“I Want to Write Like That”: The Authors that Inspired Kathleen’s Debut

After I read Celeste Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, I started thinking about writing fiction for real. It wasn’t that I had any delusions about writing quite as beautifully as Ng does. It was more that the story she told–of family members who loved each other, but didn’t really know each other–moved me so intensely.

So, after I finished it, I started writing my own multi-generational (and highly autobiographical) family saga. I wrote some scenes I love, but after about nine or ten months of working on it, I realized something important: I’m not meant to write literary, multi-generational family sagas. At least not right now. 

Luckily, I’d read several other books that I admired just as much as Everything I Never Told You. The authors of these novels wrote snappy sentences and clever plots. The writing felt crisp and light and often funny. I found each of their works to be undeniably smart and also relatable. This, I hoped, was my genre. 

Here are the books I read in 2015, 2016, and 2017 as I worked on Minor Dramas that made me feel like, “Okay, I’m going to try to be an author like that.”

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (2015)

Alice Pearse, a 38-year-old part-time books editor and mother of three, finds herself in need of a higher paying job. Enter Scroll, a company with a vision of chic reading lounges stocked with e-book downloads and “carbon-based” first editions and “originals.” Alice is recruited to curate the book selection – a dream job! – and promptly loses her hold on life, falling into swirling pit of corporate expectations mixed with family expectations, marital expectations, flagging friendships, and children morphing into their next stages without her noticing. This is my life, and it was sure nice to laugh at it a little bit. It’s well-done and emotionally en pointe.

Small Admissions by former Deb Amy Poeppel (2016)

This is a delightful story about Kate Pearson’s accidental foray into private school admissions. She meant to be an anthropologist. She meant to marry a hot French guy. But instead, she’s trapped in a cut-throat private school (much like the private school I myself worked in for eight years), managing expectations and rooting for the non-traditional families. Poeppel’s novel is funny, poignant, and filled with (sadly) realistic portrayals of top-tier parents. And, important for me: it’s a school book. Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes is also set in a school, and there just aren’t many novels for adults that are. This was a super helpful comp, and I love it.

Fun fact: my editor sent Amy a PDF of my un-copyedited manuscript to see if she might read and endorse it, and you guys, she DID. Opening the email with her blurb inside was one of the biggest thrills of the whole process so far.

The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2013 and 2014)

Here’s the story in The Husband’s Secret: Cecilia’s husband is on a business trip when she discovers a letter from him in the attic, to be read only in the event of his death.  Tess, meanwhile, escapes to her mother’s house after her own husband confesses that he’s in love with her cousin-slash-best friend. Finally, Rachel has been mired in grief for the many years since the murder of her daughter. The stories, all humanizing and ultimately hopeful, intersect and morph.

Big Little Lies also features three interesting and believable women and their intersecting stories about love, parenting, and grief.  It’s also warm and emotionally immediate. I’d call Moriarty’s utterly readable and popular novels “guilty pleasures” if not for the tight, clever, and basically first-rate writing. I stole the short-chapter, multi-POV rhythm from her, and as these books have been monster bestsellers, chances are you may be familiar with them.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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