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.
© Rick Friedman
RYAN MCILVAIN: Nicholson Baker is white-bearded and pudgy, Melvillean in his poetry and non-narrative meandering and occasional cantankerousness, and in his New England digs. Over the years he has amassed a decent half-shelf of slim, wild books, none slimmer or wilder than Vox, an erotic starburst of a novel. The book’s claims to extra-textual fame include Stephen King’s referring to it slightingly and, for Baker, productively (see his essay on the subject), as “a meaningless little fingernail paring,” and also Monica Lewinsky’s giving the book to President Clinton as a naughty token.
And it is a naughty book. One of the things I most love about Baker is his unflinching, matter-of-fact interest in sex. Baker doesn’t force his characters to settle for mere cuddling; he doesn’t coyly cut away from skin. He summersaults into the fraught fleshy territory that too many other contemporary writers tiptoe around. Vox narrates verbatim the conversation of a man and a woman who meet on a phone sex line. They talk about wetness and hardness and double penetration, and so on, and in the end they both get where they were going all along, but they also talk about their childhoods, favorite writing utensils, mail-order catalogues, the mysteries of pop music. At one point the unnamed woman in the conversation describes how she used to buy cassette tapes and “turn them up very loud—with the headphones on—and listen very closely, trying to catch that precise moment when the person in the recording studio had begun to turn the volume dial down, or whatever it was he did. Sometimes I’d turn the volume dial up at just the speed I thought he—I mean the ghostly hand of the record producer—was turning it down, so that the sound stayed on an even plane. I’d get in this sort of trance … where I thought if I kept turning it up—and this is a very powerful amplifier, mind you—the song would not stop, it would just continue indefinitely. And so what I had thought of before as just a kind of artistic sloppiness, this attempt to imply that oh yeah, we’re a bunch of endlessly creative folks who jam all night, and the bad old record producer finally has to turn down the volume on us just so we don’t fill the whole album with one monster song, became for me instead this kind of, this kind of summation of hopefulness.”
It’s a magnificent passage, and it’s in very good company in the book and in Baker’s entire oeuvre: that juxtaposition of high and low dictions, the stuttering, then searing eloquence, the close, obsessive attention to detail, and of course the humor all throughout, or all underneath perhaps. I think Baker is rarely straight-on funny, rarely aiming for a laugh; rather, he is incidentally funny, funny along the way, in the headlong rush to get from one genuinely earnest mundanity to the next. His characters think and talk like he does, as did those of Henry James, an influence on Baker, and an obvious influence on his prose. That an artist settles into a certain style, a certain voice, and imparts that same voice to his creations, is not necessarily a demerit in my book. If the pony’s lone trick, or gift, is to talk interestingly and at length, well, don’t look it in the mouth.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I like to tell people that The Mezzanine is a story about a man riding an escalator. I do this because I assume the idea of a novel set entirely on an escalator will—to most readers—sound brave, or maybe impudent. What man in his right mind would dare to write a book about such an inconsequential event? The answer to that question—if I’m going to be honest—is no one. Not even Nicholson Baker. The Mezzanine is not, as it turns out, a story about a man riding an escalator.
At least, it’s not only about that.
It’s true that our hero is carried up, up, and away by a flight of silver, “crenellated,” mobile stairs. But he’s also carried away by memory and imagination and wonder. On the first page, he notes with admiration the “long, glossy highlights” on “each of the rubber handrails,” and in a footnote—one of many—confesses to loving “the constancy of shine on the edges of moving objects.” And so begins a string of meditations on modern contrivances, each one rendered in prose so vivid—so precisely focused—that they seem downright lurid. The narrator conceives of a shoe, from his foot’s point of view, as a “sauna of cordovan.” Staple-holes in paper resemble “TB vaccine marks.” Turn signal switches “feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration.” Loose doorknobs, made of “faceted glass” possess a “knuckly, orthopedic quality.” And at one point, the narrator remembers how his mother warned him not to “jam a wad of molar-textured pink gum into the gap between one curved riser and the grooved stair below it,” perhaps because she knows he wants to “to see the gum crushed with the dwarfing force of a large, steady machine, the way garbage trucks forced paper cartons to crumple into each other.”
