Reading with... Jennifer McGaha

photo: Avery McGaha

Jennifer McGaha is the author of Flat Broke with Two Goats (Sourcebooks, January 23, 2018). She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and teaches in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville. McGaha lives with her husband, 10 goats, 15 chickens, four dogs and one cat at their cabin in a North Carolina holler.

On your nightstand now:

I'm teaching a class on outdoor adventure literature, so I'm reading/re-reading K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs, Grandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery and A Little More About Me by Pam Houston. I am also reading Leah Weiss's fantastic debut novel, If the Creek Don't Rise, and Richard McCann's gorgeous story collection Mother of Sorrows.

Favorite book when you were a child:

My mother is a wonderful reader, and when I was a young child, I loved for her to read Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book aloud. I loved the rhythm and the humor, and I quickly memorized it. Even today, I can still recite most of it. When I got a little older and began reading for myself, I loved Heidi, the Pippi Longstocking books, the Amelia Bedelia stories and the Nancy Drew mysteries. Looking at this list, I suppose I had a quirky sense of humor even then--and a budding passion for goats!

Your top five authors:

I read a lot of nonfiction/memoir, and though this list is constantly changing, right now some of my favorite writers are Maggie Nelson (Bluets), Eduardo Galeano (The Book of Embraces), Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Erik Larson (Dead Wake, etc.). I also love all of Abigail Thomas's books (Safekeeping, What Comes Next and How to Like It, etc.)

Book you've faked reading:

I was not the best student in high school and, unfortunately, I'm not sure I read much of anything that was assigned during those years. Now I am sorry I missed those opportunities. There are so many good books and so little time to read them all!

Book you're an evangelist for:

I think Jo Ann Beard's Boys of My Youth is spectacular. Her narrative voice is clear and compelling and funny and real, and I believe anyone who writes memoir, or who wants to write memoir or who has ever even remotely considered writing memoir, should read that book.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I like to read cookbooks cover to cover, like novels, so show me a cookbook with a dreamy photo of chicken Marbella on the cover, and I'm sold!

Book you hid from your parents:

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. That book came out in 1985--after I was already in college--but I still did not want my parents to find it in my book collection! I also hid books from my own children when they were growing up. One book I always kept on the top bookshelf was D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, but my kids eventually grew tall enough to reach it, so they found it anyway.

Book that changed your life:

Idylls of the King by Tennyson. I read this when I returned to graduate school after my children were born, and it transported me out of the dailiness of my life into this magical world. It was simply mesmerizing, and though I had taken other paths in life before that point--I had majored in sociology in undergrad and had wanted to be a social worker--I knew as soon as I read Idylls of the King that from then on, I never wanted to do anything other than read and write, and teach literature and writing.

Favorite line from a book:

I love this line from the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story" in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: "At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not."

I love that passage for many reasons--for its imagery and rhythm, the lovely, balanced phrases, but mainly for the way it captures in one single sentence complex, contradictory ideas about beauty and pain, wonder and sorrow. That is such a hard thing to do on the page, but O'Brien does it so beautifully again and again in that book.

Five books you'll never part with:

I tend to give away books to friends and family and students, but one book I hope to never have to part with is my Sundays at Moosewood cookbook. My first copy basically disintegrated from overuse, so I recently ordered a second copy, but I hope to always keep my original book. I made many of those recipes for the first time for my children when they were young, and flipping through the book and seeing the food stains on the pages is like reading an old journal or perusing an old photo album. It just evokes so many special memories.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. When I first read that book in college, it completely devastated me--in the best way possible.

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