Monday, September 22, 2008

Alexa: Books That Have Made this Writer

While trying to whittle down my list of favorite books, I realized that there's a big difference between great books and books that have influenced me as a writer. Without further ado, I give you my list of five books (actually four books and one short story) that have most impacted how/why/what I write.

1). THIS BOY'S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

This Boy's Life--a memoir that reads like a novel--is the story of Wolff's turbulent upbringing at the hands of a tyrannical stepfather. Most of the book takes place in the depressed--and depressing--mountain town of Concrete, Washington. To escape his family and a place that holds no future, Wolff must tell some serious whoppers about himself. In doing so, he also discovers his own potential. Of my one remaining copy of this book, nearly every page is dog-eared, nearly every sentence underlined. If you want to learn how to say complicated things beautifully, simply, and honestly, I highly recommend reading every work of this brilliant man. 

2). THE LOST LEGENDS OF NEW JERSEY by Frederick Reiken

The Lost Legends of New Jersey has all the trappings of a good Springsteen song--love, lust, heartbreak, sex--and is an elegy to the New Jersey of the late seventies/early eighties. The book is populated with a host of wise and complex teenaged characters, including the daughter of a reputed Mafioso. This book came to me at a time when I was in a state of great grief--largely because I had decided to give up on writing. It made me want to write again. It made me realize that out of the most painful moments can arise the most beautiful art, if only you have the courage to muck through the past and hold the mud up to the light.

3). VILLETTE--by Charlotte Bronte

While reading Villette, I had this sense that Charlote Bronte was literally sitting next to me and holding my hand while whispering--gently--some of the harder truths about life. This, Dear Reader, is no small thing, considering that the lady died over 150 years ago. Bronte is still so alive on the page and reminds me that what is most personal is also what is most universal. When I write, I remind myself that stories are ultimately gifts of understanding, and that the more you push yourself to go to the shadowy recesses of your heart, the more you stand to connect with your readers. Books are very much a two-way relationship. On a side note, Villette has an AMAZING drug trip (which I looked to for inspiration when writing the pivotal drug scene in my own young adult novel).

4). HOW I LIVE NOW--by Meg Rosoff

The best. Young adult. Book. Like EVER!!!!!! Set slightly in the future during a military invasion of the English countryside, from its very first page How I Live Now reads like an old-fashioned classic. This book has it all: love, adventure, death, redemption--and a little bit of incest to boot. The scenes between Daisy, the fifteen-year-old protagonist with an eating disorder, and her younger cousin Edmund, are steamy and tragic in the best of ways, invoking all the intensity and confusion of first lust--and then later its maturation. This book made me realize that writing for teens can be every bit as fun, compelling, and taboo busting as writing for adults. Duh!


I stumbled upon this short story when I was nineteen years old and wondering what the hell to do with my life. After I read it, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. "For Esme--With Love and Squalor" illustrates perfectly the power of a single moment to change everything. So much happens in its few brief pages: friendship, war, love, and the loss of innocence. Ultimately, however, it is a story about words themselves, how the right words at the right moment can leap off the page and save us when nothing else will. It made me realize that writing can literally be a matter of life or death, that the writing profession isn't so much a choice but a calling, and that like it or not (and there was an awful lot of not liking at times) I had heard the call.