Writer On The Road: Wherever II. Because I Have Audio.
As a Writer On The Road, I drive. A lot. Mostly I drive to book events, readings & signings & book clubs. In the past 2 years, I've driven from Boston to Minnesota to Kansas to Texas to Florida to Georgia to Chicago to Tucson to Duluth to Lincoln to Kansas to Boston to Kansas to Denver to Boston to Indiana to Cape Cod to New Jersey to South Dakota to Ohio....and back again. In April 2010, when I got my current vehicle--a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo--it had 14,000 miles. This past March, it turned 100,000.
Two questions people ask: Why don't I fly? And how do I stand it--all those miles on the road?
The answer to the 1st question: driving allows me to bring my black Lab, Woodrow, with me as much as possible--dog is my co-pilot.
The answer to the 2nd: audiobooks.
When I first started driving long distances, I sang a lot to stay awake. I listened to the radio. Mostly AM stations, a fascinating panoply of fragmented interests and lost souls. If I was lucky, I'd hear Dr. Laura tyrannizing some poor caller--"Your mother is a bitch! Cut her loose! Do you understand me?" *snuffling* "Okay, Dr. Laura." If I was exhausted, I'd try to find Rush Limbaugh, who enraged me so much it kept me awake.
But one can rely only so long on sadism, stupid ire, and bad coffee. Eventually I got an iPhone. Which meant I got iTunes. Which meant I could download audiobooks. I discovered Audible, too, and instead of relying on convenience store caffeine and novels on tape--inevitably a disaster because just as the plot thickened, the crucial cassette would be missing--I had a brand-new addiction.
Now when I travel, I stock up on Smartfood, drive, and listen. Audiobooks are a movie without the movie, playing out in the dimension between the ether they come from and what I actually see--call it the mind's eye. Audiobooks remind me of how I came to love reading in the first place: my dad reading to me. (To this day I credit my dad and E.B. White for teaching me to write a cliffhanger--because my dad would read only one chapter of CHARLOTTE'S WEB a night, and I'd always beg for more, just one more! And audiobooks free me from the Tyranny of The Shoulds.
You know how there are some books you Should read but don't really want to? The one recommended by the New Yorker. The one recommended by the New York Times Book Review. The Pulitzer winner. The book club pick everyone loves except you. The vitamin book--it'll make you smarter! The book your editor/ neighbor/ aunt's best friend sent you, in whose subject you have absolutely no interest. The book you started reading and couldn't get into. The books you really do intend to read but they sit on your bedside table so long they pass their shelf life.
Those are the Should Books. Even though life is short, there are many good reasons to read these books, so I grit my teeth and do. However, when I used to fly, I'd allow myself to pick up a book in the airport bookstore--a Take A Chance book. Something I'd heard a lot about; something a friend recommended. Something fun. I've discovered so many favorite writers that way--that one book, picked up on a whim, would send me on a reading spree, an authorial binge. And I'd be grateful.
Now audiobooks liberate me from the Should Books, and I discover new favorites this way.
Here are some audiobook picks from my last 86,000 miles on the road.
I never would have read the HUNGER GAMES series if it hadn't been for audiobooks because I was too snotty. When a high school teacher in rural MN 1st recommended them, I mentally scoffed, Yeah, right, do I LOOK like I want to read something 10th-graders are obsessed with? But because THE HUNGER GAMES was available on audio, I thought, Okay, I'll take a chance, and if I don't like it, I don't have to feel as guilty about deleting it as I would tossing an actual book.
I now refer to the HUNGER GAMES series as HUNGER CRACK and the teacher who lauded them to me, Mrs. Zard, as my pusher. I was so entranced by the first book that I drove around and around on very icy farm roads because I had 20 minutes left and I could. Not. BEAR to get out of the car until I knew how the novel ended. The second book in the series downloaded only halfway, and I found myself bellied up to a Hampton Inn in Meridian, MS, frantically poaching their Internet signal so I could download the second half on iTunes. Only when I had it could I continue on my way.
THE WEIRD SISTERS is a weird one, a "Should" book I loved anyway. I call this novel a "Should" because it was a NY Times bestseller and because I know and adore its author, Eleanor Brown, from Twitter. So I was kinda thinking, Oh, ALL RIGHT when I downloaded it. This tale of three sisters and how their lives interweave kept me literally transported from Kansas to Minnesota. A couple of times.
I was psyched to listen to THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME because I thought it would make me smarter, as novels-in-stories often seem to do. I can't speak for my IQ, but I so admire the form of advancing a family's story one temporal shutterclick at a time--and from different POVs. Also, this novel is set in Iowa, and I drove through Iowa while listening to it, so HOW COOL IS THAT. (I get excited about these things on the road.)
Belva Plain is one of my comfort food writers. I reach for her books when I want some chicken soup for the writer soul. I started my Belva love affair with RANDOM WINDS, which was pretty steamy for a 17-year-old reader and continues to be so today. If you're looking for a good story to keep you company for 20 or so hours of highway, start with this one.
A huge book club favorite so had to be investigated. A pot/plot-boiler of the highest order, kind of like GONE WITH THE WIND meets Lifetime--and you know what? I was totally endeared by about halfway through.
You didn't seriously think I'd write this column without mentioning my books, did you? It's a really odd, humbling and interesting experience listening to one's ownnovels. At first I was mildly phobic about it, since we all have voices in our heads (just work with me here) and know what our characters *should* sound like--so what if the actor reading the novel gets them wrong? THOSE WHO SAVE US turned out to be the perfect length for a drive from Boston to Florida. By the time I reached Georgia, I was weeping and saying, "What's going to happen to these poor people?" With STORMCHASERS, I started to crying the minute the narrator said, "This is THE STORMCHASERS, by Jenna Blum." I was leaving Boston for Minnesota, and I cried until about Ohio. Then the novelty wore off and I started to yell at the poor reader because her accent was more Broadway than the Fargo the book demands. Still. I remained entranced by myself for 1200 miles.
I thought of BABYVILLE on audio as homework, since I was driving to the Tucson Book Festival, where I'd be on a panel with Jane Green, and I hadn't yet read any Jane Green novels. It was surreal to listen to the dulcet tones of a British reader while navigating the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, then the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona....and even more surreal to be enraptured by an author's story one day and meeting her the next. Now in addition to being a HUNGER GAMES addict, I'm a Jane Green junkie.
When you drive, you do things you don't normally do. Pick your nose. Scream at other drivers. Eat whole bags of Smartfood in one setting. Listen to a memoir. Normally, I read memoirs only for research. But then, there's WILD. Oh. My. God. I downloaded Cheryl Strayed's memoir of walking off the grief of her mother's death on the Pacific Crest Trail because I'd loved her novel TORCH. I had no idea how much this memoir would move me. It made me cry--twice. A New York Times reviewer confessed the same thing. And he's a GUY. And he was reading in public and the women around him gave him soft pitying glances. But I digress. This memoir reminded me of why I write: I aspire to share the stories of my life to make other people feel less alone. Just don't drive through Kansas City at rush hour while you're listening to the story about the horse. That's all I'm sayin.
**after all this audiobook love, I have to say NOTHING substitutes for the experience of reading on paper. So when I love an audiobook, I also buy it in hardcover/ paperback form, an homage to the book and author. Happy listening/ reading.**
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum