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.
© Julie Bosman
KELLY BRAFFET: When I was working on my first novel, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was a huge influence on me: not just becauseit’s a wonderful book, but because she was a woman writing dark fiction thatskirted the edge of the thriller, which was, and still is, what I wanted to bewhen I grew up. In fact, her books so thoroughly skirt the edge of the thriller that they completely circumvent the genre: in The Secret History, she tells you the identities of both the murdered and the murderer in the first few pages, and in The Little Friend you never learn the identity of the murderer at all. In essence, Tartt builds a stage set for a murder drama, and then gives you something entirely different—
keeping all of that thriller-y tension, atmosphere and excitement.
She did an interview when The Little Friend came out where she said—I’m paraphrasing—that she saw absolutely no reason why a well-written book couldn’t also have an exciting story, and, being me, of course, I found that incredibly inspiring and affirming. I look forward with longing to her next novel, and everything else she writes.
LESLIE JAMISON: I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and wanted to write a novel just like it. I know I’m not the only one. I understood it somewhat differently at the time, more obliquely: My first novel had been so deeply grounded in character, I told myself—somehow both too much and too little had happened—and this time around I wanted to approach plot with more invention, more spirit of play. I wanted everything twining around the dark matter of a mystery. I wanted to evoke the electricity and claustrophobia of life on a campus. Tartt’s book was about a New England college; mine would be about an all-girl’s boarding school in California. I had craft goals and mood goals. My aesthetic sensibility was evolving and I was writing about it in my diary.
But really, it was like this: I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of The Secret History and I wanted to stay underground. It was a mystery about getting lost in myth; it offered its own mythology to get lost in. I wanted to stay in its bubble—part pastoral, part squalor: silent drifts of snow and crackling fireplaces and a drafty apartment full of empty whiskey bottles and the whiff of squandered privilege. I wanted to stay in the spell of its secrets—not just the central secret of a dead body but the murkier secrets of class and cliques: how people love what they don’t know, or can’t have. I was trying to write this boarding school novel—all sleek glass and cattiness, violent Pacific seething beneath—that was full of its own dark threads: an evil headmaster, unexplained deformities. In one draft there was magic; in another, only ritual.
I loved The Secret History so I was sad when it ended. That’s how it goes. But because I was a writer, I thought—without thinking, without admitting—that perhaps the book wouldn’t end if I wrote it again. If I made my own version of its world, I could keep living there. The same way you might take a trip to Paris and think, I love it here, and then decide that moving there would be the next natural extension of loving it so much—why not place your body forever where it loved being for a while?
But not everyone who loves Paris is meant to live there, and not everyone who loves reading Donna Tartt is meant to write like her. This is one of the cruel lessons of influence: admiration is a powerful but fickle fuel; we emerge from the froth and bluster of its drive and find we’ve made a Christmas ornament of popsicle sticks that doesn’t look much like the Eiffel Tower at all.
I went through an addict’s rise and fall with The Secret History, got that first rush—curled up with it, disappeared into it—then hit the two-year letdown of my failed attempt to recreate it. The secrets of my own novel felt shabby—contrived and crudely revealed, and its danger cartoonish, a scalpel casting long shadows across the room, characters bent to serve plot like figures twisted by funhouse mirrors. All of it felt claustrophobic. Everything smelled like someone else’s old clothes.
But I didn’t give up looking for that first rush. Eventually, I just looked for it somewhere else. The obvious place. Which is to say: I read the book again. I took it to a writing residency in Wyoming, a land that couldn’t have been further from its world: huge soaring skies, broad rutted roads that stretched visible for miles—a land with few crevices or secret compartments, wearing its truths broad-shouldered and sun-bleached, plain as day. I went for long walks. I followed a dirt road into the hills and listened to podcasts—I remember one about Infinite Jest, another one about a college town full of drunk kids unintentionally breaking into houses they thought they lived in, a podcast that made me sharply nostalgic for my own home in a college town full of drunk kids unintentionally breaking into houses they thought they lived in.
