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.
© Ron Hansen
JOSH WEIL: When I was a kid, the books that grabbed me were westerns: an autobiography of a bronc buster, the journals of a Canadian trapper, The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilberg Clark, Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove. But it was Ron Hansen’s Desperados that had the greatest impact on me. The story of an old west outlaw gang, that novel has plenty of gunplay and thundering hooves, but it’s also told with a vision so precise and vivid that it sat me up in bed and made me realize what an author working at the highest level of his craft could do.
I think it mostly had to do with the remarkable vividness of Hansen’s imagery. I can still remember one image in particular: green peas being shelled into a metal pan. At the time I came across that image I still thought I’d be a visual artist, but something clicked in me at the realization of how different it was for a writer to paint a picture with words: it could be just clear enough to make it specific to the moment, the vision, and yet could leave enough blank space around it to combine with the reader’s own imagination; the product of that merging could make something as vivid and beautiful (perhaps even more so) than anything a painter or photographer could do. Somehow it was the bright green peas plunking down in the silvery pan that drove the idea home to me. Sentence after sentence Hansen gave me the gift of seeing a fictional world through the specificity of his imagination more vividly than I observed my own. From then on that became important to me. It didn’t want to simply look more carefully at my world (though I did that, too) but I wanted to try to convey the worlds I was writing about as vividly as Hansen did his. It’s still one of the parts of writing that’s most important to me, and I’m still trying.
But there was another aspect of Desperados that affected me almost as strongly, and that was the musicality of the language itself. The rhythms, tone, pauses: Hansen managed my breathing. And being carried along with such control was thrilling. It grabbed me with Desperados, but it really squeezed me—literally made me breathless with the realization of such power and beauty—while reading another novel of Hansen’s: Mariette in Ecstasy. There, the rhythms come fully to the fore, the white spaces become as important as the words, the silences move directly onto the page, and into the reader, and are felt. As a kid in high school, I felt them over and over, rereading passages, absorbing the way that Hansen’s attention to the sound and feel of words didn’t pull me out of his story, but rather pulled me more deeply in, touched my senses in ways that enriched the reading experience beyond what I’d known before. That I thought was what I wanted to do. And it was that—as much as the characters I’d fallen for in the old westerns, the characters who had begun to live in my head—that set me on the path towards being not just a story teller, but a writer.
© The Missouri Review
TRINIE DALTON: Amy Hempel literally influenced me, since I studied under her advisement at Bennington Writing Seminars. I went to Bennington, in part, for the opportunity to study with her. Hempel is an exceptional and generous teacher, and while I’m not convinced she liked my writing very much—and who could blame her, what with my turning in idiotic stories ranging from those told from Hello Kitty’s POV to those with no point save some flagrant Texas bashing—she had a deep influence on my storytelling as well as on my teaching style, now that I’m a creative writing professor.
First, I studied with Amy to absorb some of her stylistic magic, as myriad other young authors have done. I hope I did learn how to cut the fat from my sentences, to allow each word its proper heft, and to let each word or idea determine the next through consecution. An Amy Hempel story is a lean machine. I learned a lot about revision from her. (Though to be fair, I also learned about revision from my friend and mentor, Dennis Cooper, who edited my first book while I was studying with Amy.) Entire pages and “graphs,” as Amy called them, were often recommended for deletion in my drafts. Amy was so emphatic about adding and subtracting text, making sure what was added was needed, that she asked me to highlight all new sentences when I submitted revisions. While I was already aware of text on a page as visual stuff, having come to fiction with a poetry background, this practice nevertheless helped me realize how every word counts, helped me track incoming and outgoing changes draft-to-draft in order to assess essentiality versus pretentious effluvia. With Amy I studied sentence construction, syntax, and diction in storytelling, which was vitally important to me, a poet who suffered from abstract ideation that lacked narrative meaning. She taught me that a sentence isn’t good just because it has fancy stylistic elements; I learned a lot from Amy about avoiding cryptic language.
Second, Amy influenced my commitment to the set up and punch line, and my abiding interest in narrative’s comedic timing.
