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.
© Francesca Rheannon
MARY BETH KEANE: The first time I read Bel Canto was for pleasure. I picked it up at a bookstore and likedthe first page. I didn’t know a thing about opera— still don’t—but I quicklylearned that my ignorance didn’t matter. I read Bel Canto the second time to figure out how in the world Patchett pulls off such a perfect book given the limitations she set for herself. Virtually the entire story takes place in a single room. People cross thatroom, and cross again. They eat. They sleep. There’s very little flashback. Anyaction had to be plotted within those walls, with big moments—the momentsthat must move a novel—captured by small triumphs. And she pulls it off!Within that small space—the Vice President’s home—is contained passion,romance, hope, despair, everything a novel needs in order to be great. And this novel is great. Whenever I’m frustrated with my own progress, and start feeling that my characters should do more, should see more, should move more, I think of Bel Canto and remember that everything I need is contained within, not without.
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
NICHOLAS MONTEMARANO: I came to Black Tickets when I was twenty-five and about to head to Prague to take a workshop with Jayne Anne Phillips. By then she had published four books—two novels and two short story collections—but I was unfamiliar with her work. Not long after opening Black Tickets I recognized its “dazzling virtuoso range” (Tillie Olsen), its “crooked beauty” (Raymond Carver), and its “knockout prose” (Annie Dillard), a rare case when hyperbolic blurbs are accurate. It remains a seminal influence on me as a fiction writer for many reasons, but here are two. First, Black Tickets is more than a collection of short stories; it is, in its structure and thematic unity, very much a book. It doesn’t feel patched together but conceived. The collection, with its rhythm of longer stories and micro fictions, hearkens Hemingway’s In Our Time. After reading Black Tickets, I never again wrote short stories outside the larger vision of a book. Second, and perhaps most important, is the voice—rather the voices—in her stories. She shows range—there are stories in Black Tickets with subdued voices and more traditional approaches to storytelling—but the collection creates its true power with its voices. Almost every sentence from the dark, beautiful title story is quotable, but its opening will do: “Jamaica Delila, how I want you; your smell a clean yeast, a high white yogurt of the soul.” Phillips, who wrote poetry early in her career, is a poet writing prose. Black Tickets taught me, and continues to remind me, that the music of prose, its sound and rhythm, matters greatly to me. I learned other things from Jayne Anne herself. I don’t remember the Prague workshop with her except the feeling of being taken seriously as a writer, and that mattered to me then. I saw her again years later when we were both fellows at The MacDowell Colony. I remember visiting her studio there and seeing pages of her novel-in-progress taped to the walls. Some people call her a slow writer, but I think of her as careful and methodical, in no rush to publish anything that isn’t her best work. I’m grateful for her example of patience. One of my proudest moments as a writer remains Jayne Anne’s blurb of my first novel. She called me “an American stylist capable of redeeming our darkest dreams,” something I could say about her. If there’s any truth to that, I owe much of it to Jayne Anne’s influence, especially her first book. These are just a few reasons why last year I spent $60 for a first-edition hardcover of Black Tickets and why it sits on my desk, along with other favorites, as inspiration.
MARY OTIS: I first read Jayne Anne Phillips in the Santa Monica library a week after I’d moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast. It was a hot winter day, and a strange sun the color of a children’s aspirin lurked outside the library window where I sat with a copy of Black Tickets in my hands. It was afternoon, and then it was evening. I was transfixed, captured in a way that only the best writing makes possible. I felt like the character, Lark, in the Phillip’s novel, Lark and Termite, who while in a typing class, imagines “flying above the town and the trees and the river,” and as long as she types, won’t crash. But in my case, as long as I kept reading that collection and didn’t stop, I could stay inside the world of her stories that taught me everything I needed to know about what it means to take a risk in writing. Not a risk to simply shock, but a risk to go all in, to tell the deep human truth. Her writing illuminates all that is strange and sad, and beautiful beyond comprehension, too—the edge of wonder.
