You may have heard about the supply chain challenges facing the book publishing industry, particularly as indie bookstores implore you to order early (and order often!) to secure any titles on your holiday wish list. I did this today (shout out to The Book Shop of Beverly Farms and Twenty Stories) and 10/10 would recommend.
The discourse also got me thinking about all of the books that are out there, and how a handful of super stars get so much of the spotlight, even in my own TBR pile. While I have FOMO about getting my hands on the new Rooney, or Groff, or—I’m not immune—Franzen, I find that in my writing brain actually lights up more when I read across different genres.
Maybe it’s like varying your workout at the gym? (I wouldn’t know; I’ve done ONLY Cody Rigsby Peloton rides since March 2020.) My theory is that my brain gets in a rut just like my body, and when I read a rom com, I remember how much I love banter, or when I read a thriller, I remember how essential it is for a story to have a hook – or, as the technician at my mammogram said when I told her about the book I was trying to write, “Sounds good but it needs a dead body.”
So I was excited to discover the podcast Blind Date with a Book. It’s hosted by writers Elena Nicolaou, Kristen Evans, and Rachel Mans McKenny, and it is delightful. It’s a dating app meets gameshow wrapped in the warm, fuzzy glow of chatting about books with your friends. I asked Rachel if she’d be up for a round of literary speed dating and, because she’s midwestern-nice and reads a million books, she agreed.
SARA SHUKLA: Hi Rachel! In our email exchange, you noted the reaction on Romance Twitter to this recent piece in The Cut, headlined “So You Want To Read A Sexy Book.” While I may have uploaded that screenshot from “Normal People” to my phone’s lockscreen, the recs didn’t include any actual romance novels. Let’s start there.
RACHEL MANS MCKENNY: For some writers (and readers), the word “genre” seems like a dirty word, even if what you’re hungry for is dirty words. Seriously: romance is sitting right there, begging for you to give it a chance. Romance is as broad a category as any other out there —the only ‘must’ is that there’s a happy ending for a couple (sometimes in every sense of the word but not always!) I admit that I didn’t pick up a romance novel until I was in my thirties, and now I’m like, why? Why was that? Especially right now, when real life feels tenuous and anxiety-ridden and very pandemic-y, it’s so nice to dig into a book you know will end happily. For those lit fic types who want to try a romance for the first time, I’d suggest writer/writer romances, especially ones that hit on the perceptions of commercial and literary work. Seven Days in June and Beach Read would be my two top recs there.
What do you think novelists in any genre can learn from reading romance?
There’s a sense that if you stray too far from your writing lane sometimes as a reader, you might get off track, but I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. The more genres I feed myself as a reader, the more excited I am to write. When I read sci-fi, I think more deeply about worldbuilding. When I read literary fiction, I key into the prose. And romance can teach any novelist about taking reader expectations and meeting them (but also subverting them sometimes).
Romance deals with lots of tropes, and readers love them and have their favorites (enemies to lovers, second-chance, only one bed, forced proximity, fake dating, etc etc etc) but for books to stay fresh, romance novelists have to reimagine those tropes, combining them and mixing them. I loved, for instance, Rosie Danan’s The Roommate which has a rake/innocent trope going on, but digs deep into perceptions of sex work as well.
I’d also say romance is structurally rigorous and plot oriented. If writers have difficulty finding conflict, read a romance novel and find all the ways that love, relationships, family, work, and becoming an individual are complicated throughout.
I got on the Emily Henry train this past year largely for the banter. What are some books that you think have particularly engaging dialogue?
I adore dialogue. I was a theater kid, and so it’s always something I keep my eyes open for. Romance, for sure, is the best genre for snappy dialogue, and I recommend Denise Williams’s books or anything by Jen DeLuca if you love banter. Outside of that, one book that recently impressed me was Josh Ritter’s (yes, musician Josh Ritter) novel The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All (set in a logging community in Idaho and very voice-rich). If you can find someone who can beat the straight delivery, but utter cutting realness of Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, I’d love that recommendation.
For writers without prior name recognition—or even with it—a hook seems like a must. Does it have to include a dead body though? What are some of the hook-iest hooks you’ve come across lately?
The biggest hook I can think of from this year would definitely be Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. A mom turns into a dog. Come on! How can anyone beat that? I am obsessed with this book and maybe always will be. I’d also say that I listened to the audiobook of Falling by T.J Newman in less than 24 hours. Thrillers are probably one of the genres that I read the least of—but a pilot whose family has been kidnapped and he must crash his flight or lose them? Okay, I’m in. Sometimes you need something that’s so plot-heavy to remind you of those moves that you can make. I get bogged down in other elements, especially while writing a first draft, so a thriller can help free me up a bit.
I’ve been binge watching “The Other Two” on HBO and it’s often so funny it makes me mad. What’ve you got that’ll make me cackle?
