“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

books on bookshelfWhat Inspires Me

Contemporary Books that Inspire My Writing

There are certain books that occupy a special place on my bookshelf. To these books, I turn again and again, for what they teach me about the craft of writing. These are not books on writing, but instead books that illustrate by example the kind of writing I hope to emulate. Here they are, in no particular order.

I’ve read three of Sherman Alexie’s books, including Indian Killer, Flight, and War Dances. My favorite among those was War Dances, a collection of poetry and short stories that explore race, class, sexuality, fatherhood and what it means to be American Indian. Alexie makes me laugh and cry – sometimes on the same page. Contemporary literature wouldn’t be the same without his novels and poetry, and Twitter would be a hell of a lot more lame if he was as useless with the Internet as he claims.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a 1985 novel written by Haruki Murakami that alternates between two stories – the “Hard-Boiled” and the “End of the World” — until the stories come together, at which point (spoiler alert!) the main character learns he only has a day and a half to exist before he leaves the world he knows and delves forever into the world that has been created in his subconscious mind. The novel’s brilliance lies in the endless layers of metaphors and the way the story lingers in your head as you try to solve the riddles posed within the text. This was my second Murakami novel. Almost ten years ago I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I’m still trying to unscramble my brain from that experience.

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams is a book like no other that I’ve read. It’s a memoir about a woman – a poet and naturalist — who experiences losing her mother to cancer at the same time that the Great Salt Lake begins to rise, threatening the animals and landscape of the area. This is a book about love and grace, and a connection to one’s landscape. Readers who are also fiction writers will find this memoir rich in inspiration for how to use setting and the natural world in their stories.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz encourages me to follow my heart and tell the story that I need to tell. Diaz broke nearly every rule of fiction writing with Oscar Wao, from abrupt changes in viewpoints, to the excessive use of footnotes in a work of fiction, to the use of Spanish without explanation or context. During the eleven years he spent working on the novel, he was surely told he shouldn’t or couldn’t use some of the techniques he employed. I admire Diaz for sticking with his novel (eleven years!) and for telling the story exactly as he thought it should be told.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko is a book I first read in college, and later rediscovered in my thirties. This novel is a masterpiece. Filled with Pueblo myth, it tells the story of Tayo, an army veteran who returns to his reservation after World War II, trying to drink away his sorrows and rage. Silko takes the reader through Tayo’s journey into his Indian past as he grasps for salvation. The greatness is aspirational to the novice writer.

The Gathering by Anne EnrightWhen I met Anne Enright after she read from her latest novel at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., I told her that I’d read The Gathering a dozen times and had used it in teaching myself how to write a novel about family and grief. She seemed surprised and claimed that her book wasn’t “prescriptive” for writing a novel. I disagree; although the book is non-linear and spends a lot of time in backstory, it still serves as an example for how to tell a great story about trauma with daring and wit.

Queen of Dreams by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni inspired the novel I’m currently writing. I admire the book’s structure, which is told through the mother’s journal and in first and third point of view through the perspective of the daughter, as well as what the story accomplishes. It captures an experience of a South Asian woman with a struggling chai shop in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001, as she also deals with identity and love. I have outlined individual chapters as well as the entire book, and its structure has helped me to understand how to put together a novel-length manuscript.

Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs is a debut-collection of short stories set on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation and rural downstate Virginia. I admire Boggs for her ability to create the most vivid, likeable and complex characters. In this collection, she writes from the perspectives of people from all three races living in that area, including white, black and Indian, and every character seems both authentic and believable. I own this book in electronic and paper-and-glue form, and have loaned it out to many friends.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a stunningly beautiful book, which traces the intersection of the lives of four people in the aftermath of World War II. The language of this book is perfection, and as a reader I had the sense I was in the hands of a true professional from the very beginning. Ondaatje takes his time, letting the story unfold in pieces that the reader must ultimately put together.

I’ve recently began two books that I already know will be added to this list: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. The paragraphs in Woodrell’s novel are seemingly perfect, and Erdrich handles a large cast of characters and their backstories with such ease that I’m studying both books in helping me craft my first novel.


One Response to What Inspires Me

  1. Danna Jackson says:

    Wow — what a great website. Love from Montana.

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