10 Influential Books – For Me, That Is

Every now and then a challenge pops up on Facebook, and, even though I normally don’t fall for them, some of them do intrigue me. Recently among my book-loving friends, it was the “10 Works of Literature that Inspired Me” challenge. I made it several days before anyone tagged me, and, then, I got tagged by two different people. I didn’t mind this challenge because it made me reflect on the literary works which have inspired me.

Now, I’ll add, just about every book I’ve ever read inspires me either as an everyday, mostly normal person or as a writer (sometimes both), and if I’d kept a running list of the ten most influential, it would have been a fluid one. So the list here is what came into my head today. Challenge me again in a few months, and some of the books might change.

And I noticed people who accepted the challenge listed the ten books but never explained why any of them made their list. That would have been interesting to me–especially in cases where there was duplication with my list or a book, which when I read it made me gag. So, for my list, I’ve included a brief statement about why/how the book influenced me.

Some of you will likely turn up your noses at some of my selections and declare, “This is not literature!” There is, gasp, science fiction on my list and, horrors, popular fiction, too. 

Oh, and since I was always the one who perversely broke every chain letter/e-mail/Facebook post I’ve ever received, I won’t be tagging anyone to post his or her “10 Most Influential…” list, other than to say: Anyone who reads this should do the same, but you have to explain how or why each book influenced you. Ready, set, dare ya!

10 Works of Literature That Inspired Me (in no particular order)

  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This was the first book, other than a comic book or storybooks, ever given me as a child, when I was around six, I believe. I still have it, though my PITA little brother managed to tear the front cover off this hardback. How did it influence me? It sparked my life-long love of books and reading, and writing too, since I did nothing but write stories about horses for years afterward.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I read this book in the 1980’s it validated my feminism, which I only acknowledged privately to people I could trust not to “out” me. It made me less afraid of the “f-word” (feminism; I’ve never been afraid of the other) and made me proud to be a feminist. The fact that it’s even more relevant now is a testament to Atwood’s genius. I want to be her when I grow up to be a writer.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book made me a sucker for happy endings, in fiction and in life. Even in my own writing, which is sometimes dark and bleak, I consciously, or unconsciously, find a way to work a happy resolution in because this book showed me it can happen. On a personal level, I’m still waiting.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This book showed me what a happy family living with adversity looked like and that there were, indeed, happy families. That was quite the eye-opener to me given my combative and tumultuous immediate and extended families. Plus, there was the whole woman-writer thing going on there; I felt Jo and I were really the sisters.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This book blew away all my preconceived notions of what a novel/novel-in-stories should be. It enthralled me and pissed me off and made me both question and challenge myself as a writer. To absorb this novel you have to shed your skin of mediocrity and just let it pummel you.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Though I thought his later works were just plain creepy and some of his earlier works bordered on fascism, this book was incredible–well-written and timely. This book made me–finally!–question the origins of my own religion and put me on the non-theist path, for which I am forever grateful. Do you grok me?
  • The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Another sci-fi icon on the list, this was the first, novel-length science fiction book I read. Before it, I picked up sci-fi from comic books, tv shows, and B-movies. I bought the battered paperback at a library sale for a nickel, and when I brought it home my mother swore the depiction of aliens on the cover would give me nightmares. She was wrong; it made me think.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Because it blew my freakin’ mind!
  • On Writing by Stephen King. I’m one of those writers who like Stephen King’s writing because I see past the grimness and gore and revel in how he turns a phrase. This was the best instructional book on writing (pun intended) I’ve ever read, and it made me give up -ly adverbs, with reluctance.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Don’t bother to see the movie (though it was decent); read the book. Wells never met my parents, I’m reasonably certain, but she coincidentally explained their complex and enervating relationship in a way I could ultimately forgive them.

Of course, I’ve been thinking as I’ve written this, and I offer this addendum: anything by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… Oh, hell, just ask me again in a few months, like I said, and the list will be different.

Tag–you’re it.

Spy Flash 2 Gets a Name!

The stories collected under Spy Flash 2 have graciously arranged themselves as a novel in stories involving two key events in the careers of Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, covert operatives for the United Nations Intelligence Directorate. The novel in stories will be ready for publication in early 2014.

For those not familiar with the term, “novel in stories,” let me try to help. Each story can stand alone, but, collected, they have a complete story arc involving the same characters and events. They can span a short amount of time or, as in this case, a period of years.

