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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.

Jaime Clarke

JHUMPA LAHIRI

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 © Dan Callister

ALETHEA BLACK: When I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, I’d been writing for eight years, and was still about eight years away from publishing my first book. Her elegant prose,and what it taught me about precision, power, and restraint, was a turningpoint, and is still a touchstone I return to. What I love most is the way sheis simultaneously insightful and entertaining, fluid and masterful. Her workmakes me feel as if I’ve dropped down into the hidden undercurrent of truelife, and never fails to remind me of why I became a writer in the first place. 

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: As a graduate student, I studiedJhumpa Lahiri’s stories the way someone else might study a car’s engine, bydismantling them and studying the parts. Gradually, I got better at sensing thearchitecture of those elegant stories, the way the later sections rise directly but imperceptibly from the earlier events. I probably learned more about storytelling from her story “A Temporary Matter," the ending of which is simultaneously surprising and inevitable, a subtle sleight of hand, than any other single work I’ve ever read.  

CHANG-RAE LEE

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© David Levenson

RACHEL DEWOSKIN: The last lines of Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life read, “I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home.” The first time I landed on “Come almost home,” I flipped straight back to the beginning and read the book again. Slowly the second time, because I had blazed through it so fast the first. I subsequently read every one of his books, ravenously once and then carefully again, circling back. His novels have changed my writing, teaching, and thinking. My own books are about people on the periphery, and no one writes outsiders’ stories quite like Chang-rae Lee. His protagonists have still surfaces; they are constructed as finely as phrases of detached, perfect diction. And yet underneath their cleanly assimilated, English-language exteriors are histories of turmoil powerful enough to drive whole (often epic) novels. Theirs are stories of love in the time of comfort women, of war, and of perpetual circling, trying to find some balance between interior and exterior lives. History alternately creeps up slowly and accelerates, slamming into the present tense.

I always assign Chang-rae Lee’s novels to my undergraduate and graduate students, not just because I want to read them again and again myself, not just because they’re structurally brilliant, but also and always because they are full of empathy and grace. All of his protagonists get loving, calm, three-dimensional treatment, even in instances of criminal behavior, even when the plots reach frenzied pitches. Lee harnesses the repressed energies of his characters into stories so suspenseful that they are themselves at odds with his quiet style. How can we all be as simultaneously restrained and full-throttle, telescopic and giant in our scope?

RU FREEMAN: I admire Chang-rae Lee’s meticulously written prose which somehow manages to bridge the inherent self-consciousness of craft with the utter abandon of story-telling.

IRINA REYN: It is no exaggeration to say that Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker convinced me that becoming a writer was a worthy enterprise for an immigrant after all. It was published a year after I graduated from college, at a time I was drifting from job to job while struggling to cobble together a narrative around my immigration from the former Soviet Union. Everything I wrote felt too simple, organized into neat dichotomies of “here” and “there”. From the very first line—“The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was”—Native Speaker was a revelation. I still remember that “false speaker of language” was one of the items on that damning list. Yes, I thought. At last. The way duality of language and culture fragments a psyche. The way we are forced to shuffle identities depending on the company we keep. This was no common tale of rosy-cheeked, striving, assimilating immigrants, not merely a story of isolation and alienation that we might expect, but something narrator Henry Park calls his “American education”: “My ugly immigrant’s truth… is that I have exploited my own, and those others who can be exploited.” Immigrants as exploiters. Now this was something new.

JONATHAN LETHEM

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© Matthew Salacuse

IVY POCHODA: I grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn back when you were lucky to convince a taxi driver to cross the bridge, when it was necessary to justify my parents’ preference for our borough over Manhattan, when it wasn’t somewhere “cool” but some place special. My friends and I would play unsupervised in the street, on the sidewalks, in the alley next to my house. We played city-kid games: stoopball, running bases, four square. We had block long water fights and tried our luck with skateboards on a homemade quarter-pipe. We knew our neighbors, rang their doorbells, stopped by unannounced.