The second time I read The Secret History, I loved it just as much as I’d loved it the first time. But my own novel still wasn’t working. I faced that particular shame available to writers gifted with a broad horizon of unbroken time: I was forced to confront more unequivocally the fact of my novel’s failure. There was no excuse or deferral—no when I’m not working early mornings at the bakery, no when I’m not studying for orals. It was only me waking up to long days when I could have been writing a brilliant, expansive, world-making book but definitely wasn’t. I was slamming myself against a wall.
So I went for another walk. This time, I didn’t listen to a podcast about drunk kids or anyone’s magnum opus. I didn’t listen to any podcast at all. Instead, I summoned an image of myself reading The Secret History that first time—curled on an Iowa futon, watching snow fall, drinking tea—and then, like a tender anthropologist, half-blind but full of seeking love, I summoned an image of someone reading my own novel, my as-of-yet-unwritten-or-only-written-terribly novel, my multiply aborted B-grade simulacra.
This reading girl was blurry, the girl I was picturing—not quite in focus—but she was enjoying herself. I imagined her dangling at the edge of each chapter, rushing home from work to start the next one. Imagining her let me feel affection where before I’d felt only self-recrimination. For once, I wasn’t thinking of myself—and my authorial aspirations and frustrations—but of someone else—albeit a hypothetical someone, still fuzzed around the edges. David Foster Wallace praised writing that was gift rather than request—he spoke of the “discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved”—and though I’ve always had trouble understanding how this distinction could ever be drawn, I’ve loved the sentiment ferociously, the way one loves impossible asymptotes.
That day, on that walk, imagining myself toward an unknown woman, I felt I was moving closer to the self that could write from love rather than for it—that didn’t want to write what Tartt had written so much as I wanted to give what she had given: that sheer rush of pleasure, that surrendering of self into a world of someone else’s making.
DAVID SAMUEL LEVINSON: I was staying at a friend’s house in LA when I came across The Secret History, which was being used to prop open my bedroom door; the floors in the house slanted. This was back in 1995, a few years after Tartt had made her debut literary splash. I remember making a conscious effort to keep away from the novel and from her, forever leery of books and authors with mass appeal. I preferred quieter, most obscure novels and novelists, books one didn’t see clutched in the fingers of subway commuters. It had been everywhere upon its release and, though I had heard great things about The Secret History, I preferred to snub it. How could a book about an over-privileged set of undergrads attending a posh liberal arts college possibly speak to me? I didn’t think it could.
Of course I was wrong, as only my voracious reading of it can attest; I read it in two days. I don’t think I even left the bed, except to swim a lap or two in the pool, and even then I remember taking Tartt’s novel with me, like an old friend. And it was like an old friend, a best friend I’d given up on—that’s how I felt about fiction back then, until I ran into and fell in love with it all over again, thanks in large part to The Secret History.
After that, I reread The Secret History once a year for at least a dozen years, until the magic began to wear off and I craved something new. But I never found anything quite like The Secret History, no matter how hard I tried and how many books I read. So I decided to write a novel that to me contained the spirit of that amazingly well crafted and well told story—I set my own novel in an imaginary college town in upstate New York, I gave it plenty of suspense and mystery, I loved and hated my characters just as I imagined Tartt loved and hated hers. I wanted my novel to reflect and pay homage to The Secret History, since it is the one novel I can think of that continued to enthrall and bewitch me and that proved to me that novels could be more than the sum of their parts—beautifully written, incredibly intuitive, and just plain entertaining to read and read again.
ALLISON LYNN: I recently reread Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for the first time in two decades, and went in with trepidation. The book—or as it appears in my head, The Book—seemed to define an entire era of reading for myself and my cohort in New York in 1992, when it was published. We were all just out of college and in search of beauty and knowledge, both on the page and in our everyday lives. We were nervous and confident and consciously aware of the precipice at our feet. We were looking for a sign that we might be among our generation’s chosen. And into our world came Tartt’s imperious young scholars: Richard Papen, Henry Winter, Francis Abernathy, the doomed-from-page-one Bunny Corcoran, and the now-unfortunately-named twins, Charles and Camilla. They and their world—which consisted almost entirely of Hampden College’s classics department—were rendered in a modern, near-Gothic style that stopped just short of too-much, and they served both as our idols and our cautionary tale. They’d aimed so high! While the rest of us were shooting for beauty, they set their sights on the sublime. They were the chosen. And then, they were the damned.
