Evan Balkan’s second novel, Independence, was published in September. It’s the dramatic story of a woman and her daughter who are on their way from New Orleans to South Dakota, where the girl’s father is about to be executed.
Balkan ’94 was a political science major who wanted to be a lawyer when he popped into professor Jack Fruchtman’s office to thank him just before graduation in 1994. Fruchtman suggested Balkan think more deeply about what he wanted in a career while he backpacked through Europe that summer. If he still wanted to go to law school, Fruchtman told Balkan, Fruchtman would write him a letter of recommendation. After the trip, it was Balkan who wanted to do the writing. Instead of law school, he enrolled in a creative writing program and today he coordinates the English department at the Catonsville and Owings Mills campuses of Community College of Baltimore County. His first novel was Spitfire.
These are a few of the books that engrossed Balkan when he was an undergraduate.
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
In 1992 or ’93, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was assigned to me in an English class. It was the first book that made me want to write something. I recall being bowled over by the book, and it triggered in me something that has never left.
Collected Short Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Around this time, I became a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. I was struck by the fact that Fitzgerald was able to articulate feelings over loss—that I figured were specific to me—I was experiencing at the time I read his Collected Short Stories. It was incredible how a man dead for decades was able to do that. Fitzgerald’s stories spurred me to keep writing; though, truth be told, everything I wrote at that time was really little more than a poor imitation of F. Scott.
The Winter’s Hero, by Vasily Aksyonov
After TU, I went to graduate school in Virginia and took several Russian literature classes with the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov, who was a terrific writer and a wonderful human being. I also read his books, some of which got him exiled from the Soviet Union. I was lucky to discuss them with him over Russian Imperial Stout. My signed copy of Aksyonov’s The Winter’s Hero is still a cherished possession.
Another Country, by James Baldwin
In that same graduate program, I concentrated on African American literature and did my master’s thesis on James Baldwin’s Another Country. I loved Baldwin and felt he was one of those rare writers possessing an equal facility with fiction and nonfiction. Reading his work today is a reminder that its themes and concerns are as resonant in 2020 as they were in the 1950s–1970s.
Balkan is now working on his third novel, scheduled to be released in the spring. These are a few of the books he has recently read when he wasn’t writing.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates is such a smart and gifted human being, and I think he is probably the best nonfiction writer around. He often strikes me as the intellectual heir to James Baldwin. While I liked The Water Dancer, I didn’t think it quite rose to the level of his nonfiction work. But then again, few things do.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Though it was released in 2017, I didn’t get to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See until relatively recently. It blew me away. It is one of those rare books where it seems no word is wasted. It is 500-plus pages of magical, illuminative writing that is one of the best things I have ever read.
The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, by Jennifer Ackerman
Living through the pandemic lockdown, I now spend a lot of time working in my backyard, and, while I have always been attuned to the natural world around me, this spring I realized I could comfortably sit and watch birds for hours. This book is teaching me more than I ever knew was possible about bird behavior.
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
I am a big Michael Chabon fan. His Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is, I think, a masterpiece. His most recent is Moonglow, which I thought was dynamite. His sentence-level work is terrific, but in this novel, he does some very nifty—but not gimmicky—structural tricks. I kind of could see what he was doing but kept asking myself how he was doing it.