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.
© Jason Diamond
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Along with J.M. Coetzee, I admire Denis Johnson. It is hard to say that his influence is subordinate to Coetzee’s, but if we judge simply by the frequency with which I return to any particular work, that might apply. Still, I’ve read Jesus’ Son more times than I can count. Johnson can conjure up an altered, hallucinatory state that straddles the line between reality and dream—and often synthesizes the two. It’s to be found in all the books of his that I’ve read, beginning with Angels. He has the rare ability to access the metaphysical dimension, which everyone suspects but few can describe. And with Johnson, as with the other writers, it comes down to the boldness and vibrancy of language. I have never encountered a flat metaphor or thought in his work.
CHARLES BOCK: Denis Johnson’s first novel, Angels, and of course the great short story collection Jesus’ Son were important to me for their language and humor and ideas of redemption.
CHRISTOPHER BOUCHER: For me, Jesus’ Son’s impact has something to do with the way that I discovered it: I took a course in college on Edmund Spenser and John Milton, and halfway through our reading of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene I was struck by how different this literature was than any contemporary literature I’d come across. That was a pretty naïve observation, in retrospect, but nevertheless I met with my professor to ask if anyone was writing “this kind of stuff” nowadays.
He might have steered me in several directions—towards classic science fiction or fantasy, or towards other long poetic works, but instead he suggested work by two contemporary authors: Kathy Acker and Denis Johnson. I didn’t read Acker until later, but I read Jesus’ Son immediately—that weekend, I recall—and I was absolutely floored by it. I found it innovative, moving and unlike anything else I’d ever read. I read the book again right away, and I’ve probably read it ten times total in the fifteen or so years since.
Jesus’ Son is labeled a collection of stories, but each story has the same narrator—thus, I read the book like a fractured, fragmented novel. The story cycle form facilitates a sense of disorientation, but so does the dizzy mindset of the narrator, Fuckhead. Since Fuckhead’s mental meanderings are the reader’s only window into this world, the book makes no promise to be complete, true or accurate. We trade those traits, though, for the ever-present possibility that something unexpected or holy might happen: The character of Wayne sees his wife, naked, suspended from a kite in the sky in “Work”; in “Emergency,” Fuckhead mistakes a drive-in movie theater for a military graveyard; the boxes of cotton in a hospital begin to scream in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” There’s little or no explanation for these moments, which might be epiphanies or drug-induced hallucinations. In either case, the stories are continuously surprising and amazingly compact.
They wouldn’t work, though, were the voice of the speaker not so assured and the prose not so beautiful. The language is lyric, funny and precise, and so many sentences ring on after I read them. Take the beginning of “Dirty Wedding,” for example, in which Fuckhead brings his girlfriend to an abortion clinic:
“I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little further north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.”
It’s sentences like this one, where so much is accomplished, which made Jesus’ Son a call-to-action for me—an invitation to experiment, and find new approaches to narrative and language. I subsequently read all of Johnson’s novels and collections of poetry, and he became my first literary hero. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started taking risks with language and form (which, in turn, led to surreal premises and non-linear narratives), but Jesus’ Son was the first stone on that path. When I recommend Jesus’ Son to my students, in fact, I refer to it as “the book that made me want to be a writer.”
VICTOR LAVALLE: Denis Johnson’s collection of stories, Jesus’ Son, had a profound effect on me. His earlier novels as well, Fiskadoro and Angels, for instance. But if you came of age as writer in the mid-nineties then I think Jesus’ Son had a very good chance of sitting somewhere on your desk. When I think back on them now those stories rarely add up to much, there isn’t ever a plot worth a damn and often characterization is slim to nil, so why did that book hit me like a hammer? The writing. Johnson was a poet before he started writing fiction and no book of his displays this fact more clearly than his collection of stories. If you read them, as I did, with your defenses down it’s really easy to think of those stories, those sentences, as being divinely inspired. I wasted so much time trying to emulate his writing!
NELLY REIFLER: When I was in graduate school a blonde, attractive gay woman who always wore leather pants and who wrote an essay about my unfairly sending confusing sartorial semiotic signals with my wallet (which was attached to a chain hooked to my belt loop) told me about this book she had read that had changed her life: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. I recognized the Velvet Underground reference, but I wasn’t in any hurry to go out and get it. Eventually I concluded that the essay about my chain-wallet required some sort of exchange of attention, and I went to St. Mark’s Books, where I found Jesus’ Son in the back on the remainder table—a pile of hardcover copies for $4.99. Then I wasn’t in any hurry to read it. When I finally sat down with it, my mind was blown. It wasn’t the subject matter so much as the permission I felt from Johnson to do whatever the hell I wanted with language and form. After four long semesters of MFA classes in which well-meaning workshop-mates told each other that you can’t, say, bring in a new character in the final paragraph of a story, or address the reader, or tell about emotions (rather than show them), I experienced the book as a kind of revolutionary’s manifesto. I understood that you can do all of those things. You only have to be completely committed. And you have to allow yourself to reach for transcendence, which is hard to do because it’s embarrassing to try and most likely you won’t reach it.
