An Essay By Blair Hurley

As a shy kid, I wrapped myself in books from a young age. Books were companions, friends, whole other worlds to escape to. They brought me that joy that other writers know; it’s close to rapture.

            I had one of those bowl-shaped rattan chairs popular in the nineties. After a trip to the dusty shelves of my local bookstore, I’d come home with a stack of paperbacks, climb into my bowl and stay there all day, working my way through the pile. I encountered Dune and became obsessed, re-reading it every year. I was fascinated by how religious belief could act as a powerful political force, driving people to war, inspiring them to fight for freedom, or leading them down terrible paths of destruction. I memorized the “litany against fear” that Paul Muad’dib recites in the book, and hoped it would make me brave.

            I’d read anything with animals. A favorite was All Creatures Great and Small, the memoirs of a Yorkshire veterinarian. I learned more than the average person wants to know about internal exams of cows, but I also started noticing the humor and warmth of the writer’s style, the sentences bright with imagery and activity. James Herriot is a deeply humanistic writer, interested in the people he encountered as characters with rich inner lives. I started writing my own stories, paying attention to the rhythm and music of my language.

            I loved the themes of American literature, all that striving and hoping, all that corruption and ambition, the haunted past and the hopeful future. In high school we read The Great Gatsby and I wished for its crystalline perfection in my prose; I wanted my symbolism and imagery to line up like the chemical bonds of a diamond. When I read Tender is the Night in college, though, I wept. It’s Fitzgerald’s messier novel, with no easy parallels or tropes, no perfectly happy or perfectly tragic ending. But it’s bigger on heart, and aching with sadness. I could admire Gatsby, but I wanted to write like Fitzgerald did in Tender is the Night, filling the pages with jealousy, rage, and longing. I named the main character of my novel, Nicole, after Nicole Diver, the beautiful, unstable heroine. I understood her woundedness, her wildness, and the way she offered herself up to the people she loved, hoping they’d understand her.

            Sometimes I wish I could return to those days of my childhood spent curled up in my bowl chair, getting to know the world, falling in love again and again. Books gave me safety and comfort when I needed it, but they challenged me too. My high school English teacher told me Eudora Welty, another favorite writer, had said, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Eventually I had to leave the chair, step into the world, learn to be out there as well as in my head. But my reading was what gave me the courage to do it.