January 16, 2005
The Hum Inside the Skull, Revisited
A little more than 20 years ago, the Book Review asked a group of fiction writers, age 40 or younger, to name the writer or writers who had most influenced their work and to explain how. It seemed like a good time to put the same question to a new generation of young writers. Here are their replies:SUSAN CHOI I don't remember any longer how we met, but like any sentimental lover I've collected all the many possibilities; it was one of this stack of overhandled, transcontinentally migrating pocket-size paperbacks, cheap with sly covers, relics of a publishing era when a writer like Donald Barthelme was mainstream as well as elite. ''The Dead Father''; ''Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts''; two copies each (different editions) of ''Sadness,'' ''Come Back, Dr. Caligari,'' ''Great Days,'' ''Amateurs,'' ''Snow White''; just one of ''Overnight to Many Distant Cities,'' although that particular title affected me viscerally. I once had a boyfriend who made me ride in his car with the textbook-size complete lyrics of Bob Dylan on my knees, following along in devout silence while ''Hurricane'' played. If I'd had half that boy's self-assurance I would have proselytized in return and read him Barthelme's ''Our Work and Why We Do It,'' ''The Palace at 4 A.M.'' and ''Cortez and Montezuma'' as we sped through the loops of our city's highways with a six-pack of beer split between us. Those stories were adult and cerebral, but they were my rock 'n' roll, because they were also ferocious and funny and unexpectedly moving. They stand at the heart of my youthful exuberance, with fast cars and first drunkenness; you could say my ardor was juvenile, just a passionate crush, but you'd be wrong to take that as a reason to downgrade its consequence. More than any writer I've read, he made me want to write. He even lived in my city; one heady evening I looked him up in the phone book and found him listed, like anyone else. But as often and as absurdly as I imagined doing it, I never presented myself to him, a prostrated disciple. Perhaps I already knew that a disciple was not what I'd be. These days, you couldn't find a writer less obviously influenced by him than me. But reading him was never an experience of seeking and mimicking aspects of craft; it was more like watching Michael Jordan sink baskets or Bill Clinton shake hands: a glimpse of fully realized joy within a given vocation. If he had anything to say to the aspirant, it was Do your own thing; by definition your thing should be totally different from mine. Aping him was proof you didn't get it; he did. And he made it look easy. ï Obituary: Donald Barthelme (July 24, 1989)
ï Review: 'Overnight to Many Distant Cities,' by Donald Barthelme (December 18, 1983)
Susan Choi's most recent book is ''American Woman,'' a novel. She is at work on a third novel.JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
I can't read most of my literary heroes -- Ovid, Kafka, Rilke, Schulz, Grass, GarcÌa-M·rquez, Amichai -- in their original languages. And the books I've been most inspired by in the past year -- ''Garden, Ashes,'' by Danilo Kis; ''The Noodle Maker,'' by Ma Jian; ''Blindness,'' by JosÈ Saramago; ''Sayonara, Gangsters,'' by Genichiro Takahashi; ''My Name Is Red,'' by Orhan Pamuk -- were written in Serbo-Croatian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Turkish, respectively. Maybe it's a coincidence. I'm not aware of connecting with these books because of their foreignness. Just the opposite. I love them for their ability finally to describe the personal and familiar. It just so happens that those descriptions were made with words I can't understand.
Shamefully, fewer than 3 percent of literary books published each year in the United States are translated from foreign languages, compared with vastly higher percentages (25-45 percent) in virtually every other country. And much of our 3 percent consists of retranslations of classics, so the real number for new foreign voices is quite a bit lower. We focus virtually all of our political and military attention on the Middle East, but how many of us could claim to have read a single work of Arabic literature in translation? For a citizen, it's scary to contemplate a future in which relations with those we need to relate to are diplomatic, and not humane. It's with art, after all, that a culture best expresses its humanity.
And as a writer, I know that without being a participant in the conversation of cultures -- being a talker, but not a listener -- I will be a lesser writer. Like science, art depends on the experiments of others. The great advances are made not by individuals so much as by environments. (It's no coincidence that innovations tend to come in bundles.) In this way, it's a terrible moment to be an American writer.