We get no explanation of why our narrator is so finely tuned to his surroundings, but one gets the sense that it might be a kind of superpower with which he is imbued, along with the ability to employ language in the service of transmitting those perceptions. Thankfully, Baker’s narrator is less interested in describing the obviously grandiose or conventionally beautiful; instead, he takes us on a tour of the kind of everyday ephemera we take for granted—a shoelace, a stapler, a milk carton, an escalator rail—to prove that each one is worthy of contemplation, if not outright praise. Consider, if you will, the inefficiency of hand-driers over conventional towels, or the way toilet paper, if used as a substitute, turns to “semitransparent puree” in one’s hands. Observe the “Ms and Vs the night crew left as stokes of their vacuum cleaners wands made swaths of dustless tufting lean in directions that alternately absorbed and reflected the light.” Does the ice cube tray, according to our narrator, deserve a historical note? Indeed. Do grooves made by skates merit an extended meditation? Absolutely. Baker’s narrator reminds us that life—supposing it is lived in a perpetual state of wakeful appreciation—can become a perpetual treasure hunt, transforming mindless chores into occasions to pay close, rapturous attention. Don’t take sweeping for granted, otherwise you’ll miss the production of “those ruler-edged gray lines of superfine residue, one after another, diminishing in thickness toward invisibility, but never completely disappearing, as you (back) the dustpan up.”
The Mezzanine reminds me how pleasurable it is to see something that one has seen a hundred times before, something that one’s mind has noted without noting its noteworthiness, then seeing another person articulate it—as if seeing it for the first time—with just the right words. It’s an experience that is accompanied always by an immediate sense of recognition and gratefulness: Yes, I think. I too have borne witness to such phenomena!
You could say that not all that much happens in The Mezzanine, but you’d be wrong. In the absence of the kind of physical action that supports scene, we get something just as active and able to generate its own kind of suspense: a linguistically gifted, wide-awake narrator, whose gleeful appreciations of contemporary paraphernalia make us wonder what he will possibly turn his attention to next. What could’ve been a book-length stand-up routine interrogating the absurdities of modern technology seems instead like an invitation to appreciate our interactions with human invention, whether it’s a tube that enables us to suck liquid from a container into our mouths, a sugar packet, a rubber stamp, or a moving staircase ferrying us to higher ground. In the end, The Mezzanine shows us that if we look hard enough, we’ll understand that the notion of “ordinariness” is a myth, a failure of our own perception, which, if properly engaged, has the power to interpret the everyday as it truly is: miraculous.
© Nancy Siesel
DAN CHAON: His early novels and stories gave a voice to the lives of small town, working class people in a way that gave them the depth and dignity of Shakespearian tragedy. Novels like Continental Drift and Affliction explored stunted lives with an intensity and sympathy I’d never encountered. The Sweet Hereafter used multiple perspective to stunning effect. He’s also a remarkable story writer.
BRUCE MACHART: Perhaps the most important decision a writer makes, story by story or book by book, is that of point of view. Often this “decision” is one of instinct. The first draft comes out in first person, and we leave it that way because it serves the story well. Other times, the point of view seems geared consciously toward the aims of the narrative in more conscious ways. I remember, for instance, reading Russell Banks’ tour-de-force short story, “Sara Cole: A Type of Love Story.” It peeled my scalp back. Here was a story that was told in first person but explicitly taught the reader that this first-person narrator was going to speak of himself in third person POV. And there’s a logic to it. And a narrative necessity. And the story teaches us how to read it. Along the way, we feel the power of the narrator’s need to distance himself from certain events from his own life, and, upon further study, we find that the tenses also change from present to past and back again. There is a narrative logic, subtle but definite, at work in the story. I read this story when I was in my early twenties, when I was just beginning to try to write stories, and the experience was epiphanic. I saw, perhaps for the first time, the artist at work behind the art. I realized for the first time that this understanding of craft was essential, that it distinguished the ways that readers and writers read stories. Of course, I went in search of more of Banks’ work, and I found Affliction, which remains, for me, among the most impressively wrought examples of point of view innovation I’ve ever read. All too often, young writers (including many published writers) use multiple points of view in stories or novels because they don’t seem to understand why they are telling stories they way they are telling them. We have multiple first person narrators in works that could easily be written in third. We have first person narrators and third person narrators in the same work, and most of the time this is unnecessary and befuddling for the reader (Who the hell is telling me this story? they ask.) When one reads the earlier works of Russell Banks, one never feels this way. The innovations aren’t “experiments;” they are essential to the stories being told.
