There are books I’ve loved but never wished I written—because I couldn’t have. For instance, I couldn’t have written Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach, a story about a man who enters an around-the-world sailing race, because I don’t have the kind of nautical experience Stone (who died in 2015) did. The nautical in that particular novel is far too important to the story to fake it with research alone. Nor could I have ever written anything by Tana French, my favorite mystery writer. Not only would I never be able to match her snappy dialogue, but I don’t think in terms of who-done-it. But there are books I could have written, if only I had thought to write them first—simply because of the way my brain is wired—though that does not mean I could have written them anywhere near as well as the authors who did. -Joan Schweighardt
Here are the five books I wished I’d written:
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst is a wonderful story about a linguistics professor who tries to teach his dog to talk because the dog was the only witness to his wife’s death. I love this premise. If I had thought of it first, I would have run with it, though I could never have done it the way Parkhurst does. Miraculously, she never tells the reader what the poor professor is feeling; she only tells us what he is doing—and that has more power to make us feel his emotion than if she had spelled it out. I have summed up this book many times for friends and not once I have done so without becoming verklempt.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Anyone could have written a version of Hamnet, because Hamnet is about Shakespeare’s early, pre-London life and there are only a handful facts known to mankind about the young Will. What a divine challenge to set for oneself! Take these five or six facts and write a novel. If only the voice in my head had suggested that first to me. O’ Farrell did it perfectly, gorgeously.
Circe by Madeline Miller. As soon as I finished crying over the perfection of the ending, I asked myself, Why didn’t I write this? I did in fact once write a draft of a novel about Aphrodite (this was my first ever effort at writing book-length fiction; it was pretty awful), but it was only after I read Circe that I realized that the myths about Circe offered much more room for creativity.
Again, I could never have done it as well, but if I had thought of it, I would have tried.
Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. I read Kosinski’s books a long, long time ago. Most of them were about the Holocaust, and while I think some critics have gone overboard with their strict views about who can write what, even wishing to have written Kosinski’s The Painted Bird could be called an act of appropriation. You have to have lived at least some part of that sorrowful story to earn that right. Being There was different, a brilliant, quirky story about a totally unqualified man who finds himself advisor to the president, and eventually, the president himself. As soon as I put it down I wished I’d written it, such a simple story with so much humor and pizazz.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I loved everything about this book, except the ending. I’ve written a few books featuring vulnerable characters cared for by their dogs, which is what I mean when I say my brain is wired in the right way to have tried to write on certain subjects. But the fact remains that Wroblewski wrote the better version of the central idea that triggered both of us. Except the ending. The ending so upset me that I wrote him an email about it, something I never do.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of nine novels, two memoirs, two children’s books and various magazine articles, including work in Parabola Magazine. She is a regular contributor to Occhi Magazine, for which she interviews writers, artists and filmmakers. In addition to her own projects, she has worked as an editor and ghostwriter for private and corporate clients for more than 25 years. She also had her own independent publishing company from 1999 to 2005. Several of her titles won awards, including a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers,” a ForeWord Magazine “Best Fiction of the Year,” and a Borders “Top Ten Read to Me.” And she has agented books for other writers, with sales to St. Martin’s, Red Hen, Wesleyan University Press and more.
Her most recent work is the Rivers Trilogy—Before We Died, Gifts for the Dead and River Aria—which moves back and forth between the New York metro area and the South American rainforests from the years 1908 through 1929.
Collectively the three books in Joan Schweighardt’s River Trilogy cover the years 1908 to 1929 and concern two different groups of people: an Irish American contingent living in New York and New Jersey and an Amerindian/European contingent from Manaus, Brazil. Book One, Before We Died, begins with the two Irish American brothers leaving New Jersey because they have heard that rubber tappers in South America are making a lot of money, and they want to try their hand at it. The results of their effort are tragic, and when one of the brothers returns home without his sibling, relationships among the Irish American contingent must bend and shift accordingly, which happens over the course of the second book, Gifts for the Dead. In Book Three, River Aria, a young woman—the product of an affair one of the brothers had back in Book One—travels to New York with a companion in the hope of finding success in the world of opera. But her companion leads her into the world of speakeasies instead.