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.

Jaime Clarke



© animalnewyork.com

KATHLEEN ALCOTT: In a way it’s embarrassing to name David Foster Wallace as an influence because such a grotesque has been drawn of him since his death in 2008—but I spent pretty much all of my 18th and 19th years reading and re-reading him, and feeling both sothreatened and excited that someone alive was writing like that. I was thrilled
by the stories and essays and novels in which the reader was asked to work
almost as hard as the writer, and it left me less intimidated about the act of

to overstate the bomb effect of Infinite
on the New York literary world.
One thing that was hugely influential on me: IJ’s honking long paragraphs that were actually fun to read.  They had an internal rhythm and pace to
them.  They had jokes.  One liners galore but not enough to break
your pace.  Sometimes Mister Big Book, as
I called him to my sister and friends, got too clever for his own good and
structured a grand thought around a word that you had to look up, and that sort
of derailed the fun.  But I came to think
of those paragraphs as something to look forward to, like big thick slices of
chocolate cake.  You start to nibble and
you get in and soon you are in love.  I
was one who did not tire or get sick of the cake.  When I finished one big para, it was exciting
that there was another one waiting for me.
How many long amazing set pieces are in that novel—the guy whose tried
to quit smoking pot waiting for his supplier to call or stop by and freaking
out to where he splits himself in half when the phone and doorbell ring
simultaneously; Kate Gompert ending a long dialogue with a physician by begging
for shock therapy; the PGOAT deciding to try and off herself at that New Year’s Eve party; the listings of tattoos inside the rehab center; things that a
person learns when they go into rehab; these are off the top of my head and I
can do a lot lot more.

But really
it was that voice.  More than the vision
of the futuristic world, more than the commentary on entertainment.   So infectious and addictive.  The voice of pop culture and the voice of
common sense and the guy who was just smarter than everybody else, taking on
the biggest issues in the room.  Who
wouldn’t want that?  In the same way that
Hunter S. Thompson became the voice of the alternative press in the seventies
and eighties, with every young male journalist and every alt weekly writer
imitating that voice and diluting it, DFW’s writing style has long been
assimilated.  His voice now, more or
less, has been appropriated and is
the voice of the internet.  To where it
is old reading yet another writer doing DFW.
Moreover, Infinite Jest has taken over from Gravity’s Rainbow and
certainly from The Recognitions as the monster doorstop that smart young males
go to.   For more than ten years now, it
seems to have given every young ambitious male writer permission to try and get
every spare thought into a massive sprawling doorstop of a novel.   I was in this boat for a long long time while
writing my first novel.   It helped me
apply pressure to myself to try and go for it all, to want to be brilliant and
to try and wrestle with huge ideas and take on the world.  Was that because I loved the book so
much?  Was it because the book had been
such a smash and the insecure needy part of me decided this was how a writer
was supposed to do it?  If you haven’t
figured your shit out, a book like Infinite
and the attention it then received, can complicate matters a great

I went
through real phases trying to write like Wallace.  It took me forever, or maybe for a draft or
two of my first novel, until I figured out that I didn’t really have the
vocabulary DFW had and that when I tried to use big words it came off as
pretentious, or that I wasn’t anywhere near as smart.  About a zillion other differences to
boot.  But the process of failing to be
like DFW made it more obvious when stuff was
working.  And forced me to kind of
learn to move toward the material that was honest to my work, the voice that
did come off as true.

Foster Wallace was very influential to me, starting when Infinite Jest got
published back in the nineties. I remember reading about him in a magazine and
rushing out to get the book. I believe I bought it at a B Dalton, and for a
while I just stood there holding it, knowing that if I read it I was going to
end up writing like him for a while. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong
feeling that a book was going to change my writing so thoroughly. And of course
it did, to the point where a lot of what I wrote for years afterward sounded
imitative. That’s always the scary thing—we want so badly to be considered sui
and hide our influences, but I go back to what Stevie Wonder once
said about being afraid of not being influenced by great art. Infinite
seemed to me to continue the project that Pynchon was working on, to
marry erudition to verbal looseness. There was a period where David Foster
Wallace, in my mind, could do no wrong. I saw him read at Elliott Bay Book
Company in support of his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never
Do Again
and after the event was just elated that I’d gotten to shake his
hand. I’ve read almost everything he’s written (bailed on Everything and
and wasn’t able to stomach The Broom of the System) and was
thrilled by The Pale King. I recently finished D.T. Max’s biography and
felt even more impressed that he accomplished his body of work and sadder that
he left us when and how he did.

