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looks to books for guidance

Susan Minot, novelist


Writer Susan Minot traveled extensively in Africa in the 1990s, but only now has the continent emerged in one of her novels. “Thirty Girls” tells the story of girls abducted from a convent in Uganda by the fearsome Lord’s Resistance Army. Minot speaks at the Boston Book Festival at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 24, at Old South Sanctuary.

BOOKS: Have you always read a lot?

MINOT: No, I was a periodically passionate reader. I remember certain books such as “Our Mother’s House” by Julian Gloag or “Britannia Mews” by Margery Sharp or the first time I read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” But I didn’t read everything I got my hands on. We had books in our house, but we sat around watching “Gilligan’s Island” more than we read.


BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MINOT: I usually have about five or six books around me. Are they my moat protecting me from the world or are they crutches holding me up? Both I would say. One book I’m reading is Stefan Zweig’s novel “Beware of Pity.” It’s fantastic, but he’s better at novellas. He does go on and on. I like things to the point. I’ve been clearing out my library, and that’s made me come across books I want to check out, such as Nina Berberova’s novellas, which is a form I particularly like. I’ve never read “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. Another book that’s always drifted around is Elizabeth Smart’s “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.” The novella is based on her love affair with the poet George Barker, who was married. It’s kind of fascinating, but I’m not sure if I will finish it.

BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction?

MINOT: I was just reading David Foster Wallace’s essays again. I like to have those nearby. There’s a new book by Mark Epstein, “The Trauma of Everyday Life,” which is great. He wrote “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.” He’s a Buddhist psychiatrist. I love reading psychological things. I often read biographies. I have the gigantic first volume of Barbara Stanwyck’s biography by Victoria Wilson and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography “Shocking Life,” which is about a free-spirited person who forged her way in the world. I love reading books like that.


BOOKS: What kind of people do you tend to read biographies about?

MINOT: I like reading about other writers to see how the hell they patched it together. I like to read about artists and powerful, strong personalities, such as movie stars or the singer Marianne Faithfull. I loved her autobiography “Faithfull.” I didn’t get rid of any of the biographies of women.

BOOKS: What kind of books did you get rid of?

MINOT: Novels that I’m never going to reread or ones that I will never read between now and when I die. In the ’80s and ’90s I spent a lot of time in secondhand bookstores, and I worked at The New York Review of Books. I would take all the books that came in that no one wanted. I would take art books too because I did collages. That’s a bad thing to do with books, think that you can use them in collages because then you never get rid of them. There are a lot of books I do read again and won’t get rid of such as those by Franz Kafka, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, and John O’Hara. Books steer me to a state of mind I can live in and a state of mind I can write in.


BOOKS: How would you describe the state of mind to live in?

MINOT: One that sees the truth of things. I don’t even know what that phrase means. I think some people read to be taken away, which is a good thing, but I like guidance. To experience someone else’s version of being alive makes us feel connected to other humans and to a whole big pool of life.

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