Third, Amy’s knowledge about comedy, helping me to study the differences between cold Juvenalian satire and that more mildly laced with emotionally variegated narrative, led Amy to recommend I read Grace Paley and Barry Hannah, still two of my heroes. Thank you, Amy Hempel, for introducing me to these two. I still continue to study extreme stylists and conceptual writers, and I appreciate those endeavors—but Paley and Hannah marry their distinctive prose styles strictly to empathic returns, which is in my mind all the more subversive. It still surprises me how Hannah can convince me to follow some truly officious and offensive characters. Their expressions of dialect are exquisite, their sentences have verve and swagger, they both understand the value of brevity, and they both know where to end a tale to yield the ultimate laugh (or conversely, make you feel like you’ve been stabbed in the kidney). I think in reading Hempel, one can see the Paley/Hannah influence, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
I’ll admit that I was so into sentence construction when I started working with Amy that I had zero interest in character development. Hempel subtly persuaded me, partially through introducing me to radical prose stylists who also care about their characters, that pathos in fiction is not an outmoded concept and is not the enemy of conceptual or transgressive literature. Yep: it’s called dramatic tension, and every story needs it. I’m not sure, given my stubborn ways, that I could have accepted that information from Hempel had she not delivered the message so gracefully. Just key story recommendations here and there and some beautiful, nearly calligraphic editorial marks and marginalia, on some papers that I still get out occasionally to stare at when my fiction gets boring, or I suspect that on the page I’m talking a lot but not saying much.
JAC JEMC: Amy Hempel’s “The Man in Bogota” changed my mind in a million ways, got me writing, got me thinking. The message of the story, the moral and the punch line is, “He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.” It was a time when I needed to re-evaluate my attitude and the line rang in my head. That sentence is so full of assumptions and contrasts. She doesn’t write, “He wondered how we know that what happens to us is bad.” Instead she puts the focus on what that something isn’t, suggesting that maybe, after all is said and done, it is.
The story is short, only a page long. It was one of the first pieces of flash I read that really made me feel it was possible to tell more in a page than in a whole book. It’s a story within a story. It’s a story about the power of storytelling and it’s a story about survival. It was a time when storytelling was a survival tactic for me. It’s a “come-down-from-the-ledge” story. The language is clear and plain, in a way that stuns me. It’s a way I’m unable to write, a clarity I feel unable to express. While I’ve come to terms with that, I’m so thankful to read such a clean tale. The narrator says she tells the story to try and get the woman on the ledge to ask herself a question. I don’t know any better reason to tell a story.
© Getty Images
MOLLY ANTOPOL: When I first read A.M. Homes I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon her story collection, The Safety of Objects, in my college library, simply because there was something so creepily beguiling about its cover art. That day in the library, I fell in love with her stories—about a young boy’s erotic obsession with his sister’s Barbie doll; a pair of yuppie crackheads; a kidnapped boy returned home after not meeting his captor’s expectations. The premises were bold and strange, disconcerting and sometimes horrifying—and yet, halfway into each story, the twistedness of the situations began to ring as true to me as the most extreme and terrifying moments of real life.
I’ve never met Ms. Homes, but once I started working on my own stories, I found myself turning to her writing for advice as often as I did my graduate teachers. Every time I worried over how to make a series of events plausible, I’d think back to the stories in The Safety of Objects and remind myself that if a person writes with enough passion and confidence, even the most unbelievable situations can take on the authority of truth. And when I wrestled with dialogue, I’d read another collection of hers, Things You Should Know, which taught me that the old writing adage, “dialogue is just as much about what people don’t say as what they do,” doesn’t always fit—so often Homes’ characters know exactly what they want to say to one another and do so without a second thought: an unflinching frankness that consistently imbues the stories with even more friction and drive.