Or an American reader. Sometimes I think of the books I'll never read that would have changed my life. (There should be a word for that missed connection. Maybe another language has such a word. . . .) And who doesn't want to have more heroes? Who doesn't want to be as inspired as possible?ï Review: 'My Name Is Red,' by Orhan Pamuk (September 2, 2001)
ï Review: 'Blindness,' by JosÈ Saramago (October 4, 1998)
ï Review: 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' by Gabriel GarcÌa M·rquez (March 8, 1970)
ï Review: 'Love in the Time of Cholera,' by Gabriel GarcÌa M·rquez (April 10, 1988)
ï Featured Author: G¸nter Grass
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of ''Everything Is Illuminated,'' a novel. His new novel, ''Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,'' will be published in April.NELL FREUDENBERGER
It's hard to learn from writers. Most of them wish you wouldn't try. Like circus performers, they want to play to the kind of audience who will sit back and be seduced -- not the kind who run home and sign up for trapeze lessons. The best of them don't necessarily make it look easy; you can watch them for a lifetime without having a clue how it's done.
Peter Carey is one of those: he makes it look hard. His novels seem both meticulously researched and entirely invented; his characters are emotionally authentic, and also the strangest people you've ever met. You find novelists who invent countries, those who forgo punctuation, those who view history through the eyes of marginal figures; rarely do you find all of these talents in the same writer. ''The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith'' -- a typical Carey novel, if there is such a thing -- is the story of a crippled boy born into a theater company in a country called Efica, a former penal colony with a rich tradition of indigenous circuses. (''Unusual'' is putting it mildly.) In explaining his nation to ignorant readers, Tristan sighs, ''I have no choice but to juggle and tap-dance before you, begging you please sit in your seats while I have you understand exactly why my heart is breaking.'' Carey's circus tricks have their source in a similarly exasperating task: writing about a place that previously conjured, for many of his readers, scuba diving, peculiar wildlife and a large, red rock. Of course, Carey's big theme isn't Australia, but a point of view: as Tristan Smith puts it, ''the periphery shouting at the center.''
Carey's most recent novel, ''My Life as a Fake,'' tells the story of a fictional Australian poet who may be a fraud. The title of the book is also the title of the poet's autobiography -- and might be any writer's. We start to write by reading, admiring and subconsciously imitating what we admire. Faking is one of the ways we learn.ï Review: 'The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith,' by Peter Carey (February 12, 1995)
ï Review: 'My Life as a Fake,' by Peter Carey (February 12, 1995)
Nell Freudenberger is the author of ''Lucky Girls,'' a collection of stories. She is at work on a novel.JHUMPA LAHIRI
William Trevor's ''Collected Stories,'' which I purchased in 1995, changed my life. If I could write a single story worthy of inclusion in this book, I thought to myself at the time, I will die happy. I still feel that way. The orange-spined paperback, two inches thick, remains my yardstick, dwelling in close proximity to my desk or bed. His words are a balm, unadorned, precise, yet infused with melancholy. I struggle to absorb the measured grace of his sentences, the quietly devastating emotional content of his work. There are stories in that volume I have read perhaps 20 times. They are always heartbreaking, always humbling. They guide me when I am lost, and on the rare occasions I am feeling complacent, they remind me of how much I have to learn.
Mavis Gallant is effusive where Trevor is spare, mildly chaotic instead of kempt. When beginning one of her stories I feel that I must already be running along a platform, willing to leap onto a moving train. Her ''Collected Stories,'' which I received for Christmas in 1997, was what I read religiously and almost exclusively during a long winter of writing in Provincetown, Mass. Gallant's work defies many of the rules Trevor epitomizes, operating according to a bold and idiosyncratic logic of its own. What I adore about her, and wish to bring to my own pages, is the sheer vigor and velocity of her writing, the bombardment of detail that is always relevant, the characters who are not simply three-dimensional but 30-dimensional, addled and contradictory and hateful and endearing all at once.
