Nuh uh. No way. Here's where I'm breaking the rules. I refuse to name just one book. I just can't do it. I won't. You can't make me.
I mean, c'mon... I'm a writer. Any writer worth a flake of sea salt reads. A lot.
I will limit myself to the four greatest literary influences in my life (and, trust me, there are several others), although two of them will be listed as authors, since it is the quality of their work that speaks to me rather than a single volume of theirs (although I do have my favorites). And you can just deal with that you... you... you wretched 30 Unforgiving and Relentless Days of Painful Truth Gods!
Okay then. We've established that I'm a word freak. Recently a friend was
It was Lewis Carroll who taught me that words don't just have meaning, they have flavor. He proved that a word doesn't even have to be "real" in order to be understood, and felt, and well, savored, damn it! He proved that with is well known work Jabberwocky (here). From the beginning, "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gimble and gyre in the wabe..." It's completely open to interpretation, to whatever the reader wants to feel. That, my friends, is great writing. In my opinion, it's the greatest... if you can take gibberish and make someone feel something? Whew. You've arrived.
Next comes a book called Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. I've written about this particular book before (here). I won't go into huge detail about the book because you can follow that link and read more about it - when you're done reading this. Of course. I re-read this book about once a year. I find that I get in a certain mood, usually in the Spring, and the only thing that will touch it is reconnecting with Ivy Rowe. Lee Smith taught me, teaches me, with this book. She's taught me that a good story doesn't have to be absolutely grammatically correct, that all the big words in the universe don't mean shit if you haven't got something to say. She taught me to write my own story as if it was a series of letters to people, and that makes writing so much easier for me, because that is my inherent style. I write the way I talk (only I write much better and have the benefit of editing and deleting). She showed me my literary voice. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I revisit this book so often... it's the echo.
Stephen King, most importantly, taught me that we are the greatest monsters. He also taught me that if you can build a character in such a way that the reader feels like he or she has shook hands with that character, you've done a damned good job - even if that character is someone you come to loathe. I don't often remember the names of characters in books like I do with his, and it's because I feel like I've met them. He taught me to be interested in people, in their reactions to things, in the psychology behind their reactions. He taught me to be mindful of the everyday monsters and quit worrying about the bumps in the night. In terms of my own writing, he taught me that a good story is really a series of little stories.
Amy Tan taught me that my own story, including the stories passed to me by my ancestors, was worth telling. She taught me how to paint word scenery, to give texture and scent to phrases. Any time I read an Amy Tan story (if you're not familiar... Joy Luck Club, Bonesetter's Daughter, Saving Fish From Drowning), I end up wishing I was Chinese. And there's not a drop of Chinese in me, except for maybe some truly ancient, pre-Hun nomadic Mongol microscopic bit of fuzz left over somewhere. However, I think I would feel the same way if she was Brazilian and wrote about her Brazilian heritage. It's just the way she writes, as if she's telling family about the other members of the family - where she went and who she visited last week. It's as if she lets the story do all the talking and just adds an embellishment or two along the way. Although I know it's not true, her books read as though they were effortless to write. It's like finding a cozy seat in a stranger's house.
All of these changed my view on words, on how they're composed, on how they feel and taste, on how a single word wisely chosen can mean more than an entire sentence.
And then there was Sandburg....