Why is it that so many of the best geeks also happen to be bookworms?
Literature sparks a love of stories that expands to embrace other modes, genres, platforms, and media, and conspires to create the most intriguing personalities.
One of my very favorite bookworms just happens to embody this adventurous love of fictional narratives of all kinds. She is Caitlin Hawkins, a fellow English major who stood in my dining room one fateful evening and plotted with me to form a book club. The rest is history.
Caitlin is a passionate student of literature, working on her master’s degree in English, a book hoarder in the best sense of the phrase, a lover of mysteries and thrillers, an Agatha Christie junkie, the fiercest Harry Potter-phile you’ll ever meet, and an avid gamer who has found the imaginative realms of MMORPGs to be refreshingly liberating.
Read on for Caitlin’s deep thoughts on upcoming Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express,” the co-dependent relationship between anglophiles and Netflix, tips for starting your own book club, and why you should give J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series a chance.
Have you always been a bookworm? When did you become a reader in earnest?
This is actually one of my favorite stories to tell. It involves a library near my house, my sixth grade teacher, a special cabinet of important books, and a sweet gift.
I have always loved to read—and I learned how at a very young age. I remember going as a small child with my mom and brothers to the Valencia Public Library and checking out as many books as I could. Naturally introverted and with two rambunctious brothers who were 4-plus years older than me, I found myself alone often.
Books were my solace. I nurtured that love through books like “Ella Enchanted” (my first favorite book I can remember), Joan Lowry Nixon’s mysteries, and the Harry Potter series. When I entered Miss H’s sixth grade class, I was already a bookworm. Her care and friendship took the spark and fanned it into a flame.
She curated a classroom library that all were welcome to, but for specific students, she had her special cabinet of her “favorite books.” These required special promises to return and take care of her books if you were to borrow them. In that special cabinet was her collection of Agatha Christie mysteries. Through that year, I made a dent in her collection, and when the time came to leave her class, Miss H gifted me with my own set of well-loved Agathas to get my own collection started.
That year of my life solidified my identity as a bookworm. I still have that Agatha Christie “starter pack” and add to it whenever I can.
You recently began your graduate studies at California State University, Northridge for your master’s in English literature. Why did you decide to pursue that?
I’ve always nurtured the dream to one day be Indiana Jones: professor, adventurer, and wearer of tweed. Completing my master’s is the first step on the road to Jonesdom.
What’s your dream career or literary aspiration?
My dream career is to be a college composition and literature professor. I love literature, and I also love the ability to have a more flexible schedule to be home with my hubby and cat. Helping others write and create something lovely is such a pleasure. Someday, I would also love to try my hand at writing my own mysteries under a pseudonym.
What are some of your favorite books of all time?
I’ll just list some of my favorite/most impactful series and standalone books:
The Great Gatsby — The catharsis in this book is so real. I also adore Fitzgerald’s beautiful language and the atmosphere of the roaring ‘20s. Keep an eye out for a Gatsby-themed 30th birthday party in the works.
Ella Enchanted — As stated above, Gail Carson Levine’s twisted fairy tale was one of my first favorite books. I read this so many times I could almost quote it verbatim. I loved her spunky Ella who was sarcastic and intelligent and didn’t quite fit the mold of a dainty little g — someone 8-year-old me could really relate to.
Harry Potter — Harry and his adventures found me through my fourth grade class, but really became a friend when my family moved to a different city in 2000. I spent my middle school years as often in Hogwarts as I did at Hillview. And I found the error in book four before they could fix it, and prior to the invention of Reddit/Tumblr. *pats self on back*
Jane Eyre — It has so many things I love. Heavily influenced by the gothic genre, a heroine who subverts expectations and goes after her dreams without being rude or abrasive (most of the time), and Michael Fassbender. Jane is an extremely important character for my nieces and future children to meet, as she seeks to always do what is right, despite extreme personal disappointment.
There are so many books that I have loved … . It’s too hard to pick!
What are you reading right now?
Right now, my graduate classes are reading “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee and “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. On my own, I have “The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware, and “One of Us is Lying” by Karen McManus.
What’s on your to-be-read pile?
I’m a book collector as well, so there’s a lot in my to-be-read pile. On the top of the pile is “Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green. I totally snagged a signed copy at Barnes and Noble, even though I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it until Christmas. Directly under that is to finish Tana French’s fantastic Dublin Murder Squad Series. If you like police procedurals mixed with character driven stories, check her out. Her writing is also fantastically beautiful.
You’re a huge anglophile. Did that evolve from your love of literature?
