The Avid Reader

People_KrisLeeFor Kris Lee, books have always been a lodestar, a refuge, a certainty in an uncertain world.

“(As a child), I found reading comforting,” said the English teacher/playwright. “I had a thousand thoughts a minute — it still feels like that at times — and reading was and is a great equalizer.”

Lee credits a grandmother (Ya-Ya) and a great aunt with his devotion to the English language. Ya-Ya drilled her grandson on verb conjugations while the two of them shelled purple-hulled peas on the porch. Aunt Annie required her studious nephew to carry a small notebook in which to write unfamiliar words he encountered.

When he came across a word while reading that was written in his book, “it gave me a thrill, like a secret only she and I shared.”

A couple of summers ago Lee had a brief fling with the New York theater world when his work was presented to the prestigious Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan. He was encouraged by the response.

“It was a shocking and fresh experience for me,” he said. “They don’t waste time on simple flattery; they care only that you’re trying to put something new in the world.”

The pull of home was strong, though, and Lee returned to Mississippi. (He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up in Louisville.) He has recently stepped away from a full-time faculty position at Mississippi State University to pursue his MFA at the school. He’s a semester away from that goal.

Lee’s happy to be a writer living in the South.

“Mississippi is an excellent place for a writer to find himself stuck in,” said Lee. “It refuses to bend in many ways, and that refusal, let’s say, provides an opportunity.”

At the moment, the playwright-cum-student is working on his thesis play, the literary form he most prefers.

“I chase more demons writing a play than writing anything else,” he said, “and that’s important to me. It takes the demons to bring the angels.”

As for recommended reads, Lee would rather offer a list of 50.

“Culling the list to five is killing me a bit inside.”

Book_DailyRituals1. Daily Rituals edited by Mason Currey — A gift, I love this book because it reminds me that art survives the artist. I’m on no timetable to create so long as I’m creating. Every artist has his own method to his madness, and the joy of this book is in seeing how different (and strangely similar in their differences) other artists were/are when it came/comes to working and avoiding working.

Book_TheTwelveCaesars2. The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius — A friend gave me this because she knew how much I love ancient histories. I grew to love this book beyond its content, though. Suetonius wrote in a style unlike anyone else at his time; his details of these emperors’ lives follow no logical form. They seem to spring, at times, from what Suetonius found most interesting about them. It was my first introduction to the power of nonlinear writing.

Book_SheGotUpOffTheCouch3. She Got Up Off the Couch and Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel — Kimmel has a smooth and provocative handle on memoir-essays. Her ease at description is encouraging to me — it’s steady and deliberate and takes its time; a master of the “slow burn,” I’d say, which I find informative in my own writing. Sometimes, reading her books again and again is like having ice cream. Her essays teach me patience in my own writing.   

Book_AConfederacyOfDunces4. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole — Toole blends wit with the quotidian; I envy that. I can’t pretend that the tragedy leading to its publication doesn’t color my appreciation of what is in the book, but I nevertheless find it a brave commentary on how the smaller one goes to validate his life, the larger the picture of that life becomes. It’s lovely how Ignatius elevates his own inadequacies while simultaneously justifying his failures: It hits home a little.

Book_TheSecretHistory5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt — I came across this book in college and it terrified me in a delicious way. As I got older and re-read it, I found that she was a master of suspense, and that her strength lies in crafting the whole story, rather than in moments. For instance, it might be difficult to pull out a paragraph or two and praise it, but stepping back and seeing the whole story offers an amazingly drawn picture, tied neatly together with suspense.