Recently I was struggling with the thing that’s hardest for me as a writer—action scenes—when I read her newest book, May We Be Forgiven, in which an arrest, a deadly car accident, an affair, a murder and a divorce all occur within the book’s first fifty pages. And the novel careens forward from there, succeeding wildly in being equally character-and plot-driven. With every one of her books, Homes completely explodes my idea of what fiction can do, leaving me surrounded by her characters’ emotional rubble. I can think of few writers who write with so much wit, warmth, intelligence, satire and pathos—and with so much heart.
LAUREN GRODSTEIN: At the end of my senior year of high school, our daring creative writing teacher assigned a few stories from A.M. Homes’s collection The Safety of Objects. Generally sweet and sheltered New Jersey teenagers, we had never read short stories like these before: so frighteningly intimate, so frank and awkward. We passed these stories around to our friends in other classes, joked about them, tried to write our own sad replicas—story after story about people doing obscene things to Barbie dolls. At home, I kept my copy of The Safety of Objects on my Most Important Bookshelf, among the Salingers and the SAT prep guides.
A few months later, I found myself at college, where my mind was totally blown: A.M. Homes herself was teaching an invitation-only creative writing workshop! Freaking out, I presented myself at her office hours to secure an invitation. I wanted to tell her about how much I loved her stories, how much they startled me, changed my view of everything fiction could do. Instead, I thrust a sample of my high school writing portfolio at her. She read a few lines, then looked at me. “You ever written anything really good?”
I thought about it, answered honestly. “No,” I said. “But I will.”
She appraised me, looked within my writerly soul, assessing the verve and the nerve I carried within me, and all the possibility.
“Well,” she said, after what felt like forever, “maybe you should come back when you’re a senior. If you’re still writing then.”
I just stood there. I didn’t really understand.
She looked at me some more, then said something I remember as, “you can leave now,” although maybe she didn’t say anything at all.
My best friend Allison, who by chance had been in the same creative writing class with me in high school, and was now at the same college, was waiting in my dorm room, anxious to hear how it had gone with A.M. Homes. When I told her I hadn’t made the cut, she picked up my copy of The Safety of Objects and tossed it in the garbage. “Forget it,” Allie said. “Who needs her?” Then we went out drinking.
But later that night, I retrieved the stories from the garbage and fell asleep reading them. They were still shocking, still so very sad. In the end, I never took a class with A.M. Homes, but I still keep The Safety of Objects, among different company, on my Most Important Bookshelf.
CHARLES MCLEOD: It’s easy for society, centuries after the fact, to look back at what humans did in ages prior and regard those collective actions with something approaching comedic disdain: how did we think that bloodletting would cure plague? How were packets of herbs or living underground or spoonfuls of crushed emeralds considered viable solutions? Today, such remedies are known as absurd, and while plague still exists, few would refer to its threat level as exigent. But what of new plagues, and the darkness they bring? And what if these plagues are perceived, sociologically, as wellness? What if a Barbie doll is a kind of plague, a sort of vast, media-born illness? And what if centuries from now society looks back at our suburbs and our medicine and how we treat the criminally sick and, in general, each other, and sees them as exactly as ridiculous as how we, today, view moving into sewers to escape a pandemic? I read The Safety of Objects for the first time in 1992, when I was in high school, and remember it as the collection that allowed me to understand what Chekhov meant when he said that “the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” It’s easy to label Homes’ work as dark, but I remember thinking then—and still think now—that her work is simply correct: that by the end of Reagan’s 80s, the nuclear family had gone radioactive; care wards made people more sick, and were staffed entirely by the afflicted. What I treasure in Homes is her ability to humanize those that might otherwise be seen only as inhumane, and, inversely, to show the status quo as grotesque, and to do so with enough humility, elegance, humor and grace to allow us to question that which we might not otherwise question.
