The Great American Read: Author Lesley Kagen shares her picks

July 20, 2018 Susannah Brooks Leave a Comment

As we read, debate and vote on the books of The Great American Read, we’ve had the delightful opportunity to discuss the top picks of several Wisconsin writers.

Lesley Kagen

This week, we meet Lesley Kagen, a multitalented Milwaukee native who began her writing career after many years in several other fields. And we do mean several, as you’ll find out below.

As with Patrick Rothfuss – and, we suspect, many of you! – Kagen had a very hard time choosing one book over another.

“It’s very, very tough to pick just a few of these books, as so many have impacted my life,” she says. “But I gave it a shot!”

Keep reading to learn more about Kagen and her warm, curious stories.

Lesley Kagen is the award-winning author of eight novels, most recently The Mutual Admiration Society.

Over the years, Kagen’s work has included acting, writing and producing commercials and owning a sushi restaurant, among others. Experienced in writing ad copy, she decided to turn her hand to fiction and published her first novel at age 57.

The coming-of-age thriller Whistling in the Dark (2007), set in 1959 Milwaukee, became a New York Times bestseller and won a Midwest Honor Award. (Read an excerpt.)

Currently, she is working on a novel called The Sweet Bye and Bye. (Read an excerpt.)

Set in Summit, Wisconsin in 1960, The Sweet Bye and Bye is nostalgic, character and voice-driven, poignant, funny, insightful, and about as charming as a story about the lifelong friendship of three women, small town secrets, mental illness, and murder can be. 

In an interview with HuffPost, Kagen reveals some of her earliest writing memories:

When I was in fourth grade, St. Sebastian’s held an all-school poetry contest. I wrote a little ditty entitled “I Am the Sun, I’m in the Sky.” As a somewhat cagey, blue-collar kid, I figured that if I mentioned God in every sentence, I’d be in like Flynn. Sure enough… I won! A silver dollar! In 1958, that was a lot of money. My parents laminated the poem and it hangs near my writing desk.

The silver dollar? I blew it on red licorice.

What is your favorite of the books on this list?

Cover of The Lovely Bones - a charm bracelet on a blue backgroundThe Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold, ended up as such only after I tossed it into hat with my top choices and pulled it out first. Selecting from the list was like having to pick your favorite child.

The way Alice Sebold told the story of this little girl, and the effect her death had on her family and town, felt so authentic. It moved me so deeply that I can still recall having to set it down to catch my breath.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Alice Sebold was also born and raised in Wisconsin!]

What’s a novel that ISN’T on this list that you think everyone should read?

Cover of A Man Called Ove features an older man facing away from the viewer on a background of blue skiesI’m nuts about A Man Called OveFredrik Backman wrote such a truthful story about grief and an elderly gentleman’s response to losing who and what he loved, and his struggle to move on. It’s deep and important stuff, but somehow it also manages to be wonderfully funny and sweet and redemptive.

On a personal note, which novel (on or off this list) has had the biggest impact on your life?

Cover of To Kill a Mockingbird shows a silhouetted drawing of a tree with green leavesProbably To Kill a Mockingbird. Having grown up in Milwaukee, the story gave me a glimpse into a way of life that I knew very little about. While the setting was as alien as the language and the way of life, the children were as recognizable to me as the ones I hung out with on the west side.

I can’t help but wonder if most of the protagonists in my books are kids because of the impact Scout, Jem, and Dil had on me. Harper Lee wrote them so close to the bone. I remain awed at her ability to draw me into their lives so deeply that it was hard for me to remember they were fictional.


New episodes of The Great American Read return this fall – giving us plenty of time to explore and engage! Here are a few great ways to discover new and old favorites:

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