My mother, in the fashion of all mothers, likes to tell embarrassing stories from my youth. One of her favorites involves me as a tot waddling as fast as possible to my bedroom whenever I heard the sound of a car making its way up our long, windy driveway, whereupon I’d frantically shove all my books under my crib in an attempt to hide them. Clearly anybody who made the effort to get all the way out to our house—perched on a top of a hill in the Appalachian mountains—was going to try to steal, or at least look at, my treasures. Sometimes I’d desperately fling myself on top of the imperiled books, hiding my eyes with my hands so no one could see me. (I won’t say which decade this was, but please note that I am rocking a stylish crocheted vest.)
I have matured since then, sort of. I like to share my books now, and I even have a book recommendation website. Publishers send me advance copies of books in the mail—joy, joy, joy—and I tell other people about them. But there are a few books that still arouse a ridiculously possessive instinct in me. The authors have foolishly made them available to everyone, but I know they’re mine.
And yet…most of these books are not even remotely similar to the one I’ve written. Let’s set aside that each of these books is a brilliant bestseller, written by an author who can only be described as a cultural phenom. They’re a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; one is written for children, one is a popular science book, one is a travel memoir, and several are literary fiction. Nonetheless, every book I’ve ever read and loved influenced me to become a writer, and none more so than the ones on my favorites list. (There are about twenty, but I whittled it down so no one grows old and dies trying to read this post.)
It’s killing me a little bit to haul these suckers out from under my bed and share them with you, but I guess I have to sacrifice for the mission. Enjoy!
The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku:
This is the one I feel most secretive about, because, unless you’re a science geek, you might not have read it. But maybe you have; millions of people follow Kaku. He’s a theoretical physicist, but don’t let that deter you: he writes in prose lucid enough for a normal person to comprehend. All of his books are stellar (pun intended), but start with this one. The stuff he writes about in TFOTM is trippy beyond my powers of description. Forget what you think you know about the left brain/right brain dichotomy, and read all about the mute alternate persona locked inside your own mind. Then brace yourself and delve deeper into the brains of the future. Kaku tackles the latest advances in neuroscience, and we’re talking topics that could be lifted from the pages of Star Trek: telepathy, telekinesis, enhanced cognition. These things are real, and they are going to happen in some fashion. It’s only a matter of time. (And this book and several others by Kaku have heavily influenced the plots of several books I am working on for, ahem, the future.)
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt:
This is possibly Donna Tartt’s least lauded book, which is so wrong. It’s my favorite of her three novels, although I am also a huge fan of The Secret History. C’mon, people! Maybe it’s because I too am a Southern child of a foregone era, but I found this novel—the story of ultra-clever, manipulative, twelve year-old Harriet Dufresne, sister of a murdered child—to be so realistic it hurts. The writing is luscious, insightful, unique, and dreamy. You can open any page and marvel at the perfection of Tartt’s sentence construction and the power of her words. It’s not a traditional mystery, tidily wrapped up by the end, and it’s long and slow. But I swear when I read it, I become Harriet, and I see every detail of her world. If only I could write like this!
Bink and Gollie by Kate Di Camillo:
First of all, why be beholden to the boringness of traditional names? ‘Bink’ and ‘Gollie’ are super-fabulous names for little girls. Makes me wish I was named Zorch or Hooah or something. And one of them lives in a tree house! There are apparently no parents! B & G are best friends who display stellar vocabularies and biting wit as they romp through the mini-adventures that compose childhood. My heroes! Like every really well-written children’s book, this one transports you through the alternate-reality lens of a kid. Something about its imaginative quirkiness absolutely delights me to the point where I went out and got myself a Bink costume for when I read it to children. (Yes, I just outed myself as the biggest book dork on the planet. I’m fine with that.)
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Gah! Loooove Bridget Jones. She’s so irrepressible, so adorable, so perpetually clueless…although obviously also v. smart. Of all the books on my list, this is possibly the one most similar to my own novel, in that it features a female protagonist who is simultaneously cerebral, endearing, and prone to social catastrophe. (My apologies to Bridget—and Helen—for comparing my book to yours. Nothing could compare to BJD, obv.)
Lily White by Susan Isaacs.
Okay, I messed up when I said Bridget Jones was the book on my list that held the most similarities to my own. Lily White is probably the book I read that influenced me more than any other in terms of plot and writing style. The story of an earnest, warmhearted lawyer who suffers an unbelievable betrayal, Isaac’s 1997 women’s fiction tale is told in alternating segments between the present—as Lily takes on the criminal defense of a man accused of defrauding women while pretending to love them—and the past, in which she wins the heart of her childhood crush. Most unusually, it’s written in both the first- and third-person, and contains an absolutely startling revelation at the end.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Hands down, my favorite author of all time. I’m crazy about all his books, but I’ll pick this one for the list because his tale of hiking the AT with a slovenly friend in tow always reduces me to feeble, helpless snorting. I reread it whenever I need to get fired up to write. Love!
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