Every Saturday, my sister Lisa Mangum and I get together to write, or to talk about writing, or to brainstorm new stuff to write, or to commiserate about how we can’t write anything at all. Anyway, the following is a recent conversation we had:
Me: So I have to write a new post for the blog.
Lisa: What are you going to write about?
Me: I don’t know. I’ve run out of ideas. I even tried crowdsourcing some ideas on Facebook, but I can’t seem to make any of them work.
Me: I was thinking I should interview you instead.
Me: Why not? After all, you’re an award winning author and editor, and you’re sitting right here in my living room. I bet people would love to get an inside look at what makes you tick.
Lisa: Good point. You can ask me three questions.
Me: Awesome. Question one: What are your top three most pivotal books—the ones that changed you as a reader?
Lisa: The first would be Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen. I read this book in sixth grade, and it introduced me to fantasy. Up until then, I had no interest in fantasy whatsoever. Prior to that, I read a bunch of stories that were mostly “pretty girls who were dying,” and that sort of thing. But this book opened up an entirely new world and genre to me.
The next is Beloved by Toni Morrison. I read this in college. This actually pivoted me out of fantasy, and back into realistic and modern fiction. It also introduced me to a point of view that I had zero prior experience with. It was so beautiful and honest, and it made me understand the human condition in a way I never considered before. It helped me see the common connections that I could have with people, even someone from such a different background than my own.
The third is Dante’s Divine Comedy. I took a course in college that focused entirely on this book, and I loved every second of it. The book truly fascinated me: the language, the symbolism, the imagery—all of it. I resonated with the journey of man’s decent into the lowest regions of Hell, and then into the highest parts of Heaven. The book then lay dormant in me for another ten years, until the spark came for my first book, The Hourglass Door, and Dante’s writing became the main inspiration.
Me: And you even named your male protagonist Dante.
Lisa: Exactly. You never know what elements are going to combine to make a story come to life.
Me: Okay, so let’s go to the flip side. What three books made you so mad, you wanted to take them out behind the school and beat them up and take their milk money?
Lisa: You’re going to get me into trouble with this question.
Me: Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.
Lisa: Right off the bat, I have to mention The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (makes gagging noise). I hated this book so much when I read it in high school. I hated that the pastor in the story was so awful, and yet was supposed to be a stand in for Christ. I didn’t like the structure of the story, I didn’t like the pacing, and I didn’t care about the Joad family’s suffering. I felt like Steinbeck was trying too hard, and he came across as arrogant.
Me: I hear you. And if there were time, I’d lay out my own dislike of Steinbeck. But that’s a rant for another day.
Lisa: Number two would be Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card. Full disclosure: I didn’t really enjoy Ender’s Game, so take that into consideration. But this story was set a thousand years after Ender’s Game, and it felt like the author was simply trying ride the wave of the other book’s success. It felt “tacked on” instead of having legs to stand on its own. Also, I was acutely aware of the author writing the book, if that makes sense.
Me: I don’t follow. Aren’t you aware that authors write all books?
Lisa: Yes, but the author shouldn’t be “in” the story. I shouldn’t see the author sitting at his keyboard, madly typing away as I read. That’s all I could imagine as I read this, and it made me angry.
Me: Gotcha. What’s your third book you’d like to beat up?
Lisa: (Pauses). The Lord of the Rings.
Lisa: I’m sorry. But when I tackled Tolkien in ninth grade, it was a horribly hard slog. I couldn’t keep track of all the characters; I hated all the singing and epic poetry, and I found myself doing other things to avoid reading it. In fact, when I finally got to the point where Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mount Doom, I closed the book and said, “I’m sure everything will turn out fine.”
Me: Really? Because there’s a lot of stuff that happens after that.
Lisa: I know. But I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t even see them throw the Ring into the fire until the movies came out!
Me: Wow. So what did you think of the ending of the movies?
Lisa: I was right—everything turned out just fine. Now, in fairness, I love the story of Lord of the Rings. I just prefer the way Peter Jackson tells me that story instead of Tolkien.
Me: I’d like to pause and remind anyone reading this to send hate mail to my sister instead of me.
Lisa: Bring it.
Me: Okay, last question: What are your top three most memorable lines from books?
Lisa: Number one is easy: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That’s is the opening line from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, and I love it because it opens with action, and sets the tone for the entire series. The man in black is not just running, he’s fleeing. And it’s across a desert—a harsh, unforgiving environment. And the gunslinger is following, determined and unrelenting, like a shark or the Terminator. When I read that line, I didn’t know who these characters were, or what would happen when they eventually met, but I knew I wanted to be there when it happened. And it was awesome!
Number two is: “He looked at Jimmy, a direct look, unsmiling. ‘I’m counting on you,’ he said. Then he slit her throat.” This is from Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I love this line because I absolutely did not see it coming. Oryx, Jimmy, and Crake are the main characters, and it’s rare enough that one would die, let alone in such a startling manner. In that moment, every character’s actions were both unexpected, yet inevitable. The story couldn’t have gone any other way, and it took my breath away when I read it. That’s good storytelling.
Number three is: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
Me: Point of order: that’s not from a book. That’s what Ripley says in Aliens.
Lisa: Fair enough. But it’s such a good line! And I’m surprised at how frequently I quote this in my real life—almost on a daily basis. I find it applicable in so many different ways, such as when I’m working on a story, or an edit where things just aren’t coming together, I mutter “let’s just nuke this from orbit,” and I feel better. A good line like that becomes a classic when it finds its way into your regular vocabulary. It’s the kind of line I’m always trying to write in my own stories.
Me: I’ll let it slide if I can ask one Secret Random Bonus Question: What is your favorite snack at Disneyland?
Lisa: Ugh, I can’t pick just one! It depends on what time of day, and where I am. For instance, at 11:45 PM, when I’m on Main Street on my way out of the park, I have to stop and get a Mickey Mouse shaped rice krispie treat. On the other hand, if it’s two in the afternoon, and I’m on my way over to Toy Story Midway Mania, I have to stop and get a Mickey Mouse ice cream from the cart on the boardwalk. And of course, if I’m in the Tiki Room, I have to get a Dole Whip, regardless of time of day. It’s the law.
Me: Awesome. Thanks for letting me interview you. Anything else you’d like to add?
Lisa: Yes, I’d like to say that you’re the best brother in the whole world, a brilliant writer, a true inspiration, and a champion among men. I wouldn’t be who I am today without you.*
Me: Don’t mention it.
*Author’s note: this line may have been added after Lisa left.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.