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12 Most Influential Books on My Writing

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This isn’t a list of what I think are the twelve best books of all time, and in fact some of these might not even be my absolute favorite books. But they are, I think, a list of the books that had the biggest influence on my writing. These are the books that inspired me to write, the books that gave me hope, books that I envied, even books that I blatantly ripped-off. They’re not listed in order of greatness, nor are they listed in order of publication. Rather, I’ve listed them roughly in the order that they came into my life.

 

1. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (1903)

I wrote a short nonfiction piece called “Repairs,” about the time I spent at our next-door neighbors’ house when I was a little kid. Mr. Hunter was amazed that I could read a newspaper article so well, probably at the age of six, and he’d often sit me down to listen to me read aloud, as though I were performing a magic trick. I had been intimidated by Mr. Hunter, a tall and thin gruff man in his sixties, and also someone I didn’t see that often, except when he’d come home from work in his forest green uniform and black metal lunch pail. I’d be visiting Mrs. Hunter, his homemaker wife, sitting at the kitchen table eating cookies or, sometimes, working on some home-repair project with my father’s tools. I remember, for instance, changing a light switch plate for her. She paid me a dime for my work.

 

The Hunters had a garage sale before they moved from the house one summer day, and I used one of my dimes Mrs. Hunter had given me to buy a mini set of forked prongs meant to hold an ear of corn on the cob. I didn’t know that at the time—I’d thought they were just tiny forks. Then Mr. Hunter pulled me aside and handed me a hardback copy of The Call of the Wild. There was a dog on the cover, lying in snow in front of a tent. He told me that I was probably a little too young for the book right then, but that he wanted me to hang onto it and read it when I was ready. He was right—I was too young to read it, but I enjoyed looking at the cover and flipping through the pages, reading random passages. I think Mr. Hunter really saw something in me, even way back then. After I wrote “Repairs,” the story of my relationship with the neighbors and my introduction to books, I asked my mother why I spent so much time over at the neighbor’s house. Did Mrs. Hunter babysit me on certain days? Were the adults all friends? But she seemed surprised—even doubtful—of my claims that I was over there all the time. She didn’t even remember what their names were.

 

2. Jaws, Peter Benchley (1974)

The movie Jaws was playing at the North Reading Cinema all summer long, the red marquee letters taunting me every time I passed it in the back seat of my parents’ car. I begged them to take me to see it, but I was only six, maybe seven, and they’d thought I was too young. Instead, they brought me home a paperback copy of the novel some weeks later, the cover the same as the iconic poster that I’d spent so much time staring at: the three striking colors: the blue of the water, white sky, red lettering above, that massive head of the shark bearing down on that oblivious naked woman. Her name was Christine Watkins and she was no doubt my first crush. I remember practically putting my nose to the cover in my strained attempt to see her nipples through the whitewash of water (side note: my wife's name is Christine, and I can't help but wonder how much of that fact played into my marrying her, that pang of lovesick echoing back up through the spiral of time). I carried the book with me everywhere I went, and even brought it to C.C.D. one morning. The book caused quite a distraction among the six-year-olds, as you can imagine, until the C.C.D. teacher told me to put it on the chair and sit on it. I did as I was told, but at the end of the hour, I’d squirmed and fidgeted so much that the paperback cover had torn off. And, to this very day, I have not forgiven her.

 

Just as I was too young for the film, I was also, of course, too young for the novel. Still, I didn’t let it stop me from trying. I’d read the first page or so, over and over again: “The fish closed in on the woman and hurtled past…” I even read passages into a tape recorder for no real reason. I’d flip through the book and read Quint’s salty dialogue, his liberal use of not only the ‘F’ word, but the ‘C’ word as well.

 

Eventually, of course, I did read the novel. In fact, some of my first attempts at writing stories, back in second, third, and fourth grade, were killer shark stories. I wrote one called “Jaws III” long before there was a Jaws 3D. I wrote one called “Jaws of the Shark” and another shark story called “The Depths of Malibu Beach.” Even when I sat down to attempt my first real novel, in my early twenties—a serial killer story called Blackjack—I used Jaws as a blueprint. I hadn’t been confident that I had enough literary stamina to sustain a novel, so I intentionally wrote about a serial killer, with the idea that, whenever I ran out of gas and didn’t know where to go next with the story, I could just have the killer strike again, and that would jumpstart the plot again.

 

I read Jaws last year, for what had to have been the tenth time, along with two other Benchley 70s novels, The Deep and The Island, in an attempt to absorb the feel of 1970s commercial fiction in preparation for my new novel, Sky Rocketson’s Flight.

 

And I’ll probably read Jaws next year, too. I’ll find an excuse.

 

 

3. Night Shift, Stephen King (1978)

I grew up reading Stephen King. For a while, he was all I pretty much did read, so I probably could have chosen any number of King books for this list. Because there are so many I could have listed, maybe it makes sense to focus on my introduction to King, which was his 1978 short story collection Night Shift.

