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.
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
KATHLEEN ALCOTT: In a way it’s embarrassing to name David Foster Wallace as an influence because such a grotesque has been drawn of him since his death in 2008—but I spent pretty much all of my 18th and 19th years reading and re-reading him, and feeling both sothreatened and excited that someone alive was writing like that. I was thrilled by the stories and essays and novels in which the reader was asked to work almost as hard as the writer, and it left me less intimidated about the act of creation.
CHARLES BOCK: It’s hard to overstate the bomb effect of Infinite Jest on the New York literary world. One thing that was hugely influential on me: IJ’s honking long paragraphs that were actually fun to read. They had an internal rhythm and pace to them. They had jokes. One liners galore but not enough to break your pace. Sometimes Mister Big Book, as I called him to my sister and friends, got too clever for his own good and structured a grand thought around a word that you had to look up, and that sort of derailed the fun. But I came to think of those paragraphs as something to look forward to, like big thick slices of chocolate cake. You start to nibble and you get in and soon you are in love. I was one who did not tire or get sick of the cake. When I finished one big para, it was exciting that there was another one waiting for me. How many long amazing set pieces are in that novel—the guy whose tried to quit smoking pot waiting for his supplier to call or stop by and freaking out to where he splits himself in half when the phone and doorbell ring simultaneously; Kate Gompert ending a long dialogue with a physician by begging for shock therapy; the PGOAT deciding to try and off herself at that New Year’s Eve party; the listings of tattoos inside the rehab center; things that a person learns when they go into rehab; these are off the top of my head and I can do a lot lot more.
But really it was that voice. More than the vision of the futuristic world, more than the commentary on entertainment. So infectious and addictive. The voice of pop culture and the voice of common sense and the guy who was just smarter than everybody else, taking on the biggest issues in the room. Who wouldn’t want that? In the same way that Hunter S. Thompson became the voice of the alternative press in the seventies and eighties, with every young male journalist and every alt weekly writer imitating that voice and diluting it, DFW’s writing style has long been assimilated. His voice now, more or less, has been appropriated and is the voice of the internet. To where it is old reading yet another writer doing DFW. Moreover, Infinite Jest has taken over from Gravity’s Rainbow and certainly from The Recognitions as the monster doorstop that smart young males go to. For more than ten years now, it seems to have given every young ambitious male writer permission to try and get every spare thought into a massive sprawling doorstop of a novel. I was in this boat for a long long time while writing my first novel. It helped me apply pressure to myself to try and go for it all, to want to be brilliant and to try and wrestle with huge ideas and take on the world. Was that because I loved the book so much? Was it because the book had been such a smash and the insecure needy part of me decided this was how a writer was supposed to do it? If you haven’t figured your shit out, a book like Infinite Jest, and the attention it then received, can complicate matters a great deal.
I went through real phases trying to write like Wallace. It took me forever, or maybe for a draft or two of my first novel, until I figured out that I didn’t really have the vocabulary DFW had and that when I tried to use big words it came off as pretentious, or that I wasn’t anywhere near as smart. About a zillion other differences to boot. But the process of failing to be like DFW made it more obvious when stuff was working. And forced me to kind of learn to move toward the material that was honest to my work, the voice that did come off as true.
RYAN BOUDINOT: David Foster Wallace was very influential to me, starting when Infinite Jest got published back in the nineties. I remember reading about him in a magazine and rushing out to get the book. I believe I bought it at a B Dalton, and for a while I just stood there holding it, knowing that if I read it I was going to end up writing like him for a while. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong feeling that a book was going to change my writing so thoroughly. And of course it did, to the point where a lot of what I wrote for years afterward sounded imitative. That’s always the scary thing—we want so badly to be considered sui generis and hide our influences, but I go back to what Stevie Wonder once said about being afraid of not being influenced by great art. Infinite Jest seemed to me to continue the project that Pynchon was working on, to marry erudition to verbal looseness. There was a period where David Foster Wallace, in my mind, could do no wrong. I saw him read at Elliott Bay Book Company in support of his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and after the event was just elated that I’d gotten to shake his hand. I’ve read almost everything he’s written (bailed on Everything and More, and wasn’t able to stomach The Broom of the System) and was thrilled by The Pale King. I recently finished D.T. Max’s biography and felt even more impressed that he accomplished his body of work and sadder that he left us when and how he did.
