I'm sure anyone who writes get this inquiry on a regular basis. Maybe I should be prepared to answer without missing a beat.
But the answer, which never fails to disappoint the person asking, is, "It's complicated." Because it is. The question, most recently posed by a college student, is overly broad.
I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic. I read mostly fiction, of both the literary and commercial varieties. I'm one of those people who always has a book going. This question shouldn't blindside me, leave me stammering like an unread nitwit.
But it does, and I finally figured out why.
I don't have a favorite author, and I'm unwilling to offer a quick, obvious answer, like Jane Austen, or Edith Wharton, though I love them both. (Because you're shocked, right? Someone who pens women's fiction likes Austen. How predictable.)
Offering up Austen and changing the subject seems akin to a college boy professing love for Kerouac in the face of the favorite writer question, or perhaps offering up Hunter S. Thompson.
Too easy, and too dismissive of the inquiry, which was no doubt made in a good faith effort to make interesting conversation.
The only thing worse would be saying, "Shakespeare," not because I don't love the bard, but because I'm pretty sure that when people ask, they mean which contemporary authors.
They may want to be turned onto someone new. They don't need a crotchety reminder to brush up on Shakespeare, anymore than they need a smug reminder that some of us have read War and Peace for fun, and enjoyed every minute.
I'm determined not to mess up this question again. So I've made a list, which is by no means exhaustive, and which is offered in alphabetical order, because it's so eclectic. You've been warned.
Margaret Atwood: I read everything she writes and her work both thrills and terrifies me, and never fails to make me think.
Jenna Blum: Because her novel Those Who Save Us was one of my favorite books, in spite of its very tough subject matter, several years before she and I became friends. Plus, she's a master of novel structure. Writers should read her for that reason alone.
Isak Dinesen: I read her early, in middle school. She made me want to see Africa and indeed the world.
Sebastian Faulks: His novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray got me reading for pure pleasure again after a slump in law school, for which I am deeply grateful.
Helen Fielding: She created a genre and she writes quirky, accessible novels. I love quirky. And how can you not love a genre creator?
Richard Fifield: I know. "Who?" Fret not. You'll have heard of him soon. I had the great privilege of reading his debut novel, The Flood Girls, while he was writing and polishing the manuscript. He tackles heartbreaking topics with elegant, efficient prose and has a innate gift for description that cannot be taught.
Emily Giffin: I snatched her debut novel, Something Borrowed, off my sister-in-law's beach chair a decade ago and it changed my life before I even started reading this masterpiece of chick lit. While shaking sand out of the dust jacket, I had an epiphany. She was a lawyer, just like me. And she had written a novel, which was something I'd always wanted to do. I went home and did it.
Allegra Goodman: I suspect, if Ms. Goodman were a man, she'd be celebrated as the writer of the modern Great American Novel. She writes about relationships in exhaustively researched contemporary settings. She does so in a manner that takes the reader from one character's mind to the next, and she makes it all look effortless, a talent demonstrated by Tolstoy. Who happens to be another of my favorites. Sorry. I had to sneak that in there.
John Grisham: Nobody does pacing like him. Period. I love his books on long plane rides. I also dig his politics.
Barbara Kingsolver: She wrote The Poisonwood Bible, one of my all time favorite novels, an achingly beautiful page turner.
Ann Hood: Because she writes elegant, compelling prose that haunts me even after the story is told. The Obituary Writer was one of my favorite books this year, an honest yet alluring rendering of grief.
Alexander McCall Smith: I cannot conceive of anything more charming than the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and I'm not even a series junkie.
Toni Morrison: I debated adding her here for a while. She writes astoundingly beautiful prose, and deserves every accolade she's garnered. I have read most of her novels. But, as for "favorites," her addition to the list was a tough call, because her subject matter is so grueling and her writing is so honest and raw. (But I still think everyone should read her, so I snuck back twenty-four hours later and added her to my list. Because it's my blog, and I can.)
Arundathi Roy: Because The God of Small Things is another of my all time favorite novels, and because I admire her willingness to speak her mind on issues of importance to her, regardless of the consequences to her career.
J. Courtney Sullivan: She expertly weaves the past and present, through characters with astonishing, yet somehow believable, connections to each other. The Engagements was another of my favorite books this year. Plus she always makes me wish I'd gone to Smith.
That's my list as it stands today. I reserve the right to make additions. Did I miss any of your favorites?