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A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers

Listening to writers read and discuss their work atNewtonville 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

JOYCE CAROL OATES

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 © Nicolas Guerin

DAN CHAON: There are several living writers who have been deeply influential, but I would say that the most important of these is Joyce Carol Oates. I share her interest in extreme psychological states and the grotesque, and I appreciate her concerns with issues of social class in the United States.Her work is formally daring in a way that I admire, and I am particularly drawnto the way her prose can range from an incantatory intensity to a chillydeadpan within the same work. Her work also helped me to find ways to resolvethe tension between the more realistic, “Carver” side of my work and the more fantastical “Bradbury” side—many of her novels and stories walk a beautifully delicate line between the “literary” and “genre” worlds. Books that I am particularly fond of include Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque; Heat; Black Water; I Lock My Door Upon Myself; The Rise of Life on Earth; and Wonderland.

 TIM O'BRIEN

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 © Darren Carroll

BRUCE MACHART: To my way of thinking…and this is wildly subjective, of course…there are only two perfect books: Anna Karenina and The Things They Carried. The latter is, all at once, a masterwork of realism and the only fully successful work of metafiction. The title story is, on its own, a gem, but it makes me a bit batty to teach that story without the context of the greater work from which it comes. From the dedication page (where the book is dedicated to the fictional characters), to the fictional alter-ego Tim O’Brien who becomes our narrator, to the fine and ever-developing notions about the difference between historical truth and “story truth,” the work entices us to believe even as it reminds us that fiction is made up, that “art” is the root of “artifice,” that the human condition can be made “more real” to us through the insinuations of the imagination. This is perhaps the only book that uses a first-person narrator who teaches us how and why he has the power to act, at times, as a third-person narrator, complete with the ability to access the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of other characters. It’s a rare thing of beauty…the incarnation of what a writer strives endlessly to be: A human being whose empathies are boundless. 

HANNAH PITTARD: Tim O'Brien is a writer I turn to for stylistic and narrative pointers. His novel, In the Lake of the Woods, totally informed what I was able to do with The Fates Will Find Their Way. There were so many strange and wonderful strategies I’d not known were possible or permissible before reading that book. Plus, he’s an author who knows how to balance sentiment with sentimentality. He knows how to balance detail and character. O'Brien is one of those writers who seems like he’s crawled inside the human heart, seen its sloppy and sad and big machinery, and is somehow able to bring that experience to life on the page. 

JAMES SCOTT; I read Tim O’Brien during my junior year of high school. The teacher gave us a list of authors and we had to choose one, read at least three of their books and then write a paper discussing his or her themes and style. I ended up with O’Brien, and read The Nuclear Age, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried. The latter, especially, made me aware of the process of writing for the first time. I’d only ever thought of writing as stories put down in a logical order, but O’Brien had pulled the curtains aside and exposed the machinery of a story by messing with it: images and events got jumbled up and spun around and spit out as something new each time they reappeared. 

The Things They Carried is the book I’ve read most often, which I can say with near-certainty because I can’t even think of what might be second. His precise details and his bare emotion left a huge impression, but the greatest quality that he instilled in me is the love of a story, and the idea that the creation of that story is equally if not more important than the story itself. 

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

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  © Murdo McLeod

STEPHEN DAU: The book that changed my life was given to me by my fiancé a few months before we traveled to Sri Lanka to be married. I’m uncertain, looking back, whether it was the book, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, the import of our trip, or some alchemical combination of the two that proved so potent, but when I stepped off the plane I stepped into a world that had already been conjured in my mind. I had never before lived a book so vividly, and have only rarely done so since.

Here, for example, was the house in the jungle where my father-in-law grew up, its red, polished cement floor cool to his perpetually bare feet, just as Ondaatje had described other Sri Lankan floors. And here were the thin iron bars over every window, and the egg-shell columns of the Mount Lavinia hotel, and the trees full of peacocks weeping into the night, and the heat, everywhere the heat, “a heat that embarrasses foreigners,” a stifling heat that could be cut only temporarily by gin and tonics and rain.

 I had never before been to Asia, yet I had flown kites on the Galle Face Green, and eaten crab curry with my hands, and washed myself in the monsoon rain, and ridden the train from Colombo to Jaffna, where I sat in the Governor’s house as the tilted blades of a ceiling fan caught the air and folded it across the room. 

The trip and the book rekindled in me a long-held desire—if not entirely dormant, then at least neglected and inaccessible—to write, which I had known since I was eight years old, but to which I had not yet committed myself. I had been hearing a chorus of “get on with it, then” from my fiancé and family when Ondaatje whispered in my ear. Perhaps the timing was simply right. “What are you waiting for?” he seemed to be saying, “this is what can be done with words.” 

As I write this, I am traveling by train across Pennsylvania, where I am from. It is a landscape of winter-bare trees and industrial ruins and pale, overcast skies and rivers like brown glass and red brick chimneys smoking into a cold wind. It is in so many ways the complete opposite of Michael Ondaatje’s Sri Lanka. Yet here he is again, stealing up quietly behind me, whispering in my ear: “Look!” he says, “This too can be done with words.”

Dan Chaon is the author of Stay Awake: Stories, Await Your Reply: A Novel, You Remind Me of Me: A Novel, and Among the Missing: Stories

Bruce Machart is the author of the short story collection Men in the Making and the novel The Wake of Forgiveness

Hannah Pittard is the author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way

James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept

Stephen Dau is the author of the novel The Book of Jonas


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