|photo: Shay O'Brien
Shannon Pufahl grew up in rural Kansas. She teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in fiction. Her essays have appeared in the Threepenny Review and elsewhere, on topics ranging from John Brown and the antebellum Midwest to personal memoir. She lives in the Bay Area with her wife and their dog. On Swift Horses (Riverhead, November 5, 2019) is her first novel.
On your nightstand now:
Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism by Elizabeth Tallent, one of the best, most challenging and wholly brilliant memoirs I've ever read. Also, Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead and Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo.
Both of the latter remind me of the great and connective work done by translators. Animalia in particular, because it is not just literally translated from the French by Frank Wynne, but also, in its scope and ambition, an attempt to describe both the terrible changes wrought by capitalism and the largely silent but very profound relationship between humans and animals. It gets at what I think is the most important fact facing humans, in the 21st century: we are not separate from the world or the other creatures in it. Having disproportionate power is not the same as being sovereign, and certainly offers no real protection.
Favorite book when you were a child:
As a child, I was skeptical of the talky first-person YA books I mostly encountered, about the human process of "growing up." I loved instead those books, which proliferated in the U.S. through the first half of the 20th century, about children's relationships with animals. My late father read Rutherford Montgomery's Yellow Eyes (about a mountain lion) to my sister and me before bed every night during a particularly snowy December (he worked outside, and snow meant staying home), and this is one of the best things that ever happened in my life.
Walt Morey's Gentle Ben (about an Alaskan grizzly and the boy who loves him), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows and Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague were special favorites. These were mostly books about boys, but unlike westerns, odyssey stories or other epics, they did not depict relationships or adventures that seemed exclusive to, or only possible for, boys. They rendered childhood in a way that suggested the most important connections were not with the social world (which I feared and mistrusted, and which was dominated by men) but the natural world, which anyone might access.
Your top five authors:
Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, James Baldwin, Charles Johnson, Richard Powers. (I'm going to sneak in Edward P. Jones.)
All these writers accomplish something rare and beautiful in their work, which is the acknowledgement of the vital importance of the social/political world, alongside the undeniable presence of the divine, which puts the social world in necessary perspective. They all have very different approaches to this--and do not define the divine in the way we might think, as pious, godly or even spiritual, but as a careful and abiding attention to the details of life and of history.
Book you've faked reading:
The Bible. Because not all of it is real.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Crossing by Andrew Miller. Miller is an amazing prose stylist, underrated in general and especially in the U.S. The Crossing is about a woman of such inscrutable psychology that she is believed to be incapable of love. The book is divided into two very different sections, and what it accomplishes as a novel--that is, as a form--is mesmerizing. What it accomplishes as a correction to women's presumed responsibility to be visible and knowable is revolutionary.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The Word for Woman Is Wilderness by Abi Andrews. It also happens to be phenomenal, strange, moving and deliriously smart on the inside.
Book you hid from your parents:
Judy Grahn's Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds--I checked this out from the Topeka Public Library (thank you librarians everywhere!) c. 1995 and learned I had people. I learned, too, that lesbianism might be a radical act of defiance, and not only (or merely) a sexual object choice, and in that way it could be a liberation rather than a deviance. To my parents' great credit, hiding this book was hardly necessary--and done rather poorly, since I took it to my sister's volleyball tournament in Sabetha, Kan., and read it openly, but with the cover violently folded over (sorry librarians everywhere).
And while my parents may not have understood everything about what the book meant to me, they understood that I was someone who needed both support and privacy. What a tricky mixture that must have been for parents to offer a teenager. But they did, and allowing me my inept secrecy was one of the most important ways they gave me my freedom without ever abandoning me.
Book that changed your life:
Every good book has changed my life in some way. Reading is an act of openness to this possibility.
Favorite line from a book:
"So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again." --from Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.
I think about this all the time. The way the imagination offers us everything but the material act of touch, and is, in this way, a stay against loss and despair.
Five books you'll never part with:
SIX, sorry!! Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient; James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son; Annie Proulx's The Shipping News; Edward P. Jones's The Known World; Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping; Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
In times of strife or great happiness, any one of these books offers to me--still, continually--an insight or a new way of seeing. Great joy is as disruptive as great sorrow, and these books know that.
They are also more structurally and stylistically complex than their general readability would indicate. I read them over and over for the most brilliant instruction in the writing of books.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro. Though in many ways, reading Munro is always to encounter something for the first time. There is such density and insight in her stories, such efficient use of the most complex language, that every re-reading offers a surprise, or a deepening of character and understanding. The title story, which is truly a masterpiece of short fiction, does with temporality, point of view and suspense what even the very best novelists can only hope to achieve with more tools and time.
Books and writers central to your life but not yet invoked by this questionnaire:
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich
Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa
Zigzagger by Manuel Muñoz
Counternarratives by John Keene
Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker
Pussy, King of the Pirates by Kathy Acker
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Not One Day by Anne Garréta
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
As ever: Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges.