Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Jenn Shapland: I had to dig around the internet to find the book that came immediately to mind, because I could only recall the image of children sledding to save Norway from the Nazis. It was Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, which I read in third grade. I loved anything sneaky: Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Westing Game, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
BM: Favorite re-read?
JS: My partner, Chelsea, is a Donna Tartt stan, and spent the first several years of our relationship trying to convince me to read The Secret History. Now I find myself revisiting it almost every year; when nothing else can hold my attention, that book will suck me in. Bunny!
BM: A book that blew your mind?
JS: At my friend Andy Campbell’s urging, this summer I read Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, and am now reading the rest of her work. Did you know that the witch hunts in the 1600s and 1700s were actually a massive genocide of hundreds of thousands of people, in order to terrorize and domesticate women so that they would give up their subsistence farming, knowledge of healing, and crafts to reproduce workers for the new labor market under capitalism? For no wages? And women still do this? I was also captivated by Ernest Hartmann’s The Nature and Function of Dreaming (dreaming is our brain using visual metaphor to process our difficult emotions!) and Jane Allison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, which changed the way I read and write.
BM: Last book you read?
JS: The last book I finished was 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary; it was pretty depressing. They’re coming for our sleep!
BM: A book that made you cry?
JS: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Quiet and stunning.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
JS: Blueberries by Ellena Savage, who is a genius.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
JS: This year I read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the first time, and at one point the unhinged narrator just starts eating the grass, apropos of nothing.
BM: What’s one book you wish you had read during your teenage years?
JS: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
JS: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Usually I loan it and don’t get it back, which is a testament to its necessity.
BM: Classic book you hate?
JS: The Sun Also Rises: it’s homophobic, misogynist, racist, and I read it in like six different grad school classes. KILL ME. Women in Love is a close second. These books should be cancelled, honestly. Don’t @ me.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
JS: I have been trying to read Swann’s Way since it was required reading for my undergrad. I still haven’t finished it. But I am determined. Chelsea is on like book four of Remembrance of Things Past, it’s humiliating.
BM: What’s a book with a really great sex scene?
JS: Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Whew! Apparently there’s sex in Proust but I sure haven’t gotten to it yet.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
JS: I think it would be hard to find a book in this world that no one has heard of, that’s one of the miracles of books: they find people.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
JS: Beloved by Toni Morrison. Kudos to Mrs. Clark!
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
JS: 2020 has me all over the place, and I tend to read many books at once, not always finishing all of them. Here goes: Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, Bill Clegg’s The End of the Day, Marc Wittman’s Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, Tommy Pico’s Feed, Ida Rolf’s Rolfing, Vincent Barrett Price’s The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project, several Silvia Federicis. I’m also rereading Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal, listening to Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal (which I wish I had read sooner!), Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, and I just downloaded The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg—can’t wait.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
JS: Frog and Toad. And it still feels relevant to my life most days.
BM: Book you wish would be adapted for a film/tv show?
JS: Mine! It’d be like a gay Julie and Julia. And any other books about queer women past or present. Where oh where is the movie version of Audre Lorde’s Zami? Of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood? Of Rachel Carson’s life? Patricia Highsmith’s? Tove Jansson’s? Get on it, Hollywood! There were plenty of lesbians around long after the bonnet dramas.
Jenn Shapland is a writer living in New Mexico. She won the 2019 Rabkin Foundation Award for art journalism, her essay “Finders, Keepers” won a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and she has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in Nonfiction, and was longlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is out now in paperback from Tin House Books