BLAKE BUTLER: After high school and in the first few years of college I kind of lost my bead on reading and writing at all. I went to Georgia Tech for computer science and was writing a ton of code and studying logic, which I think would end up being an influence on the way I think about writing fiction later, but really I wasn’t that interested for a long gap in storytelling or language at all. I talked to the machine and figured out how to make it tell someone something and had a brain for math that I really miss now. I think it was my third or fourth year of undergrad that I somehow ran across a review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and for some reason asked for it for Christmas. I think it was kind of on a whim, because it sounded machinic and mathy in its own way, and I missed the way reading felt. I ended up getting totally obsessed with that book, and then Wallace in general; actually walked out of a physics final review while reading it instead, and thereafter changed my major to multimedia design so I could get out of school as quickly as possible. Something about the way Wallace used story as a placeholder or an engine for a way of thinking about the world, and describing consciousness to such an extent that the book seemed to have a brain buried inside it really got me. From there I got infected and found a lot of other books from following Wallace’s references: DeLillo, Markson, Pynchon, Vollmann, Borges, etc. The book both taught me that there was a way of writing that could be more than just a story on paper, that could create space around the thing that it talked about, and also opened the world again to all these other kinds of books. Revitalizing me as a reader first, and at the same time making me realize there were ways of talking on paper that I hadn’t thought about, turned my brain back on, and got me reading and writing almost every day, which since then I’ve never really stopped. If I hadn’t found Wallace I might still spend the same amount of time I do now in front of the computer typing, though it’d be all in code. Sometimes I still like to imagine my code now is images and syllables.
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN
© The Author
MICHELLE HOOVER: I was lucky enough to have John Edgar Wideman as my thesis advisor at the University of Massachusetts. God help the man for the awful prose he had to crawl through. He repeatedly asked me one question: “What are you trying to say?” At twenty-three, I was trying to say all sorts of things, but none of them were very interesting. When I introduce Wideman’s stories now to my freshmen, they are equally puzzled—and then curious, squinty-eyed, and shaking their heads in wonderment. The hard truths in Wideman’s work are never simple. Who else has written about race, class, and an author’s desire to explore both with such complexity and self-stated confusion? Who else combats these issues in a style as dense and musical as the best improvised jazz? And who else can mesh hard sex and motherhood, the insect and the human, the dead and the living? Who can write so entirely over our heads while striking at the heart of our guilty humanness? As an influence, I can’t pretend to even come close the intelligence and raging beauty of his work, though I do try to push myself deep into the heart of the strangers whose stories I tell and match his intensity. And I still ask myself and my students: “What are you trying to say?” I find that many of my students, no matter how skilled, are often stuck on repeat, at least in terms of their subjects, their visions. For many, the idea of “vision” itself seems a foreign affair. I often find myself stuck as well. But with Wideman looking over my shoulder, as all great teachers do, I know how important it is to continue to try—to write in a way that propels conversation, that challenges assumptions, all the while staying true to character, their fears and yearnings, and the ever important, ever exquisite, ever mystifying sentence.
WENDY BRENNER: Two decades before I was born, Joy Williams grew up in a small town in Maine, an only child descended from “Welsh preachers and miners.” Her father and grandfather were Congregational ministers. To date, I have never met a Congregational minister. I was raised by Jewish atheists in Chicago; my family did not attend synagogue, let alone church. As a child Joy Williams liked reading the Bible, she once said in an interview, because the stories about “snakes and serpents and mysterious seeds” seemed to contain layers of hidden meaning. My own family’s large, wide-ranging collection of books did not include a Bible, but we did own an actual serpent, a pet boa constrictor my mother gave my father for their anniversary when I was twelve. It was a literal snake and never showed any signs of hidden meaning. In fact, I found it boring for that reason—even atheists know snakes are supposed to be mysterious and exciting. Ours just sat there.
The only point of connection I can identify between Joy Williams and myself is Florida, a place we both visited as children on family vacations and later ended up living in, and loving for similar reasons—the primal extremity and contradiction and irrationality of the landscape, the prehistoric-looking animals and trees, the snakes. Florida seemed magical to me, somewhere people went to be transformed. Williams called it “an odd and slightly unreal place.”
I did not know anything about Joy Williams when I first encountered her fiction as a college student in Ohio in the 1980s. For a class I was assigned to read her short story “Train,” about two ten-year-old girls, friends, traveling on a train from Maine to Florida, where, Williams writes, daylight “fell without prejudice on the slaughterhouses, Dairy Queens and courthouses, on the car lots, sabal palms and a billboard advertisement for pies.” This sentence excites me still, how it reaches out the window of the train, past the story of the girls, to contain the entire human condition, not in abstraction but in the irreconcilable mundanities of daily life, which we readers suddenly notice are slightly bizarre, a little absurd, a little beside the point—whatever the point even is. Meanwhile, on the train, the little girls stay up all night, roaming the aisles and chatting convivially with the other passengers, variously inebriated and vaguely threatening adults, about lizards, pharmaceutical testing, custom car design, legendary European cemeteries, astronauts. One of the girls momentarily retreats into the restroom to weep, feeling “surrounded by strangers saying crazy things.” Elsewhere in the story collection (Taking Care), Williams describes a character’s houseplant as follows: “The fern has a lot of space around it in which anything can happen but it doesn’t have much of an emotional life because it is insane. Therefore, it makes a good confidant.”
