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Lisa Williams Kline Reflects On A Book About Ordinary People That Changed Her Life

Lisa Williams Kline will lead the class The Coveted Yet Dreaded ‘R&R’ and host a Lunch with an Author session at this year’s NCWN Spring Conference on April 20 in Greensboro. Kline recently joined other Spring Conference faculty members, as well as NCWN board and staff members, in reflecting on the book(s) that changed their lives. You can read Kline’s reflection below. Members can find more reflections about life changing reading experiences in the Spring 2024 Issue of Highway 64 in our digital journal archive.

A Book About Ordinary People That Changed My Life

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in second grade and wrote a series of books called The Adventures of Little Horse and Little Lamb on the lined paper that was provided in classrooms then. I illustrated them, too. Little Horse and Little Lamb walked upright, like people. Later, in fifth grade, I wrote the beginnings of a novel about a brother and sister on a barefoot quest through snow-covered mountains to obtain penicillin for a younger brother who was ill. I didn’t ponder why the protagonists were barefoot or why they needed to go through snow-covered mountains to get penicillin. When I realized there were gaping holes in my plot, I abandoned the project and left my poor characters stranded barefoot in the snow. 

I am forever grateful that Anne Tyler’s extraordinary books about ordinary people gave me the courage to try to write my own stories.

After that, I read a lot of books. I was shy and quiet and spent many hours blissfully immersed in the worlds of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. I became so lost in the world of books that my mother claimed the house could burn down around me and I wouldn’t even notice. 

By junior high (what we called middle school back then), reality hit me. Writing required literary brilliance. My talents were ordinary. How in the world had I dreamed I could excel at this esoteric and sublime pursuit? 

The idea of writing a novel then faded from my consciousness for several decades. While I majored in English in college, and continued to read, and even took one creative writing class, I became more and more intimidated. My most often received feedback was “too quiet.” Yes, I became a writer after graduate school. I wrote programs for public television, and training videos for a number of companies including a large accounting firm, NBC, CSX, RCA, and others. I became a freelancer and wrote work-for-hire projects that helped pay the bills. But the dream of pursuing my own writing and actually writing a novel went completely dormant. 

In my twenties, I went through a “Garp” phase. I fell in love with The World According to Garp by John Irving, and reread it several times. Its wacky and sometimes ghoulish humor and improbable coincidences delighted me. 

In my mid-thirties, my husband and I started a family. I had little time to read, much less to write. But my mother was in the Wake Forest University book club, and she often shared their monthly read with me. One month she shared a book that reminded me, after all those years of dormancy, that I had once wanted to try to write a novel. It was Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. 

Tyler wrote about ordinary people living quiet, ordinary lives with such sensitivity, humor, and deep profundity that I would sometimes laugh and cry during the same scene. On the very first page of Breathing Lessons, you meet Maggie, who is going to her best friend’s husband’s funeral and the crotch of her pantyhose has slipped down to her knees, making it difficult for her to walk, but she obviously is not in a place where she can yank her pantyhose up.  You immediately know that this author has deep insights about the important stuff of life, and that this story is going to be hilarious, sad, and profound all at once. In a Tyler book, all of us are ordinary yet none of us are. After reading Breathing Lessons, I quickly read The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and all of Tyler’s other books because I couldn’t get enough of her. Book critic Jonathan Yardley said of her writing, “It leaves one aching with pleasure and pain.” And I’ve continued to read everything she has written during her long and storied career, up to A Spool of Blue Thread and Redhead by the Side of the Road, which just came out a few years ago. 

I reread Breathing Lessons to write this article, and again marveled at the nuanced brilliance of each scene. One scene in particular, in an abortion clinic, was simply masterful. Tyler writes about the tenderness and conflict in longtime marriages. In a Tyler novel, often a spouse walks away, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. And so, Tyler prods us to ask ourselves, under what circumstances should a spouse stay? In a Tyler novel, children are often disappointments to their parents. And so, she prods us to ask ourselves, what expectations should people have of their children? 

After reading Tyler’s books, I finally decided to try to write a novel. It wasn’t that I thought that I could write as well as she does. I would never even presume. It was because her storytelling brought me such joy that I decided I owed it to myself to at least try this artistic pursuit that had been my childhood dream. So, in my late thirties, I signed up for a short story class at The Writers’ Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I wrote over two dozen short stories and received probably close to a hundred rejections before I finally published one. My first novel, Eleanor Hill, was published in 1999, when I was forty-five. In the twenty-some years since, I’ve published thirteen books: eight novels and a novella for young readers, and two novels, a short story collection, and a book of essays for adults. Most important, I have found a family of incredible writer friends who mean the world to me. I am forever grateful that Anne Tyler’s extraordinary books about ordinary people gave me the courage to try to write my own stories.

Lisa Williams Kline is the author of Ladies’ Day (CamCat Books), Between the Sky and the Sea (Dragonblade), The Ruby Mirror (The Bridge), and ten novels and a novella for young readers. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Skirt, Sasee, Carolina Woman, moonShine review, The Press 53 Awards Anthology, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, and Idol Talk, among others. She attended Duke University, and received her MFA from Queens.