high school and in the first few years of college I kind of lost my bead on
reading and writing at all. I went to Georgia Tech for computer science and was
writing a ton of code and studying logic, which I think would end up being an
influence on the way I think about writing fiction later, but really I wasn’t
that interested for a long gap in storytelling or language at all. I talked to
the machine and figured out how to make it tell someone something and had a
brain for math that I really miss now. I think it was my third or fourth year
of undergrad that I somehow ran across a review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and for some reason asked
for it for Christmas. I think it was kind of on a whim, because it sounded
machinic and mathy in its own way, and I missed the way reading felt. I ended
up getting totally obsessed with that book, and then Wallace in general;
actually walked out of a physics final review while reading it instead, and
thereafter changed my major to multimedia design so I could get out of school
as quickly as possible. Something about the way Wallace used story as a
placeholder or an engine for a way of thinking about the world, and describing
consciousness to such an extent that the book seemed to have a brain buried
inside it really got me. From there I got infected and found a lot of other
books from following Wallace’s references: DeLillo, Markson, Pynchon, Vollmann,
Borges, etc. The book both taught me that there was a way of writing that could
be more than just a story on paper, that could create space around the thing
that it talked about, and also opened the world again to all these other kinds
of books. Revitalizing me as a reader first, and at the same time making me
realize there were ways of talking on paper that I hadn’t thought about, turned
my brain back on, and got me reading and writing almost every day, which since
then I’ve never really stopped. If I hadn’t found Wallace I might still spend
the same amount of time I do now in front of the computer typing, though it’d
be all in code. Sometimes I still like to imagine my code now is images and



© The Author

MICHELLE HOOVER: I was lucky enough to have John Edgar Wideman as my
thesis advisor at the University of Massachusetts. God help the man for the
awful prose he had to crawl through. He repeatedly asked me one question:
“What are you trying to say?” At twenty-three, I was trying to say
all sorts of things, but none of them were very interesting. When I introduce
Wideman’s stories now to my freshmen, they are equally puzzled—and then
curious, squinty-eyed, and shaking their heads in wonderment. The hard truths
in Wideman’s work are never simple. Who else has written about race, class, and
an author’s desire to explore both with such complexity and self-stated
confusion? Who else combats these issues in a style as dense and musical as the
best improvised jazz? And who else can mesh hard sex and motherhood, the insect
and the human, the dead and the living? Who can write so entirely over our
heads while striking at the heart of our guilty humanness?  As an
influence, I can’t pretend to even come close the intelligence and raging
beauty of his work, though I do try to push myself deep into the heart of the
strangers whose stories I tell and match his intensity.  And I still ask
myself and my students:  “What are you trying to say?”  I find that
many of my students, no matter how skilled, are often stuck on repeat, at least
in terms of their subjects, their visions.  For many, the idea of “vision”
itself seems a foreign affair.  I often find myself stuck as well.
But with Wideman looking over my shoulder, as all great teachers do, I know how
important it is to continue to try—to write in a way that propels conversation,
that challenges assumptions, all the while staying true to character, their
fears and yearnings, and the ever important, ever exquisite, ever mystifying



© brainpickings.org

decades before I was born, Joy Williams grew up in a small town in Maine, an
only child descended from “Welsh preachers and miners.” Her father and
grandfather were Congregational ministers. To date, I have never met a
Congregational minister. I was raised by Jewish atheists in Chicago; my family
did not attend synagogue, let alone church. As a child Joy Williams liked
reading the Bible, she once said in an interview, because the stories about
“snakes and serpents and mysterious seeds” seemed to contain layers of hidden
meaning. My own family’s large, wide-ranging collection of books did not
include a Bible, but we did own an actual serpent, a pet boa constrictor my
mother gave my father for their anniversary when I was twelve. It was a literal
snake and never showed any signs of hidden meaning. In fact, I found it boring
for that reason—even atheists know snakes are supposed to be mysterious and
exciting. Ours just sat there.

The only
point of connection I can identify between Joy Williams and myself is Florida,
a place we both visited as children on family vacations and later ended up
living in, and loving for similar reasons—the primal extremity and
contradiction and irrationality of the landscape, the prehistoric-looking
animals and trees, the snakes.  Florida
seemed magical to me, somewhere people went to be transformed. Williams called
it “an odd and slightly unreal place.”

I did
not know anything about Joy Williams when I first encountered her fiction as a
college student in Ohio in the 1980s. For a class I was assigned to read her
short story “Train,” about two ten-year-old girls, friends, traveling on a
train from Maine to Florida, where, Williams writes, daylight “fell without
prejudice on the slaughterhouses, Dairy Queens and courthouses, on the car
lots, sabal palms and a billboard advertisement for pies.”  This sentence excites me still, how it
reaches out the window of the train, past the story of the girls, to contain
the entire human condition, not in abstraction but in the irreconcilable mundanities
of daily life, which we readers suddenly notice are slightly bizarre, a little
absurd, a little beside the point—whatever the point even is.  Meanwhile, on the train, the little girls
stay up all night, roaming the aisles and chatting convivially with the other
passengers, variously inebriated and vaguely threatening adults, about lizards,
pharmaceutical testing, custom car design, legendary European cemeteries,
astronauts. One of the girls momentarily retreats into the restroom to weep,
feeling “surrounded by strangers saying crazy things.”  Elsewhere in the story collection (Taking Care), Williams describes a
character’s houseplant as follows:  “The
fern has a lot of space around it in which anything can happen but it doesn’t
have much of an emotional life because it is insane. Therefore, it makes a good

was nineteen when I read “Train” for the first time, and after I read it I
immediately wrote Joy Williams an overwrought fan letter about my much-older
boyfriend, a mysterious character who had spent his teen years in mental institutions
and now ran a comedy club housed in a Chicago church—the way he talked was
like the way she wrote, what was it?—and then I wrote a short story in a
weird, authoritative voice I didn’t recognize, a piece of writing that later
became my first published story. I felt that Williams’s voice had unlocked my
own voice, but it did much more than that. It unlocked the world, what Williams
calls the “teeming, chaotic underside” of everything. Here was God, finally,
not in any church or temple, but everywhere I looked, if I could just pay close
enough attention.