Yes and no. While I adore J.K. Rowling, Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Tana French (shout out to my Irish writers who would be appalled to be included in this list) and of course Agatha Christie, I would chalk it up to Netflix. Without it I would be Doctor-less, “Call the Midwife”-less, and “Father Brown”-less, which would be a shame. (If you like quaint British towns, the ‘50s, mysteries, and Arthur Weasley, check out “Father Brown” mysteries. They are so fun!)
Harry Potter has played a big role in your life. How did your love of the books begin? How has this passion manifested itself in your life. I know there was a period of time when you were reading the books pretty obsessively.
I put these two questions together because the answers go hand in hand. Harry and his angst met me in a place where I needed a kindred spirit. Naturally introverted and shy, I struggled to make friends in middle school and in my new neighborhood. For two years, I lived 45 minutes from where my elementary school was and where all of my friends lived. Summers and weekends were challenging for me.
In my loneliness, I connected with the idea of having to go away to go home, just like Harry. I also connected with the female characters like Hermione and Luna who defied expectations and lived life their own way. Through JKR’s writing, I grew as a person and learned to value not only camaraderie and friendship, but those moments of solitude that can bring self-discovery.
It has been a few years since I’ve reread the series, but I look forward to sharing it with my children. My next tattoo is actually going to be the “always” quote (complete with Deathly Hallows symbol), as a statement on where my love of literature got its foothold and its staying power. After all this time? Always.
Why do you think the love of this franchise has been so enduring for readers in general?
I think a lot of people my age grew up alongside our favorite characters and dealt with many of the same issues. JKR’s masterful ability to match not only content but style to the appropriate age group allowed us to read at our level each time a new book came out. Her characters and their adventures became a sort of touchstone of our generation.
I know I wasn’t alone when viewing the final film come to a close and thinking “and now my childhood is officially over.” I cried like a baby. I saw the first one with my dad, and fittingly saw the last one with him, too. I also think that the lessons learned through the books are timeless: never give up, seek the good in ourselves and others, friendship is just as important as success, and that love always conquers evil. I’m currently collecting the illustrated editions to save for my own future children so they can go to Hogwarts as well.
You’re also an avid reader of Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series. Not all Rowling fans have embraced that. What do you like about the novels?
THEY ARE SO GOOD.
No, seriously, though. J.K. Rowling is a master of pacing, which is so rare to find. I love everything she writes (I often say I would read her grocery lists), but having her delve into the realm of murder mystery is like having my two loves collide. I think the reason why people struggled with these is that it is such a departure from the Harry Potter series. The style is different, the characterization is different, and the genre is much more adult and darker.
It has all the hallmarks of gorgeous JKR descriptions, but the tone is entirely different. If you’re missing Hogwarts, these won’t help you feel any better. Strike is part film noir, part buddy comedy/romance, and all austere British fun. The caveat to this is that the first one’s final reveal is not nearly as good as the rest of them. If you’re trying them out, persevere! I loved the endings of the other two.
Are you looking forward to the TV adaptation?
I am and yet I’m not. The fact that it isn’t airing in the U.S. at the same time as UK annoys me, so I haven’t searched any out yet. (Being fair to myself, I also haven’t had time. Grad school keeps you busy!) I also firmly take the stance that the book is always better than the movie or show (hmm-hmm, Peeves). I will definitely give it a shot, but I have low expectations.
You’re also seriously into “Doctor Who.” Whenever I hang out with you, it seems a Whovian conversation breaks out. What do you love about that show?
To be fair, I think you’re the only person in our book club who isn’t into it, so they share some of the blame for this phenomenon!
“Doctor Who” is a fun show, through and through. It has moments of heartbreak and drama, and sweet moments where “just this once, everybody lives.” The show features a lot of the same themes from Harry Potter as well, especially the idea that it’s not good to dwell in isolation. The camaraderie between the Doctor and his companions is compelling, and the universe that they travel in is extremely creative.
The idea of the Doctor himself is extremely creative and also compelling — the last of his kind, doomed to wander the stars seemingly forever, and yet has a soft spot for the British Isles. The show also has a lot of history and backstory that it’s fun to be a part of. If I’m right, it’s the longest running sci-fi show ever. I think the main reason why I love it though is just that it’s fun. And David Tennant.
Who is your Doctor?
10. Forever. I have a lot of love for 9 as well, and 11 grew on me. I really loved the youthfulness and fun that David Tennant brought to the role. My husband only liked Matt Smith.
Are you looking forward to the upcoming Season 11?