JOE MENO: Denis Johnson’s willingness to experiment with various moods, styles, forms, and types of storytelling provide me with a genuine sense of artistic possibility. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary writers, who seem content to write about the same kinds of characters, in the same places, with the same style and tone over and over again, Johnson’s ability to investigate novels, novellas, short stories, poems, plays and various genres—pulp, detective, historical, the campus novel—gives me the permission to follow my own literary curiosity. His tone—sometimes savagely dark, sometimes absurd or surreal—feels completely original and at the same time, out of the tradition of Anderson and Faulkner.
PHILIPP MEYER: Jesus’ Son was a pretty important book for me, again intense style that perfectly mates with the subject matter, just consistently surprising and amazing language. I have probably read this book 50 or 100 times and lost a half-dozen copies because people keep stealing it from me. I will admit that I might have appreciated it a lot in college because of the subject matter. But even now it holds up.
JOSEPH SALVATORE: So many collections have deeply moved and marked me: Coover’s A Night at the Movies, Moore’s Self-Help, Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, my former teacher Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Means’s Assorted Fire Events, Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. All George Saunders. And on and on. However, there are two about which I feel certain I would allow one of my fingers (okay, maybe just the pinky) to be cut off without anesthesia if I could have written either: Joyce’s Dubliners and Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Both books were never marketed as “a novel-in-stories,” but both books have a natural, subtle, yet sublime, classical arc that is, for me, almost more satisfying in retrospect than it was during the reading. While reading Jesus’ Son, for example, I never thought “How, by the end of this book, will the protagonist ever get clean and sober and find redemption and healing in a believable way that brings together so many of the themes that the author has woven together so cleverly throughout this entire collection?” No. Rather, each story picked me up and carried me away, without a concern for the larger whole. Once I finished the book, however, I understood that something else had happened to me.
In Jesus’ Son, we start with Fuckhead (the only name to which our protagonist is referred) on a road to death (both spiritually and physically). We see him engage in all manner of self-destruction. But we sense that something else is going on for him—something more than merely getting high; he is, as William James calls it in Varieties of Religious Experience, a “sick soul.” But moreover, he is, dare I say it, a pilgrim on a journey: searching for family, for vocation, for healing and home. Once we get to “Happy Hour” (one of the least happy stories in the collection), Fuckhead reaches the center of Dante’s Inferno at a bar called Pig Alley:
“The cigarette smoke looked unearthly. People…gave up their bodies…only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim….But nothing could be healed.”
Johnson finishes that paragraph blending indirect dialogue with one of several direct addresses to the reader (who, it may be said, stands in as his Virgil) saying: “And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me.”
The next story “Steady Hands at Seattle General” might function, then, as a sort of Purgatorio, where a horrific case of the DT’s and an act of brotherly goodwill (a haircut) come together to create a liminal space for our protagonist. And finally, with the last story, a kind of Paradisio concludes the arc. “Beverly Home” brings Fuckhead to the end of his journey, a place where no longer is there the “knife dividing” alienation we’ve seen throughout, but rather a coming together and a healing: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known…that there might be a place for people like us.” Chills ripple my skin as I type those lines, just as they did when I first read them.
EDWARD P. JONES
© Jonathan Wilson
WILL BOAST: I’m a great admirer of Edward P. Jones’ fiction, especially his long story “Old Boys, Old Girls,” which, for me, encapsulates the qualities of his writing that make it so complex and satisfying. “They caught him after he had killed the second man,” the story begins, and what follows is a big chunk out of the life of Caesar Matthews, who, having gotten away with his first murder, gets a relatively light sentence and spends most of the next ten years in D.C.’s Lorton prison. These might sound like ingredients for a pretty sensationalistic bit of storytelling, and yet Jones is at all times patient, deliberate, and unrelenting in his detailing of Caesar’s journey toward something like redemption.