 

For two weeks during the summer of 1979 (and then again the following summer) I joined my cousins, Chris and Mike, and their dad, my Uncle Jerry, on one of their epic and ambitious camping trips. This one was to a remote island in Lake Millinocket in rural Maine, about a five-hour drive from our homes in Massachusetts. Jerry had a friend who ran a camp on the vast lake, renting summer cabins and campsites. But we weren’t going to be staying at one of his camps. No, instead, upon arrival, we boarded his seaplane for an aerial tour of the dramatic lake, and then to choose which of the lake’s many unspoiled islands for our two-week home.

 

My cousin Chris was a bookworm. He brought with him a backpack full of paperbacks, and spent much of his days in his tent reading. In fact, on the way in from town, we’d stopped at a local bookstore for reading material. I’d bought a pulp magazine about shark attacks (I’d recently seen Jaws 2 for the first time), while Chris bought a paperback copy of Night Shift. Right away, I was both wary of and fascinated by its cover—a partially-bandaged hand, palm facing the viewer, with a collection of peering eyes looking out from its palm. A hand with eyes. What the ever-lovin’ hell was that about?

 

At night, before bed, the three of us would hang out in the tent, propane lantern hissing and glowing. Chris would read Mike and me one of the stories from Night Shift and scare the absolute fuck out of us. Then we’d extinguish the lantern and we’d be swallowed in the island’s darkness, its wild late-nights sounds, miles and miles and miles from civilization, and I’d lie awake through the night, pissed-off at Chris for reading us the story. But by sunrise, at breakfast on the sandy beach in the cool Maine morning, I couldn’t wait for him to read us another one.

 

4. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

After years of half-reading or even avoiding school-issues novels (I’m thinking of The Scarlett Letter, The Great Gatsby, and Animal Farm), I fell instantly in love with Holden Caulfield’s colloquial narration in The Catcher in the Rye. While I later learned to appreciate Gatsby, and even thought Of Mice and Men was decent enough, it wasn’t until junior year English that I was assigned a book that didn’t feel like homework at all. I devoured this novel, enamored with Caulfield’s relatable voice and even the meandering plot, as Holden avoids going home and spends a couple days wasting time in New York City. For the first time in all my school years—or, certainly, my high school years—this was a voice I recognized. Holden was one of us.

 

The Catcher in the Rye changed my own writing style. Up until Catcher, my stories were Stephen King rip-offs, bad horror stories that earned laughter from my creative writing class peers (and teacher, actually). Now, suddenly, I was mimicking Salinger, writing about every day, relatable conflicts and relying on a recognizable Caulfield-esque voice. These new stories gained me sudden attention from my teachers. My creative writing teacher, Mr. Reed, went from making me read passages of my horror stories out loud so he could get a good laugh, to then looking at me earnestly and declaring, “Sean, this is quite good.” He even submitted one story to a Boston University writing contest on my behalf. I published another story in the school magazine—stealing from Salinger again—and won the writing award at the end-of-the-year senior banquet.

 

Of course, switching from Stephen King rip-offs to J.D. Salinger rip-offs proved to be problematic in other ways—I was still years away from finding my own voice—at least Salinger had opened my eyes to something else. Another way. For the first time, my stories were about characters.  

 

5. The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux (1981)

This novel first appeared on my radar in high school, when I learned this Paul Theroux was the uncle of one of the students. Mt. Reed, my creative writing teacher, was a big fan of the book. I didn’t read it myself, though, until the film came out in the later part of the 80s, starring Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford.

 

Since then, I’ve read the novel several times. In fact, after Jaws, it might be the novel that I’ve re-read the most over the years. I even got to teach it in a Fiction into Film class at UMass Lowell.

 

What resonated with me, more than anything, was the narrator, Allie Fox’s dutiful son, defending his father despite his father’s harsh, abrasive personality and slipping mind. In fact, The Mosquito Coast became the blueprint for my own novel Land’s End, about a divorced dad who kidnaps his own two children and takes them on the run, driving cross-country into the teeth of the infamous Blizzard of ’78, much the way that Allie Fox led his family into deeper and deeper danger in the jungles of Honduras.

 

I wanted to write a book like The Mosquito Coast. Forty years later, Land’s End ended up being that book. It has The Mosquito Coast’s DNA all over it.

 

6. A Simple Plan, Scott Smith (1993)

I bought this novel in the best way: I randomly picked it up off the bookstore shelf, read the first pages, and got sucked in. Never heard of it before, hadn’t seen it on a bestseller list, hadn’t been recommended to me by someone. Just picked it up and jumped in. Pure.

 

Scott Smith’s novel proved to me a model that I’d borrow for my own writing, over and over. His first-person narration of an ordinary, unassuming man whose life gradually unravels as he compounds one bad, desperate decision with another, was a setup I’d use for my 1990s novel attempts: Adrenalin, Rainy Day Thrills, and Cane Abigail.

 

I re-read A Simple Plan this past year in preparation for writing my new novel, Sky Rocketson’s Flight, a genre I hadn’t really explored in decades.