The ironic thing about Whovians is that the entire show is predicated on change, but the majority of us are extremely resistant to that change. I have my doubts about our new Doctor, and I have had the same ones every time he regenerates. Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor is simultaneously exciting and nerve wracking. I loved “Broadchurch,” but I got quickly irritated with her character, Beth. It will be fun to see what having the Doctor regenerate into a woman will be like for the show. I’m still holding out for a ginger, though.
It’s not hard to guess that you’re also a “Sherlock” fan. Actually, you’re a connoisseur of Sherlock Holmes in general. Why is that such a rich source of literary fascination for you?
My interest in Holmes goes back to the fact that he’s one of the world’s first and most famous detectives. He provides a sort of touchstone character for the detective genre and I will be forever thankful for that. I suppose I’m drawn to things that are intrinsically intelligent or intellectual. It’s not fun for me to put my time into mindless entertainment (like reality TV or “Angry Birds”). I’ll tell you a secret though — as the first of many hypocrisies in my geek life — I haven’t seen season 4. Don’t hate me!
Have you read all Agatha Christie’s works? You have an extensive collection of her novels, if I remember correctly.
As the highest selling mystery writer of all time, Dame Agatha has 82 detective novels in her repertoire. I own about a quarter of them. They take up a lot of space, but I’m still collecting. One day I hope to own all of them!
Do you tend to be a book hoarder in general?
Yes. I am 100% a book hoarder. My house currently has five bookcases, and that’s after I purged when we downsized in our last move. It was a difficult purge, too. I think I got rid of some dozen titles, entirely under duress!
What do you think about the two upcoming Agatha Christie adaptations, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Crooked House”?
I am extremely excited. Kenneth Branagh is going to be a fantastic Poirot! I also really enjoyed the book “Crooked House,” so it will be fun to see an adaptation of that. If I could ask for another book to be adapted, it would be really fun to see “Endless Night” on the big screen. It’s one of her later books and it’s funkier than you’d expect: very classically gothic and noir-esque.
What are some of the other fandoms you’re interested in?
Blizzard entertainment (Overwatch and World of Warcraft especially) has been a big fandom for me recently. Their characterization has been thoughtfully developed, continuing into the new OW hero and WOW expansion just announced at Blizzcon this last week. My husband and I are also into “Game of Thrones” (like everyone else on the planet, it seems) and are new to “Stranger Things.”
You’ve been known to disappear into the world of MMORPGs. Which ones do you play? What is it about those world that draws you in?
I mainly play World of Warcraft. I dabbled in Rift, Elder Scrolls, and a few others, but the community of WoW and the silly aspects of its gameplay always bring me back. There is a rich lore underpinning the WoW universe. It is building off the classic Warcraft games from the ‘90s and the MMORPG itself has been around since 2004.
The main thing for me, though, is that it’s fun! It’s fun to run around and pretend to be someone magical who goes on adventures and then log off and get back to your regular life. I suppose it goes along with my Indiana Jones dream. In WOW (and other fantasy themed MMORPGs), you get to choose a lot about your personal character, from what they look like to the abilities they have, and even which side of history they belong to. All of this adds to the wish fulfillment aspect.
I’ve played a number of different characters (a night elf rogue, a mage, an orc warrior, an adorable gnome hunter who I’m currently leveling) but I’ve always identified with the Paladin ideal. My main is a human Paladin, and as such uses the power of light to heal and protect friends and lay the smack down on evildoers. She’s so fun!
You are co-founder of a very geeky book club that’s actually managed to stay together for many years. Tell me about that.
This feels silly since you’re the other cofounder! It actually just started out as you and I wanting to keep reading and discussing literature as my undergrad years came to a close. I think the main reason it’s stayed together for so long is that we mix it up and minimize pressure. I’ve always loved that — people have come and gone and there have been months where we didn’t meet, but keeping it low key and low maintenance has kept it fun and kept it together.
You even started a blog about book clubs. Do you have any tips for someone thinking of starting a club?
I do have tips! Keep it chill. If you come at your friends with a giant list of 1,000 page books and a strict timeline, they will run screaming for the hills. My advice is to pick one or two friends who are the backbone of the group, commit to trying to keep a book club, and don’t sweat the rest. Allow people to come and go, and always welcome them back.
It also helps to come up with a theme of some sort, like only reading Oprah’s book club books or sticking to a specific best books of all time list. You can always change your themes later, but it’s a great jumping off point. I also suggest you come up with a fun way to make everyone’s voice heard. When we first started, we had everyone put their book choices in a Tupperware and chose randomly.