Throughout “Old Boys, Old Girls,” the quality of the narration is distant and cool, occasionally dipping deep into Caesar’s consciousness, occasionally borrowing the inflections of his voice, but just as often regarding his journey through Lorton—and, later, back into the outside world—with a weary reserve. An early scene, in which Caesar is advised to beat hell out of his cellmate and take the bottom bunk, in order to assert his authority, is presented unflinchingly, as a sickening and largely pointless exercise in the hierarchical social code of the prison. When Caesar has won the fight and claimed the bottom bunk, he experiences not triumph but confusion and remorse as he’s confronted with photos of the other man’s five children taped to the wall by the pillow. Caesar’s cellmate, we learn, is an ex-junkie who never passes a day without regretting the pain he’s caused his children. Everyone in this story has a living past, as well as their own personal, and very particularized, demons. There are no caricatures or plot devices disguised as characters here. A writer undertaking to complete a convincing story about prison life might be tempted by any number of clichés. That Jones avoids almost all of them is one of the several miracles in this story, and the clichés that he must work with, he somehow manages to reinvigorate. Yes, a calendar appears, and we see Caesar marking off the days, but what Jones does with this little tool for ticking off the fictional time is, to me, a minor technical marvel.
One might come close to calling this story “realist” or even “naturalist,” and yet, as in Jones’ other work, there are the faintest glimmers of wonder, barely glimpsed but somehow strongly felt. Caesar is not a good man. (“The world had done things to Caesar since he’d left his father’s house for good at sixteen,” we’re told early on, “but he had done far more to himself.”) But it is still possible for him to do some good, even if those he does it for will never be around to see it. Somehow, despite everything, innocence is still a possibility in Jones’ fiction, even if a vague and slender one.
Caesar is eventually released from Lorton, but the story is far from over. (I’ll spare the interested reader by not listing further plot details here.) Jones’ stories tend to be long, and, indeed, he is almost always taking the long view of the lives of his characters—watching the seemingly arbitrary ways the world acts on them while also simultaneously building the palpable feeling that fate keeps mysteriously asserting itself. In this, he seems, to me, slightly out of step with the world of contemporary fiction. (“I don’t know a lot about what’s out there,” he’s said in interviews, “so I don’t know where I fit in. That kind of thing really doesn’t concern me. Not at all.”) I’ve read “Old Boys, Old Girls” many times, and whenever I do, I often read Flaubert’s tale “A Simple Heart” immediately before or afterwards. It’s a private association of mine, a pairing of meticulous, sometimes severe voices. In both stories, there’s a neat and almost impossibly difficult trick: An author seeming to take such a distant view of humanity they might be (unjustly) accused of not caring about their characters, while all along secretly cherishing their every act and word.
MARJORIE CELONA: Two stories into Lost in the City and I was inconsolable. If you were a certain sort of child and had a certain sort of parent, you’ll know what I mean. In “The First Day,” for example, a little girl on her first day of school watches her mother walk away from her:
“I see where she has darned one of her socks the night before. Her shoes make loud sounds in the hall. She passes through the doors and I can still hear the loud sounds of her shoes. And even when the teacher turns me toward the classrooms and I hear what must be the singing and talking of all the children in the world, I can still hear my mother’s footsteps above it all.”
Fourteen stories take us up and down the streets of a bygone Washington, D.C., and Edward P. Jones charts the entirety of human experience from infancy to old age. His are those rare eyes that take in the whole world at once. But there’s something else he does in this collection, something even more remarkable (at least to me): With the exception of Patrick O’Keeffe, I don’t know of another living male writer who can capture the minds of women and their children with appropriate sensitivity like Edward P. Jones. Appropriate sensitivity. It’s what is lacking from just about everything these days.
JENNINE CAPO CRUCET: It’s a little hard for me to write about how important Lost in the City was in my formation as a writer without my sentiments devolving into a series of exclamation points and/or my use of the phrase “…and I just lost my shit” when discussing his miraculous stories. Edward P. Jones’s writing devastated me, partly because of when his stories first entered my life: I was living in an inhospitable place, miserable in most ways, and on the writing front, I was still circling what would become my first book’s major themes and concerns, all the while desperately homesick for Miami and missing a community—in my case, a Latino, specifically Cuban-American one—that I rarely saw depicted with the kind of nuance and honesty I found in the work of writers I admired. Then I got supremely lucky; I was allowed to enroll in a workshop with Charles Baxter, who brought Lost in the City (along with many other blessings and other forms of invaluable guidance) into my world. And man, when I read those stories, did I ever just lose my shit.
What floored me about these stories was the generosity in every single piece: the way Jones gives us layers and layers of precise, telling details; how no character, no matter how short their time on stage, escapes from having a few deft sentences expose the totality of their life; how intimate they were, how very much like God his narrators seemed. And then there’s the bold, beautiful moves that are always in service to the story’s larger themes: how, for instance, in the story “A New Man,” he ends the very first paragraph by leaping forward a bunch of years and telling us how the main character will die (!!); or how, in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” he moves us through two years with a two-sentence-long paragraph (!!!), “She turned ten. She turned eleven.” (Seriously, !!!!!.)
