Anyone who knew me as a child is probably not remotely surprised that I turned out to be a writer because books have always played a huge role in my life. There are a handful of books, however, that have been more influential than others in making me into the person I am today. So if I am a monster, the following books are my Dr. Frankenstein (which happens to be nowhere near my list). Except for the first one, they’re in no particular order.
Any list of books that have helped shaped me has to start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
I first read it at ten years old, and have read it over twenty times since then. It was even the theme of my bat mitzvah (which worked pretty well, as we had the party at an antebellum mansion). When I first read the book, I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara.
She was so determined, some unabashedly unstoppable. And to a young girl whose mother once described her as possessing the “evil, going-to-take-over-the-world-someday gene” (yes, she meant me), Scarlett was the female role model who didn’t exist anywhere else.
As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten deeper shades of meaning out of the book. I get frustrated with anyone who spouts off the BS from James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, because his argument against Gone With the Wind ignores the fact that a novel can be historically accurate in showing the racism of a time period without being a book that promotes racism. But the main thing that struck me as I got closer to the age that Scarlett is at the end of the book is that by the time I was old enough to understand that I did NOT want to be like her, it was too late for me in many ways.
Perhaps the most significant effect that Gone With the Wind has had on my life however, has nothing to do with Scarlett O’Hara. Because from the moment I started reading my mother’s old tattered copy from the 1960s (which didn’t even survive that first reading, let alone the subsequent readings), I knew that I had to be a writer. And one of the best compliments I have ever received came from the website IWriteLike.com, which compares samples of your writing to that of famous authors and tells you who your style is most similar to. And when I put the entire text of Beyond the Palace into the program, I was told my writing style was most like Margaret Mitchell’s.
My novel is less than a third of the length of hers, but despite its heft, Gone With the Wind is worth every single page.
The next book on my list is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
I know, I know, Pride and Prejudice is every Austen lover’s favorite book. But Sense and Sensibility is darker, which I think lends so much more realism to the story. So many of the problems in Pride and Prejudice center around the class divide, which doesn’t really exist in the world I live in. But the problems in Sense and Sensibility can still keep people apart today. The characters, written over two hundred years ago, are multi-dimensional enough to ring true even now. We have all been Marianne Dashwood at times and followed our hearts, only to be emotionally ravaged when we learn that love isn’t always enough to make a relationship work when two people have different priorities.
And we’ve all been her sister, Elinor, in love with someone we can never have and kept forever from that person by the hateful Lucy Steeles of the world.
Before there was Regina George of Mean Girls, there was Lucy Steele, befriending Elinor with the sole intention of crushing her rival. If you’ve never read this gem, pick up a copy now. You’ll have to be able to get past the Victorian language, but if you do, you’ll find a surprisingly raw love story that resonates incredibly strongly despite being written by a long-dead British spinster.
Stephen King’s The Stand makes the cut next.
I know, that’s a huge jump from Jane Austen. But Stephen King creates a whole world in this novel (granted, he kills 99 percent of that world off within the first hundred pages, but that’s the basic plot of all Stephen King books–someone or something goes crazy and kills people), and the ability to do that, to breathe actual life into a set of characters is something that mortals are seldom able to accomplish. I also know that a lot of people label Stephen King as a hack because of the practically superhuman speed at which her churns out novels. But every time I pick this book up, I’m still amazed by the ease with which he can juggle so many people’s lives and make ALL of them three dimensional.
My books are far from the horror genre so far (although I probably WILL venture into Stephen King’s territory at some point in my career. I’m just waiting for the right story to hit me), but one element of his work has inspired everything that I’ve written, and that is that all of his characters who wrong others have a chance for redemption in the end. They all make a choice to do good or do evil, and the lesson I have taken from that for my writing is that there’s no such thing as a purely good or purely evil character. Everyone is the star of his or her own plotline, and they are all able to make redemptive choices. They don’t all choose to redeem themselves, in fact most of them don’t. But they have a reason for their behavior and the free will to choose their own path, and I have tried to give that same ability to my villains as well.
While there are a dozen books that people call “The Great American Novel,” I think that title belongs unarguably to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
This is the book I turn to when I lose faith in humanity. When I feel that everyone is ONLY ever looking out for him or herself, I read this book to humanize myself again. With the POSSIBLE exception of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better character in all of literature than Atticus Finch.
He manages to be caring and strong at the same time, but most of all, he’s REAL. Most characters who care more for others than themselves are no more than weak foils to the protagonists. Amelia in William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair or Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are shining examples of these morally righteous characters who are too weak to be that likeable. But Atticus, even as he cries over the injustice of Tom Robinson’s death, reminds me that there IS true, genuine goodness and strength in the world.
The end of the novel, no matter how many times I read it, leaves me surprised, touched, and less jaded with the world. If you haven’t read this one since you were in school, read it again. The first eight pages will bore you if you don’t remember enough of the story for it to make sense, but when you get past those eight pages, you’ll thank me. I promise.
And last, but by no means least, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I’m ashamed to admit that when I read this in high school, I hated it. And to be honest, I still think that all of the female characters in it are horrible. But Fitzgerald was so far ahead of his time in so many ways. Nick’s one-third life crisis resonates so strongly with what my generation currently faces that I wonder how earlier generations could have identified with it as strongly as we do. I feel like the baby boom generation WANTED to get married and start having kids in their twenties, like Daisy and Tom do. But Nick flees to the east to escape from that world, and finally, after everything that he sees that summer finds that at 30 years old, he is “five years too old to lie to [himself] and call it honor.” And in the gap that I’m now seeing between myself now and the person I was merely a few years ago, I’ve come to realize just how talented Fitzgerald was at capturing the human condition as it is now, some eighty-five years after he wrote his greatest novel.
One of my college professors used to tell us that everyone should read The Great Gatsby every five years because as your situation in life changes, so will your take on the book. Bruce Springsteen described “Born to Run” as a song that has kept him company on his journey through life, and that it has grown with him as he has aged, and I think The Great Gatsby has that same quality to it. Which, coming from me, is some of the highest praise possible to give.
I’ll get into the books that shaped me the most as a writer another day, but if you like what you’ve seen on my blog or in my first novel, take another look at these five books while you’re waiting for my next book. Which is coming. Soon. I promise. All I need is a title. I was thinking along the lines of “No TV and no beer make Homer… something something.”