passage—from Joy Williams’s brilliant 2000 novel The Quick and the Dead—shows
what she does perhaps better than any other living American writer: she uses a
particular character’s limited point of view to say something large and true
and profound about the country in which this character lives without breaking
character and also without making a big, off-putting deal about the profundity.
This is one of Williams’s great gifts: she is so wise, and one of the ways she
is wise is that she doesn’t insist the reader genuflect before the altar of her

“Her gruesomely contorted hands rose a little, then fell
back into her lap. Suddenly she wasn’t in Africa
anymore—the terrifying sunrises, the thick beaks of the birds, the gazelles
floating through the air. She had loved the sliver of green in the fierce bone
white of the thorn tree. But now she was unwell and in Florida. But where was that? Florida could be anyplace, which had always been one of Florida’s

CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: One way scientists and
art historians detect forgeries is by testing paintings for certain radioactive
isotopes, namely Caesium–137 and Strontium–90. These isotopes do not occur in
nature. They were birthed into existence the way some say we were, via
explosion, specifically two: “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.”
These isotopes allow protectors of authentic antiquities to distinguish between
art created before the bombs and after. Equally explosive, the work of Joy
Williams blasted my world open. A friend gave me her tour de force novel The Quick and the Dead when I was about
half finished with the short story collection that would become my first book.
Williams completely annihilated everything I was doing. I finished The Quick and the Dead and then, in an
feverish binge that I haven’t undergone before or since, I read the stories in Taking Care, then the novel State of Grace, then Ill Nature, Williams’ tough, brilliant essay
collection. When the dust settled, I surveyed what I’d written, what I’d
thought were half a dozen finished stories, stories that had been published
well, stories that had impressed my dream agent. I saw fluff and flab. I saw
intellectual laziness and artistic incompetence. I immediately ditched two of
those and set out trimming, tightening, and complicating the survivors on every
level, structure to sentence to syllable. New stories got leaner under
Williams’ influence and, most crucially, they asked more of their readers. The Quick and the Dead is my 1945. When
I look through the collection now, I can date the stories as pre-Joy or
post-Joy. Joy Williams is my tell-tale isotope, both fission and fusion. If I
have written anything I’m still proud of, I’ve done so in her long shadow.



© Murdo McLeod

Wolff read during college and then, fifteen years later, I was fortunate enough
to study with him. During those years between the reading and the Stegner
workshops, the stories he wrote–in In the Garden of North American Martyrs,
Back in the World, and The Night in Questionwere absolutely
inspirational. Stories like “The Liar,” “The Rich
Brother,” and “Smorgasbord,” and many others struck me as both
contemporary and classic. I wantedI still want, I’ll always wantto learn
how to write stories that seem so immediate and timeless. During those fifteen
years, I also spent considerable time with the anthology he edited in 1983, Matters
of Life and Death: New American Stories
, and I discovered that Wolff was
not only writing the kind of stories I longed to read and write; he was also a
superb guide for what to read. I continue to refer to that anthology, not only
for the stories Wolff assembled there (by Beattie, Carver, Elkin, Ford, Hannah,
Vaughn, and on and on), but also for the wisdom of Wolff’s introduction, in
which he describes how he came to choose the writers he chose:

“They speak to us, without flippancy, about things that
matter. They write about what happens between men and women, parents and
children. They write about fear of death, fear of life, the feelings that bring
people together and force them apart, the costs of intimacy. They remind us
that our house is built on sand. They are, every one of them, interested in
what it means to be human.” 

If I start writing here
about what it was like, from 1999 to 2001, to study with Tobias Wolff, I’ll be
heading into a much longer, even more hagiographic essay. Briefly, what I can
say is that it felt like I’d been learning from him for years, and I still am,
and there remains so much more to learn.

Kathleen Alcott is the
author of the novel The Dangers of
Proximal Alphabets

Charles Bock is the
author of the novel Beautiful Children

Ryan Boudinot is the
author of Blueprints of the Afterlife,
Misconception, and The Littlest Hitler: Stories

Blake Butler is the author of five books of fiction, including Three Hundred Million, There Is No
and Scorch Atlas, and a
work of hybrid nonfiction, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia

Michelle Hoover is the author of the novel The Quickening

Wendy Brenner is the
author of the short story collections Phone
Calls from the Dead
, and Large
Animals in Everyday Life

Brock Clarke is the author
of the novels The Happiest People in the
, Exley, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New
, and The Ordinary White Boy,
as well as the short story collections What
We Won’t Do
, and Carrying the Torch

Claire Vaye Watkins is
the author of the short story collection Battleborn

Edward Schwarzschild is
the author of the short story collection The
Family Diamond
, and the novel Responsible


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