Book review: The Anatomy of Curiosity, by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

The Anatomy of Curiositydue out this October, is a must-read for two completely different (though intersecting) reasons. Well, actually, three. (I’m a liberal arts major, give me a break.)

1) It’s an outstanding book

It really is. The three novellas contained within deal with completely different subjects, and every single one of them is amazing. All three writers take you to eerie, wonderful, complex, creepy worlds with intense characters and settings. Usually in short story or novella collections I can single out one or two for special attention, but I really can’t do that here, because all three are amazing.

Stiefvater’s piece takes us to the apartment of an aging, but elegant, New York artiste who’s much more than she seems beneath the surface. The lush setting of the book plunged me right into the depths of the apartment as well as the hearts of the two major players: The woman and the young girl who reads to her (am I the only one who thought of To Kill a Mockingbird with this setup?). The slow unfolding reveal is beautiful. The writing is stunning. It’s delicious.

Gratton’s story may be one of her finest pieces yet. It’s meticulously and beautifully researched, building upon a very real and painful phenomenon—war and the unexploded ordnance left behind—to create a fantasy world that’s complex and horrifyingly breathtaking. Her worldbuilding is fantastic, the characters burst into life from the page, and it’s explosively crafted, with every part of the story building around and onto itself and flowing into a natural and logical reveal that still kicks you in the face.

Yovanoff’s story, or series of variations on a theme, more accurately, is absolutely chilling. I love her work regardless, but this provided a deep, intimate insight into not just the psyche of her characters, but Yovanoff herself. It’s the same dark, dire, deeply creepy stuff you’d expect from her, but it’s also so much more.

2) It is, hands down, the best book on the craft of writing I’ve ever read

I’m a writer. I spend a fair amount of time reading books about how to write, and analysis of writing, and discussions about writing; writing isn’t something you’re magically born knowing how to do, it’s a skill that’s honed and crafted, and it’s a skill that’s also informed by the world around you. Sometimes that means sitting down with books about how other people do it. These books don’t provide a neat prescription for how it should be done, or for the method that will magically unlock writing for you personally, but they offer valuable insight into how others write and how it might inform your own writing.

This isn’t just a book of three novellas. It’s a book about process. Each piece is accompanied by marginalia as well as endnotes from the author and her critique partners. The result is absolutely outstanding, discussing not just the role of critique partners, but also the process of storytelling, narrative, and construction. Each writer had insights that were incredibly valuable for me; sometimes you have an idea in the back of your mind, but you need someone else to put it into words, both to articulate it and to validate it.

If you’ve been seeking a really great text on writing craft, this should definitely be on your list. Everyone writes differently, and as I said above there’s no magical formula for coming up with the perfect writing method, so your mileage may vary on this particular book, but you should definitely give it a shot; you might not come away with the same insights I did, or with the same opinions I did, but hopefully you’ll find it at least a bit valuable.

3) Do you like knowing how your favourite authors write?

Like every writer I know, there are some questions that I dread answering because I get them all the time. There’s ‘where do you get your ideas’ and ‘how do you write’ and ‘what should I do to be a better writer’ and questions that are sometimes really hard to answer in brief, or well, because they’re intimate and deeply personal. Ideas, for example: I don’t go to an idea store, and they come to me in a lot of different ways. There’s no right or wrong way to get ideas (although if you’re drawing them from existing texts you need to be careful about derivative versus transformative works, variations on a theme, and ethics). I write by sitting down at a keyboard and typing—but that’s not really the answer you wanted.

In The Anatomy of Curiosity, all three authors really dig into their own writing process, including their interactions with each other as critique partners. If you want to understand, for example, how Brenna Yovanoff works and the way she puts her books and stories together, you should read this book. Trust me, it’s way easier and way more informative than asking her the same series of somewhat monotonous questions at interviews and in public appearances.

This text is completely amazing for understanding how these woman write, and, in turn, for understanding how that informs their work. It provides this really amazing contextual background to read their work against, and that’s invaluable when reading and critiquing fiction. I feel like I’ve had a really fantastic experience with this book in terms of gaining insight and knowledge that will sit with me me when I read their work in the future, and read it again—and as a reader and critic, I find that invaluable. Even if you’re not a writer, and you’re not seeking advice on the writing process, The Anatomy of Curiosity can help you dig into texts by the writers you love, which is honestly pretty great.