Katarina Bivald on Books and People

Katarina Bivald on Books and People

I looked out onto the world over the safe covers of a book. Although that sentence may be physically accurate, it doesn’t capture how very unreal the world always seemed to me, when the alternative was just lowering my eyes, reading black letters on a creamy-white page, and disappearing forever into an adventure; a tragedy, a comedy, anything I wanted, within my reach. Worlds and experiences and emotions, passed down for centuries within those covers, eventually reaching this nerdy, bespectacled Swedish teenager, as ‘real’ life continued uneventfully around me.

Oh, how I used to despise reality!

In books, if a person dreams about doing something, you can be pretty sure she’ll have done it by the end of the story. In real life, if a person dreams about doing something, she’ll probably spend most of her time doing everything but that. In books, if you meet a rich, handsome, obnoxious guy who annoys you, he will turn out to be nice and charming once you get to know him. This is not true in real life. Rich, handsome, obnoxious, annoying guys will turn out to be jerks. Trust me on this one.

Real life is messy, unstructured, illogical and severely lacking in both character motivation and happy endings. I always felt that God had a lousy sense of plot.

I was a storytelling child.

It’s easy if you have two younger siblings and an overactive imagination. I used to force them to sit around for hours and listen to me as I weaved unlikely plots around the toys we were playing with.

When I learned how to write, I never stopped. Writing is still very much a way of daydreaming, and never was this truer than when I was young and just wrote because, well, I could. I wrote about whatever I was reading at the time – plagiarising both Larry and Stretch (my grandfather had cases of them) and Nancy Drew (I had cases of them), sometimes at the same time in a way that probably had Marshall Grover and Carolyn Keene spinning in their graves.

I always knew that one day I would write a book. It was a dream that was so important to me, it just simply had to come true one day. I had read too many books, and I was younger then – I still believed that you couldn’t want something that much and not get it.

In fact, I was so sure of it just happening one day that I never gave it any focused effort. I started stories. I never finished them. I wrote chapter after chapter, until it got boring. Or difficult. Or until a new, shinier idea came along. I never attended any writing classes. I didn’t study literature. I didn’t work in publishing to learn the business of it all. I just waited.

I don’t know what I was waiting for, exactly. Perhaps for more talent? Writing is scary when you’re a reader: you’ve been so ruthless to bad books that it’s terrifying to discover that you yourself are making all the mistakes you’ve criticised. Maybe I waited for the perfect idea to just sort of hit me on the back of the head. After which, I assumed, the book would magically write itself.

When I was twenty-five years old, I began to suspect that this idea I had about life developing just like in a book, with dreams magically coming true in the end, might not be completely accurate. I compared the amount of time I had spent writing academic papers for school with the amount of time I had spent writing fiction, and I looked at all the half-finished, half-started projects lying around me, and I said to myself: pick any idea. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be published in the end, just pick the first idea you have and finish it. Write from Chapter 1 to The End. Take four weeks out of work to write full-time, and see how far you get.

Since I only wrote it as practice, I decided to simply fill it with everything I myself love in books. And I love books about small American towns, like Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and books with quirky characters, like Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. I love books about books: 84, Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World . . . books that somehow manage to capture the magic of reading, while we’re reading.

There is a piece of advice often given to new writers: write about what you know. It’s not good advice. Write about something that interests you, or anything you’re passionate about, and if that happens to be something you know, great. It will make things easier. But I never cared much for real life, and I certainly didn’t care about my own life.

I wanted writing books to be as much fun as reading them; a chance to visit a new place in my imagination rather than write about a place I already knew. So I decided to write a book about small-town America, even though I had never, technically, visited the country.

I chose Iowa because I knew only two things about the state: I knew they had lots of corn, and that they once had a library cat named Dewey Readmore Books.

I started working in a bookshop when I was fourteen. Sometimes I think that is much too young an age to be surrounded all day by books. At other times I think it’s the perfect age for it. I learned many things in that dusty, chaotic bookshop in a suburb outside of Stockholm.

I discovered the joy of recommending a book to someone and knowing how much they will love it. A young boy once came in and asked for a book about dragons, or with dragons, or anything related to dragons really, and I watched his face as I gave him Eragon.

I carried books, piles and piles of them, and I discovered how very heavy they are. You can break your back carrying stories, I guess.

And I hid at the back of the shop and discovered how very different books smell. They share the glorious scent of adventure, but other than that, hardcovers smell differently from paperbacks; crime paperbacks smell different from chick lit; and the classics, with their razor-thin, white paper and small print, have their very own scent. Books for university courses smell different from high school books, which perhaps are the only ones I never learned to like. It is, I think, the smell of forced reading and being stuck in a stuffy classroom all day that I can’t stand.

And without really noticing it, I discovered the people that came to the bookshop. The dragon boy, of course. Then there was the woman who found Fannie Flagg’s A Redbird Christmas through me, and ended up buying ten copies to give to her friends instead of flowers when she visited them. The slightly sober alcoholic who dropped by to spend half an hour chatting with me about Buddhism and Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (although he didn’t buy it in the end).

A woman spent a nerve-racking hour in our shop because her oldest daughter was having brain surgery that very same time. I felt there was a story there, about this worn-out, struggling woman. Why was she here, wringing her hands, nervously picking up a book and then immediately putting it down again as the words seem to swim before her eyes, desperately trying to distract herself, and talking to the confused book nerd who had no idea what to say about this real-life disaster, rather than at the hospital, by her daughter’s side?

I never knew, of course, what eventually happened to the mother and her relationship with her daughter, but I knew that the operation went well and that the daughter was OK – the customer came back the next day to tell me.

When I first decided to include a bookshop in my book, I thought it would be all about the books. But when I started writing, I realised that what I remembered most from my years in a bookshop was not the books, but the people that passed through it. Often strange, sometimes profoundly uninterested in books, and all so very . . . human.

My book is about books, certainly, and what a bookshop can do for a town and a community that’s struggling, failing.

But it is just as much about someone who learns, slowly, to look up from the book she’s reading, hesitatingly notice the real world happening around her, and eventually even marching bravely into it, somehow finding the courage to become the protagonist of her own story.

Of course, she’ll do it with a paperback hidden in her pocket. Just to be safe.