A novel in stories is slightly different from “linked short stories,” which are also stand-alone and use characters from one story in another story, but linked short stories do not have a story arc. They are separate and distinct, even unrelated, other than the appearance of a character from a previous story. My previous books, Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash, could be considered collections of linked stories.

Examples of novels in stories include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout or A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan or What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang.

Of course, since the stories decided they formed enough of an over-reaching arc to be called a novel, they needed a title snappier than “Spy Flash 2.” After much deliberation and debate, I’m pleased to announce that title, taken from a three-part story in the collection:

THE BETTER SPY

Yes, I rather like that myself. Check back periodically for updates and other announcements. Comments and suggestions I gratefully accept.

And here’s a little bonus, a draft cover:

(c) Phyllis Anne Duncan

(c) Phyllis Anne Duncan

National Short Story Month

May is the traditional month for college graduations, high school proms, renewing your garden or flower beds, but it’s also the “national” month for several issues:  Speech and Hearing, Lupus, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Skin Cancer, Asian Pacific Heritage, and many, many more. People involved with or affected by these issues use the month of May to increase awareness of the topic and raise money.

May is also National Short Story Month. Now, I’m not trying to equate short story awareness with, say ALS awareness, but a literate society is one that strives to conquer disease and acknowledge diversity. An appreciation of the short story, whether as a reader or writer of them, is an essential part of being literate, of having an education.

Many writers–especially those of us who count short stories among our skills–look upon short stories as rather the red-headed step-child of literature. That isn’t altogether inaccurate. The big-name, traditional publishers won’t touch a collection of short stories unless you’re an equally big-name writer. In the past decade or so, some writers have come up with unique ways of “disguising” short story collections–linked stories (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennie Coughlin’s Thrown Out, and my own Blood Vengeanceor a novel in stories (Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You, Clifford Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know, and, to a certain extent, my book, Spy Flash.)

Those alternative approaches have had some success in getting the short story before the reading public. Small presses, like Press 53 in North Carolina, are more amenable to the publication of short stories, as are university presses, but short stories are almost a niche market.

In the past, short stories (which some believe have their origins in The Canterbury Tales, perhaps the first collection of linked short stories) were the venerated form of fiction, and in the short story’s glory days, hundred of literary and mainstream magazines featured short works. The novel was considered crass pulp fiction, and the short story was considered an art. Such noted writers as Kurt Vonnegut struggled to get his short stories published and often considered himself a failure for it, even as his novels assured his success and literary acceptance. As the novel reached its ascendence in the twentieth century, short stories survived in but a few literary magazines and the venerated New Yorker. Genre short stories–horror, science fiction, thrillers, crime–continued to flourish in limited markets. There are some, usually genre fans, of which I’m one, who believe it was genre short stories that saved the short story as a literary niche.

Interestingly enough, short stories have enjoyed a revival of sorts with the advent of the ebook reader. When you’re looking for something to read on your work commute, a short story is ideal. A short story is something you can begin and finish easily in a single sitting. When I used to commute to work, I’d often be frustrated that I’d reach just the most critical point in a novel when my stop came up. And, yes, there were occasions where I missed my stop because of that. Short stories are ideal for the eReader, either as collections or as singles.

What is the attraction of short stories? Why do those of us who call ourselves novelists indulge in the production of shorter work? Well, sometimes you don’t need 50,000-plus words to tell a story. Sometimes you can do it in 5,000, 3,000, or, with the advent of flash fiction, in less than 1,000 words. Some of us can manage a story in 100 words, and Hemingway once told a rich, poignant story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Though I consider myself a novelist, my only published work has been short stories, either in literary magazines or in my own collections. I write two to three short stories a week, usually flash fiction mainly as an exercise for my longer fiction. Face it, when you have to hone and cut words to meet an arbitrary word limit and still tell a complete story, that’s absolutely translatable to a novel-length work. In my year-long edit of a series of four books I’ve been working on, I managed to trim well over 100 pages, which didn’t need to be there in the first place. Had I not been practicing my short story skills under those word limits, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have happened, to the detriment of the work.

So, help out a short story writer in May. Buy a single, or, better yet, buy a collection of short stories and savor them. I happen to have three such collections available. Just scroll down the righthand column. A click on the book’s cover will take you to where you can purchase them. Don’t think of it as enriching me (because, really, it doesn’t pay me that much). Think of it as assuring the continuation of an essential form of fiction–the short story.

For an interesting article on the history of the short story, click here.