Before we met the characters though, The Secret History came to us as a physical thing. The book was seductive, designed by Barbara deWilde and Chip Kidd with a transparent slipcover that gave way to a close-up photo of Myron’s Discobolus. Entire articles were written about the jacket. And so we sprung for the full-price hardcover, this being the era before internet discounters and ebooks. If today we’re seeing a decline of the book-as-object, The Secret History remains a reminder of its heyday.
What we talked about though, was what lay inside. We talked about scholarship student Richard Papen, the novel’s narrator and requisite outsider, a stand-in for us readers. Would we have fallen for the seemingly privileged Henry and his crew as hard as Richard did? What was up with Judy Poovey? With Metahemeralism? Who the hell read Parmenides in the original Greek, as an undergrad? We questioned whether, by the time Bunny was killed in the woods outside Hampden’s campus, his fate, like that of the Romans, was inevitable. And by “we” I mean not just those of us who wanted to be writers and were doing time as fact checkers and Letters Department lackeys. I mean investment banking analysts, paralegals, fashion assistants, waitresses, office temps. If you were in your 20s, you had the book in your bag back then. You deconstructed it while crammed onto a futon at Wednesday night’s impromptu rager in still-seedy alphabet city or Friday’s pre-party on the Upper East Side. Or at boozy brunches in lofts on Laguardia Place that were dirt cheap because who wanted to live on Laguardia back then? The Book was a litmus test for the people you dated. The Book created a community (in the absence of today’s knock-it-down blogosphere) in which anyone who read was welcome.
How did Tartt do it? Especially given that she was only 28 when The Secret History was published, the exact age that Richard Papen is when he’s narrating? (of course, Tartt’s age was part of the allure, part of the story that preceded the book) Rereading it, I’m struck by the novel’s structure. The book begins with Richard’s admission that many years ago, as undergrads at Hampden, he and his friends killed Bunny, one of their own. Now, he signals to the reader, he will tell the story of that murder. There’s no true mystery here, so we assume. It’s not a matter of the “what” or the “who,” but only the “why.” So it comes as a shock, even on rereading, to discover that the book is only halfway over when Bunny is killed and the promise of the prologue has come to pass.
It turns out that it’s not what Richard and his friends have done that matters. It’s how they will live with themselves afterwards. This is where the real suspense lies: in the final 250 pages of the book (the length of many full novels), the unexpected chapters that take place after the crime. Suspense, it turns out, isn’t in life’s drama. It’s in how we live around the drama.
It also turns out, as you’ve probably surmised by now, that my trepidation on returning to the text was unwarranted. The book’s cheap thrills continue to hold (the oddly mannered 19-year-olds, the slightly unkosher relationship between the twins, the beer bashes and doddering professors and hacky-sack sightings). The book’s indulgent prose still grips with the tenacity of ivy crawling up Hampden’s walls. But mostly, the book’s draw turns out the be its asking of the completely un-cheap question, “How do we live with ourselves?” It’s a question that—whether you’re age 20 or 40 or more—is as timeless as the Greek classics. And Tartt asks it with all the tension, the warring factions, the antiheroes, the illicit romance, and enchantment with ideas that mark so many of those classics. I feared that, all of these years later, the book might feel merely like a guilty pleasure. It is a murder plot, after all, even if it’s unconventional in the mystery sense. And damn if I wasn’t easily influenced in my 20s. Instead, though, The Secret History more than holds up. It has me remembering how Donna Tartt, in aiming for the sublime with her first novel, encouraged so many of us aspiring writers to drop our guards and think big. Two decades later, the book has me standing next to Richard Papen all over again, asking myself not what I would have done, but what I will do. How a person, whether aiming for the transcendent or the merely beautiful, goes on.
© Eamonn McCabe
HOLLY LECRAW: When I was writing my first novel, the books I had with me at all times as guides and charms were Gatsby, To the Lighthouse, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, and The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor. They sat on my desk in a talismanic pile. Sometimes I’d hesitate to look at them yet again, afraid of imitation, but mostly I clung to them like bits of flotsam in high seas.
