feel the tingling sensation of joy I get when surrounded by books and people who love them.
Independent bookstores, to me, are churches. They are holy places. Each has its own aura of divinity and grace, and though this small store possessed no outward physical beauty, it radiated a light all its own. Though I get very nervous before a reading, I soon felt buoyed by what I can only describe as a shared bond of understanding for the importance and beauty of books.
At the end of my reading, one of my listeners asked me why and how I wrote my book. It is a question I get constantly and one whose answer always seem to change slightly in the telling. That is because the more I read from my own work, the more I reflect back upon it, and the more I speak with readers, the more I come to understand what I believe is my calling.
What I told this woman can best be summed up in a quotation I had posted above my writing space during the long and grueling years I spent crafting Serpent Box. It is from Seymour – An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger, the single most influential writer in my life. The quote is an excerpt from a letter written by one brother to another, whose faith in his ability to write was waning, as is often the case during the creation of a book that one hopes will have meaning. Here is what Seymour told Buddy, and what I read back to myself almost every day:
“(When) you wrote down that you were a writer by profession, it sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It has never been anything but your religion. Never…..(and) Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form when you were writing it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I am so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”
I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my original reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time dedicated to books and words and sentences?
It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. I believe the readers in this world are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.
If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then you love the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, and fictional human beings, who are mosaics of herself, and who are struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we all struggle with.
Serpent Box is about faith, but not just religious faith. It is about faith in oneself and how we must all strive for it, fight for it, pray for it, work for it, every single day of our wonderful, terrible, miraculous lives for it.
It is hard sometimes, being alive. It is hard to grapple with the great questions that can never be answered within a mortal life – Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Thankfully, we have books to guide us. Thankfully, we have words and people who struggle with them, so that we can understand that we all have so much more in common with one another than we realize.
Books are my life. Words are the blood of my soul. Stories, as Tim O’Brien says, can truly save us. I write so I can live and so I can save myself from what can sometimes be a very sad world and a very destructive state of mind. But I am a reader first and a writer second. I could never have written Serpent Box without the great writers who came before me, and showed me how to live.
I imagine that some of you feel this way too. I look forward to meeting you next Sunday. Thank you Book Passage.