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August 4, 2011


Posted by Stephen

daughters.JPGI only belonged to a book club once, when I was about ten years old, and it wasn’t the kind most people are thinking about when they talk about their book clubs. The best day of every month was the one on which the new books for the Tab Book Club --- a schoolsponsored purveyor of paperback books for young readers --- were delivered to my fifth-grade classroom. When our teacher passed out the new books, the stack on my desk was invariably the tallest.

 All these years later (forty-five of them, more or less) I can still remember how it felt to carry those volumes home in my backpack --- and later, what it was like arranging them on my shelf and choosing which one to crack open first.
I favored biographies, and thanks to the Tab Book Club I learned about numerous historically important figures, including Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman (“mother of the Underground Railroad”), Clara Barton (“student nurse”), and Nellie Bly (“girl reporter”). I loved them all, and reread their stories again and again. Of course, I read about famous men, too --- Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver and his Peanuts --- but it was the women whose stories held the greatest power for me.
And because everyone in my class was reading the same books at the same time --- at least, those of us who ordered the same Tab Book Club books --- we experienced the stories together. We shared a collective shiver over Florence Nightingale’s horrific experiences in the Crimea; shed tears reading about the hardships that led Althea Gibson to run away from home (and then to discover paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem, where she met a wealthy benefactor who encouraged and supported her in her journey to become the first great African-American woman professional tennis player).
My book club books offered me all kinds of education. They taught me the importance of history, the necessity of holding true to one’s beliefs no matter the cost, and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. As the daughter of a woman who, despite having a brilliant, creative mind and a Harvard education, could not find a job in our small New Hampshire town because she was female, those biographies offered me a crucial glimpse into the lives of women who had managed to forge meaningful careers and gain recognition in a world where doors were often closed to women.
In my early twenties, as I was starting out as a newspaper reporter, it was the story of Nellie Bly I remembered as I headed off on my first story.  A decade or so later, when I helped organize a fight against a local nuclear-waste dump, I thought about the women crusaders I had read about in my youth. Whenever a challenge has felt like too much, I still think about Helen Keller.
Another thing I learned during all those hours reading and rereading my Tab books is that the stories found in real life --- the drama, intrigue, tragedy, suspense, and thrilling resolution ---
could be as rich and powerful as any found in a novel.
I am a storyteller by profession. In my nearly forty years as a writer, I’ve moved back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. I worked as a journalist in my youth, and have
published two memoirs, hundreds of essays about adventures in my own life, as well as six novels. But whether it’s a real story I tell or an invented one, the heart of any book I write lies in two elements: character and story. There is no novel for me until I figure out who I am writing about. Once I know that --- once I create a character on the page, and let her come alive --- she is apt to lead me into the tensions and conflicts that will provide the drama that keeps readers turning the page. My job as a novelist is to make my characters so real and believable you could think they walked the planet. Fiction that reads like true life. True life that reads like good fiction. That’s what I aim for. And when I’m asked for my literary influences, the biographies of Tab Book Club belong on the list.