What is the book that influenced you most as a writer?
This is tough, because there have been so many. I think every writer goes through periods, especially when they’re young, but I’d have to say the definitive book for me—the one that made me realize what kind of writer I wanted to become was Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The narrator’s voice is so distinctive, so wry and alive—in the same line as Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield—and that remains something I look for in everything I read and write. And as a poet laureate, Warren built imagery and phrases of such astounding power—it has to be one of the finest examples of literary fiction.
But then again, Walter Mosley said something admirable when I asked him this question at a reading. He said he’s really tired of authors trying to be all high-brow and credit the canon, essentially referencing authors they think will make them look smart. He made a good case for honesty—and for giving children’s authors their due. So if we want to go way back to the book that made me want to be a writer to begin with, that would be The Berenstain Bears and Mother Goose, a collection of nursery rhymes. I owe a lot to children’s books, not least because they introduced me to the cadence of the English language and the importance of relationships in fiction. In fact, I went through a period when I should have been sued for plagiarizing The Berenstain Bears, but somehow I got away with it.
Who are your favorite authors?
- Louisa May Alcott Every author should get to lead a double life. This woman was versatile—noir thrillers and children’s literature. Besides, she was incredibly determined when it came to standing up for what she believed in. I just love the story in her journals of the day she went to the polls and dropped in her ballot even though it was illegal for women to vote. She didn’t make a big fuss about it or call the press; she simply lived life with the highest degree of integrity she could muster—while still earning a living.
- Ann Patchett The way this woman slips in and out of different points of view is masterful, like watching a great actor slip in and out of character. Not only does it not jar the reader, but it heightens the suspense to an almost unbearable degree. She shows just how alive omniscient point of view still is, and what great ends it can be put to. I just marvel at her writing, particularly in Bel Canto.
- Cormac McCarthy What living writer can deliver a knockout punch like McCarthy? His descriptions make me want to cry because they’re so perfect and yet so tight, so concise. And his prose is so much like Martha Graham’s dances, at once spare and lush. You can think you’re in an almost-Hemingwayesque narrative with only the actions of characters to guide by, so much narrative distance that you know these characters are trying not to think and feel—and then it bursts onto the page and ambushes them, and you, with a sentence of such power. Like life.
- Toni Morrison I’m still working my way through her body of work, but a Morrison novel is one of the great pleasures of my life. I have to savor it. And of course, she’s Toni Morrison. Do I have to say anything else?
- E. Annie Proulx I was shocked when I read The Shipping News. The way she ended scenes before any tidy resolution or lead-in to the next scene, and then I’d wait for her to resolve those scenes and she never did. But the narrative didn’t suffer for it. I thought, Can a writer really do this? It opened my eyes to how many ways writers can break convention and fragment narratives—and how, in the right hands, it can serve a story so well. Besides, have you read “Brokeback Mountain?”
What are you working on now?
My next novel. I’ve been making notes for years, and maybe the biggest challenge in this project is going to be sorting through them for anything usable. Right now, though, I’m writing character backstory and plot outlines.
Do you have any special writing rituals?
Writing every day, whether it’s journaling or drafting or freewriting. It’s surprising how easily it always circles back to the piece I’m working on, as long as I sit down and write.