"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye and Dead Harvest.

"Bagley's got the poet's eye, but that doesn't mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that's a trait to very much admire in his work." --Anthony Neil Smith, author of Hogdoggin', Yellow Medicine, The Drummer and Psychosomatic.




Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ten Authors on Their Pivotal Books

Last week, I asked people to send in comments on “pivotal books.” It was a slightly different take on the “book that made me want to be a writer” theme—which has been done a gozillion times. What interested me were the books which, when read by someone who was already writing, affected the direction of that reader’s work. I received great responses from nine authors whom I admire: Michael Haskins, Lyman Feero, Kieran Shea, Patti Abbott, Sophie Littlefield, Dave Zeltserman, Dawn Potter, Clair Dickson and Sandra Ruttan. We’ll start with my pivotal book and move on to theirs.

By 1987, I’d been writing for a decade but was only then becoming serious about it. Most of my stories were lousy pastiches of Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft and Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” novels. I was spending weekends at my then-girlfriend’s house, and one rainy Sunday needed something to read—hey, our activity choices were limited with both of her parents home and on the alert.

Anyway, I was tired of flashing swords, cunning sorcerers and eldritch terrors from beyond the stars. Nothing wrong with those things, but I had the urge to try something new. Tonia’s father had just finished reading a novel called The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. Now, I’d heard of this book, which had been out for a couple of years. It was the center of regional controversy for its unflattering take on rural Maine life. I picked it up and figured what the hell.

This novel floored me; not because it was a brilliant piece of writing, but because the language and the subject matter were so raw and honest. Chute wrote about the Maine that I knew. Her characters—warts and all—were people I saw every day of my life. Many of the books I read in high school left me cold because I could not relate to the characters. The very idea that someone could write a novel about common, salt-of-the-earth people in an empathic and nonjudgmental way came as a revelation. It was also the first time I became aware of how the landscape of a story shapes character and plot, how the setting itself can be a character. Reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine became my road to Damascus moment as a writer.

Since my first encounter with Beans, other writers and books have affected my work—hell, most of the good ones do. But it was Carolyn Chute who set me on the path I’ve been following for the last 22 years. It isn’t a great book, but I still love it and reread it every couple of years.

Michael Haskins (author of Chasin’ the Wind): An interesting question! I would have to say it was James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. Two reasons for that, 1) he had his character, Dave Robicheaux, see ghosts (Confederate soldiers), 2) I'd been reading his books in order and I realized at this point that Burke is one of the greats because you smelled the aromas of New Orleans and stench of the swamps while you read. I would kill to have those abilities!

Lyman Feero (genre-defying author of “The Switch” and other stories): The seminal work that shaped my writing career is actually the oeuvre of Edgar Allan Poe. I started writing because of Stephen King but it was Poe that shaped me. As a kid I loved "The Raven" and started writing poetry when I was ten. At the same time I found King and read his works voraciously. I started reading Poe's short stories and found them just as appealing as King's. "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Pit and The Pendulum," became easy favorites. Still it was King I fashioned my works after in high school.

Then came college. I branched out and read more obscure works by Poe. I read his Dupin detective stories, his essays on short stories and the creative ideal, his minor short stories like "Eleonora" and "Hop Frog." I always felt a little stifled by one genre. As I looked at the broad spectrum of Poe's work I realized that he was not simply a horror writer of the American Gothic tradition. Instead he was a storyteller who used many means to tell a story, even going so far as to create his own genres to do so. It was then that my long journey to tell stories beyond genre began.

Kieran Shea (author of “Shot Back,” “Thoroughly Yours” and other kick-ass crime stories): I'm not going to bullshit you, I mean every single book I read has me second guessing ANYTHING I attempt.

About twenty years ago, just before I was scrabbling in the Washington-DC theater scene and getting my first understudy acting gig (equity mind you) I picked up Sam Shepard's (out of print) short story/essay collection The Motel Chronicles.

Fuck me. That is it....that is all. All...I...ever...want...to...achieve.

When I read SS's TMC one night I bitch cursed that talented fucker like I was lanced with a cod hook. I had no idea, none, ZERO...just how hard so little words could slash.

So, I read Sam and kept pushing the slim volume on my friends, saying...read THIS.

Only a decade later did I realize the accuracy of Shepards's hawkish aim....

Sam Shepard.

Pure. Acid. Watershed.

Patti Abbott (Derringer Award-winning author of “My Hero” and other stories): For me it would the series of short stories (mostly published in The New Yorker) written by John Updike about the Maple family. They were eventually collected in the volume Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories and filmed in TV drama starring Blythe Danner and Michael Moriarty. The stories took the couple from their first married days through the dissolution of their marriage. My very favorite of the stories is titled "Giving Blood," where the two lie at right angles to each other giving blood, and thinking about the state of their marriage. It is incredibly sad.

