Today I have author Jen Michalski with her list of books that have influenced her as a writer. Thank you very much for agreeing to a guest post, Jen! I’m so excited to have you on my blog!
Without further ado, let’s see what are the books that provide such an influence:
Five Novels That Influenced Me as a Writer – Jen Michalski
When I was writing my first novel (a project for an independent study in graduate school that I never did anything with), my advisor suggested I read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye to help me shape the first-person narrative of a 40-something woman looking back on her life. Atwood dips back and forth in time, reflected even in the opening sentence: “Time is not a line but a dimension. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” Her details are rich and layered like crime scenes that the narrator sifts through to examine her youth, in which she was emotionally abused by a childhood friend. Cat’s Eye really taught me not only the value of nonlinear narratives, but also the importance of showing, not telling.
I read Heremakhonon as part of my African Women Writers of the Diaspora class as a senior in college. It protagonist, Veronica, a wealthy, cultured Guadeloupian teacher, visits West Africa in the mid-1970s to discover her roots. The reader learns pretty early, in Conde’s first sentence, that this will not be an ordinary, uplifting heritage quest.
“Honestly! You’d think I’m going because it is the in thing to do. Africa is very much the thing to do lately.”
Veronica is flawed and jaded, deeply skeptical of the way post-colonial Africa has been portrayed to outsiders, and it’s no surprise that her allusions are quickly shattered. But what struck me was Veronica’s conversational voice, speaking directly to the reader throughout, and that she’s an unlikeable, privileged, and perhaps not entirely trustable narrator. Protagonists are often anti-heroes in literature, but they usually are portrayed as people of integrity. Conde gave me permission to make one’s narrator kind of a jerk. She made me realize that characters can fail, not because of circumstances or people, but because of their own shortcomings. They can have unclear goals that lead to unfulfilling experiences. And that the reader can learn from their failures, if only not to repeat their mistakes.
I think I read this short novel when I was in the seventh grade, for an English class. I don’t think I completely understood its devastating emotional resonance until many years later. Like Heremakhanon, Flowers for Algernon is also told in the first person in the form of diary excerpts of an intellectually challenged janitor named Charley. For much of the novel, the reader knows more than Charley understands about his life—that his friends aren’t actually his friends, that he is ridiculed and picked on. This idea of revealing information had a profound effect on my writing in telling a story through omission or through a character with limitations. Sometimes we don’t need to spell it all out to hit the reader hard.
Although most people champion Pulitzer prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as Michael Chabon’s masterpiece, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is my favorite Chabon novel, which I picked up on a whim at a library book sale. I didn’t pay much attention to it when it came out, with great fanfare, in 2007. Back then, I thought of alternate-reality novels as sort of a science fiction niche, and I didn’t think I was all that interested in Yiddish, but Chabon’s world of Sitka, Alaska, which becomes a fictional temporary settlement for Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugees after World War II, was so engrossing, so well-written, so humanizing, that I couldn’t put it down. And I realized that you can do whatever you want in a novel—you can literally rewrite history, as Chabon has done. Whatever premise, whatever story, however strange and unbelievable, you might tell doesn’t matter, as long as you are able take the reader along with you. And also that genre (Chabon did win the Nebula Award, a science fiction biggie, for this novel) doesn’t have to be route and boring, with cardboard characters and predictable situations.
A dear friend (and English teacher) gave me this novel for Christmas one year, I think. Roy’s debut novel is set in India and features two fraternal twins and shifts back in forth between the 1960s of their youth and the present 1990s. Although very much about taboos (the novel centers on the “Love Loves” of the Indian caste system, which dictate who you can and cannot love, based on their economic status), the novel is one long prose poem. Every line is a carefully arranged flower in a bouquet. Roy taught me that every line, every word is important, just like every cell in our bodies, every organ, has a purpose (except maybe the appendix). You won’t have to enter an MFA program to be a writer, but it might help if you read this novel.