WHITNEY TERRELL: It’s hard to find a writer who has covered more ground than Russell Banks. He can write about small town life, as he does in The Sweet Hereafter, but his most recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is excellent on the dissociations and discontents of our current period of technological change. He has confronted seemingly every major issue of our time, from race to immigration, child abuse to environmental degradation. And yet always, in his work, these larger social themes are undercut by humor and his constant awareness of the stubbornness and unpredictability of the human soul. All of this while writing in a straight, realistic style. Also, I would argue that Banks’ insistent exploration of how his characters have been marginalized and economically cut off from “mainstream” America was ahead of its time. It’s important to remember that he wrote novels like Continental Drift (1985) and Affliction (1990) when the country was comparatively booming. Now, after the crash of 2008, those novels seem more prophetic than ever.
© Robert L. Hall
BEN GREENMAN: I think that at some point I started to become aware of the Barthelme brothers, Frederick and Donald. I list them in that order even though most people would list them in the other order. When Second Marriage came out, which was in the early eighties, I was fourteen or fifteen. Tracer came out a year after that. I was probably mired in a maximalist phase at that point, reading lots of Joyce and Faulkner, writing unregulated sentences, dreaming up philosophy, and I had such great admiration for Barthelme’s compression, the coolness and lightness that actually, surreptitiously, moved large amounts of heat and darkness. I came to Donald about a year after that, and that’s maybe a clearer influence on my brain and my work, because it rewarded my suspicions regarding the artifice of all fiction and all narrative and reinstated my devotion to the cosmic joke. I think that’s something I’ve struggled with ever since: how to be a True Believer in the land of fiction and, at the same time, retain my conviction that conviction itself is a preposterous pose. The funny thing is that I have probably read less Donald than Frederick, in part because I want to keep my headspace clearer from Donald’s ideas, and make sure they don’t step on my own. Frederick, I use as a reader to better understand pacing and quick sketching and banter and then the sudden unpredictable thunder of emotional disappointment (and thunder’s only unpredictable, remember, when you have your eyes shut for the lightning).
© Alison Young
SCOTT HUTCHINS: I hear the whisper of Charles Baxter’s writing everywhere in my generation of storytellers. He’s been called a Midwestern Kafka, and there’s no doubt his sensibility tilts more to Eastern Europe than to Dirty Realism. But a more helpful comparison might be Bruno Schulz—or even New Wave cinema. Or even Flannery O’Connor. Baxter has that eye for the grotesque, though without sanctimony. He is one of the few American writers working today who is a master at rumination. I include his two essential collections of essays, Burning Down the House and Subtext, but also his novels, First Light and The Soul Thief. Where he sinks his initial claws into the reader, however, is his short stories—or perhaps that novel built of stories A Feast of Love. When I read “Love Too Long”—with that drunk Tiresias, his gut like a balloon full of gravy—I was introduced to a new vision of the world, both fictively and actually. Baxter’s sense of the uncanny, as well as his characters’ quixotic, but never satirized search for meaning, captures the depth of life in the under-portrayed sections of the country. Its depth, its struggle, its wild reality. There’s a true warmth to his work, which shouldn’t be mistaken for naïveté—or even, frankly, hopefulness. Aside from the gorgeousness of his sentences, what I most take from his terrifically varied and inventive oeuvre is his careful thinking and his insistence on seeing clearly.
