From time to time, I'm asked what my favorite book is.
My totally non-commital answer is "it depends." For many years, I read "The Lord of the Rings" every summer, and I spent months and months reading the whole trilogy to our son Jeremy. Honestly, Tolkien may not be the best writer, but he is an amazing storyteller. For him to create Middle Earth and populate it with such an amazing cast of characters - man alive. The book(s) are full of their own internal logic. While some might grouse about the difficulty of keeping up with all the people and places and things, and might get bogged down in the history/mythology of the Third Age - well, quitcherbellyachin. Maybe Tolkien isn't for you. But I love it.
Pin me down, though, and I'll tell you that my favorite work of fiction is "To Kill a Mockingbird." I just re-read it last week, and immediately followed that experience by watching the film version.
Harper Lee is one of those people the Almighty blessed with insane talent, and He went on to bless the rest of us by allowing her to come down and walk around among us mortals. I read the book last week at a gallop, and it was still fresh. Were it published for the first time today, it might be positioned as a Young Adult novel (although I'm still vague about what that really is.) What a cast of characters! I loved Scout Finch so much that I wanted to call our daughter Amy "Scout." You can imagine how far that got. Watching Jem go from being a kid to a young man is one of the best character arcs ever. And - no kidding - I just think Atticus Finch is the greatest literary hero of the 20th century. He is a man full of grave dignity. He's just "decent." And a prisoner of conscience.
Part of the appeal, too, was the setting in Maycomb, Alabama (a thinly veiled Monroeville.) I knew the town and I knew the people. Whatever else you might say about Miss Harper, she knew how to write truth. She paced her story perfectly, and it is full of wry observations on life. It also has one of the most subtle yet powerful explorations of race relations I've ever seen. The book is simply transcendent.
I aspire to writing something like that. The problem that challenges many authors, I'll wager, is whether to write commercially or whether to write your heart story. Well, can't you do both?
Listen. I'm working like a dog on "The Fixin' Place" these days. When I don't worry, at least in the first draft, whether it's any good or not, magic happens. It's as though angel midwives congregate around me when I'm just being a slave to the story. This is serious ju ju. I can't explain it, but I do embrace it. So will it be as good as "To Kill a Mockingbird?" That's just about the most ignorant question anyone could ask. How dare I be so arrogant! Candidly, to compare what I'm doing to what anyone else is doing or has done is just stupid. But here's what I can do: I can assure myself that what the fininshed product looks like will be the very best I am capable of producing. I can do nothing less.