I was nineteen when I read “Train” for the first time, and after I read it I immediately wrote Joy Williams an overwrought fan letter about my much-older boyfriend, a mysterious character who had spent his teen years in mental institutions and now ran a comedy club housed in a Chicago church—the way he talked was like the way she wrote, what was it?—and then I wrote a short story in a weird, authoritative voice I didn’t recognize, a piece of writing that later became my first published story. I felt that Williams’s voice had unlocked my own voice, but it did much more than that. It unlocked the world, what Williams calls the “teeming, chaotic underside” of everything. Here was God, finally, not in any church or temple, but everywhere I looked, if I could just pay close enough attention.
BROCK CLARKE: This passage—from Joy Williams’s brilliant 2000 novel The Quick and the Dead—shows what she does perhaps better than any other living American writer: she uses a particular character’s limited point of view to say something large and true and profound about the country in which this character lives without breaking character and also without making a big, off-putting deal about the profundity. This is one of Williams’s great gifts: she is so wise, and one of the ways she is wise is that she doesn’t insist the reader genuflect before the altar of her wisdom.
“Her gruesomely contorted hands rose a little, then fell back into her lap. Suddenly she wasn’t in Africa anymore—the terrifying sunrises, the thick beaks of the birds, the gazelles floating through the air. She had loved the sliver of green in the fierce bone white of the thorn tree. But now she was unwell and in Florida. But where was that? Florida could be anyplace, which had always been one of Florida’s problems."
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: One way scientists and art historians detect forgeries is by testing paintings for certain radioactive isotopes, namely Caesium–137 and Strontium–90. These isotopes do not occur in nature. They were birthed into existence the way some say we were, via explosion, specifically two: "Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” These isotopes allow protectors of authentic antiquities to distinguish between art created before the bombs and after. Equally explosive, the work of Joy Williams blasted my world open. A friend gave me her tour de force novel The Quick and the Dead when I was about half finished with the short story collection that would become my first book. Williams completely annihilated everything I was doing. I finished The Quick and the Dead and then, in an feverish binge that I haven’t undergone before or since, I read the stories in Taking Care, then the novel State of Grace, then Ill Nature, Williams’ tough, brilliant essay collection. When the dust settled, I surveyed what I’d written, what I’d thought were half a dozen finished stories, stories that had been published well, stories that had impressed my dream agent. I saw fluff and flab. I saw intellectual laziness and artistic incompetence. I immediately ditched two of those and set out trimming, tightening, and complicating the survivors on every level, structure to sentence to syllable. New stories got leaner under Williams’ influence and, most crucially, they asked more of their readers. The Quick and the Dead is my 1945. When I look through the collection now, I can date the stories as pre-Joy or post-Joy. Joy Williams is my tell-tale isotope, both fission and fusion. If I have written anything I’m still proud of, I’ve done so in her long shadow.
© Murdo McLeod
EDWARD SCHWARZSCHILD: I heard Wolff read during college and then, fifteen years later, I was fortunate enough to study with him. During those years between the reading and the Stegner workshops, the stories he wrote–in In the Garden of North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question—were absolutely inspirational. Stories like “The Liar,” “The Rich Brother,” and “Smorgasbord,” and many others struck me as both contemporary and classic. I wanted—I still want, I’ll always want—to learn how to write stories that seem so immediate and timeless. During those fifteen years, I also spent considerable time with the anthology he edited in 1983, Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories, and I discovered that Wolff was not only writing the kind of stories I longed to read and write; he was also a superb guide for what to read. I continue to refer to that anthology, not only for the stories Wolff assembled there (by Beattie, Carver, Elkin, Ford, Hannah, Vaughn, and on and on), but also for the wisdom of Wolff’s introduction, in which he describes how he came to choose the writers he chose:
“They speak to us, without flippancy, about things that matter. They write about what happens between men and women, parents and children. They write about fear of death, fear of life, the feelings that bring people together and force them apart, the costs of intimacy. They remind us that our house is built on sand. They are, every one of them, interested in what it means to be human.”
If I start writing here about what it was like, from 1999 to 2001, to study with Tobias Wolff, I’ll be heading into a much longer, even more hagiographic essay. Briefly, what I can say is that it felt like I’d been learning from him for years, and I still am, and there remains so much more to learn.
Kathleen Alcott is the author of the novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
Charles Bock is the author of the novel Beautiful Children
Ryan Boudinot is the author of Blueprints of the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories
Blake Butler is the author of five books of fiction, including Three Hundred Million, There Is No Year and Scorch Atlas, and a work of hybrid nonfiction, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia
Michelle Hoover is the author of the novel The Quickening
Wendy Brenner is the author of the short story collections Phone Calls from the Dead, and Large Animals in Everyday Life
Brock Clarke is the author of the novels The Happiest People in the World, Exley, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, and The Ordinary White Boy, as well as the short story collections What We Won’t Do, and Carrying the Torch
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the short story collection Battleborn
Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the short story collection The Family Diamond, and the novel Responsible Men
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz