Shelf Life

Shelf Life

by Gordon McAlpine

We asked the acclaimed author of the new novel Woman with a Blue Pencil (which was nominated for an Edgar for Best Paperback Original!) to show us a section of his bookshelf. 



I am fortunate to live in a house with many full bookshelves, which I believe serve as the hippocampus of a home, transferring short term memory into the long term (of course, photographs do this as well). Hence, a photograph of a bookshelf….


I might have chosen a shelf containing books I have read recently for pleasure, as this would have indicated something of my current tastes and may have served to recommend a book or two. Or I might have chosen a shelf of books that I consider to have been formative to me, both as a writer and a man. Alternatively, I might have merely glanced from my writing desk to a shelf an arm’s length away, which is currently dominated by books of research for my next novel. Or, elsewhere in the house, I might have photographed a shelf upon which are books that belong to me, my wife, and our three children, all haphazardly mixed together – a kind of family snapshot. Instead, however, I have photographed a shelf that contains a small selection of the fiction written by my mentors in the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of California, Irvine, all of whom have passed away now, though each left treasures (even for those not as fortunate as I to have studied with them).

The first of the quartet is MacDonald Harris, a stern but deeply sincere and caring teacher, whose books gained great critical acclaim during his life. Today, they remain as relevant as they were in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, indicating how far ahead of his time he was. His Jules Verne pastiche, The Balloonist, was a finalist for the National Book Award and his novel Herma addresses the ambiguity of sexual identity in a strikingly bold and contemporary way. Next is Oakley Hall, a warm-hearted bon vivant and a master of writing technique, whose novel The Corpus of Joe Bailey placed him among the “young lions” of the 1950’s and whose Warlock, a finalist for the Pulitzer, is still considered not only a classic among literary Westerns, often mentioned with The Ox-Bow Incident, The Virginian, and Shane, but is also Thomas Pynchon’s “favorite novel.” William Wiser shared his great personal warmth with his students, encouraging us to our best work. He was a master of language and, among other things, taught me many uses of the dash, most of which would drive grammarians to fits but nonetheless “freed up” my prose. His novel Disappearances adapts historical events into a fiction, a technique I have often embraced. Finally, Robert Stone was a recent winner of the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers and had just completed A Flag for Sunrise when he came to U.C.I. A master at the top of his game, he took our student work seriously and changed my life when he said of a story I’d written in a workshop, “The question is not whether this story is publishable, but how we make it publishable for the New Yorker.” Maybe I could be a real writer after all!  

These accomplished authors sometimes made me quake as I walked into their workshops. But they forced me to develop as a writer and, even more importantly, to grow from a green 22 year-old into something resembling an adult. It is a small shelf. But it is a big part of my life.




Gordon McAlpine is the author of the novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil, which Publishers Weekly describes in a starred review as working “both as a conventional mystery story and as a deconstruction of the genre’s ideology: whichever strand readers latch on to, the parallel stories pack a brutal punch.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Hammett Unwritten and three previous literary novels, and he has been described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a gifted stylist, with clean, clear and muscular prose.” Additionally, he has co-written a non-fiction book called The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH and is the author of a popular trilogy of novels for middle grade readers, “The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe”. He has published short fiction and book reviews in journals and anthologies both in the U.S.A. and abroad. He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.