I wanted more than anything to get so much of the world into stories so compact and perfect. I wanted to portray my city the way Jones portrays (and honors, via his sharp descriptions and rich portraits) his own hometown. Lost in the City was a mandate—a mandate just to me, it felt, that I start writing about home in a smarter way, the way my heart knew it. His work inspired me to write stories I was afraid to bring into workshop, stories that I thought would freak out my peers with titles that referenced men punching women in the face—the title a clear homage to Jones’s “The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed”—and so they never got copied and passed out; I never got brave enough, in that city, to go that far. But I’d get there, eventually, years later, largely thanks to the honesty and precision embodied by the narrators in Jones’s stories, each of them dwelling like Gods over his much-loved, much-flawed characters.
NAMI MUN: We are city dwellers. We scurry onto subways and buses, onto planes and through rush-hour traffic that invites arterial hypertension. Our minds play speed-chess in perpetuity, trying to win at work, at love, at money, at winning. And through all of this we pass by strangers every day—sentient beings that are nothing more than blips on our harried psychic screens. I too participate in this self-imposed oblivion. And the blinders get bigger every year. The passersby can never be more than blips—otherwise, we risk seeing too much at once, risk letting in too much of the chaos. But if we had more time, more desire, more space within us, or let’s face it, more courage, and truly saw these strangers, even for a few minutes, we would see the entire cosmos contained within each of them. Emotions, history, knowledge, and memory as deep and endless as black.
This is what it is to read Lost in the City. In these stories we meet gospel singers, grocery clerks, throw-away sons, and homicidal fathers, sometimes for only brief moments, yet we see within each character decades of longing, decades of attempting to flourish in a low-ceilinged world. The characters bleed internally, endure suffering, and eventually accept pain as a mere by-product of being alive. We witness all of these things because Edward P Jones doesn’t write characters; he writes people. People you feel tethered to. Even the unforgivable ones. And it doesn’t matter your background; if you have a beating heart you will read Jones’ work and think, I know these people.
To say the least, he is generous with his characters. Whether you read a five-page story of his or a 400-page novel, you’ll still stumble away dizzy from having seen the viscous interiors of a fellow human. He can imbue a scene with zen-like presence but also fly decades into the past or into the future with Marquezian ease, allowing us to feel a character’s life in its entirety and almost at once. You get the impact of a novel in a single story, and the sharpness of a story within a whole novel. And just as importantly, his characters have voice. They speak words dipped in barrel-aged whiskey, words your grandparents might’ve uttered, whether they be from the South or South Korea.
I was not surprised to learn that Jones kept a little notebook filled with old family sayings. Or that he envisioned his two story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, published 14 years apart, to work like a pair of distant magnets still drawn to one another; where characters from the former populate the latter in such a way that creates, for the reader, a catholic understanding of an entire community, the lives of which exist beyond the pages of these books. Reading both collections is to be granted a privileged entrance into these people’s souls.
PAUL YOON: Sometimes I think that I write fiction as a way to communicate with the books and stories that have had an effect on me. That by creating an imaginary world of some kind, I am reaching out to all the other imaginary worlds I have lived in and experienced. So that writing becomes an act of love.
There are few short stories I love more than Edward P. Jones’s “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” which is the opening story in his masterpiece, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. It traces the life of a young newlywed couple who, early in the twentieth century, leave Virginia to start a new life in WashingtonD.C. One night, not long after their arrival, the wife, unhappy and still disoriented by city living, finds a bundle hanging from a tree. Inside, there’s a baby.
So begins an epic tale, one that spans many years; and every time I read it, I am in awe of the story’s breadth, its narrative movement, the way it reads like a compressed novel. But more than anything, what stays with me most is the abundance of imagination contained in each sentence, from the first to the last. He is, for me, one of the most courageous writers working today. And this story in particular remains one of my great inspirations, a story brimming with the world, one I am always responding to in some way, every time I write.
David Bezmozgis is the author of the novels The Betrayers, and The Free World, as well as the short story collection Natasha and Other Stories
Charles Bock is the author of the novel Beautiful Children
Christopher Boucher is the author of the novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
Victor LaValle is the author of The Devil in Silver, Big Machine, The Ecstatic, and Slapboxing with Jesus
Nelly Reifler is the author of the novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, and the short story collection See Through
Joe Meno is the author of the novels Office Girl, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, Hairstyles of the Damned, How the Hula Girl Sings, and Tender as Hellfire, as well as the short story collections Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and Demons in the Spring
Philipp Meyer is the author of the novels The Son, and American Rust
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the short story collection To Assume a Pleasing Shape
Will Boast is the author
of the memoir Epilogue, and the short
story collection Power Ballads
Marjorie Celona is the
author of the novel Y
Jennine Capo Crucet is the
author of the short story collection How
to Leave Hialeah
Nami Mun is the author of
the novel Miles from Nowhere
Paul Yoon is the author of
the novel Snow Hunters, and the short
story collection Once the Shore
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz