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December 14, 2018

Whitney Scharer: A Yankee Book Swap

Posted by tom

Whitney Scharer’s debut novel, THE AGE OF LIGHT (which releases on February 5th), tells the story of Vogue model turned renowned photographer Lee Miller, and her search to forge a new identity as an artist after a life spent as a muse. For 10 years, Whitney worked at a non-profit creative writing center in Boston called GrubStreet. For the first few years, she was in an office with just three others, and all four became close friends. Rather than a traditional Yankee swap for the holidays, which would've required a few more people for maximum enjoyment, they decided to do their own holiday book swap. Read on to find out how these fun exchanges worked and why Whitney has cherished them so much.


For 10 years, I worked at a non-profit creative writing center in Boston called GrubStreet. It’s a powerhouse now, with a $3 million budget and a staff of over 20. But for the first few years I worked there, it was just four of us in an office, sitting elbow to elbow in a space not much bigger than a child’s bedroom, trying to get students signed up for our classes and our decrepit old copier to hold out for a few more months. We worked hard, but we had fun too: the kind of fun you can only have with people who are your friends as well as your coworkers. The four of us --- Sonya Larson, Chip Cheek, Christopher Castellani and me --- are still incredibly close, and those early days at GrubStreet are some of my happiest memories.

In an office that small, traditional holiday Yankee swaps don’t work, but none of us had ever liked them anyway: the intrinsic judginess, the barely concealed coveting of the gifts you don’t end up with. Besides, we were all writers and shared a lifelong love of reading, so one year the idea of our holiday book swap began. The idea was simple. We emailed each other lists of five or six books we were yearning to read, drew names out of a hat, and bought the person whose name we picked one book from their list and one book not on their list that we thought they might want. That way, everyone was guaranteed to get something they were sure to like, but had the additional joy of getting something unexpected and thoughtful.

On the afternoon of the book exchange, we would gather in one of the classrooms and drink Jameson and eggnog out of plastic tumblers. Often, we’d be finishing up some last-minute work, like licking stamps for the annual fundraising letter, because there was never enough time in the day to get everything done. But like everything we did back in those days, there was a convivial joy to it, a shared sense of our work having a purpose. When the letters were done, we had a potluck before opening our gifts --- delicious food like homemade bread, lasagna, lemon bars, tiny kabobs of mozzarella balls and grape tomatoes. The wrapped books were placed in the center of the table and exchanged round-robin style, each gift-giver fairly buzzing with excitement and anxiety as their mystery book was unwrapped.

One year, Chip gave Chris a biography of Truman Capote. Months earlier, Chris had mentioned offhandedly that one of the scenes in his latest novel manuscript took place at a party at Capote’s Italian villa. The Capote biography ended up inspiring him to make Capote a bigger character in what became LEADING MEN (out February 12th from Viking). Sonya gave me Angela Carter’s THE BLOODY CHAMBER. “I don’t know why, exactly, but the way she uses imagery reminds me of your work,” Sonya told me. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never read Carter’s work; now she’s one of my favorite authors. The gift books don’t have to be new --- in fact, there’s something lovely about receiving a well-thumbed novel from a friend’s bookshelf, as if a little bit of their spirit comes home with the book.

We don’t all work together anymore, but the book swap tradition has continued. This year, we’re getting together at a restaurant we all have been wanting to try, where we’ll have cocktails far fancier than the whiskey-and-eggnog concoction we made in our tiny office kitchen. I’m hoping to get HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado or THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, but what I’m really looking forward to is being introduced to a new writer, to receiving a book picked with care by one of my closest friends, certain to be something I’ll always cherish.