They’re all lean, taut books (even To the Lighthouse, compared with, say, The Waves). There are few, if any, extraneous words, and certainly no extraneous paragraphs, subplots or characters. (It will not surprise you to hear that Dickens is not my jam.) As a group they represent a marriage of style and substance that I aspire to, and in some ways Lucy Gault is the leanest; Trevor’s next book, Love and Summer, is more expansive in plot but, as it’s the same length (each is less than 225 pages), even sparer in execution. It’s the sort of economy that is its own beauty and that is craft, not to mention art, of the highest order.
Lucy Gault was the first Trevor I ever read. I’m not sure what brought me to initially. It could be, I’m embarrassed to say, the blue hydrangeas on the cover. The book has the compact feel in the hand that I like best. However I ended up with it, when I finally read it the calmness and efficiency of his prose was a revelation, especially in the midst of my own floundering. The writing of openings, for me, is a long and painful struggle (and usually accomplished not first but last in the process); but the opening of Lucy Gault is a seemingly effortless masterpiece, as Trevor introduces Captain Gault, his marriage, his child, his servants, and his beloved home and the looming threat to it—for the Gaults are Protestants during the Irish Troubles, when the estates of the English were regularly torched—all in five pages. Miraculously, there is no sense of crowding, instead a measured grace: “Tall and straight-backed, a man who hid nothing of himself, slight in his ambitions now, he had long ago accepted that his destiny was to keep in good heart what had been his inheritance, to attract bees to his hives, to root up his failing apple trees and replace them.” At first glance, ordinary prose; but actually the rhythms are so perfect as to be invisible. (I think here also of Alice McDermott: is it something in the Irish genes? Can one learn it?) Captain Gault’s decency, his humble priorities, even the domestic cycles of his life as a landowner are established with one stroke. One never doubts that Trevor is describing real people, beginning a real story. His authority is quiet and unquestionable.
And then at the end of this opening section, the subtle yet devastating note of fate comes in: Gault’s watchfulness in the face of danger “created in the household further depths of disquiet, a nerviness that affected everyone, including in the end the household’s child.” For it is, after all, Lucy’s story.
I read those few pages over and over. Breaking them down. Looking (mostly in vain) for the formula. Still, they never failed to move me.
The advent of cell phones and other electronic connectedness, the decline of religious guilt, and the normalization of divorce have, aside from any other societal repercussions, made the novelist’s job devilishly harder. The Story of Lucy Gault—a child thought dead, the parents leaving home in grief, not findable when it turns out she’s alive—depends on the absence of the first of these. The story of Love and Summer could not exist in the time of the second two. It’s arguably a larger (though shorter!) book, encompassing a much wider web of characters—a whole town’s worth—and secrets from the past that still cause ripples. Now it is 1950s Ireland, but except for the occasional radio and car it might as well be 1850, and hardly anything is said aloud without being wreathed in pleasantries and a tricky passive Gaelic syntax: “‘A garden of remembrance has been mentioned to me,’” says a brother to his sister, about a memorial for their mother. About a stranger taking pictures at the funeral: “‘It was remarked upon in the house here,’” the sister reports. “‘It was wondered did we want photographs.’” Someone, or several someones, unnamed though they be, are always watching. Nothing goes unnoticed; the smallest changes in the life of the town and its individual inhabitants are never forgotten; at the same time tragedies never explode but are instead buried, to go on causing endless seismic damage. In Love and Summer passion is always punished, when it manages to flower, by the citizens who are victims themselves of archaic mores and yet also act to perpetuate them. Trevor even employs a character, Orpen Wren, full of delusions and confused memories, who acts as a near deus ex machina; but Trevor’s so skillful that he manages to walk the razor’s edge, and Wren, the instrument of the denouement, is woven inescapably into the web of history—of the ruined English estates of the Troubles, and small yet nevertheless thwarted hopes, and impossible loves—like everyone else. With the same skill, Trevor manages to introduce a breath of hope for future happiness at the conclusion, indulging not in sentimentality but instead a kind of bleak and regal decency.
When I wrote my second book, the pile on my desk changed, and I became a little less rigid about it. Possibly I was not as interested in imitation, instead more in inspiration. On that basis Trevor still cycles in regularly. I find it heartening that hardly any of the books I’m most drawn to, including his, are debuts: The Story of Lucy Gault is Trevor’s thirteenth novel (and he has written nearly as many volumes of short stories); Love and Summer his fourteenth. Learning is possible, if not inevitable. Trevor’s quiet and devastating accumulation of mastery, old-fashioned and timeless at once, give me hope in art, in craft, and in the path.