There are other writers whose influence I seek: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro and James Salter, to name a few. But none have marked me as much as Trevor and Gallant. To me they are perfection. Reading either leaves me convinced that no other stories need to be written, that somehow these two have understood and expressed it all. And yet each has instilled in me a lifelong purpose. In musical terms, they are the keys in which I strive to play.ï Review: 'The Collected Stories,' by William Trevor (February 28, 1993)
ï Featured Author: William Trevor
ï Review: 'The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant' (October 13, 1996)
Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent book is ''The Namesake,'' a novel. She is at work on a second collection of stories.JT LEROY
When I was 16, the writer Joel Rose, who is married to my editor at Bloomsbury, Karen Rinaldi, asked me if I'd read Breece D'J Pancake. I thought he was talking about some weird cookbook. I'd written most of my first book by then and, like me, Breece wrote about our shared home state, West Virginia. My local library had to order the story collection from another library. Pancake's only book was out of print. It arrived as a worn hardback, and it terrified me. The disconnection and hopelessness in Pancake's stories were too familiar. I felt too close to their possibilities, to how he ended his life, committing suicide in 1979 -- the year before I was born -- at the age of 26. Then there was the writing, which was precise and impossibly intimidating. Reading Pancake for the first time was like jumping into a technical manual at midsection. He lays out every nuance of his landscape, every minute change of weather, of foliage, the internal worlds of his characters. He so purposefully inserts each note, then lets it all collide, knowing the melodic lines are persuasive. They weave into each other and, if you stay inside the melody, a harmony emerges. It is never insisted upon -- it follows an almost invisible trajectory -- but if you listen, it is there.
I'd bring the book back, pay my fines, then take it out again a week or two later. One day the librarian told me I couldn't take that book out anymore, or any book. I had written too many notes, folded down too many pages, been too disrespectful. I remember feeling grateful she was cutting me off, like a bartender does a drunk, doing for me what I could not do for myself.ï Review: 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake' (February 13, 1983)
JT LeRoy's most recent book is ''Harold's End,'' a novella. He is at work on a new novel, to be titled ''The Pants.''MAILE MELOY
Geoffrey Wolff's biographies -- ''The Duke of Deception,'' ''Black Sun'' and ''The Art of Burning Bridges'' -- are about men so fueled by vanity and ambition that it burned them all out, in different ways: it left Wolff's father alone and half mad, buried John O'Hara's reputation under a heap of embarrassing anecdotes and bad novels, and led Harry Crosby to shoot himself in a borrowed apartment with a married socialite.
Wolff, with his formidable intelligence and his novelist's imagination, looks at his subject from all sides including the inside, and teases out its sources and consequences -- he admits how he has been his father's son, finds the schoolboy longing in Harry Crosby and explains how a writer might reasonably come by O'Hara's unreasonable store of resentments and wounds. Pretense in pursuit of approval has been Wolff's great subject, which may be why there isn't even the normal share of it left in him. It makes him a writer and a reader unlike any I've known.
In 1997, I entered Wolff's graduate program in fiction at the University of California, Irvine. He brought tremendous energy to teaching: he read student submissions with the same attention, generosity and skepticism with which he read Crosby's letters or O'Hara's stories or the hundreds of books he reviewed for The Washington Post. And he became a friend.
Wolff keeps careerism out of the classroom just by making clear his impatience with it. When he likes a story, he explains in detail how it works. When a story needs help, he holds it up to the standard of the best thing in it. Running across one of my bad habits, he wrote in the margin, ''Oh, Maile, don't do this.'' Other times he said, ''People might tell you to cut this -- don't.'' He was always right, and it gave me a kind of compass, to have him as a reader when I did.ï Review: 'The Art of Burning Bridges,' by Geoffrey Wolff (August 24, 2003)
Maile Meloy is the author of the story collection ''Half in Love'' and the novel ''Liars and Saints.'' She is at work on a second novel.GARY SHTEYNGART
Like most writers, I am a product of many literary parents. While I'm tempted to claim child support from Gogol, Bellow and Nabokov (his ''Pnin'' is still the most reread book on my shelves), my evolution as a writer began with ''The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.'' I read Mark Twain's masterpiece when I was about 9, after having just emigrated from Leningrad with my parents. My knowledge of English was limited to playground cries of ''Gelp me, Missis Teacher!'' and ''Oofa, dat hurt,'' so I had to follow Tom's boyhood on the Mississippi in a Russian book my parents had brought over. The introduction to the yellowing 1953 Soviet edition helpfully pointed out that ''Tom lived in bourgeoisie America,'' and that Twain teaches us to ''hate America's predatory rich and to love her people.'' After my daily playground humiliations at the hands of 9-year-old American fat cats, I couldn't agree more. The book was nothing less than a call to arms for me -- like Tom, I was constrained by the expectations of a thoroughly materialistic, religious and arbitrary adult society (Hebrew school, Eastern Queens, 1981), and like Tom I was wild with imagination and self-pity. Unfortunately, I had no Gekelberry Finn to befriend, no Mississippi to swim across, no Indian's treasure to plunder. The best I could do was write about the lovely things I wanted to happen to me in America, and write I did, always keeping in mind Twain's attention to the loopy picaresque, his pitch-perfect ear for dialogue (granted much was lost in the translation) and that odd grace he imparts to nearly all his characters: the homeless ragamuffin Finn, that bratty love-boat Becky Thatcher, even the moralistic but shockingly decent Aunt Polly. It would take a few years, until I gathered enough idiomatic English, to fall in love with Tom Sawyer in the original, and more years still until I could appreciate ''Huckleberry Finn'' (still the greatest American novel). But when my best work strikes me, when my thumbs start dancing on the space bar, I have to get down on my secular knees and thank that gallant little tramp. I can see him now -- trapped forever in childhood's amber -- getting his hide whipped by the schoolteacher Dobbins, stealing a taste of Becky's mouth, dreaming of getting that gosh-darn pirate venture started, once and for all.ï Featured Author: Saul Bellow
ï Featured Author: Vladimir Nabokov
ï Review: 'Pnin,' by Vladimir Nabokov (March 7, 1957)
ï Obituary: Mark Twain (April 22, 1910) PDF format
Gary Shteyngart is the author of ''The Russian Debutante's Handbook,'' a novel. He is at work on a new novel, ''Absurdistan,'' which will be published late this year or early next year.ZADIE SMITH
The question of influences is really about time rather than taste -- it's whoever got to you first. C. S. Lewis wins; I consciously chose to be a Narnian rather than a Middle Earther. It's the difference between system-building and four humans in a forest talking about what they should do. I was always on the side of the humans. The first ''proper'' novel was ''Jane Eyre.'' I was voyeuristic as a child -- I wanted to know what went on inside other people, especially other women. Here was a way in. Then the rest of the BrontÎs, plus Hardy, plus Thackeray, plus Trollope, plus Dickens -- these were the writers on my mother's strange colonial bookshelves. I read them very young, hardly understanding what I was reading. I often wish my foundations were less uniformly English. The shape of the 19th-century English novel is the shape of my brain. I can fit other things in there -- Japanese fiction, poetry, drama -- but the fit is not so good. As a young teenager I read a lot of Wodehouse. My first attempts at writing were perfect copies of Jeeves and Wooster stories. I signed them with his name. I'm not sure what the point of that was. In school I read Keats and Milton -- this made my sentences grow loopy and long. When I was about 16, E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf decided my immediate future; where I was going to go to college, and what I was going to do when I got there. When I got to college, literary theory made me a different person for a while. I'm running out of space here: George Eliot, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen, Roth, Updike, Pynchon, Hurston, Larkin and more recently Foster Wallace, Greene and James. The thing about me is that my influences are very ordinary but I am also extremely easily influenced. Even now, if I read a really good book I have to totally rethink my own prose.ï Review: 'The Last Battle,' by C. S. Lewis (September 30, 1956) PDF format
ï Obituary: C. S. Lewis (November 25, 1963) PDF format
Zadie Smith's most recent book is ''The Autograph Man,'' a novel. Her new novel, ''On Beauty,'' will be published this fall, and her book of essays about ethics in 20th-century fiction will be out in 2006.COLSON WHITEHEAD
The French have a saying: You never forget your first unreliable narrator. It is not one of that country's more famous or celebrated contributions to the world of pithy sayings, but I for one would like to salute this unsung aphoristic hero. Much of an influence's power comes from the circumstances of the first encounter. This or that book seizes the attention because on a particular afternoon, it was the perfect elixir for a daydreaming kid or a pretentious teenager or an apprentice trying to find his voice. An accident of timing makes the book in question indelible.
I was forced to read Jean Toomer's ''Cane'' for a class during my sophomore year of college, and now I am stuck with it. I didn't understand much of it at the time, and what I did understand I was incapable of articulating. The book veered from brutal realism to brittle abstraction, roamed from the South to the North and back again, was a strange Rube Goldberg contraption made up of prose, poems, plays and even weird little pictographs. How did all these disparate parts fit together? I knew at the time I was some sort of writer, but I wasn't doing much about it. I think I heard Jean Toomer telling me that it was O.K. to be strange. (He was a bit of a nut job, to tell you the truth.) ''Cane'' was so unruly that I thought it kind of looked like me.ï Review of a Reissue of 'Crane,' by Jean Toomer (January 19, 1969) PDF format
Colson Whitehead's most recent book is ''The Colossus of New York.'' He is at work on a novel about the adhesive bandage industry.