Whenever I left home, for summer camp and later for college, I never tired of trying to explain Brooklyn to the uninitiated. My borough is and was important to me in ways I struggled to articulate, ways I didn’t understand. It was tough and beautiful, hopeful and desperate.

I moved abroad after college, looking for my own “Brooklyn,” somewhere I could discover, or rather rediscover, like my parents had Cobble Hill. And in my absence, my old neighborhood changed. Streets that I was forbidden from walking down when I was a kid became home to Michelin-star restaurants. Italian social clubs turned into private yoga studios. My neighborhood, my Brooklyn, began to slip away, and I grew worried that I’d lost it forever.

I read Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude when I was living in Amsterdam. From the first page, I knew I’d come home. (Lethem’s book is set five blocks from my parents’ house.) It was all there both physically and emotionally: the delicious freedom of being allowed to play on the street after dinner, the old men sitting on milk crates, rolling empties of Manhattan Special, the inner city wonder of an ailanthus pushing through the sidewalk, the remarkable childlike perspective of an entire world narrowed to a single city block. Lethem brilliantly recovered a time and a place I feared lost to gentrifying invaders, to people who love Brooklyn but for entirely different reasons that I did and do. The Fortress of Solitude captures the entire panorama of my childhood, from the precise the slang of my corner of Brooklyn, the class anxieties of growing up in a neighborhood on the verge, to the pride I derived from my own outer-boroughness.

Of course there are no shortage of books set in Brooklyn, Lethem’s own Motherless Brooklyn for instance. But unlike other books set in the borough, The Fortress of Solitude unashamedly mixes poetry and street slang. It’s tough without being hardboiled. It’s magical and musical. It’s a novel of contradictions, both wholly realistic, yet imbued with a daring dose of magical realism that recalls the most powerful childhood imaginings. In other words, it’s a perfect reflection of the Brooklyn itself. My Brooklyn.

I was struggling to write my first novel when I read The Fortress of Solitude. I thought books had to be wildly imagined, fantastically conceived, take you places you’d never been, force your mind into different worlds. I didn’t know that the best stories could be found so close to home, that my own block might hold enough magic and wonder, poetry and pain.

 MATTHEW SPECKTOR: Jonathan Lethem embarrassed me. I came to Lethem’s work late—this isn’t the embarrassing part—but after Motherless Brooklyn, and after the half-decade or so of work that preceded it, I picked up Fortress of Solitude. A little reluctantly. I’d nibbled the edges of earlier books without being fully persuaded (without giving them the sort of attention that would’ve allowed them to persuade), and so it took a wolf in so-called realist’s clothing to do it. Unlike its predecessors, unlike even Motherless Brooklyn, which was too alert in fucking around with gumshoe tropes to qualify, Fortress was a social novel. An evident social novel, anyway: by the time we got to any reality-bending elements, I was too deeply immersed in the Boerum Hill of the 70s to care. The thing was, I was touched by it. It wasn’t ambition, or scope, or scale, or ideas—I could feel the press of DeLillo all over it, his muddy thumbprints smudging the sentences, but I didn’t care about that, either—it was depth. And a very specific kind of depth, at that. His characters were not merely haunted, or round: they were humiliated, in a way that felt nearly metaphysical. They were not mocked, but rather, butterflied. For all the yokings and beatdowns, the street-level subjugations endured by Dylan—and Lethem seemed to need to invent an even greater nerd, just to contain the overflow, in the indelible Arthur Lomb—the book seemed to contain neither a hunger for punishment nor one for revenge. Fortress isn’t a sadistic book, nor a masochistic one, but it is almost infinitely humane.

