Monday, August 29, 2011

Good influences

I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, for this month's book club, and I really enjoyed it. I reckon you have to give her extra credit when you hear her tale of being rejected by sixty agents before the sixty-first recognised the potential in her book, too- store that one up next time you're feeling down because of rejections.

It's not that often that you come across a book that changes you- and I don't think The Help was one of those for me. I'm sure it probably has been for some readers, though.

It got me thinking about books that *have* had a big impact on me over the years- the ones I've remembered permanently because a particular part of the story or the writing or the characters lodged in my mind, and shifted my way of thinking or feeling. All those books have influenced my writing, too, because for me it's the holy grail; the thing I aspire to- creating something that makes a difference because it's done so well, or because the core story is so well conceived. Sometimes the stories I remember are those that shock me, and I think that the big trick with those is that they expose uncomfortable feelings and prompt reactions that make you examine yourself.

Here are just a few of the stories that have influenced me:

Roald Dahl- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More)

The story of The Swan has stuck with me for more than twenty years since I first read it. I devoured Roald Dahl books as a kid, and I went through them at such a rate that my parents grabbed anything they could find to keep feeding my love-fest. Henry Sugar was meant for readers a little older than I was at the time, which I only realised, I think, when I came to this story. It's about a boy who's tortured by two acquaintances, forced to witness the killing of a beautiful swan, and then tortured a little more when his abductors strap the wings of the mutilated bird to his arms. The nastiness in the story was beyond anything my young mind had ever comprehended before, and it was kids doing awful things to another kid. It shifted my view of the world as a safe place and kicked off the early beginnings of how I understand human behaviour, the highs and lows.

Harper Lee- To Kill a Mockingbird

I doubt I need to say much about this book. I think a lot of young people over the last half century have had their early sense of justice and equality sparked into life reading about lawyer Atticus Finch trying to help an innocent man through an unjust trial. That the story is told through the eyes of young Scout Finch made it easy to identify with as a young reader, and strongly taught me that you're never too young to stand up for yourself and others.

Elspeth Huxley- The Flame Trees of Thika

An autobiographical novel about growing up in Africa in the early colonial days of the 20th century. I identified so strongly with the main character, being an expatriate child myself, and I was fascinated by the richness of the African setting and the undertones of adult meaning that were just beyond my reach when I first read the book. I read it many more times as the years went by, and the older I got the more layers seemed to appear in the narrative. I love a book that grows with you, so to speak.

John Fowles- The Collector

This novel is split in two halves, the first told from the point of view of a kidnapper who has a young woman held captive, and the second half from the point of view of the girl. The incredible strength of the perspectives in the book were a huge writing lesson for me. To be able to make a character sympathetic when he's done something awful, just because the reader is so deeply seated in his head, and because he believes so completely in the rightness of his own action- that's amazing writing.

Marcus Zusak- The Book Thief

The older I get, the harder it is to find writing that really truly blows me away, but when I read The Book Thief it was a revelation. It left me completely breathless. I felt grateful that I'd picked it up, because my life and my understanding of the world felt that little bit richer for having read it. These books? They're different for everyone. What grabs one person might have no significant meaning to another.

And that, of course, is because we all have different formative experiences, and we all come out of those as different people. I love wandering back down memory lane and thinking about some of those influences.

How about you? What stories or books have shaped, influenced and changed you and your writing over the years?


  1. Short answer version because I'm in a rush:
    Zusak's The Book Thief
    Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
    Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (In addition to the subject and setting, the POV use floors me.)
    Frazier's Cold Mountain
    Niffeneggar's Time Traveler's Wife
    Beckett's Waiting for Godot
    (Not necessarily in that order)

    Um...any of you looking to do some beta-beta reading? I'm at a lull in my current WIP and looking for some feedback. :)

  2. I'm way behind on replies all across the blogroll, but I'm interested in your list, Claire - of the entire thing I've only read To Kill A Mockingbird. Ha.

    The Hundred Secret Senses - Amy Tan
    Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, et al - Orson Scott Card
    The Outlander series - duh. [g]
    And others, but those are the first ones that come to mind as adult influences. I've got a boatload of YA, too.

  3. Precie, I haven't read Hosseini or Beckett, but all the others have definitely had an influence on me, too. And- uh, hello? An offer to read some of your stuff? Heck yes! I can't guarantee I'll be fully useful at giving detailed feedback at the moment, but I would totally love to read it and give you my general thoughts :) Fling me an email at the ATWOP address (it's in the right-hand sidebar there) and let me know how to get in touch :)

  4. Jill, I was going to include the Outlander series as well (yeah, duh (g)) but it fell in the category of Can't List Everything- tee hee. I could really go on and on. I haven't read any of the others you mentioned- but like you I know there are also heaps of YA novels I could list, too.

  5. Matilda, by Roald Dahl
    Outlander series
    The Lord of the Rings (and everything else)
    lots and lots of YA and MG, including many Canadian authors
    E. L. Konigsburg (talk about genre-defying)
    and I'm sure there're others I'm going to think of as I fall asleep tonight and go "crap! must list that book too!"