Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Five Stories that Influenced the Writer

Whenever I've talked to anyone interested in writing, or any avid reader, the question always comes up: "what's your favorite book?" To writers and literary buffs, this is like choosing between de Havilland and Bacall, or Zepellin and The Who. It's not an easy question, and usually won't get a simple answer. There's a lot of "Well I'm in the mood for this..." or "If you're talking this genre..."

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend and much-more-successful-than-me writer and the question came up again. He settled for Dickens, but I was at a loss. So, here are my five favorite books of all time, the one's that have influenced me as a writer and entertained me as a reader.

5. The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
I owe this series of books a lot. I was 10 years old, wandering through my elementary school's library when I saw The Dark is Rising. Until then, I had passed the time reading kid mysteries like The Hardy Boys. I saw the title of this book, was intrigued, and picked it up. This was the novel that got me into serious reading. It was dense, think, and smart. I didn't understand all of it then, but I loved what I understood. I read the rest of the series, growing more enthralled as I went. This was a series with character development, mysticism, adventure, all told on an epic scale that never felt cliche. It was fantasy, but unlike most series today, even the excellent Harry Potter series, never felt dependent on tropes. And unlike, say, the Percy Jackson series, where mythology is a gimmick, Cooper weaved Arthurian and Celtic myths into the series, creating a unique mythos that felt natural instead of standing out to catch attention. I still reread this series, and now I get it.
4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman may be British, but he crafted what is surely the Great American Novel. I've read The Great Gatsby; it's good, but it does not capture what America is the way American Gods does. It's an epic about immigration and assimilation, told through the filter of a road novel mixed with crime literature. The mix of genres fascinated me, and the direct, serious way Gaiman told the story really helped the novel. It works on so many levels: as a low key personal story of an ex-con, a tale about gods, and what it means to be an American. I would love to see this taught in high schools across the country.
3. Rex Mundi by Arvid Nelson
Okay, it's a comic book, but it's the best comic book of the last ten years, and the best mystery series you'll find. This is a story about the Holy Grail, only not the conventional cup story. You're probably thinking of The DaVinci Code. That was a lackluster thriller that gained fame only through controversy. Rex Mundi, which not only came before Dan Brown's book, is a smart murder mystery set in a 1930s Paris where magic is real, the Protestant Reformation never happened, and masked Inquisitors roam the streets. A political thriller, a murder mystery, a romance, all told through a noir filter that seques into an Indiana Jones-style adventure? Oh hell yes. The work Nelson put into the series really stands out. There's a good deal of world building going on, and it is really effective, from subtle differences to shocking alterations from our history. A compelling cast, brilliant art, and excellent buildup and payoff make Rex Mundi a must read, even if you aren't a comic book fan.
2. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
I love spy fiction, and I always have. From Ian Fleming's James Bond series to the sometimes-espionage Dirk Pitt books, dark alley meet ups, paranoia, and spy vs. spy action has been a favorite of mine. When I picked up Greene's 1950s Vietnam spy story, my perception of spy fiction was turned upside down. Here was a tale of terrorism, idealism, and cynicism told through a love triangle. It was realistic, without cliched espionage tropes. Greene was a force to be reckoned with; he was a king of characterization and character growth, and he could paint vivid locales, be it Vietnam or the Cuba of his great spy-comedy Our Man in Havana.
1. The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Without a doubt, my favorite novel of all time. I came across this thanks to Roman Polanski's excellent, if different, adaptation The Ninth Gate. This is quite simply the book for bibliophiles. Books play a huge part in the story, both the adventure serials of Alexander Dumas and books on demonology. This is a story that plays with the characters and the reader, shifting between adventure and crime, all under the banner of a great gothic mystery. A "literary mercenary" is called into authenticate both a chapter of The Three Musketeers and book that may have been written in part by Satan. Soon bodies start piling up and characters seem to come to life from Dumas's classic. Is it the work of ordinary people, or is the Devil involved? Immensely satisfying, this is a book I reread constantly, and each time I find something new that I missed, a connection, a bit of foreshadowing, or a new insight to a character. This, more than any other book, has shaped my views as a reader and a writer, and if I could write a novel half as good as this, I would be thrilled.

A tale of the writer,

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