RATTAWUT LAPCHAROENSAP: I was lucky enough to be one of his students at the University of Michigan in the early 2000s. I owe him everything as a writer. I often look to Baxter’s work—to his short stories and novels and essays—and to his example as a teacher, as yardsticks against which to measure myself. He is not only a tremendous teacher and reader but he also expanded my sense of what might be possible in fiction. His short stories have been a source of continual joy and wonder; his essays strike me as peerless examples of a certain kind of clear-eyed criticism about fiction that seems increasingly in short supply; and his personal reading recommendations to me over the years have profoundly shaped my thinking about fiction.
ANDER MONSON: I discovered Baxter in, I think, tenth grade. Maybe eleventh. The wonderful thing I remember about Baxter was that, unlike pretty much everyone I had read before (which says something about my reading up until this point), he was writing about a place I knew: Michigan. Admittedly, a lightly fictionalized Michigan. I found myself attached to his stories in particular, especially Through the Safety Net and A Relative Stranger. There’s something dazzling about reading something set in a place (not exactly my place, admittedly, since I hail from about ten hours northwest from Baxter’s Five Oaks, if I’m remembering the name right, a fictional suburb of Detroit), but my state, certainly, a state that felt to me (and still feels) relatively underwritten, a blank space on the map, compared to Paris, New York, Alabama, Mississippi. Of course I knew that there was such a thing as a Southern writer. I could in fact then name a handful: Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. But I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Michigan writer.
I should qualify this: Baxter’s not from Michigan. But I think of him as a Michigan Writer. One of his first books (of poetry; he was a poet before he was a fiction writer, itself a useful lesson, I thought) is The South Dakota Guidebook, paying homage to what I believe is his state of birth. But he did live in Michigan and teach at Wayne State University, then at the University of Michigan. He observes well, and has suffered many a (lower) Michigan winter. Southern writers must, of course, be born there (and preferably their ancestors should have fought on the right side of the War of Northern Aggression, as they term the Civil War). But a Michigan Writer need not be born in Michigan, as long as she writes about the place honorably.
I’d like to say that I took from him the lesson that we can write about what we know and care about. But I’m not sure that’s true, exactly. What I took from him was the knowledge that my state—my place, even if not quite my peninsula—was worth writing about, and that people had written about it, living people, even, and that there was something there in those two books that resonated with me, and that I still hold close to my heart. They’re very weird books, coming back to them now. Some stories are quite straightforward narrative, but others (like “A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron,” which is a pointillistic metafiction name-checking the famous Seurat painting and trying to adapt its methodology in a story) are much weirder, unhinged really, often formally or stylistically inventive. This is clearly something that affected—or possibly infected—me, since that kind of playfulness continues to be one of my major interests.
Too, I find instructive Baxter’s beginnings as a poet: though much of that work isn’t all that distinguished—to this reader anyhow, compared to his fiction, you can see his poet training on the micro level deployed in his stories too. In fact the vast majority of the prose writers I love the most are trained as poets. I remember thinking to myself (or maybe this is bogus reverse engineering of a memory for the convenience of a point: one can’t tell, not really, I don’t think): oh, so you don’t just have to be a fiction writer. Or you don’t just have to be a poet. Or you don’t just have to be a Michigan writer. Or a Southern one. Or a realist one. And so forth. There was something cool in that to my punk-ass seventeen-year-old self that stuck.
ERIC PUCHNER: One of the first contemporary story collections I ever read was A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. I’d entered college wanting to write poetry, something I had little talent for. My advisor must have recognized this, because he gave me a stack of story collections to read—Carver was in there, and Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford—but there was something about Baxter’s Midwestern voice that appealed to me in particular: it was plainspoken yet eloquent, and I liked that his characters were essentially good and decent people, trying to make their way in the world. Mostly, though, I liked the way the stories, so grounded in reality, burst unexpectedly into dream. There was a strangeness at the heart of them that took several pages to emerge, usually in the form of an arresting and otherworldly image: I’m thinking of the Chevy Impala trapped under the ice in “Snow,” for example; or the albino deer that the protagonist encounters in “Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant”; or the deeply peculiar moment at the end of “The Disappeared,” when a Swedish man who’s been clocked over the head wanders into a maternity ward and pretends to be the father of an American baby. The short story has its roots in the uncanny, of course—Irving and Poe and Hawthorne—and of all the so-called minimalists to come out of the eighties, Baxter seems to be the one who’s managed to fuse psychological realism with something stranger, a true capacity for wonder. (Some of his stories, like “Kiss Away,” border on fairy tale.) And if you’re lucky enough to have read Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, you’ll know that his work keeps getting richer and more mysterious.