Now we tend to vote, but in the beginning it really helped alleviate problems with feelings being hurt and whatnot. I also suggest you give people veto power in some form. The main thing to running a successful book club is to be flexible with everything: how the discussion goes, where you hold meetings, when you meet, what you read, etc. Remember, your book club friends have lives, too.
What’s the next big upcoming release you’re looking forward to (movies, books, TV, video games, etc.?)
I am dying for the next Cormoran Strike novel. The last one ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, no spoilers, so I can’t wait. JKR hasn’t given us a release date, but told us on Twitter that it should be in 2017. Hopefully we will get it before George R.R. Martin releases “The Winds of Winter” — aka sometime this century.
As a woman, is there anything you’d like to see change in the world of geek culture?
I sit in a potentially unpopular spot in that I like where geek culture is going. Or maybe it’s just Blizzard. WoW and Overwatch have highly inclusive characters of different races/nationalities, body types, backgrounds and personalities. I maintain super powerful female characters on both games and so, so many others. There are numerous female players, and not all of us only heal (That’s a running joke. Respect to the healers out there because I suck at it. Seriously. One time our healer mage quit and the group made me switch specs to heal on the final boss of a mythic dungeon. Needless to say, we wiped immediately.).
I feel that there is a lot more personal responsibility at stake than making generalized statements about culture as a whole. When I think about the culture or community and make judgments about the entire thing, I feel as though that takes away the responsibility of each person in said group to not be a jerk to others. On the other hand, doing so also denies those who are being awesome credit where it is due.
Gaming right now has a lot of excellent vloggers and players who promote positivity and healthy community relations (check out Tradechat on YouTube, she’s not the only one). I guess my message to the entire world, not just the gaming or bookish communities, is to just be nice to other people and we’ll all be fine. Or as John Green would say, DFTBA.
Before I let you go, I must ask you some vital Harry Potter questions:
“Prisoner of Azkaban” has always been my favorite.
Neville Longbottom. I’ve always loved the boy who almost became marked by the Dark Lord and decided to be completely awesome despite his personal difficulties. I love his character arc as well. I also have a very soft spot for Luna Lovegood and Hermione.
Proud Ravenclaw, married to a Gryffindor.
Have you visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?
Yes! My hubby bought us passes last Christmas. I’ll admit, the long waits were intense but it was super fun to hold a Pygmy Puff in my hand. They’re known to sing on Boxing Day, you know.
Wizarding subject you’d most like to study?
Hmmm … probably History of Magic or Muggle Studies. The latter would probably be hilarious.
Favorite magical creature?
Pygmy Puffs. Every year, I name my fantasy football team after them.
What did you think of the “Fantastic Beasts” movie?
I was super skeptical, as the original series is so cherished, but I LOVED IT. It has so much to offer —historical background, the Roaring ‘20s, the American side of magic, and so much more. I was giddy when we left the theater.
Hands down the worst film was “Goblet of Fire.” So many people share the blame too: Mike Newell (did he read it at all, or … ?), the screenwriter (we took out an important subplot, but please enjoy 20 minutes of Harry getting chased by a dragon doing extreme property damage that’s never addressed) and most of all whoever is in charge of making sure everyone got their hair cut between films. It had some moments that I loved, (“I’ve killed Harry Potter!” – Neville), but Michael Gambon’s overbearing and angry Dumbledore was the nail in the coffin.
Most devastating character death?
I cried for Dobby and Hedwig, called out sick the next day from work for Dumbledore, but those we lost in the Battle of Hogwarts were probably the worst. I don’t think I can pick between Tonks, Lupin or Fred. I cry every time I rewatch the film.
Favorite Harry Potter item you own?
It’s a tough call because I own a lot of stuff. Last Christmas, I received a Ravenclaw sweater, two pairs of pajama pants, and two necklaces. I guess up there is my Sirius Black wand my sister-in-law brought back from Florida for me, and my Deathly Hallows leather bracelet.
“The Cursed Child.” Good idea or bad idea?
Ready for another hypocritical moment? I still haven’t read it! Anything that adds to the canon for me is so sketchy, even if it comes from JKR herself. I have this protected place in my mind of what happened and what should happen next in the story. I don’t want my ideal ruined in any way. But I really love the casting choices for Hermione. Sorry, Emma Watson, but I thought that bit of recasting from the films was excellent.
About the Geek Goddess Interviews:
No Man’s Land chats weekly with a “Geek Goddess” whose devotion to her fandoms manifests itself in unique and inspiring ways. We’re always looking for interview subjects, so if you know someone who would be ideal, please respond via the comments, private message, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.