First, a note: I don’t know if it’s true that these authors made me want to be a writer. I think that any authors I read would’ve made me want to be a writer. I think I already wanted to be a writer. When I was too little to write, I knew it was what I wanted. So while it feels true that these authors made me want to be a writer, if I had different parents or lived in a different place, this list would be different. So what is probably more accurate is that these people influenced my young mind and made me want to write well. But who would read a blog post with a title like that: Twelve Authors who Influenced My Mind? Authors who made me want to be a writer is less pretentious, and I don’t think this list is too pretentious. I didn’t have good guidance for choosing authors till college. My parents are smart, creative people, but they’re poorly educated and not really into the kind of cultural awareness that doesn’t come from Rush Limbaugh or the Bible.
1. Roald Dahl. Starting in maybe first grade with Matilda. There are still a couple of titles I’ve not read, but I love how frank and funny he is. Also, so began my lifelong Britophilia.
2. Madeline L’Engle. I was so fascinated by those turbo-brainy kids and their secular, sciencey parents. I read A Wrinkle in Time first, then the rest of the books in that quintet. I didn’t read anything else by her.
3. Wally Lamb. I had a friendship with my fifth grade teacher when I was in fifth grade. As an adult and mother, it seems strange to me, but I guess I’ve got a sort of old soul. Right now, the people I consider to be the dearest friends are at least twenty years older than I. This was in the early years of Oprah’s Book Club, and I borrowed Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone from the Bosler Free Library in Carlisle, PA. It was much, much too mature for me, but I loved it with the love of a thousand cinnamon jellybeans. I think, however, if I read it now, I’d be annoyed with Lamb for writing a fat lesbian. I would feel like it was further patriarchal oppression. Or something. I haven’t read anything by Lamb since.
4. Sylvia Plath. When I was in junior high, I read The Bell Jar at the recommendation of a slightly older friend. This is another book that was probably just a touch beyond me, but I remember giving a report about the book in my sixth or seventh grade reading class and taking a very long time, and my teacher being visibly annoyed by the length of my presentation. In college, I read some of Plath’s poetry, which I admire a great deal.
5. Paul Zindel. I read The Pigman because my mom talked about it. That’s really all I remember as far as the impetus. Then I read all of the other Pigman books, and some of Zindel’s others, too. I don’t remember anything about them now, except, vaguely, that they dealt with pubescent relationships. I think they were like the throw-away fiction of my youth. Still, for a time, I was fairly obsessed with Zindel’s books.
6. Avi. Avi’s been busy since my youth. He had maybe five books out when I was in jr. high. Now there are several dozen. I read as many of them as I could, but mostly because I’d read someplace that he named one of his characters his real name backward, so I wanted to know, naturally. I was twelve or something. The book I remember, though, is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I recommend it to other young women even still.
7. John Irving. It started with The World According to Garp, and then I read most of the others that were available in the mid-to-late 90s. Irving was the guy who made me want to write sex, which is what I spent most of my college years doing.
8. W. Somerset Maugham. Of Human Bondage changed my life. I thought, “Literature is powerful!” I am amused when people raise one eyebrow over the title. If you’re doing that now, I promise you’ll be disappointed by the reality. It’s a modern novel about a quest for self.
9. J.D. Salinger. Of course, right? I mean, who didn’t identify with Holden Caulfield and love him? Ahem, some of the people in my high school English class. I will say this: in high school English, I couldn’t stop reading at the end of the assignment. It was pure pleasure to read, and I liked all of it. Except I also had a job, so sometimes I would only read the assignment. And one time, in the WHOLE academic year in 10th grade, and probably in all of high school, when we read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t do my homework. And somehow the English teacher knew. I have never had much of a poker face. And so she did this thing where she said, “move your desks forward if you have done your homework.” I hadn’t done my homework, so I sat on the periphery of the discussion that day. It was embarrassing and of course I was pissed that it was the ONE day I didn’t do my homework. Then, at the end of the year, the teacher cited the day as evidence of my strong character. She said, “I know April wasn’t the only one who didn’t do her reading, but she was the only one who was honest about it.” At the time, I thought that was incredibly cool. I felt seen. But I had a thing for strong-willed, vaguely abusive grownup women when I was a teenager. I had a boss like that who I inexplicably loved. Now, I’m not so sure what Mrs. Davis was trying to accomplish, who the lesson was for, and what possible pedagogical or theoretical benefit it could’ve provided. Also, everything J.D. Salinger has written is totally worth reading.
10. Lorrie Moore. God, her writing is so smart it glows in the dark. I’ve read all of her short story collections and two of her novels. Her latest novel is on my to-read list. Lorrie Moore was the first contemporary literary writer I read in college. A slew have followed, and I’m kind of bummed that I can only pick two more based on my own rules. The first time I applied to MFAs, I applied to UWisc Madison, strictly because of L.M. If they’d taken me, I would’ve gone.
12. Amy Hempel. You know, Amy Hempel is also brilliant. I re-read The Collected Stories every year, and every year, one story stands out. For 2010 it was, “The Most Girl Part of You.” For 2011 it was, “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep.” I keep that book on my desk at all times. Whenever I’m feeling blocked or sad or stupid, I grab it up and read a passage. It gets me right back on task.
13. Brock Clarke. Clarke is a damn character genius. He invents the most affectionately flawed, barely likable idiots, and I love them. His observances about the human condition are acute, and his writing is totally without the frilliness of self-indulgence. That is rare in a male writer. (Forgive me, male writers, but ya’ll are far too culturally indulged.)
And just because I don’t like rules, even my own, I’m going to say one/two more:
14. Emily Bronte & George Eliot, a.k.a Mary Ann Evans. I was so inspired that these women bucked the system to pen and publish the novels that lived within them. Also, I love the antique diction of the Victorians & their melodramatic characters & plot twists. Everybody’s always fainting and being martyrish. Delicious.