Sophie Littlefield (author of the forthcoming A Bad Day for Sorry): When I stumbled on an early short story collection by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the 1980s - not even sure which it was, though a quick search gets me thinking it might have been Descent of Man - I was riveted. I was in my first year or two of college, home for the summer, broke, bored, and trolling for something new at the local library. I was shocked that you could write in such an unvarnished way about human appetites and still get published. There was also an element of emotional violence in Boyle's work that struck a resounding chord in me, one which, it turns out, later formed the basis for most of my own work. Also, some of the stories were also just so wonderfully, unapologetically, fantastically weird. I had certainly never heard of magical realism and, if I had, would have assumed it wasn't allowed in Missouri.

I wondered which of the librarians had test-driven the book - I was under the impression there was some round-table vetting process - and hoped I would not meet her eye by accident, because surely she would know: reading the book, I was convinced, had marked me forever.

In those days I felt deeply ashamed that I was so viscerally attracted to raw writing. A decade later, books like Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here made me see that you could reveal the drama at the core of human relationships without necessarily having to introduce sex and violence into the story. Though damn if those don't make handy story elements.

Dave Zeltserman (author of Fast Lane, Small Crimes and Pariah): This one’s easy. A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson. The book blew me away, and changed the way I thought about writing. I realized after reading this book that you could break every rule in writing if you can make it work.

Dawn Potter (author of Boy-Land and Other Poems, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton and the forthcoming How the Crimes Happened ): David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I've recently finished an essay called "Dickens the Novelist: A Love Letter," which is coming out someday in The Sewanee Review.

Here's the final paragraph of that essay: I love David Copperfield so much that I can hardly bear the idea of taking it apart to critically examine its insides. I really don’t care how or why it works. All I want is to keep rereading it forever. As David says about his friend the Micawbers, “I had grown so accustomed to [them], and had been so intimate with them in their distresses, and was so utterly friendless without them, that the prospect of being thrown upon some new shift for a lodging, and going once more among unknown people, was like being that moment turned adrift into my present life.”

Clair Dickson (author of the “Bo Fexler, PI” stories): The book that impacted my writing the most would be Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake. I read the book in college, maybe seven or eight years ago now. I'd been writing for years before then, even dabbling in mysteries. In my quest to better understand the genre I was writing in, I came across Raymond Chandler. And I fell in love with his prose by the end of the first page. By the end of the book, I wanted to be the next Raymond Chandler. I love the way that Chandler plays with words. Everything I've read since then has not been able to compare. Chandler was my first taste of darker writing-- where bad things do happen to good characters and where no one bothers to find a silver lining. My kind of writing.

Sandra Ruttan (author of the Nolan, Hart & Tain series and editor of Spinetingler Magazine): "Criminous kids are bad enough, but Ruttan, a disciple of the Val McDermid school, takes things a bit further. To say more is to give away a terrific plot."

Margaret Cannon's review (of The Frailty of Flesh) in The Globe and Mail hit the nail on the head: a key book that had an undeniable influence on my writing was Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood. I read it at a time when I was exploring new-to-me authors, and much of what I'd read to that point had followed the point of view of the protagonist, who was almost always a cop. WITB chilled me to the bone with scenes told from the killer's perspective, and through the eyes of victims.

This one book, more than any other I can think of, made me consider carefully the use of point of view in storytelling. The added perspectives give the reader a God's Eye overview that allows you to see how it is - or isn't - coming together, and heightens the suspense as the investigation unfolds. I had always thought not knowing who did it, or why, kept people turning the pages, but WITB taught me that a great writer can divulge details and draw you in deeper at the same time.

WITB was also one of the first books I read that forged a bond between the reader and a central character and then killed the character. The sense of loss only amplified my desire to see justice done by the final page.

Every time I sit down to write I carefully consider the point of view I'm using, and what perspectives I'll use in the work as a whole to tell the story, and whether or not I'm limiting the perspectives to cheat the reader into false suspense, or whether the other perspectives add depth and richness to the story, and sometimes, I ask myself if letting a character live is pulling a punch that weakens the overall effect of the story being told. These are valuable lessons learned from one of the greats of our genre, and lessons I'm glad I learned early on.
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There you have it. I want to thank everyone who took time out from their busy schedules to respond. If anyone else wants to talk about a pivotal book, feel free to add a comment.

3 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lots of fun, Patrick. Thanks.

sandra seamans said...

I remember reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine and thinking "My God, she's been spying on my neighbor!" And my neighbor's last name really was Bean. It's a real eye-opener when you see people writing about the life you're living, though not in Maine.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE BEANS was just magnificent. And as to Val McDermid, A PLACE OF EXECUTION was one of my very favorite crime novels, bar none.