© Sigrid Estrada
MICHELLE WILDGEN: Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, The Burning House, and Secrets and Surprises were among my teenage writing and reading touchstones. I have no idea how I encountered her writing—maybe at a writing class I took each summer for a few years. Ann Beattie certainly was not assigned in English class, though I once tried to write a paper about a Beattie story in the hopes that I would discover I understood more than I perceived. It turned out I understood even less, and at the top of that paper my teacher wrote “Please see me.” Mortified, I never did, and spent the rest of the year waiting to be punished.
The question of how I encountered Beattie’s work matters to me because I suspect that if I had encountered her work *through* someone, I might have had a guide to understanding her a little more than I did. I only knew that something about her stories appealed to me in a deep, indefinable way. They felt complete and solid and gleaming, an object like a pearl or a carved box rather than words on a page, with rich depths I couldn’t see from the outside but knew were there. The fact that I could not quite articulate what I loved was both part of the appeal and also meant that my attempts at recreating the magic were all centered around the surface trappings. So I wrote about what people ate and drank, strange disconnections in their conversations and between passages, funny/odd things they said and did that were maybe believable but mostly not.
I loved Beattie’s way of ending a story on an oblique image that left me in some discomfited but resonant emotional state, a sense of completion, even if it did not clarify a particular plot point. Little in the way of overt plot happened in her stories, and I did not know how to see, for example, that the plot might be happening on a level of emotion. Instead what I took away was that plot was not too crucial, and spent the next ten years trying to write around it.
So, was encountering Ann Beattie’s work the best thing I could have done as a fifteen-year-old or the worst thing? Her writing lit me up and energized me, even though I had no idea why. But I did spend the next several years taking away unproductive lessons, which I fully accept were of my own invention and not hers. The combination of my love for Ann Beattie’s work and my lack of an apparatus or even a vocabulary for understanding what I liked about it led to some of my very worst writing. But I have to come down on the side of the positive. Her writing was unlike any of the classics or pulpy contemporary stuff I had been reading, and it seemed to exist alone with me, free of other people’s ideas because no one else in my life read her work. She felt entirely my own. And even if I did write some impressively terrible imitations of her stories, the fact is, I was a teenager trying to write fiction about suburban parties and high school relationships. Reading Tolstoy would have led to my very worst writing, too.
Beattie’s stories grabbed me for their tight focus on the stuff of a life, the objects and items we acquire and consume. Munro’s stories feel more capacious, even though the lives she describes tend to feel abstemious, somehow—partially because of her general approach but also because her characters are often living in rural, hard-scrabble existences instead of, say, taking the occasional class at Yale. Whereas Beattie’s people seem to regard their own emotions with some faint sense of surprise or ironic distance, Munro’s stories often delve deeply into a person’s tumultuous inner life, revealing people we might assume have placid inner lives. (As a teacher of mine once noted, I don’t really want to hang out or have lunch with any of Munro’s characters, but I’ll read about them forever.) I found, and still find, her way of putting together stories completely compelling, because I think she can do anything she wants. Her structures can move in any direction at all, it seems, and she gets a lot of mileage out of the thin veil that covers an urgent, sometimes violent core.
© Philip Channing
CHRISTOPHER BOUCHER: I have the strange habit of hoarding books by those authors whose work I find most inspiring. All of a sudden, I’ll find myself seeking out multiple copies—a “home” copy, which remains untouched, and a “road” copy which I can carry around with me, write in, and not worry about losing. When I look back on these books—Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, for example—I see a few common attributes. For one, each book contains sizeable risks—moments in which the writers cross lines I didn’t know could be crossed. Bender’s work packs just as much wallop, but via rapid-fire rabbit punches. Her imagination is unparalleled, but so is her technical prowess—in my opinion, her best stories display just the right balance of invention, voice, and timing. They seem to me to crash forward towards a stunning, and often devastating, conclusion.