To that point, I suppose, I’d been under the spell of writers who were more or less mandarin: a James Salter here, a Shirley Hazzard there, writers whose sentences attained to a perfect equipoise. Lethem was deliberately lumpy (Ebdus joined a parade of protagonists whose names lodge like a bone in the throat: Lionel Esrog on one side, Perkus Tooth on the other), fine-tuned in his perceptions, calmly musical perhaps but never fussy. Yet the more important thing was this openness to embarrassment. The moment I saw it enacted as drama, I began to notice, too, the presence of humiliation as theme, as leitmotif, as organizing principle even. (How often the word ‘shame’ appears in middle-period Lethem, as well. Search The Disappointment Artist and see how often. Even when he’s writing warmly and lauditorily about Philip K. Dick, one of his heroes, Lethem returns again and again to Dick’s alleged worst novel, Vulcan’s Hammer, calling it out for “special shaming.”) What is Lionel Esrog’s Tourette’s syndrome but an engine for such, the relentlessness of the private, inappropriate self busting out in public? Lethem’s predecessors—Saul Bellow, say, in Seize The Day—give us the agonizing feel of the effort to maintain appearances in the face of private collapse. Motherless Brooklyn simply dispenses with the effort. The self can’t help but irrupt, in all its red-faced glory.

This is the American Grain, of course. Whether our secrets must be declared (Whitman) or suppressed (Henry James), our literature exists to shine a light on them, and Lethem’s casual disarming of his own defenses—the way he seemed to pick the lock on a generational self-consciousness—helped me put paid to my own. It did what writers have always done for each other, what Hawthorne did for Melville, for example. It liberated me, it woke me up, and it freed me to maximize my talents, to embrace—rather than dodge—my literary limitations.

CHARLES YU: Jonathan Lethem is unclassifiable. I don’t think he is constrained by anything, stylistically, thematically, formally. Many novelists of his caliber are, like him, in a category of one, but what Lethem does that makes him so important, I think, is that he imagines new completely new areas in literary possibility space, and then fills the possibility with an actuality, and does it in a way that acts as a bridge for other novelists to cross into the space. 

GARY LUTZ

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© John Madera 

RYAN BOUDINOT: I’ve noticed that Gary Lutz’s lecture that he delivered at (I think) Columbia, "The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” is frequently passed around by writing grad students who are drawn to language-driven prose. It’s kind of ridiculous to even use the term “language-driven” because isn’t all prose driven by language? Regardless, Lutz, to my mind, is the best example of the acolytes of Lish, the writers whose work makes you stop and savor individual lines. He pushes his language into the realm of poetry and some of his stories barely hold together, plotwise. And as far as subject matter, he’s pretty uni-dimensional—his stories convey the same weary, alienated mood most of the time. But I want to underline every one of his sentences. He’s like a guitarist who can play three notes and you know who’s playing them immediately. A Gary Lutz sentence is like no other. There’s a whole domain of the English language that seems to belong only to him.

NELLY REIFLER: Reading Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way was like catching a virus. For several years I couldn’t get his weird precision and gymnastics with parts of speech out of my brain. I’d spend ages on each sentence that I wrote. Writing was a difficult; I felt contorted, twisted up in knots. It made me a better writer. 

WHITNEY TERRELL: There are writers I read and admire even though their work is very different from my own. For instance, contemporary experimental writers like Gary Lutz. My interest in him quickened after my exposure to the war in Iraq, where I worked as an embedded reporter. The war was, to put it mildly, a surreal experience. When I looked back at past war literature, I found that writers like Blaise Cendrars and Celine had managed to bring that feeling to the page by defying and distorting the normal confines of realism. That led me to contemporary writers who did the same thing. I don’t know if I can define how Lutz and other writers like him (Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Adam Johnson) influence my work yet, except to say that they continually remind me that my way of doing things isn’t the only option.

Alethea Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely

Karen Thompson Walker is the author of the novel The Age of Miracles

Rachel DeWoskin is the author of the novels Blind and Big Girl Small

 Ru Freeman is the author of the novels On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl

Irina Reyn is the author of the novel What Happened to Anna K

Ivy Pochoda is the author of the novels Visitation Street and The Art of Disappearing

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound

Charles Yu is the author of the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collections Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You

Ryan Boudinot is the author of Blueprints of the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories


Nelly Reifler is the author of the novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge and the short story collection See Through

Whitney Terrell is the author of The King of Kings County and The Huntsman


Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz

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