Life Gets in the Way

Last week was a slow writing week. I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and compose until Friday morning. Some spring clean-up, some things I’d been putting off around the house, babysitting, and other obligations intervened. That’s life, but by the time Friday rolled around I not only missed writing, I kicked myself for not making the time to write.

And the weekend of April 5-6 was certainly inspiring. I attended the Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Wolfe, a 1951 W&L graduate, is so admired by his classmates that they endowed an annual seminar in his name, which pairs Wolfe and another author for a weekend of panel discussions of the author’s work. W&L faculty also present a scholarly address on a particular work of the featured author.

This year the featured author was Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d read “Goon Squad” right before the Pulitzer announcement because I’d heard it was a novel in stories, something I was interested in exploring. Some of the stories intrigued me, though the PowerPoint story gave me a flashback to working days and countless, bad PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of the book as a whole, though the writing was excellent.

Turns out Egan never intended that book to be a novel, in stories or otherwise. She knew she had this cast of interrelated characters, and she had decided to write a story for each character; but she wasn’t calling it a “novel” in her own head. Nor did she call it a collection of short stories, though that’s what she intended it to be. It wasn’t until the paperback edition came out that the words “A Novel” appeared on the cover, but that, Egan stated, was likely at the publisher’s instigation–as if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” wouldn’t boost sales.

In truth, I read the book over a period of several weeks, and I think it’s a work you need to finish in a single sitting or not over a protracted amount of time. Otherwise, you tend to forget the connections and the fact that a minor or barely mentioned character in one story is featured in another. So, this seminar, then, along with the two scholarly explorations by W&L professors Christopher Gavaler (“Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction”) and Jasmin Darznik (“The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad“), brought the characters back to mind. And the connections clicked. “Goon Squad” is a book I recommend.

Egan’s speech–“Journalist as Novelist; Novelist as Journalist”–was thought-provoking as well. She admits she’s an “accidental journalist” and took advantage of a job offer from The New York Times Magazine to conduct research for her novel Look at Me. The emphasis on research as a journalist improved her lot as a novelist, Egan stated, and she lauded the recent trend in writing non-fiction along the lines of fiction and vice-versa. In all, a very inspiring talk, and Egan was self-deprecating; no swelled-head Pulitzer diva in the house.

This past weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Speculative Fiction by Edward M. Lerner and hosted by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t so much a craft workshop as an in-depth explanation of what speculative fiction is, the elements of speculative fiction, its place in the current publishing market, and its related fandom. Lerner, who has co-authored with Larry Niven in addition to publishing several “hard” sci-fi novels on his own, is very knowledgeable of the topic and gave an excellent presentation with plenty of opportunity to ask questions. In truth, it was more of a refresher for me because I’ve read spec fic since I was a teen, but it did inspire me to give writing sci-fi a second (or third or twentieth) chance.

Why? Well, Lerner himself is a physicist, but he has written sci-fi books on nanotechnology, medical thrillers, and other non-physics topics through research and contacting subject matter experts. That approach doesn’t put it out of my wheelhouse, even though I’ve always thought I didn’t have the science chops to pull off writing sci-fi. However, the first story I had published in eFiction Magazine was sci-fi–“Without Form or Substance.” It was about time travel, but, unbeknownst to me until Lerner’s workshop, I used time travel as a trope. It was there and central to the plot, but the details of how it worked were unnecessary.

So, a great workshop for inspiration or, rather, renewing inspiration. If you live near Charlottesville, VA, give WriterHouse a look. In addition to providing space for actual writing, its workshops are always top-notch.

After all that, here’s hoping this week is more productive. I’d cross my fingers, but I need them to type.

April’s First Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers LogoA short post today because I’m off to Lexington, VA for the annual Tom Wolfe Lecture series. Legendary author Tom Wolfe introduces another author of note, and faculty from Washington and Lee University provide scholarly lectures on the author’s work. This is all interwoven with great food and interesting company, and this year the featured author is Pulitzer prize winner Jennifer Egan. Her featured work is A Visit from the Good Squad.

I’m looking forward to some in-depth study of another writer’s work–and to having my copy of Goon Squad signed by the author herself.

Today’s Friday Fictioneer’s story is a prose poem–yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment–in honor of National Poetry Month. Last night we had a great, SWAG Writers poetry reading, so I must have been inspired. Poets, be kind to “Life, a Cliché.” If you don’t see the link on the title, then scroll to the top of the page, click on Friday Fictioneers. You can select this week’s offering from the drop down list.