I cannot recommend Jesse Sutanto’s Dial A for Aunties forcefully enough, if you need something that will make you laugh. You talk about hooks and dead bodies? It has both of those, but it’s the laughs that stuck with me. A wedding photographer is set up on a date by her mom and aunts, accidentally kills the guy, and then has to hide his body at a wedding the next day. The entire novel is like a book version of Clue, with so much slapstick humor and excellent timing, that I was completely unsurprised it was picked up for a Netflix deal. Read it before it becomes a show and enjoy the smugness. I plan to.
Let’s go darker. I was obsessed with Mona Awad’s Bunny, and I can’t wait to read her latest, All’s Well. I also couldn’t put down Victor LaValle’s The Changeling (and can’t wait to see LaKeith Stanfield as Apollo) — the pacing, the pacing! Any horror-adjacent matches?
If you haven’t picked up The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price, I’d recommend that. O’Fallon Price has the same kind of sense of humor that Awad does, and their prose both kept me reading. This book is a family history; it’s told in linked stories and centers around a hotel from which children keep disappearing. It’s not gory, but it’s brutal in its honesty and it might just spook you out a bit (it did for me). If you want something more explicitly horrific, again with a twisted sense of humor, I’d suggest Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Like Awad’s books, there’s a lot of commentary there. I will admit to lots of bad dreams while reading that novel, especially about deer, but I loved it anyway.
Sometimes you need hits of feelings without the long-term commitment of a novel. I’m reading Simon Rich’s Man Seeking Woman right now, and he just doesn’t waste a word. What story collections are you into and why?
Like everyone else, I’m a sucker for Deeshaw Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, the runaway winner of so many awards this past year — and for good reason. Her prose and humor and eye for detail? Incredible. You can sit and read just one story at a sitting, but it’s actually hard to stop. I also loved Amber Sparks’s short story collection And I Do Not Forgive You. I love the mix of forms—from lists and monologues and traditional short stories. Finally, I adored Chole N. Clark’s most recent collection of short stories, Collective Gravities. Clark can move from space to the basketball court to under the ocean and feel just as grounded in each one. I love her lyrical style.
When I read YA books, I’m constantly squirreling away tips and tricks for things like voice and even structure. They can feel really fresh. I’m reading Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone to my kid and it’s like a YA Where’d You Go, Bernadette in how it’s narrated. What in YA do you love right now?
I’d never read any Malinda Lo until my book club chose Last Night at the Telegraph Club to read together. I’m always conscious, as an adult, that YA isn’t (and shouldn’t be) “for me,” but Lo’s novel really struck me. It’s a historical YA, set in Chinatown during the Red Scare in the ‘50s. Lo weaves a few stories together in this one, really artfully, and drops enough information about the context of the time to make the reader feel comfortable finishing the book, but curious to learn more. That’s a fine art.
I also love all of Angie Thomas’s books, but most recently loved Concrete Rose. This novel follows a teen father trying to get out from under the gang ties he had held onto. The main character, Maverick, is the father of her main character in The Hate U Give, so it’s technically a historical book. I recently finished writing a book set in the 90s, too, and it can be hard to walk the line between adding enough hints of the time to set the scene and going full-on camp by overloading the book with it.
For something lighter, I loved Elise Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters, which I think effortlessly melds the main and subplots, plus builds characters you can tell will develop over a series of books, rather than just in one. I envy that ability to pace perfectly.
What books helped you write your novel The Butterfly Effect? Do you remember certain stories or authors imprinting on you as you wrote it? Or is that happening now with your next one?
My novel is about a grumpy entomologist who has to stop her dissertation to return home to care for her brother after he has an aneurysm. Originally, I wrote the book in three perspectives: the entomologist, her brother, and the brother’s fiancé, and this was completely because Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel Harmony blew my mind wide open about mixing perspectives in novels. Hers is written with one first-, one second-, and one third-person narrator. [My book was not good in that format, and now it’s all in close third from just the entomologist’s POV.] I also read about a dozen entomology books because I’m a nerd, but I loved Sex on Six Legs for anyone curious about bug sex (which now that I mention it, you might be).
My new book is all about the ‘90s and marriage and the weirdness of motherhood, and I adored 90’s Bitch to help get me into the right frame of mind for that one. Nonfiction is a big part of my writing process when I’m drafting fiction.
I love the podcast. Where can people find it, how can they follow it, and can anyone volunteer to be on it?
Blind Date with a Book sets up guests with reading recs based on answers to dating app questions, and honestly? It’s one of the things that’s made me happiest this past year. Elena, Kristen, and I each recommend two books an episode, and if we’re the best matchmaker, we get to link to an indie bookstore we adore. Love this project. We’re on every podcast platform, as well as on Twitter and Instagram. We’re full up on guests for this season, but we do let subscribers to our newsletter get personalized recommendations.
We’re also accepting submissions as we record an early holiday episode with recommendations for that hard-to-shop-for person on your list. Those supply chain issues are no joke! Please shop early, shop indie if you can, and maybe try something new. You might just fall in love with a new genre.
Rachel Mans McKenny is an author, podcaster, and humorist from the Midwest. Her debut novel The Butterfly Effect was published in December 2020. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Elle, InStyle, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Hobart, and other publications.