It’s a question that’s asked by interviewers all the time: how did you become a writer? It’s kind of a lob, and for many authors, the answer is obvious. Reading made them into writers. What else? Besides actually, you know, sitting down and doing the work. But while many authors cite a lifetime love of the written word, or a storytelling acumen developed in the womb, or a childhood spent lost in libraries, some can point to a specific book and say: that one. That’s the book that made me who I am today – if only because it opened a door, or gave me permission, or even just a spark. Below, a selection of these: 30 recommendations plucked from interviews and essays the internet over. If you read them all, you’ll probably become a writer instantly!
Zadie Smith: Hurricane, Andrew Salkey
A Jamaican writer called Andrew Salkey… wrote a YA novel called Hurricanebefore YA was a term. I remember it as the book that made me want to write. He was the most wonderful writer for children. I just found what looks to be a sequel, Earthquake, on an old-books stall on West Third, and I intend to read it to my kids. He died in 1995.
Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Stranger, Albert Camus
The two most influential books of the war years were Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Stranger. Other novels by the same authors—for example Sartre’s The Roads to Liberty or Camus’s The Fall—are of little interest. I feel that I decided to become a writer when I read The Stranger, which appeared in 1942, during the Occupation. It was published by Gallimard, a firm very much connected with the Occupiers. By the way, Sartre himself finally confessed that the Occupation hadn’t bothered him much. But my reading of The Stranger, as I explain in the Mirror, is very personal. The murder committed by Mersault was the result of a situation, which is the situation of relationship to the world.
Eileen Myles: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Do you remember what books you encountered, growing up in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 60s, that might have inspired you to want to become a writer?
The 50s is childhood up to age ten, so myths, sci-fi. Those didn’t make me want to be a writer. They made me want to do drugs or have adventures, travel. Maybe Little Women made me want to be a writer because Jo, the star of it, was a writer. I didn’t understand yet that that was the author. In the 60s I was a teenager. I liked Franny & Zooey, really everything by J.D. Salinger. I realized it was important who was talking. If you could tap into that you could get a flow going. Henry Miller came to me in the 70s. He said I didn’t ask to be born. He wrote in a complaining, American working class speech. He was from Williamsburg. It was ugly. It reminded me of Somerville, where I came from. He made it clear that an unprivileged American could be a writer and could have a lot to talk about. He switched constantly from speech to surrealism. That shift was important to me because an unstable self was what I had to use.
Jodi Picoult: Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
My favorite writer is Alice Hoffman; she’s brilliant. One of my favorite books in recent years was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – I wished I’d written it, which is my highest form of compliment. The book that made me want to be a writer in the first place was Gone with the Wind – I read it and wanted to create a whole world out of words, too.
David Mitchell: The Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin
There was no single epiphany, but I recall a few early flashes. When I was ten I would be transported by certain books – Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novels, Isaac Asimov – and burn to do to readers what had just been done to me. Sometimes that burning prompted me to start writing, though I never got more than a few pages down. A few years later I would indulge in a visual fantasy that involved imagining my name on the jacket of a book – usually Faber and Faber – and I’d feel a whoosh inside my rib cage.
Emma Donoghue: The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
The book that made me want to write was The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. It made me feel that historical fiction didn’t have to be fusty and all about bodices, that it could be a thrilling novel, which just happened to be set in 1800.
Tom Wolfe: Napoleon, Emil Ludwig
Regarding writing, was there any particular book that influenced you?
I was greatly struck by Emil Ludwig’s biography of Napoleon, which is written in the historical present. It begins as the mother sits suckling her babe in a tent. […] It impressed me so enormously that I began to write the biography of Napoleon myself, though heavily cribbed from Emil Ludwig. I was eight at the time.
Roxane Gay: Beloved, Toni Morrison (and a lot of other books)
My writing ambition was sharpened by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, an unapologetically political novel that reminds us of what it costs to be a woman in this world or the next. My ambition, that toward which I aspire to write, has long been guided by Toni Morrison, Beloved, and through her words, seeing how a novel can be mysterious and true, mythical and raw, how a novel can honor memory even when we want to look away or forget. My ambition has long been sharpened by Alice Walker, willing to tell the stories of black women without apology, willing to write politically without apology – Possessing the Secret of Joy, a haunting, gorgeous novel about female genital mutilation that keeps me transfixed and heartbroken and helpless each time I read it, because sometimes the only way to tell the truth is to tell a story.
Neil Gaiman: The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses – the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.
I think, perhaps, the genius of Lewis was that he made a world that was more real to me than the one I lived in; and if authors got to write the tales of Narnia, then I wanted to be an author.
Anne Lamott: Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
What book made you want to become a writer?
You mean, besides Pippi Longstocking?
Nine Stories blew me away‚ I can still remember reading “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” for the first time, and just weeping with the poignancy of the damaged soldier and the young girl. And “Teddy” – I still remember the moment when the little boy Teddy, who is actually a sadhu, tells the reporter on the ship that he first realized what God was all about when he saw his little sister drink a glass of milk – that it was God, pouring God, into God. Or something like that – maybe I don’t remember it quite as well as I thought. But it changed me both spiritually and as a very young writer, because both the insight and the simplicity of the story were within my reach.
Oh, and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and “Down at the Dinghy,” with the great Boo Boo Glass. And “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” – don’t even get me started…
For more fantastic recommendations from your favourite writers, check out the original post here: http://lithub.com/the-books-that-made-your-favorite-writers-want-to-write/
2 thoughts on “The Books That Made Your Favourite Authors Want To Write”
This was a fascinating read. It is always great to get a little more insight into the influences of those who influence us. Thanks for sharing!
No worries, glad you enjoyed it. 🙂