KAROLINA WACLAWIAK: A.M. Homes has dropped horses and sinkholes in a person’s front yard, brought together a boy and a Barbie Doll in a masturbation-fueled love story, and made little Johnny desperate to be kidnapped. She has pushed the boundaries of human decency and that’s exactly why I love her and seek out her work. She has convinced me that one of the only reasons to write fiction is to make your characters take the risks that you could not possibly take in your own life. See that line? Watch her nimbly cross it. In her audacious collection of short stories, The Safety of Objects, Homes plays PT Barnum to characters who cannot control their needs. She is the master of letting characters run wild while making their mistakes count. We walk away gutted, deliciously horrified, and energized by humanity’s delinquency. When I’m fearful of making a choice that might push the boundary of decency in my own writing, I say, “W.W.A.M.D?,” and then I jump across the line.
© Ann Cummins
JENSEN BEACH: I first discovered Pam Houston in a used bookshop for English-speaking expats in Budapest, Hungary in 2001. For three months I’d been reading anything in English I could get my hands on. I’d quickly finished the few books I’d brought with me, and I’d worked my way through what I think might be everything W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote (the saturation of Maugham’s books in used bookshops in early 21st century central Europe is an essay unto itself), and I was getting a little desperate. I wasn’t the kind of reader then who particularly enjoyed reading the classics. These were easily available at the small English-language sections of the city’s bookstores. And I wasn’t drawn to the canonical books my bosses at the various language schools where I taught kept recommending. I don’t think I had yet uncovered just what it was I wanted to read, or what sorts of writing would one day sit closest to my writer’s heart.
Pam Houston arrived at a formative moment for me, then, just the right one. She was one of the first writers I’d read that I felt gave me permission to pursue in my reading, and later my writing, what I wanted, my vision for what literature could be—messy and elegant and hilarious and heartbreaking, all at once. Her work strikes me, in other words, as real. I don’t mean to cast a genre definition on her writing. But rather say that her work seems to accurately represent people—our bad decision-making, our tendencies toward tragedy, and the ways in which all of this is often (perhaps always) absurd and funny if only we can take a step back and see it that way.
I read Waltzing the Cat in one sitting the day I bought it, and when I reached the end, I started again immediately. It took me out of the dreary apartment I lived in a block up from discolored limestone government buildings in central Budapest, many of them still riddled with bullet holes from the uprising in 1956, and to places somehow both more familiar and more exotic—a ranch in the mountains in Colorado with alcoholic Eric Sorenson and his bowling ball cannon, to a living room in which a daughter, having just lost her mother, watches her father dance with a comically overweight cat. And while the stories in this collection, as they do in her first collection, and as each short, lyrical chapter does in her novel Contents May Have Shifted, do almost everything just right, they are, most of all, simply great stories. They are exciting and emotion-rich. To my thinking, they defy genre. Told by a drunk in a bar, in an essay, a film, a television show, any medium at all, these stories would be equally, enviously, compelling. And it’s this quality that I keep returning to Houston’s work, for inspiration, for craft, and most of all, for pleasure. “I’m a sucker for a good storyteller,” Houston’s character Lucy O’Rourke says in the story “Then You Get up and Have Breakfast.” And like Lucy, so am I.
KATE MILLIKEN: I was nineteen years old the first time I read Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness. This was in Boston, sometime in late January or early February. Crisp and cold. But I’d moved from Chicago and this, my first Boston winter, felt mild by comparison, even inviting, the sky staying open and blue. I don’t remember now if I was assigned Cowboys or if I picked it up at the bookstore, liking the title, but I remember reading it as I walked back to my dorm, across The Boston Common. Snow lined the salted walkways and every few feet or so, with my eyes on the page, I would veer off the walkway, the crunch of the snow steering me back to the path.
I was a high school drop out who’d spent the previous four years putting herself in precarious situations at best. But I loved to write and I received early acceptance to this small liberal arts college, as part of a “special” program. Yet I was more running away from a dysfunctional family that I was college ready. And I was also following after a boy who was attending the Berkeley school of music, a boy who liked me almost as much as he liked heroin. “This is what you learned in college: A man desires the satisfaction of his desire; a woman desires the condition of yearning.”—”How to Talk to a Hunter”
That day, reading Cowboys, I crossed the street to the Public Gardens, horns blaring, sitting on a park bench to keep reading, safely on the other side. “In every assumption is contained the possibility of its opposite.” If it hadn’t been the dead of winter, if the sun hadn’t slipped down, I’d have finished Cowboys, sitting there. Instead I went inside and ignored my redheaded roommate who paced, biting not the nail, but the skin of her fingers, while waiting for her forty-year-old boyfriend to call. College, in the six months I’d been there, had already made it clear to me that adulthood was going to be in large part about trying to fill in the spaces that our childhoods had left empty. I finished Cowboys and started it again.