Phillips followed Black Tickets with Machine Dreams, Fast Lanes, Shelter, Motherkind, Lark and Termite, and most recently, Quiet Dell. In her stories and novels she is compelled by the dislocations of thought, the mysterious territory of living, and how the past imprints itself upon us. She writes with a poet’s sensibility, and her lush prose breathes and sweeps, is masterful in its precision. She has said, “We look for mirrors of our humanity everywhere,” and this idea recurs in her explorations of family, loss, and the difficulty of communication. Phillips is a master of the emotional interstice, one who mines the ordinary moment between things to reveal everything that can’t be said and the only thing that matters.
I wasn’t a writer yet when I first read Jayne Anne Phillips that day in the library, but she gave me a memorable jolt—one that made me want to become a writer, to stay awake, tell the truth, and name the unnamable.
© Jimmy Kets
WESTON CUTTER: Here’s the best way I know to think about the work of Richard Powers—a body of work which stretches over now nearly thirty years and eleven books: while his books are classified as novels they are, all of them, longings, and the longing each novel enacts has to do with how we connect with and apprehend anything like meaning in the world. Such a broad claim is of course a gross simplification: what novel doesn’t in some way solve for that formulation? When we for instance read Franzen, we understand through the story and its characters’s travails how we might deduce something about how we might better live in or value or appreciate the world—we understand, say, that total selfish freedom does not set the soul quite free. The trick with Powers, however, is his directness: the reader’s not led to deduce larger abstractions from the small-scale lives on the page but is instead offered raw complexities and is trusted to navigate them. That gasp folks often let loose when they talk about Powers has something to do with audacity: that he’d be willing or foolish or whatever enough to be so direct.
Here’s another way to say it: Powers is writing, again and again, love stories that (like most) begin between minds. When his characters fall for and toward and onto each other, the falling’s most often the result of the heightened living that attends sharing an enrapturing trance regarding some abstraction. For instance: two people become fascinated with an older man who’s doing third-shift computer coding, and they begin to try to research his life, to find out how he ended up where he’s ended up, and in the process these characters fall for each other. Could anything be less surprising?
To address some basics: James Wood in his otherwise forgettable 2010 critical take-down of the work (“Brain Drain”) does a passable job articulating something of the shape of Power’s fiction. “In his novels, Powers generally likes to keep two plots going. One story line poses, and tries to solve, a relatively abstract puzzle: Does the human mind function like a computer? Does genetics offer the best explanation of “the riddle of life”? What is the nature of consciousness? The second story line is almost always boy-meets-girl, in which protagonists connected to the first plot meet and fall in love or lust.” Wood is here (as in 98% of the rest of his take-down) implying such a binary is bad, or lacking, yet what Powers is examining, again and again through his braided plots, is overwhelming: by what structures will we make meaning of existence?
Take a moment with that question. By the time most of us sign our names to mortgages or student loans, we believe we’ve not only got some sense of what’s capital-I Important, but also some sense of how to move through the world to secure the treasure we believe is most valuable—love, loyalty, lucre, whatever. What Powers does, again and again, is present novels in which characters have to reevaluate all of that: what if you’re a reference librarian and discover that the most vivid, compelling living is being done outside the bounds of what books and magazines might record? What if you’re a writer and discover that the student who’s making your classes come to a new sort of life may be genetically coded for happiness? In other words: what do you do when the systems you’ve believed in crumble, are proved false? What do you believe in then?
The simplistic knock on Richard Powers’s novels is that the ideas are more animated and compelling than the characters—that, to quote Wood, his fiction “resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain.” But Wood, again, is painting criticism onto amazement: what’s wrong with Powers’s novels featuring cognition as the central verb that leads to love? His characters apprehend the world through experiencing it and then thinking and reflecting about it. Does everyone live thus? Of course not—but no fewer people live like this than those who live precisely like the folks one’d find in any of Powers’s contemporary’s novels. No: his love stories don’t feature characters bumping along, attempting to figure out if they’re compatible due to how they take their coffee, or what TV they watch. There is, in all of his work, some deeper tidal movement in all the characters, a sense that some deeper and more deeply animating aspect of being alive is available to us only if we keep doggedly searching. Here’s how Stuart Ressler puts it in The Gold Bug Variations: “all longing converges on this mystery: revelation, unraveling secret spaces, the suggestion that the world’s valence lies just behind a scrambled facade, where only the limits of ingenuity stand between him and sunken gardens.”
