Following in their footsteps
In this feature exclusive to BookPage.com, each month, four authors are asked a question about the craft of writing to give readers an insight into how their favorite writers think and work.
For July's author forum, BookPage brought together Sean Chercover, Jon Clinch, Carolyn Haines and Jackie Kessler to ask: Which writer(s) inspired your work?
This is a question begging for a lie in response. The ego wants to say, “Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky influenced me most.”
But that’s nonsense. I really don’t know who deserves the blame for my writing. I’m influenced by everything (good) that I read, and probably some of the bad as well. I could rattle off all the classic crime guys–Chandler and Hammett and Cain and Goodis and Thompson and both MacDonalds, and Graham Greene, and so on. And that’s all true. But…
I’ll go with Nelson Algren and Lawrence Block. Algren for his street poetry, and for the fact that he never condescended to his characters, no matter how low they’d fallen. Block for showing how much can be done with the PI genre, and for ripping my heart out on several occasions.
Everything that you read helps shape your work, of course, right from the very beginning. Good stuff and bad stuff, stuff you love and stuff you don't care for, stuff you read when you weren't ready for it and stuff you came to just in time. From that point of view, I'd have to name a hundred authors as genuine and enduring influences. Chief among them, though, is William Faulkner. His passages of formal and elevated diction helped me build the narrative voice I used for Finn, and the structure that underlies Absalom, Absalom! helped shape Finn's narrative. I've turned to his work again for my next book, Kings of the Earth (Random House, Summer 2010), inspired by many-voiced novels like As I Lay Dying to experiment with this very different and more immediate technique, bringing a chorus of speakers and points of view to bear on a single mystery.
That's a very hard question. It’s sort of like asking which parent or family member had the most influence. At different times in my career, different writers have played vital roles. The authors writing as Carolyn Keene gave me a sense of a female as a strong, proactive character. Flannery O’Connor was my first bite of black humor and brilliance. Eudora Welty for compassion and an ear for dialect. James Lee Burke for passion, heart, and a visceral sense of place. John Irving for complexity and plots within plots that never confuse. John Grisham for his ability to tell a story. Pete Dexter for his clean style and unforgettable scenes. Donald Harington for his lyrical language. Jonathan Carroll for stories that opened doors in my brain. Carlos Ruiz Zafon for combining so many diverse elements into beautiful stories. There are many more, but these come to mind on this night.
Neil Gaiman, hands down. Between his phenomenal Sandman series and the novel American Gods, I’m convinced he could write the phone book in a brilliant way. He makes magic with words. He makes me think about things I’ve always taken for granted. Most important, he makes the supernatural natural—and he shows us that through monsters and gods, we learn about our own humanity.
Jackie Kessler writes paranormal suspense "For everyone who wanted to grow up to be a superhero . . . or who wanted to beat the snot out of superheroes." Her latest novel is Black & White (Bantam Spectra).
Tom Robinson is an author publicist and media consultant working with authors across the country. Visit his website.