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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

 MARILYNNE ROBINSON

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 © Ulf Andersen

JAMES SCOTT: In my MFA program, I remember one teacher had us go around the table and name our favorite authors, and one of the first few people said Marilynne Robinson andthe collective gasp made me scribble her name down and read Housekeeping right away. I’ve re-read itevery year since.

The first fifteen pages or so—the summary of her grandparents and the train accident—could teach one everything he or she needs to know about the art of writing. From the perspective to the voice to the pacing to the vividness of the scenes, it’s as close to a perfect section as I have ever read. It thematically sets up everything to follow, though that’s not totally apparent until much later, which it’s why it’s critical that those pages are memorable: they need to instantly make their mark and become the lore of the family and the town.

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: I read Marilynne Robinson for her wisdom and her eye. Her writing has a way of reminding me how extraordinary all the ordinary things of this world really are. As the narrator of Gilead says, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” 

 PHILIP ROTH

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  © Elizabeth Donnelly

T. COOPER: I guess the world just sort of split a seam when I read my first Roth book, which I’m pretty sure was Operation Shylock. Though Portnoy’s Complaint was really the one that cracked the world open and completely floored me. It wasn’t even that Roth was a conscious influence on my development either. In an eerie way, I was seeing his influence on my development in ways I hadn’t even realized until well after it happened. Both figuratively, and literally—like not even having read a certain book of his until after I was doing something that somehow came out as a distant relative of it (for example, Portnoy, Plot Against America).

STUART NADLER: If I were to guess, I’ve read more of Roth than I have of any other writer, which says something either about my reading habits, or about how prolific a writer he’s been. I’m writing this two weeks or so after his announced retirement, which, perhaps foolishly, I believe to be genuine, even though I suspect his compulsion to work, and his dedication to that compulsion is maybe unmatched in modern writing. I’ve read Roth in many different ways. First to understand what it meant to be a Jew then. Then meaning when my parents were young, or when my grandparents were as old as I am now. And Jew to mean a certain kind of urban, secular, assimilated, cultural Jew. I’ve certainly read the later, bigger Zuckerman books to see how Roth has disemboweled the structure of the novel to his advantage. I have no doubt that he would cringe to hear something like this. But who cares: that in itself is one of the aspects of his writing I love, and that I carry with me, or try to, in my own work. His fearlessness. It’s a fearlessness of subject-matter certainly. A willingness to slay the old verities, to put himself wholly onto the page, to investigate so deeply all the darkness that attends being human: the shame, the embarrassment, the constant failure, the vulgarities and thrills of desire and lust and temptation. Now I’m in the middle of writing a book where my primary goal has been to loosen myself from own tics and my own peculiar idioms. At a certain point in the revision process for my first two books, I became exhausted by my writing voice, and in the, say, two or three dozen ways I knew to structure a sentence. My goal for the new book was, and is, to break out of that. To put new rhythms to the page, to find new ways of structuring my thoughts. To find a new energy to put to paper. All of it makes me think of Roth, whose better books inhabit disparate voices so astonishingly. That Mickey Sabbath, with all his rage and venom and snark and cruelty, was written by the same man whose Nathan Zuckerman narrates with such subtlety The Ghost Writer, or whose Swede Lvov is so kind and big-hearted and decent, is as incredible to me as it is intimidating. 

CHARLES YU: I’ve read more books by Roth than probably any other contemporary writer, tried to absorb what I can from his prose, his characters, his voices. In terms of development, though, I think what I learned most was structural - how does he organize his books around the major ideas or concepts in each one. Reading eight or ten or a dozen books by one novelist, you start to see what changes from novel to novel, and what stays the same, and that was highly instructive. I wasn’t even writing fiction when I read most of their books, but I was tacitly learning, I think.

 RICHARD RUSSO

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  © Ulf Andersen

WHITNEY TERRELL: Russo’s novels about small town life on the eastern seaboard seemed immediately familiar to me. My own town, Kansas City, is larger but in its own way equally insular. Russo is excellent on the influence of money (or the lack thereof) in his characters’ lives and he writes extremely well about work. In Russo, jobs matter. His characters run diners, paint houses, teach, pastor churches, tend bars, and operate textile factories. Their spiritual flaws and aspirations are expressed largely through the way they approach their work, and there’s an incredible amount of detail in his writing about how their jobs are done. He’s also very funny. Faulkner and his descendants are certainly capable of humor. But, to make a broad generalization, I found that their style worked best when it involved physical comedy, preferably in a rural or natural setting, so that the characters could interact with their environment in a direct, physical way. (Think Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet, or the river scenes in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.) It didn’t work so well when confronted with the smaller, pettier slights and schemes of the business world. Russo, however, was perfect for that.

James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept

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

 T. Cooper is the author of the novels The Beaufort Diaries, and Lipshitz Six: or Two Angry Blondes

 Stuart Nadler is the author of the novel Wise Men, as well as the short story collection The Book of Life

Charles Yu is the author of the short story collection Sorry Please Thank You, as well as the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

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


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