Jenn Shapland recommends the books that lift her up, tear her down, and everything in between

Jenn Shapland was working in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center when she came across letters from author Carson McCullers and a mysterious woman named Annemarie. That discovery led the writer on a journey to uncover and reexamine McCullers’s life while also taking a closer look at her own.

The book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, is a series of vignettes that blend the stories of McCullers and Shapland. At times a biography. Other times an examination on how writers shape our lives.

I wanted to know what other books influenced and inspired Jenn Shapland and asked her to recommend books for Debutiful readers.


Is there a book you read to help lift your spirits?

I really honestly love self-help books, even the super new-agey ones. Lately I’ve been listening to books by Pema Chodron (Getting Unstuck and Bodhisattva Mind). She’s a Buddhist nun, but she’s so funny, so honest. It cheers me right up to hear her voice. I also just picked up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights and it is both uplifting and devastating.

What is a book that you turn to when you want to be absolutely wrecked?

Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I can’t think of anything more wrecking, and I’ve read it many times.

What book helped most to expand how you viewed the world?

Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling is so radical and will change the way you understand gender and sexuality (spoiler alert: neither is biologically determined). Runner up: Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes. This is a book about microorganisms, and in the opening pages you learn that your body contains more bacteria than actual human cells. Which is to say, none of us are individuals. Again, completely radical and worldview-altering.

Is there a book you returned to over and over most in your life?

I’m angry to report that I’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises more than any other book, and I truly hate it. Literature teachers and professors of the world, try harder! Lately I keep coming back to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a book I find both chilling and somehow comforting. And I have reread Shelia Heti’s Motherhood many times since it came out, it is helping me think about my life and live it.

For readers who might not know Carson McCullers, what is one book of hers they absolutely must read?

My favorite is The Member of the Wedding, because it’s such a tight, focused view of adolescence and queer becoming. But they’re all incredible, and I would love to live in a world where more people read Reflections in a Golden Eye and Clock without Hands


Please subscribe to Debutiful’s brand-new podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Jenn Shapland at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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