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Her best reading advice: Give a book 75 pages to grab you

Beowulf Sheehan

For her first novel, “The Optimistic Decade,” Heather Abel turned to her Western roots for inspiration for a story about a utopian summer camp, good intentions gone wrong, and the power of the land to change people. Abel, who grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., lives in Northampton with her husband and two young daughters. A former journalist, she has written for The New York Times, Slate, and the Paris Review. She reads from her new book at 7 p.m. May 15 at Point Street Reading Series at Alchemy, 71 Richmond St., Providence.

BOOKS: What have you been reading currently?

ABEL: I recently finished some really wonderful, immersive novels, so I’m casting about in an in-between state. When that happens I reread my old favorites, but not all the way through. I’m rereading Lore Segal’s “Her First American.” It’s really funny and smart and about race. She was born in Vienna and fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport to England, and her first book, “Other People’s Houses” is about that.

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BOOKS: What put you in your casting about phase?

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ABEL: I read “Winter” by Ali Smith. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect novel, but it was a perfect reading experience for me. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go after that. I love advising people on what to read. It’s one of the ways I’m a know-it-all. Then I make long lists of what I’m going to read next, and I never follow them. I often do not follow my own advice.

BOOKS: Do you keep your books organized in a specific way?

ABEL: My goal is to read poetry in the morning. I think it sets your brain in a good way. So I have poetry in the bathroom and on my desk. I keep new releases by my bed. In the kitchen and living room I like to keep the essays I adore. My goal is that when I’m bored, instead of picking up my phone, I might read five lines of a Eula Biss essay. Then on my writing desk I have my holy books, the ones I like to keep near me.

BOOKS: What are some of your “holy books”?

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ABEL: Always Grace Paley and Virginia Woolf. I just have to have “Mrs. Dalloway” around me. James Baldwin, and Zadie Smith. For a long time it was “NW” but now it’s “Feel Free.” Then there are books by lesser known authors, like “This is the Water” by Yannick Murphy, “All My Puny Sorrows” by Canadian writer Miriam Toews, and “Bobcat and Other Stories” by Rebecca Lee. For my book, I needed books that are about place, so I had “Dirt Music” by the Australian writer Tim Winton and “To the End of the Land” by the Israeli writer David Grossman. On a good [writing] day I never look at them, but it’s not wasted time if I read one of these books for a half hour before I can get going.

BOOKS: Do your Western roots influence your reading?

ABEL: I have a whole section of just Western books. I used to read a lot of the male authors, like Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. I got to the point where between their macho-ness and unthinking racism, I couldn’t last my way through them. I started to read books about the West by women, so I have Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Battleborn”

BOOKS: What is the reading advice you usually give?

ABEL: The person I give my most reading advice to is my 10-year-old, who, if she doesn’t like the first chapter, she’ll put a book down. I give her a 75-page rule. Now that I’m so distracted by the Internet I have to give myself more rules, like no phone in the bedroom after 9 p.m. It used to be I would allow a book to develop slowly. Now I expect a quicker hit like you get on Twitter. My rule is to stick with a book at least to the halfway mark. Sticking with a book and letting your relationship to it and the characters change is a true pleasure, but it’s not instantly gratifying.

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