|photo: Maggie Walsh
Melissa Faliveno is the author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland (Topple Books, August 4, 2020). The former senior editor of Poets & Writers magazine, she has also published essays and interviews in Bitch, The Millions, Prairie Schooner, Diagram, Midwestern Gothic, Essay Daily, Isthmus and Green Mountains Review, among other. Born and raised in small-town Wisconsin, Faliveno lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.
On your nightstand now:
The books on my nightstand are many-stacked and towering, constantly threatening to crush me (not unlike Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, which would be a great quarantine read), but at the top of the pile right now is Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel, which I'm super excited about, and Ander Monson's essay collection I Will Take the Answer, which I just finished. Ander is one of my favorite essayists, and this book is so good: weird, funny and tender-hearted, experimental in form and expansive in subject--from mines and rivers to sad pop songs, Michigan's upper peninsula and a giant inflatable Rudolph. In another more permanent stack are books I pick through (or sometimes read again cover to cover) when I'm in-between books, among them Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, Shirley Jackson's Let Me Tell You, Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile, Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering, Stephen King's Night Shift, Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth and Ursula Le Guin's translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I read a lot of horror when I was a kid: Stephen King (which I read way too early), Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine. I was also obsessed with Steinbeck's The Red Pony and a weird children's series about a Texas ranch dog with a superiority complex called Hank the Cowdog. Horror, sadness and anthropomorphized animals pretty much sum up my literary origin story.
Your top five authors:
This question is pretty impossible to answer, so I'll list a few that I return to most often these days: Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, James Baldwin, Jo Ann Beard, Annie Dillard, Hanif Abdurraqib. (That's six; I'm sorry). Oh, and Lorrie Moore. (My band is named after her story collection Self-Help.)
Book you've faked reading:
I definitely skimmed some Shakespeare in high school and some Spenser in college. I've also never finished a book by Tolstoy, even though when I was younger I almost certainly claimed to.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth and Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I push on everyone I know, especially my writing students (one of these two dog-eared, underlined paperback copies goes with me whenever I travel); Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is some of the best pop-cultural-meets-personal nonfiction out there; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; and The Carrying by Ada Limón--her poems destroy me in the best way possible.
Book you've bought for the cover:
While I've never bought a book for what's on the cover, I've bought many books because they had a cover--or more specifically, a dust jacket. In a past life, I was a rare book dealer; I scouted used bookstores for first editions/printings in their original jackets, which makes them more valuable. One I can think of offhand, which I've never actually read, is Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. (I have two copies--both the first U.S. and U.K. editions. The U.K. edition, published by Faber & Faber, has a much cooler cover.)
Book you hid from your parents:
On the subject of reading Stephen King way too early, I'm pretty sure I smuggled my mother's copy of Cujo into my bedroom when I was around seven or eight. It was a terrible idea; that book haunted me for a long time, and I'm still a little afraid of dogs (even though I live with one).
Book that changed your life:
So many! Toni Morrison's Beloved, which I read in high school, was the first book that made me think: "Holy sh*t. This is what books can do?" Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which I read in college, made me fall in love with literature. And Nabokov's Lolita, as complicated as it might be, made me understand the way music can exist in prose, that there's poetry on the sentence level. It changed the way I think about writing.
Favorite line from a book:
There's a line from T.S. Eliot's "East Coker" (from Four Quartets) that has stayed with me for years, and has been a kind of guiding mantra in both writing and life: "I am here/ Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning."
Five books you'll never part with:
I still have a decent library from my book dealer days that I'll take with me wherever I go, even though they are very heavy. But five I'd never let go include W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Virginia Woolf's The Death of the Moth, Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, Toni Morrison's Sula and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I would love to read Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides again for the first time. And Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I loved both books so hard when I first read them, a long time ago, and wonder what the experience would be like now--what I might notice that I couldn't possibly have noticed then.
Books you read while writing your own collection:
When I disappeared into the woods of Wisconsin for six weeks to finish Tomboyland, I hauled more than 30 books with me (I had a whole suitcase devoted to this). Some were books I've already mentioned, some were books of natural and cultural history. Here are a few others: Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Edwidge Danticat's The Art of Death, Megan Stielstra's The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Lacy M. Johnson's Trespassers, Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Joni Tevis's The World Is on Fire, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo's Cenzontle and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. On a whim, I also checked out Anne LaBastille's Woodswoman from the Boulder Junction Public Library. I almost didn't come back.