RYAN BOUDINOT: Aimee Bender is an important writer to me. I’ve been a fan of hers since The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. With regard to her work, she does two things that I just love. One, she works within the realm of non-realism without getting foggy. Her stories are so crisp and vivid, there’s nothing murky about them. Two, she’s hilarious in an almost accidental way. I always get the feeling that the lines in her work that make me laugh weren’t engineered for that purpose, that humor is a byproduct of her work rather than being the main point. And while she’s known for the surreal elements in her work, I think she’s becoming an incredible storyteller of real human emotions. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake she kept herself limited to a couple significant otherworldly details, but the guts of the story were all about easily recognizable emotions. I think she’s becoming an incredibly wise writer, and I’ve always looked up to her.
STEPHANIE REENTS: The opening lines in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt are devastating: “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” (“The Rememberer”); “One week after his father died, my father woke up with a hole in his stomach.” (“Marzipan”); “When I came home for lunch my father was wearing a backpack made of stone.” (“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.”) I like to recite these lines when I’m teaching fiction writing and I’m talking about how to create narrative momentum or ways to build stories that turn away from realism by taking metaphors and making them facts that the characters have to live with. I also like sentences like the one at the opening of “Call My Name”: “I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.” Jeez Louise! Listen to all of the possibilities there—realistic, absurd, and poetic. Is the narrator a director? Is she secretly interviewing the men she meets on the bus? Or is she looking for someone to help her stop playacting through her own life?
These opening lines remind me what I love (and sometimes fear) about writing fiction: the fact that a relatively straightforward sentence can take you into territory you didn’t anticipate, especially once you open yourself up to a realistic description’s metaphors and a metaphor’s real implications. Aimee Bender does so bravely. Reading her makes me write more bravely, too.
PAULS TOUTONGHI: When I first read “The Rememberer,” in The Missouri Review, I was teaching short fiction—and thinking, every day, about the fact that there are so few terrific tiny short stories out there, stories that are jewels, where every detail matters, and refers only inward, to the world the story seals off for itself. And then: Here it was. A perfect small story. There was no need to know more than the story told you—and that wasn’t much—only a few hundred words. The premise is simple: A woman’s boyfriend de-evolves, becoming so small that she must relinquish him to the world. But it’s really about so many other things, right? Death and love and intimacy. “The Rememberer” was published in The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, and it lived, there, in the midst of other companion texts. But it stood out to me, always, and I’ve returned to it, again and again, over the past fifteen years.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I love everything about the opening paragraphs of Aimee Bender’s marvelous story, “The Rememberer,” but what strikes me most is the conviction. There is such certainty of voice, of idea, detail, of perspective. I love teaching “The Rememberer” and listening to students talk about how Bender turns such an “implausible” premise flesh-and-blood, for this story is a wonderful lesson in writing with such conviction that the reader has no choice but to believe.
KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: When I think of the most important influences on my early writing, I think first of Aimee Bender, the first writing teacher I ever had. I was 19 when I read her story collection, The Girl with the Flammable Skirt. Shortly after that, I took a workshop with her. From her writing, which is so unusual and imaginative, and from her teaching, which is so generous and sharp, I learned most importantly that there are no rules in fiction. Her whole attitude toward writing gave me a sense of freedom to try things, to be brave on the page and bold. Even though many years passed before I wrote anything that would be published, I’ve never forgotten the early sense of freedom she gave me, and it continues to influence me today.
© Laura Benedict
WILL ALLISON: Lee K. Abbott was my first creative writing teacher. I took several workshops with him when I was an undergraduate at Case Western in Cleveland, then I followed him to Columbus, where he was hired to start the MFA program at Ohio State. I ended up getting an MA in English and an MFA there. All told, I studied with Lee for about nine years.