This is the object of the longing throughout all Powers’s books: some way to solve for the mystery of being alive, for the glory and horror and awe of existence. “Pleasure in existence is a moral imperative” he wrote in a slim advice-offering book titled “Take It From Me,” and decode the phrase, consider the fact that he’s implicitly arguing pleasure’s more than merely an aesthetic or sensual phenomenon. There is, of course, no single answer, no one way to solve for life’s mysteries: even any grand unified theory in physics couldn’t explain the murkier interstices—love, pain, the rush and humbling attendant in any search for answers. Powers, again and again, proposes binaries only to smash them, to (of course) say both, to let his characters hunt and try through their experiments of living only to, by each book’s end, find themselves saying again and again yes and to head and heart, to fate and free will, to the complex, answerless notion that life is most life when it’s an attempt to reconcile the twin pulls within us.
© Eamonn McCabe
ANNA SOLOMON: “Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood….” So begins The Shipping News. My battered copy still flops open to the first pages, which I read again and again my first time through, mouth open. You can do that? I thought. Sentences were missing their subjects or otherwise incomplete; nouns and verbs, even adjectives, seemed interchangeable. I could find no center, and yet it held. And held, and held.
That first reaction was as a student of poetry, as I was just beginning to write fiction. Looking back, it was a pivotal moment in my gradual humping (Proulx’s verb) toward prose. I loved that one could play so freely with language, write something that begged to be spoken aloud, and tell such an intricate, complex and lengthy story. I was inspired and emboldened.
As I wrote and studied short stories, I continued reading Proulx for her language, but also for her tricks of structure, point-of-view and character development. She would dance through a century in a paragraph, leap bravely from one character’s perspective to another, make people and places vivid with a single word. Her stories were driven by often outrageous plots, yet these plots were so intimately bound up with her characters that it all felt inevitable, necessary, true. There was a kind of hyper-reality to her stories (the bizarre names, the even more bizarre things that happened) and yet a simplicity, too, borne out of specificity: I could see, hear, often smell the people she wrote about. (Most didn’t smell good.) Their bodies, their belongings, their trailers and trucks, the sky and ground around them, were so concisely yet richly told—each chosen word serving more than one purpose—that I would have gone with them anywhere. I never thought, well, that would never happen. Because it did.
These days, as I work on my second novel, I return to Proulx for language and craft, and for something more intangible: her constant play between light and dark. In moments, her descriptions can come off as irreverent, even flip, yet they commingle with the opposite: such deep respect for her characters, such care in describing their inner and outer selves, that I can’t help but love them, too. Like them, maybe not, but love them, yes. Light, dark, comedy, tragedy, surface, depth—Proulx keeps moving, dismantling our assumptions and surprising our aesthetics. Her work exudes the kind of freedom that can only be achieved through great control. So I read it and I keep on with my own work, letting go, pulling back, trying (but not too hard) to find the right balance.
RYAN BOUDINOT: Thomas Pynchon had a pretty profound effect on me. I started reading his books as an undergrad, and for the first time felt two conflicting things I’d never felt when reading a book. One, I was utterly entranced. And two, I didn’t know what the fuck I was reading. His work perplexed me, but the rhythm of his sentences and the combination of vernacular and sophisticated technical language was like candy to me. It was the high/low language combination that felt totally right to me. And I had this weird feeling that his books were reading me, not the other way around. Like there was some sort of subconscious communication happening that my critical mind wasn’t privy to.
Mary Beth Keane is the author of the novels Fever, and The Walking People
Nicholas Montemarano is the author of the novels The Book Of Why, and A Fine Place, as well as the short story collection If the Sky Falls
Mary Otis is the author of the short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries
Weston Cutter is the author of the short story collection You’d Be a Stranger, Too
Anna Solomon is the author of the novel The Little Bride
Ryan Boudinot is the author of Blueprints of the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz