Tell Me What You Read: Susan Vollenweider

In Tell Me What You Read I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

SusanSusan Vollenweider, half of the women’s history podcasting dynamo The History Chicks, columnist for the Kansas City Star, mother, aspiring novelist, and school sports cheerleader

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

I started reading fairly young so words and books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I think everything I read influences me somehow, even the crap, but the ones who are on the base tier of influencers are: Dr Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume, Erma Bombeck, Richard Bach and John Irving. I think all of them taught me that as far as writing goes, even if there are serious subjects I wasn’t required to take them seriously. I was reading the last three all at the same age – I may have been one of the only 12 year olds reading Bombeck but she made me laugh, and in retrospect, she showed me that writers were just people. Ordinary people who think with their fingers.

BombeckIf you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

There is an oft-repeated piece of writerly advice that says to write the book you want to read. I read a lot of non-fiction for the podcast (which I love and I really enjoy writing about) but when I relax and read for no purpose other than to be entertained and transported, I reach for women’s fiction. When I sit down to write for no other purpose than for enjoyment, I write women’s fiction. At this point (this point being when I actually answer your question) I should probably list well-known, women’s fiction authors that I KNOW will take me someplace with a voice I want to hear but the truth is that when I reach for a chill-out book I feel drawn to reach for an author I have never heard of before.

NulsWhat reading do you choose for a long journey?

I load up my Kindle for those. I adore reading a physical book, but can’t beat the portability of an e-reader. Since I can take a lot of material, and assuming this is a very long journey, I would go for a mix of non-fiction and fiction, probably a 3:1 ratio. This would be when I repeat fiction novels or authors and go for a guaranteed good-read, but having fewer distractions on a trip it’s also a good time to force myself to concentrate on learning something new with non-fiction. Because no one can see an ebook cover, I can have, say, The French Revolution for Dummies or something geared for kids as well as more meaty content. And I flip around, too. Read a bit of one, go to another, then go back.

LordYour choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

I don’t know that I get bored very often, but I would reach for something that has a variety of short pieces that don’t require huge time commitments. Looking around from where I am now (my living room sofa) I see two on a side table that I like a great deal and are terrific for flipping through: Winning the Vote by Robert Cooney and To Marry an English Lord by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl. Short pieces, lots of photographs and very interesting content.

What was your last huge reading disappointment? (why and how, rather than who and what)

I was very disappointed in a highly recommended, well-reviewed novel recently. I loved the basic plot, the concept of the characters, even the setting was intriguing…it was very creative and different. The author was new to me, this was her first novel so I went in with an open mind that it wouldn’t be perfect but it could be perfectly flawed.

But four or five chapters in my eyes started to swim. All I could see was clichéd and oft repeated dialog. There are a lot of ways to say, ‘that makes me mad’ or ‘I’m concerned’ but I keep seeing the same phrases used over and over. Very cool things were happening in the story, but they happened sooooo slloooowwwwly. The pacing wasn’t really working for me.

Then the really bad thing happened: I started to edit sentences and paragraphs in my head. The novel lost me about halfway through, I returned it to the person who had lent it to me and did an awkward tap dance when she asked how much I liked it.

And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

CooneyI was given the aforementioned copy of Winning the Vote: the Triumph of the American Suffrage Movement by the author, Robert Cooney, Jr. Some people like the Crusades, others are World War I or II junkies, I am drawn to this historical mission like no other. But it is a very large, heavy book with a dry title and sorta boring cover, it looked very academic and stuffy. Although I knew I would learn something, getting excited about the book didn’t even enter my mind.

Then I opened it.

Bookgasm. The story of the movement is there, but so are colorful posters, beautiful photographs, flyers and details of specific campaigns. I’m not ashamed: I like my history books with illustrations and this one went beyond anything that I had ever seen or I had expected.

I wrote him a very gracious thank you note that I’m sure didn’t properly convey my appreciation. It’s one of my favorite books now.

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: David McKay, literary translator


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