Three Books That Inspired Me to Write
Today, I thought I’d share a few books that have appeared at just the right moment in my life and have had a significant impact on my writing over the years.
Most of these books came into my life decades ago, during a brief period in my early and mid-twenties, a time of transitions. In a span of five years I lived in Knoxville, Tennesee; Atlanta, Georgia; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Miami Beach, and New York City. At that age I found it easy to move around a lot, switching jobs and apartments every few months, with no internet to guide my way. Life happened at a speed I don’t think I could manage today.
During that time, in additon to starting and quitting many jobs, I started one MFA program and transferred into another one — the wonderful program at the University of Miami, where I had the privilege of studying under John Balaban, a gifted writer and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Fortunately, I was in my first program long enough to meet my future husband and to stumble into a couple of writers whose work I’d never read before.
At any rate, here are the books…
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley
This book taught me that writing does not have to be lyrical to be graceful. The harshness of Paley’s voice, the staccato clip of her Brooklyn-inspired dialogue, is what makes it so memorable. Her stories changed the way I thought about language, and about dialogue. Before reading Paley, most of my stories contained no dialogue. I was afraid to write it, certain it never sounded right. Even though my early stories and novels were primarily about the Deep South, where I grew up, I learned how to write dialogue from a New Yorker.
But that wasn’t the only thing I learned from her stories. Before reading Paley’s stories, I went for obvious lyricism: the long, languid sentence, often overstuffed. In Paley, I discovered the power of the anti-lyrical sentence. Her work is the opposite of “lush” (a word and a style I tend to dislike). Her writing is direct. Quick. Startling. She can get at the heart of a subject in so few words, it will give you whiplash.
I recommend Paley’s books for anyone who wants to break the ice on your writing, and take it somewhere you didn’t think it could go.
Black Tickets, by Jane Anne Phillips
Phillips also has an immediately recognizable voice, though on the other end of the spectrum from Paley. Whereas Paley goes for the gut with short, sharp sentences, Paley leans toward flowing lyricism. I had a wonderful professor in my first grad school program, a giant of a man who had been a football player and a roadie for the band Journey before he became a writer and a professor. His name was Jim Whitehead. He gave me this book after reading my first submission for workshop. He said he thought I would like it. I did; it blew me away.
The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
I was in Arkansas just long enough to meet my husband, and also a fellow student named Wade. Wade grew up in Texas. He had a gun rack in the back of his truck. He was brilliant and funny and the rare kind of specimen I knew from my Southern upbringing, a gentleman to his core but never patronizing. My husband and Wade and I quickly formed a small gang of three, doing everything together. We even wrote a story together, “The Barnette Dairyette,” and submitted it for workshop under the mandatory anonymous submission system, which made some people mad, because by that point in the year most of us could identify one another’s writing, and the story confused everybody because it sounded like Wade’s writing, but it also sounded like my writing, but it also sounded like K’s writing.
At the end of what was supposed to be a three-year program, I transferred to the University of Miami, my husband answered the call of the FBI, and Wade went to law school. Although he has had a long and successful career as an attorney, I still consider him one of the best writers I have ever known. At some point during the first semester, Wade gave me The Moviegoer.
It reminds me of a movie I saw last month out by Lake Pontchartrain…
I read The Moviegoer every few years. I always finish it, even though I know what happens…which isn’t really a whole lot. It’s gorgeous and dripping with melancholy. Binx Bolling suffers from The Malaise. Also: Binx Bolling loves movies. As someone who will see a movie in a theatre any chance I get (more and more often, the theaters we visit are vacant except for my husband, my son, and me), this part of the story resonates.
One Book That Inspired Me to Try a New Genre
The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
About twenty years ago, my husband gave me a copy of The Man on the Balcony. Up until that point, I had never read crime fiction. I had no interest in it whatsoever. Without entirely realizing it, I was a book snob.
From page one of The Man on the Balcony, I was engrossed. Over the next few weeks, I read every novel in the Martin Beck series by wife-and-husband team Sjowall and Wahoo. After that I started reading Scandinavian suspense. These days I’m also into Icelandic crime writers. I love character-driven suspense. I believe that writing a well-crafted novel of suspense is every bit as literary an endeavor as writing in the genre that is so often lazily labeled “literary” by the publishing world.
The Man on the Balcony opened up fiction for me, both as a reader and as a writer. It made me want to read books that have speed and depth. Before then, I’d been convinced that the language mattered more than the story. Now, I disagree. I think the two have to go hand in hand. You need a great story. Before I started reading crime fiction, I was really good at writing sentences, not so good at putting together a story that was as interesting on page 115 as on page 2. Reading crime and suspense fiction helped me understand how to make things happen, how to structure a novel to keep readers interested not just in the writing, but in the story. It taught me how to write with speed; I’m talking about pacing here, not process —unfortunately, I remain a very slow writer.
May you have time for a good book this evening.
I’d love to know: What books inspired you to write, or opened up writing and/or reading for you in an unexpected way?