But as much as I valued Lee as a teacher, and as much as I admired his stories, I realized early on that I would never write like Lee. If you’ve read Lee’s work, you know he has one of the most distinctive prose styles in contemporary fiction. One can tell one is reading a Lee K. Abbott story almost from the get-go. It’s not that I didn’t want to write like Lee; I simply lacked his gift (among others) for high-wire sentences packed with vivid figurative language.
And so I found myself drawn to writers with a more plainspoken style, most notably Pinckney Benedict, whose debut collection, Town Smokes, was published in 1987, around the time I wrote my first story. I loved Pinckney’s rough, rural stories and the understated elegance of his prose. I was also struck by the fact that he was only four years older than I was. That a guy his age could publish a collection gave me hope (though it would be another 20 years before my first book came out). What’s more, Pinckney was a fellow Southerner. I’d lived in Ohio since tenth grade, but I was born and raised in the Carolinas and, at the time, still considered the South my home.
Lee K. once talked to me about the challenge of “finding your material.” In Lee’s case, that meant finding the right geographical setting for his work. He said his fiction didn’t really start to click until he stopped trying to write stories set in New York City and began setting his stories in New Mexico, where he was from.
I had a similar experience. With Pinckney’s stories as inspiration—including those in his second collection, The Wrecking Yard (1992)—I started setting my stories in and around my hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually I began writing stories set on a fictionalized version of my grandfather’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Columbia, stories that later became chapters in my first novel, What You Have Left.
© Ozier Muhammad
MAILE CHAPMAN: A.S. Byatt is the contemporary writer who most influences me; it humbles me to even mention her work and mine in the same sentence, but it’s true, especially her short stories. Her fiction is full and powerful with the flex and resilience of intellectual and creative maturity, and I don’t think I could have appreciated her work as a seventeen-year-old, but now I can see the shrewd intelligence and supple mastery in her prose, which somehow feels so effortless. To those who haven’t read much of Byatt’s work, or to those who have only read Possession, I recommend the novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which is one of the loveliest of tales, and also the two short stories, “The Thing in the Forest” and “Raw Material,” which are far more disturbing. All three say something about the ways in which narrative is constructed, and about the ways a story meets – or can refuse to meet – the expectations of the reader. All three are good to read for sheer pleasure (and, perhaps, horror), and all make moves that challenge the reader. “Raw Material” ought not to work; it breaks most of the rules quoted in any fiction workshop. Which is not to say that rules don’t matter, or that rules don’t generally work for valid reasons. But here is where that old truism about knowing the rules before you break them becomes palpable, because Byatt isn’t working just with the rules of fiction, she’s working with the much deeper laws of narrative, which determine the very nature of our existence.
Ryan McIlvain, author of Elders: A Novel
Matthew Vollmer, author of Future Missionaries of America: Stories
Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake: Stories, Await Your Reply: A Novel, You Remind Me of Me: A Novel, and Among the Missing: Stories
Bruce Machart, author of Men in the Making: Stories and The Wake of Forgiveness: A Novel
Whitney Terrell, author of The King of Kings County and The Huntsman
Ben Greenman, author of The Slippage, Celebrity Chekhov, What He’s Posted to Do, Please Step Back, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love, and Superbad/Superworse.
Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love: A Novel
Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing: Stories
Ander Monson is the author of Letter to a Future Lover.
Eric Puchner, author of Model Home: A Novel, and Music Through the Floor: Stories
Michelle Wildgen, author of the novels You’re Not You; But Not For Long, and Bread and Butter
Christopher Boucher, author of the novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
Ryan Boudinot, author of Blueprints for the Afterlife, Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories
Stephanie Reents, author of The Kissing List: Stories
Pauls Toutonghi, author of Evel Knievel Days: A Novel, Red Weather: A Novel, and Live Cargo: Stories
Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me: A Novel, The Isle of Youth: Stories, and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us: Stories
Karen Thompson Walker, author of the novel The Age of Miracles
Will Allison, author of the novels Long Drive Home and What You Have Left
Maile Chapman, author of the novel Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto