- Published: 24 October 2018 24 October 2018
“Why do you always pick books that no one else ever reads?”
That’s what my sister’s husband asked me when I, still in high school, came home from the library with four books I’d carefully selected from my public library. I still remember the books: Reynolds Price’s A Long and Happy Life, Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal, Joanne Greenberg’s brand new I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and a fourth book I’ll mention later. I wasn’t bothered by my brother-in-law’s question. One of my favorite things to do was to rove through the fiction stacks at my public library to see what jumped out at me. Yes, I also read the books all my friends were reading, but when it came to fiction, I was always hungry for more than just the bestsellers.
Why did I pick those books? I’d never heard of Reynolds Price—and in retrospect, I’m surprised his first novel was in my New Jersey library—but he looked kind of sexy on the back cover and I liked that his protagonist was a teenaged girl. That was enough for me, and reading A Long and Happy Life turned me into a lifelong Price fan intrigued with southern fiction.
As for Sinclair Lewis, I’d read Arrowsmith and Main Street in my English class and I was utterly smitten by Lewis’s writing and the social values expressed in his stories. Kingsblood Royal actually became my favorite of his many books. In it, Lewis’s 1940’s protagonist is a white man who learns he is 1/32nd black. The knowledge changes his sense of self as he begins exploring the black culture of the day with new eyes. Growing up in a well-integrated town during the civil rights era, I was fascinated by this story and it gave me much to think about as my treasured hometown endured riots and unrest.
I picked up I Never Promised You a Rose Garden before the book took off and long before it was made into a movie. I was a ‘troubled teen’ at the time (are there untroubled teens?). I was drawn in by the story of a sixteen-year-old girl fighting her psychological demons. It’s a book that will always stay with me.
"One of my favorite things to do is to wander without direction through the nonfiction stacks to see what books jump out at me."
The stacks, both in the library and in bookstores, have played a role in many of the books I’ve written as well. In a way, they’ve been my brainstorming buddies. One of my favorite things to do is to wander without direction through the nonfiction stacks to see what books jump out at me. Years ago, for example, I stumbled across a book about the CIA mind control experiments performed on psychiatric patients during the fifties. I sat in a corner of the library, devouring that book, as the idea for my novel Breaking the Silence began to take shape in my mind. That was only one of my books that found its inspiration in the stacks.
When I research my books, I turn often to the Internet for help of course, but I also visit my library and two of my favorite Indies, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina and Quarter Moon Books in Topsail Beach. Since more than half of my twenty-six books are set in North Carolina, there is no place like the local stacks to find the esoteric North Carolina information I need to fuel my stories.
What was the fourth book I picked up at the library that day long ago? It was a small book by Helen Perlman, the 1962 edition of So You Want to be a Social Worker. Although I longed to be a writer, it never occurred to me that I’d be able to support myself with a writing career, so yes, I became a social worker. A social worker who spent time in the stacks, thinking and dreaming. Just as I do today.
Diane Chamberlain is the New York Times, USA Today and Sunday Timesbestselling author of 26 novels published in more than twenty languages. Influenced by her former career as a social worker and psychotherapist, she writes suspenseful stories that touch both heart and mind. Her most recent book, The Dream Daughter, was just released in October, 2018 and is a SIBA Okra Pick.