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A writer's favourite books & reading habits: Alina Vârlănuță [interview]

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For me, the perfect holiday implies sitting on a beach, sipping Greek frappes and reading books from sunrise til sunset. I can do this for weeks in a row, without getting bored. Perhaps only burned, if I forget to apply sunscreen.

And I’m lucky to have just the perfect partner for that: Alina Vârlănuță, one of my dearest friends and most creative persons I’ve ever met. We have completely opposite tastes in books, but we devour them with the same insatiable thirst – and also share the same odds of spilling drinks over their pages.

Alina makes a living out of writing. Her day job? Working as a copywriter at Jazz Communication agency (Alina has 10+ years of experience in advertising).

But, in her spare time, she loves writing fiction and improved her skills at the University of Warwick (UK), with an M.A. (Master of Arts) in Writing.

After she returned in Romania, her home country, Alina self-published “The Hole in Your Head“, a collection of short stories that has a lovely yellow bear on its cover, I should add.

She’s also a co-founder (and dreamer) of While You Sleep, a side project where she writes fiction stories and her partner-photographer illustrates them.

Keep reading and you’ll discover Alina’s favourite books characters, whose words helped her improve her writing, and her entire process for deciding what to read next. Or not to read.

Estimated reading time for this interview is 11 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

What’s your favourite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

I don’t have one. But I do have favourite characters:

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith. I read it after I finished an MA in Writing and it was exactly what I needed to burst my bubble. I loved it because it questioned everything and it perfectly matched my skepticism towards creative writing courses.

Regardless of my amazing experience within the creative writing masters, nobody can teach you how to write, but somebody can definitely teach you how to rewrite and how to read. In a world where everybody urges you to be original, creative, Goldsmith states that you can totally be creative with somebody else’s work with a little help from the Internet: word processing, databasing, recycling, sampling, appropriation, coding (‘Pure Poems’ written by Shigeru Matsui in alphanumeric binaries), plundering, programming, and even plagiarizing. Yes, plagiarizing.

The most eloquent example (I love it) is this essay entitled ‘The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism’. Jonathan Lethem brilliantly shows us that nothing is original in literature – all ideas has been shared, recycled, stolen, quoted, translated, re-translated, imitated, pirated, patch written, re-written and so on. The essay is the perfect example for this – not a single word or idea belongs Jonathan Lethem. Everything is borrowed from others’ books, ideas, writings.

Goldsmith even taught the ‘Uncreative Writing’ course at the University of Pennsylvania where students were not allowed to bring to the class any trace of originality and creativity.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

I don’t believe in big impacts. I think that every book changed my way of seeing things one way or another. Even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. There is where I found the best writing learnings.

But if I were to name a book that excited me most, it would definitely be ‘Blow-up and Other Stories’ by Julio Cortazar and actually everything written by him. When I first read the short stories I was so envious of his ease of living in alternative realities, that I developed my own. 🙂

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

My professional path – copywriting – somehow intertwines with my unprofessional (hahaha) path – writing so I would recommend reading literature for both. Somehow reading and writing are two ways of doing the same thing: storytelling (even when you read you tell yourself a story in your own voice, bringing your personal emotion and empathy to the story you’re reading). The only difference is that when I’m reading, panic is far away from me, in a safe place.

Nevertheless, the words below helped me rewrite and think twice before adding an exclamation point:

  • The Elements of Style
  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • All interviews on TheParisReview

  • I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

    I read every day. No exception. Kindle or paper. Depends how the book gets faster in my hands.

    How do you make time for reading?

    I (try or fail) to wake up every morning around 6 am to read or write. I also read on my way to and from work, before bedtime and every time one of my friends is late. Sometimes I overdose on reading and I just stop for a while. That’s when I’m reading books for children. Roald Dahl, Terry Pratchett, Maurice Sendak, Oliver Jeffers are just a couple of authors who take me back to the joy of reading from childhood.

    Do you have a favourite place where you read or are you able to read just anywhere?

    Anywhere. I must confess that I’ve tried to recreate all those reading clichés – in the bathtub with a glass of wine (major fail – the book got wet, the wine got spilt), in the middle of nature (bugs everywhere), dim light and candles everywhere (almost lit a fire). I don’t believe in romancing the act of reading so I just read wherever I can sit or it’s safe to walk with a book in my hands.

    Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

    I always carry a notebook with me where I write down sentences I liked. Or writing techniques. Or something I should learn. Or write. Or not forget. But never notes like serious notes. Never. Maybe that’s why I forget book endings and sometimes that I even read them.

    How do you choose what books to read next?

    It’s an entire process that got better and better in time:

    1. I dig a lot for experimental writings. Here are some of my findings:

  • Dust – by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
  • Drunk by noon – by Jennifer L. Knox
  • Anything written by Luke Kennard
  • The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin

  • 2. I am subscribed to Granta magazine where I try to keep up with the new writing. If I read something interesting, the next second I’m buying the book.

    3. I get obsessed. If I read something I love, I read everything written by that author to analyse how his/her writing evolved or changed.

    4. From the authors & people I feel like I have a lot to learn from. I read their interviews and find out what books they recommend.

    5. I don’t go for literary prize-winners: Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer etc. I’ve been disappointed by advertising too many times to believe that the there is such a thing as the ‘best book’. And many of them are so well advertised that people go with the flow and actually believe that the awarded book must definitely be a good book even though it didn’t quite move them in any way. But that’s another talk. 🙂

    Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

    Wish I had one. It would be easier than digging and researching ‘the next book’. But after I have my own list, I don’t prioritize, I just read depending on my state of mind.

    Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

    From each book I expect to be surprised either by the writing itself, the plot, the characters, the point of view, the new reality. Anything. And when I’m surprised I laugh, I get mad with envy, I get ideas, I write ideas, I get frustrated for knowing so little, I move words from left to write, I learn something.

    I’m currently reading ‘Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day’ by Ben Loory and I’m enjoying each very short-story. I’m also finishing ‘Uncle Shawn and Bill and the almost entirely unplanned adventure’ by A.L. Kennedy & Gemma Correll (illustrations). It’s a book for children and it makes me laugh when nobody’s watching.

    And I just started reading Christopher Nolan’s screenplays.

    Links where you can follow Alina Vârlănuță or find out more about her projects:

  • Alina’s Instagram account
  • The Hole in Your Head
  • While You Sleep
  • Photo by Alex Galmeanu

  • Books mentioned by Alina in this interview:

  • Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout
  • Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
  • Where The Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
  • Life. A user’s manual. – Georges Perec
  • The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch
  • Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age – Kenneth Goldsmith
  • Blow-up and Other Stories – Julio Cortazar
  • The Elements of Style – William I. Strunk, E. B. White
  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne, Dave King
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • Dust – Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
  • Drunk by Noon – Jennifer L. Knox
  • The Sacred Book of the Werewolf – Victor Pelevin
  • Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day – Ben Loory
  • Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure – A.L. Kennedy, Gemma Correll

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