LIZ MOORE: What I love about William Trevor is his obsession with pathos. In contemporary fiction, a good pathos fix is hard to come by—so much so that one assumes upon encountering it that it its inclusion is ironic, a wink to the reader by the self-conscious writer. Yet when used properly, sparingly, pathos is a powerful spice.
The lowest forms of pathos are the most obviously sad. Certain pathetic scenarios are used to the point of cliché in literature and film: the child who’s always the last to be picked up after school. The dying parent’s fond farewell. The fallen soldier who clasps a picture of his beloved to his heart.
Trevor’s pathos is subtler: it is the pain of unrealized, unarticulated hope. The parent—no, better, grandparent—who lovingly, painstakingly builds from scratch a present for his grandchild—a doll, maybe, or a toy car, or a model train—and then watches little Cartwright’s face fall in disappointment upon opening up the box and realizing that it does not contain a PlayStation. The middle-aged woman who’s slightly on the outside of a conversation—she is standing just outside a ring of co-workers, maybe, at a holiday party—and attempting to insert herself into it. She opens and closes her mouth; she laughs at jokes she doesn’t understand. She inches her foot forward, as if to part the waters, but nobody moves. An old man dining alone in a restaurant—but it isn’t just that he’s alone, it’s that he’s enjoying his food, really enjoying it. He closes his eyes to swallow.
My favorite of Trevor’s short stories, “Mrs Silly,” is brilliantly pathetic in this sense. It is the story of a young boy named Michael, the son of long-divorced parents. His father is wealthy, sophisticated, and remarried to fashionable Gillian; his mother, a secretary, dotes on him and chatters too much and has self-disparagingly bestowed the story’s title upon herself. She rambles. She dodders. When Michael’s father decides it’s high time his son went to the same public school that he attended, Michael is sent off to board there. Over the course of the story, both his mother and his father visit his school. He quickly learns that his mother doesn’t fit in nearly as neatly to the school’s culture as his father and Gillian; she makes simple mistakes that, to Michael, feel like the end of the world. These are not her people, and, worst of all, she knows it and nervously overcompensates. In the story’s climax, Michael’s confirmation ceremony, all three parent-figures visit, and his mother stumbles and falls. Later, when his schoolmates laughingly reenact the mishap and Michael realizes that they assume Gillian to be his mother, and his real mother to be some other, more distant relative, he does not correct them. That night, in his bed, he burns with shame and regret. “In the dark, he whispered to [his mother] in his mind,” Trevor writes. “He said he was sorry, he said he loved her better than anyone.”
I was nineteen-year-old Barnard sophomore when I first read this story—it was assigned to me in a creative writing class I took with the writer Mary Gordon, who loves William Trevor too—and I wept in my dorm room upon reading it. It was a gratifying, self-indulgent weep: the weep of a teenager who has had no really legitimate problems in life to contend with, and so must find her tragedies in the ends of brief relationship and in short stories she is assigned in class. This was a particularly good one. I was crying, of course, because I recognized myself in Michael, in the way he is simultaneously embarrassed of a loved one and deeply, passionately ashamed of himself for being so. But also—as every reader most likely will, unless she is a Kardashian—I recognized myself in Mrs. Silly, the outsider, the poor soul who stumbles and falls.
One of William Trevor’s many gifts is pointing us toward these outsiders and illuminating them with beautiful language. In doing so he causes me to notice them in my own life, everywhere I go, and to pay attention to them. I could say that William Trevor inspires me to try to be more compassionate, but this is a reduction of his gifts, for he is never didactic. Instead I’ll say that William Trevor inspires me to keep my eyes open to all the pathos the world daily presents from strangers and friends alike. What I choose to do with it, as a writer and person, is left to me.
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving, and Josie and Jack
Holly LeCraw is the author of The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, as well as the novel The Gin Closet
David Samuel Levinson is the author of Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, as well as the short story collection Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will
Allison Lynn is the author of the novels The Exiles, and Now You See It
Liz Moore is the author of the novels Heft, and The Words of Every Song
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz