A Life of Books with Meredith Westgate, author of The Shimmering State

Meredith Westgate’s debut novel, The Shimmering State, perfectly blends sci-fi and romance. Author Adam Wilson said the book was reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine For the Spotless Mind. Meredith Westgate is a graduate of Dartmouth College and has an MFA in Fiction from The New School. We had the native Pennsylvanian and current Brooklynite answer our recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know her.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

I loved Nancy Drew and spent a lot of my childhood sneaking into places, searching for mysteries with my friends. I loved her ability to crack open the truth and her persistence even as she’s denied at every step. 

I also have memories of carrying around stacks of (mostly blank) pages pretending I was Jo March delivering my manuscript — or sometimes, watching it burn. I was enamored with her obsession and dedication to her work. I guess Little Women prepares you for the pain that often accompanies writing, even alongside the joy. That book is also just catnip for a little girl who’s curious about sisterhood.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Yes, I think so! There was something so comforting and energizing about the serialization of Nancy Drew, seeing those yellow spines lined up at the library, wanting to finish one so you could immediately go on to the next. I hadn’t had that feeling again until reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. 

I think the heart of the Nancy Drew books is an overall curiosity and willingness to look beyond immediate assumptions, not settling for how things appear to others — and that’s a great frame for young readers. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I’d always avoided Proust and only finally read Swann’s Way because it was assigned in an MFA seminar. I was shocked at how relatable and exciting it was to me, especially in relation to writing about memory and our relationship to memory today. I remember being in the midst of a heartbreak, desperately glued to social media, and underlining the passages about Swann’s obsessive pining for Odette. It genuinely blew my mind how close I felt to it, and how many familiar personalities or behaviors I found in Proust’s writing. What a disservice I’d done it, imagining it stuffy and outdated, when it felt so incredibly alive. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I think less in terms of books I don’t love now and more in terms of just how much was left out that has become so vital to me. I’d like to imagine high school seniors today reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in place of, or alongside, The Catcher in the Rye — I think they might feel seen and vulnerable in a way that invites them into the world more fully, instead of insisting on some older literary canon that is certainly not my own. Thinking of those swaps or pairings is exciting to me, how it might invite more readers to participate. It took me a long time, even as an English major and lover of books, to imagine I might ever write one.

And then there’s poetry, which used to feel like a trap, or a puzzle to solve. I think any of my positive experiences with reading poetry in high school or college were built on the satisfaction of “getting it right,” whereas now I don’t get joy from that at all — or even read poetry that asks that. I’d love to see high schoolers reading The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, just to get the elephant out of the room and step into the vitality of poetry.

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

So many! I don’t know if anyone would notice the connections besides me, but I most wanted to explore grief and memory, creativity, and perspective — in the ways we so often miss each other even when trying to connect. 

In There There, I loved so much about this book but especially studied the way Tommy Orange sustains tension in a multi-narrator novel. He always enters a character’s chapter fresh and in the midst of action and builds tension in the intersections and anticipation. Also, just an incredible ending. I returned to A Visit from the Goon Squad, rereading the beginning and ending in particular when I was struggling with mine. Jennifer Egan makes me cry every time with the bittersweet echoes she lays throughout and such a satisfying full circle finish. Station Eleven was really inspiring to me, in the way Emily St. John Mandel grounds a speculative novel in the arts, and how she explores the intersection of those two. I find that space so exciting. In What We Lose, the way Zinzi Clemmons writes about grief and longing is so beautiful and tender. In Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes explores the way different characters’ memories of the same event can ripple through time and deeply affect their lives, even their sense of themselves. I was struck by how he wrote around the central misunderstanding, allowing for the reader to feel and fill the spaces between his characters. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. I’ll never get over that book, but it’s less that I wish it was mine than that I wish I was Selin, or friends with Selin. I related to it so deeply and yet it’s so completely distinct to Batuman. Brilliant. 

The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez. The way she writes about grief, in its daily meandering and persistent ways, and how she captures the experience of living as a writer, of living with a dog, of finding tenderness in the smallest observations. I remember finishing it when my dog Olive was still alive but getting older, and her trotting over as I sat weeping. It’s a book I’ve thought about again and again since her passing last year, in the aftermath of missing her. 

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I recently finished and loved Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. I’d been saving it until I could sit down and read it in one or two sittings because I was such a fan of her last book, A Separation, and knew I’d want to fully disappear into it. I’m blown away by her control and how she builds something sparse yet entirely evocative; there is something so chic about her prose. And I loved the brilliant juxtaposition in the story, the highest global consequences alongside a character’s deeply personal crisis.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Oh gosh. “Here we go.” Again. I hope!

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