“Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”
Serious novelists know the truth of Proulx’s words, and so they are attentive readers. When they read a novel, they dig deep into it. They get down to its inner workings, the gears that make the wheels turn. They think about myriad story connections. They consider craft.
With great novels, several questions naturally arise: How does this novelist create such compelling characters?
How does she handle plot and structure so well?
What makes this style so perfect?
As artists, novelists may read for pleasure, but they also want to take away as much as they can from the fictional craft in action. They appreciate fresh perspectives on the world, insightful ideas – plus the various strategies for handling these adeptly in a dramatic work of fiction. But they also pay attention to what the greats say: about craft, process, and the writing life itself.
It all comes down to influence. If you want to be successful in an extremely competitive market, you need to read the best in your genre; these great works will inform your own.
We asked five seasoned novelists to name their important authorial influences, the greatest novelists who have made a difference in their writing and in their writing life.
If you’re in the market for some good summer reading, consider these five writers as well as the novelists who have influenced them. Nota bene!
LAURA VAN DEN BERG
Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye: ‘New ways to see the world.’
In my most powerful reading and viewing experiences, I felt like I was being consumed by the page or screen, that my own self was collapsing into that of the book or film, that I was outside of time. Yoko Tawada has been a very important writer for me, and The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky) is my favorite of her books. In that novel, the narrator travels to Germany for a youth conference and is promptly kidnapped and held in captivity by a German man. In the aftermath, she travels to Paris and becomes obsessed with Catherine Deneuve films; eventually, the stories unfolding on the screen and the narrator’s inner reality collapse into one, so that there’s little distinction between what is happening in “real life” and what is unfolding on the screen. The corporeal fades and the fictional takes over. Through disrupting reality, The Naked Eye ultimately poses a devastating question to the reader: What if the only way to exist in the aftermath of such an overwhelming physical and physic violation is to invent a way to live as though you have no body at all?
I found that movement so compelling in The Naked Eye and had Tawada’s novel in mind as I worked on my most recent book, The Third Hotel. The central character, Clare, travels to a film festival in Havana to see the premier of a horror film, but that is not the only screen she encounters. There is also the film reel of memory; the city is flooded with tourists taking photographs; there are several films being made in secret. I was interested in what might happen if the real-real bled into these various “screens,” and that interest became a guiding principle for narrative movement.
Of course, Yoko Tawada has a large body of translated work beyond The Naked Eye. Last year, she was awarded the National Book Award for Translated Literature for her novel The Emissary, and New Directions has also published a number of her works, including Memoirs of a Polar Bear and The Bridegroom Was a Dog. For any reader looking for new ways to see the world, I encourage you to find her.
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: ‘A remarkable work’
Most of the written influences on Cherokee America are 19th– and early 20th-century nonfiction compilations of Cherokee history and lore. But while I was writing, lurking in my mind was one very famous American novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn isn’t taught much anymore because of Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. We can debate the wisdom of that self-censorship. I see both sides. And certainly, the book was banned for different reasons long before our current era. Still, it’s a remarkable work, and everybody should read it at least once.
I had to read it several times. When I was in my early 20s, I taught it, sometimes five times a day, as part of the junior year English curriculum at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tennessee. I taught it so many times that I wished Huck and Jim would drown when that steamboat rams their raft. So many times that it imprinted itself on my brain. So many times that, decades later, I see its influence on Cherokee America.
Like Huck Finn, Cherokee America is comic in tone. Twain didn’t believe, and I don’t either, that writing about serious things has to sound dead serious. It can involve dark humor. For instance, in Cherokee America, Lizzie, a female African-American character who has suffered the loss of a child, warns Jenny, her younger Cherokee friend, about getting pregnant: “‘They’ll try to sweet-talk ya. That’s for certain. They’s got honey dripping from their mouths. They can’t do enough fer ya. And all they’s want is to get their sticks into ya.’ She poked her snake stick straight out in the air. Thrusted it in a jabbing motion.” Here the dark humor resides in comparing a stick associated with scaring snakes to the male appendage.
This scene also demonstrates another Huck Finn influence. That’s a book of two races and about people up and down the social hierarchy. People of different races and social classes are also constantly mixing in Cherokee America. I consider this one of the most important aspects of the book. People did that in 1875 in Indian Territory, and I believe many of our current divisions are rooted in the fact we no longer even know anybody who isn’t like ourselves. We have to become less segregated.
Finally, Twain wrote Huck Finn in the vernacular. That got him in trouble when it was first published, and it’s gotten him in trouble again, but he paved the way for the rest of us. Cherokee America is written close to the way the characters would’ve spoken. That includes the occasional use of Cherokee and Sequoyah’s syllabary. The Cherokee Nation believes the preservation of our language is crucially important, and I agree. Preserving language is one of a novelist’s primary responsibilities.
To give Twain his full due, he has influenced not just me but the entire course of the American novel. He’s like that big river right down the center of the country, forceful, eternal, and changing as it rolls along.