I grew up in a theatre family, around actors and directors, and my mother was a regarded playwright. From my parents’ multiple divorces many households were manifested, all of which were alive with dialogue, conversations pitched at the frequency of stage direction, and passionate episodes of alcohol-infused hollering. They were, in other words, short on advice.
In Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics, he states, “A Classic is a book which even when we read for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.” Each of Pam Houston’s books, particularly Cowboys, has had this uncanny effect on me. With each story, essay, novel, I have been unknowingly waiting to read exactly what they offer. They call on an inner compass that reminds me to be brave, observant, and open to the larger world.
Houston’s work, in other words, has reached me most deeply on a human level, as a woman in particular, but beyond this her work has gifted me with lessons on the art of story telling. For instance, each of her narratives, particularly Contents Might Have Shifted, exemplifies that meaning is created through the accumulation and assemblage of well observed experience. The writing always being as active and as present as its author. And there is a respect for the reader, a dignity bestowed upon us by way of Houston’s respect for our intelligence, never editorializing the narrative, but believing in our empathy and ability to discern meaning.
Lastly, Pam Houston’s work has granted me the great outdoors. Yes, as an element of craft. My theatre family was an indoors kind of people, curtained, lights down, ready for a singular spotlight. But I found the great outdoors, the splitting of the sun at the top of a mountain, always calling, and so it was liberating to find that great outdoors was not only attainable on the page, but that it could be used beyond metaphor, as a character, an influence over all that occurs.
How fitting it seems to me that I began to read Pam Houston outside in the crisp, bright cold and that even with my eyes on the page—or perhaps because—I was that much more awakened to the snow giving beneath my meandering feet. Pam Houston’s work, while grounding me in the possibilities of being a woman, moved me outside myself.
ILIE RUBY: What young woman on the cusp of finding herself could not relate to “How to Talk to a Hunter,” the lead story in Pam Houston’s ground-breaking collection Cowboys Are My Weakness? When I read Cowboys soon after it came out years ago, I was struck by the style: poetic without being prohibitive; inclusive while retaining a strong singular feminine (or feminist) voice. Here was a book that was majestic and accessible and irrepressible and vulnerable. Here were stories that showed it was possible to write about the kind of love that doesn’t end a woman, and more, that both the feminine and the masculine aspects of ourselves might lead us through the dangers and into the absolute rightness of needing another person. There’s chemistry to the kind of expansiveness where style mirrors subject matter: the open range, the endless search for fulfillment and belonging, the universality of the fight between independence and desire, and the wide breadth of our capacity for love. I recently re-read “How to Talk to a Hunter” during the writing of my last novel and was struck, yet again, by the appeal of that story. Having this sort of history with a book, its cover now worn and pages taped and dog-eared, allows a writer, over decades, to understand timelessness in a new way, for once you’ve been found in Houston’s work, part of you remains there forever.
Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley
Trinie Dalton is the author of the story collections Baby Geisha and Wide Eyed
Jac Jemc is the author of the short story collection A Different Bed Every Time and the novel My Only Wife
Molly Antopol is the author of the short story collection The UnAmericans
Lauren Grodstein is the author of the novels The Explanation for Everything, A Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, as well as the short story collection The Best of Animals
Charles McLeod is the author of the novel American Weather, and the short story collection National Treasures
Karolina Waclawiak is the author of the novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Jensen Beach is the author of the short story collection For Out of the Heart Proceed
Kate Milliken is the author of the short story collection If I’d Known You Were Coming
Ilie Ruby is the author of the novels The Salt God’s Daughter, and The Language of Trees
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz