A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers
Listening to writers read and discuss their work at Newtonville Books, the bookstore my wife and I own outside Boston, I began to wonder which living, contemporary writers held the most influence over their work. This survey is not meant to be comprehensive, but is the result of my posing the question to as many writers as I could ask.
© James Leynse
KELLY BRAFFET: When I was a teenager in Pennsylvania, there was this series of very coveted summer programs that only the Super Super Smartieswere accepted into called the Governor’s School. There was one for pretty muchany discipline you can think of, including creative writing; I applied everyyear I was eligible and was declared an alternate every year. It was one of thetwo greatest frustrations of my teenaged life: my inability to get into Governor’s School, and my inability to get that one dark, tortured beautiful guy to fall in love with me. Now I’m a published writer, and the last I heard of Dark and Tortured, he was a heroin addict who beat his girlfriend, so I think it probably all turned out for the best.
Anyway, as one of the standard questions during the Governor’s School application interview, you were asked to name your favorite writers. The first year I answered honestly: John Steinbeck and Stephen King.
“Really,” the interviewer said dryly. All I remember about him is that he had glasses, and he very clearly thought this whole picking-Super-Smarties-for-Governor’s-School thing was an enormous pain in his ass. “And what do you like about Stephen King?”
His characterizations, I said, and the vividness with which he captured the world around him. The snap and crackle in his language; the way he built tension. I think it was a fairly good answer, given that I was sixteen, but—
as I’ve said—
I didn’t get in. The next year, the interviews were done by the exact same bespectacled killjoy, only this time, when he gave his opening remarks before dragging us into his office one at a time, he actually said, “So when I ask who your favorite writer is, you probably shouldn’t say Stephen King.”
Shameful little sheep that I was, I didn’t, even though it still would have been the most truthful answer. (Perhaps even more so, because that was the year that I discovered the Dark Tower series, the first three books of which will go down forever on my Best Books Ever list.) I’m sure I said Steinbeck again, and probably also added Fitzgerald, both of which were also truthful answers in their own way, but I still didn’t get into the goddamned Governor’s School, and I still loved Stephen King.
If King himself ever reads this, I can only say that I truly hope that his many years of facing up to this kind of bullshit will enable to dismiss that petty little man as the third-rate, embittered, closed-minded loser that he was. If the petty little man himself ever reads this, I hope he’s ashamed. Not just because we were kids, and he was stepping all over our burgeoning abilities to know what we liked and why, but also because he has deprived himself of the joys of King’s massive, and vivid, and wildly imaginative body of work.
For instance, he’s never read The Body, which was my introduction to Stephen King and also to the modern coming-of-age story. With its effortless leaps in time, its mix of nostalgia and pain—how can those two ever be truly separated?—and its wrenching evocation of death and friendship and adulthood, that book said something about being twelve that I recognized as true even when I actually was twelve, and which has remained true ever since. He’s never read The Stand, in all of its messy vastness: my favorite kind of apocalypse story, the one where the horror is tempered with hope, and also a perfect portrait of the vast spectrum of human nature. He’s never read The Shining and experienced the tense claustrophobic grandeur of the Overlook Hotel, never watched from the inside as Jack Torrance’s sanity leaks slowly out of him, but his love for his family never does—a trick and a half, if you ask me, since we all know (via cultural osmosis if by no other means) how Jack Torrance ends up treating his family.
He’s never read the fantastic King. He’s missed the magical alchemy that happened when King joined Straub, and created the wonder that is The Talisman—the scene where poor Wolf strains and howls in the Box is one of the saddest and most horrific moments I’ve ever experienced in fiction. Sometimes the worst happens, and we have no choice but to live through it, and endure it. He’s never read The Gunslinger or experienced Roland’s strange, dying world, with all of its eerie, perfectly chosen evocations of our own; he’s never suffered along with Eddie Dean as he kicks heroin and falls in love in The Drawing of the Three (in my opinion, the best of the Tower books, by far). He’s never met Susannah, the Girl at the Window, and he’s never experienced the joy of watching a younger, perfectly drawn version of the jaded, trampled Roland that we know so well fall in love with her.
I could go on. King has written prolifically and massively, and anyone who’s open-heartedly read even a fraction of his work can surely engage in a lengthy argument about the relative merits or demerits thereof, and it’s true that—as with any writer—some of his books are more successful than others. And certainly, there will be people out there who have read and genuinely dislike his work, for one reason or another. But his insane, curve-blowing success isn’t a fluke. People love his books because he loves the people in those books, and can convey that love convincingly on the page. Even as he tortures them and feeds them to vampires and locks them under airless bubbles of alien origin, he loves them. I always get the sense, reading him, that he tortures them to see how impressively they’ll rise to overcome the horror, and that his characters generally seem to do it so well speaks to something good and strong in us.
RYAN BOUDINOT: I’d have to say the first writer whose work suggested a model for what I wanted to write was Stephen King. I started reading his work when I was in fifth grade, with his collection of novellas Different Seasons. I was totally shocked, especially by the novella “Apt Pupil,” which was the most evil thing I’d ever read. I kept reading his books, and by the time I was in eighth grade had read everything he’d published up to that point. It’s fair to say that his gore and supernatural elements rubbed off on me, but I also think there was something going on underneath his tropes that shaped how I think about characters. I grew up in a rural part of Washington state, and King resonated with me because he didn’t condescend to characters who live in similarly rural places, mostly in Maine. I don’t remember a lot of the violent ends his characters meet, but those moments when his characters are kind and tender to one another remain with me. The Stand is one of the most beautiful reading experiences I’ve ever had, full of empathy and human connections, and I thought about it a lot when writing Blueprints of the Afterlife. I think King’s greatest strength is his talent for coming up with an incredible premise. Writer gets in car crash, is rescued by a psychotic fan. Guy gets a job as a caretaker of a haunted resort hotel in the off-season. Girl discovers she’s telekinetic after she gets her period. I’ve always loved how King can take such a premise and run like hell with it.
VICTOR LAVALLE: My earliest influence would have to be Stephen King. I didn’t come up in a household that read terribly much. There was the Bible, which was read often, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was used only when I had a book report due. In pre-Wikipedia days the Britannica sure did the trick. The pre-internet version of cutting and pasting was simply copying, verbatim, entries by hand! We knew how to cheat the right way when I was young.
My mother and grandmother were smart people, but not big readers. I had an uncle who read a lot of non-fiction but he didn’t live with us and what he brought with him when he visited was always over my head. The latest book by Kissinger was hardly fun reading for a nine or ten year old. So I came to Stephen King in much the same way I’m guessing lots of people did: he was popular. It was easy to get his books, either at the library or a cheap paperback in the local pharmacy.
I was a little intimidated by the size of his novels so the first book of his that I read was, I believe, a collection of stories called Skeleton Crew. This book had a few King classics like the long story, “The Mist” and “The Raft” (which went on to be a cool little vignette in the first Creepshow movie). But the one that really thrilled me, liked knocked me back on my ass, was a story called “Survivor Type.” This wasn’t the usual King story in that there were no monsters, nothing supernatural. A disgraced surgeon has been reduced to smuggling heroin on a cruise ship. Something happens and he’s shipwrecked on a small island, totally alone. Only he and the heroin have made it to shore. The story, told in journal entries, goes on to describe the lengths the surgeon will go to to survive. At a certain point he has nothing left to eat, nothing but, well, himself. He’s a surgeon so he knows how to make precise, non-life threatening cuts, and heroin acts as a reasonable anesthetic…
Can you not see how incredible this story would be to a boy of a certain age, a certain temperament? The story is grim, and relentless, and impossible to put down. At least it was for me. But most importantly, and this is the thing some people misunderstand most about Stephen King, it’s his narrative voice that makes this story, and his best work, so blisteringly good. Whether he’s writing in first person or third Stephen King always sounds like Stephen King. He’s got a great, casual way with narration. When it’s working it really feels like he’s your friend who’s come by to shoot the shit for twenty pages or for a thousand. Most writers, even the great ones, simply cannot make narration feel so natural even as the story is leading you down impossible paths. It’s a kind of charm, really. Like the glamour magic of fairies. You don’t quite know why it’s working on you, but before you even realize it you’ve been put under a spell.
NATHANIEL RICH: Between the ages of nine to fourteen, I read a single author exclusively: Stephen King. Sure, I read other books for school—novels like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little House on the Prairie, Tuck Everlasting—but my free time I devoted entirely to King. I’ll never forget the look of disgust on the face of Ms. Sobel, my fourth grade teacher, when she read the titles of the books I’d listed on my summer reading form: Salem’s Lot, The Tommyknockers, The Dead Zone. She asked if my parents knew what I was reading. Of course they did, I replied. They’d bought me the books, after all. Ms. Sobel appeared to contemplate whether she should notify Child Safety Services.
My obsession began when, at nine, I glimpsed a black Signet paperback of Firestarter on the highest shelf of a family bookcase. On the spine was the face of a girl, about my age, silhouetted against a bright orange flame. When I asked my mother what it was, she told me it was too scary for a little boy. There is nothing she could have said that would have made me more excited to read that book. I demanded she take it down from the shelf.
Firestarter was too scary for a little boy, but it was also the first time I’d felt myself completely absorbed in a novel. Certainly part of the thrill had to do with my empathy for the main character, Charlie McGee, a seven-year-old girl who had the ability to cause fires with her mind. It was impossible not to identify with Charlie—she was just a couple of years younger than me, after all, and what nine-year-old doesn’t dream of lighting people on fire with his brain? But what really struck me was the notion that a book—a small inert object made of paper, glue, and ink—could evoke such a powerful emotion as fear. When you’re nine, fear is the emotion you understand best. Fear comes first, and hits hardest. I realize now that King’s novel showed me that literature has the power to make you feel things. My desire to be a writer arose from that realization.
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving, and Josie and Jack.
Ryan Boudinot is the author of Blueprints of the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories
Victor LaValle is the author of The Devil in Silver, Big Machine, The Ecstatic, and Slapboxing with Jesus
Nathaniel Rich is the author of the novels Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Mayor’s Tongue
Illustrations by Caleb Misclevitz