 

Smith didn’t publish another novel until 2008’s The Ruins, another great page-turner. Fifteen long years between books. And no novel since. Once in awhile I’ll go onto Amazon and look him up, see if there’s anything new on the horizon from him, but there never is. This guy knows how to write a propulsive novel, so it’s a shame, and puzzling, that he’s only written two.

 

7. The Hottest State, Ethan Hawke (1996)

I bought a copy of Ethan Hawke’s debut novel just a few months after seeing the film Before Sunrise, written and directed by Richard Linklater. The movie was unlike any I had ever seen before: taking place over the course of just a few hours, the ‘story’—to use the term loosely—follows two people in their early twenties as they meet on a European train and decide to roam the streets of Vienna to kill time and get to know each other. The film could be described as a talkie, in that the characters spend the entire movie walking and talking. That’s it. Just chatting. And, over the course of two hours, falling hard in love the way that only young people can.

 

The movie captivated me. In fact, it felt more than a movie, that I had actually gotten to know these two people, that I was in a way a part of their growing friendship. I’d been living in Florida at the time, a little lost and a little lonely, and their voices had felt authentic and relatable in a way I had probably needed at the time.

 

So when I visited Barnes and Noble some months later and stumbled upon this slim novel by Ethan Hawke, I picked it up and read the first pages. Immediately I was taken by the intimate and colloquial narrator, a young man in his twenties suffering a brutal breakup hangover. I recognized the voice as similar to Ethan Hawke’s Jesse from Before Sunrise, and the story felt in some way a companion piece to that movie. The physical book was undersized in its dimensions and thin, hinting at the simple—but universal—story within: of young love lost, of twenty-something self-discovery, of disappointment and acceptance. After just those first couple pages I knew I wanted to finish the book, that I was indeed going to buy it. But at the time I remember feeling a nudge of apprehension, maybe even shame, that I was going to have to get in line and buy this skinny novel written by that Dead Poet’s Society actor, that I was some kind of fanboy with a simpleton’s literary tastes. This was before, of course, Hawke’s other novels and two graphic novels, and his Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (all which, I feel, eventually vindicated me).

 

8. Cocktail, Heywood Gould (1984)

Yes, this is the novel on which the 1988 Tom Cruise bartending movie was based, but Hollywood took Heywold Gould’s rather dark and cynical novel into paint-by-numbers, Beach Boys-Kokomo territory. In Gould’s original novel, Brian Flanagan is not a young business school student looking for a bartending side hustle, but a washed-up 38 year-old has-been whose spend his aimless life stumbling in and out of bad bar jobs. It’s one of the most extreme examples I can remember of a film so blatantly throwing away the source material and starting over, keeping the title and the main character’s name and that’s about it.

 

I came across a water-damaged paperback copy of the novel at a used book store sometime in the 1990s. I’d found the movie entertaining enough, as most Tom Cruise movies are, and was surprised to learn that the movie hadn’t been written as an original screenplay but had been based on a novel, something that usually gave a film a weight of importance, of seriousness. I opened the book and read the first page, then the second, then the third. By then, I knew I’d be buying it. Flanagan’s first-person narration was colloquial, relatable, and engaging. At the time, I was a bartender myself, and a college dropout, to boot. I read the novel quickly, stunned at how dramatically the movie had departed from it, had abandoned what I thought was a much more fascinating character and story. And since then, I’ve probably read the novel at least a couple more times. I wish they’d made that movie.

 

 

9. The Cage Keeper & Other Stories, Andre Dubus III (1989)

The first book of Dubus’ that I read was his novel House of Sand and Fog, which had just been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. I was enrolled at the time in Andre’s creative writing class at UMass Lowell, so I wanted to read his bestselling book before the semester started. I watched him as a guest on Oprah before I’d met him in class. So I considered putting that novel, House of Sand and Fog, on this list, since Andre has been such an influence and a friend over the decades, but the book that I keep returning to, again and again, is his early short story collection The Cage Keeper. He published the collection before his breakout novel, but in it he captures many of the signature character traits that reveal themselves in later novels like The Garden of Last Days and Gone So Long, blue-collar people struggling to get by, struggling to make the decisions they know they should be making but for whatever reason don’t. Characters who can’t seem to get out of their own way. His story “White Trees, Hammer Moon,” for example, is one I’ve probably read half a dozen times, and have often assigned to my college students, about a stepfather on the brink of beginning a year-long prison sentence who wants to take his step-kids on one more weekend away, a camping trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for some final quality time. And as much as his intentions are in the right place (or are they?), Rory is incapable of getting out of his own way, sabotaging the camping trip again and again in a spiral of self-pity, until the weekend is a bust, a final regret he’ll have to carry with him into his prison cell. Dubus might be just one of a couple authors whose complete library I’ve read (Perrotta, below, being one of the others).

 

10. Bad Haircut: Stories from the Seventies, Tom Perrotta (1994)

My first encounter with Perrotta’s work wasn’t with one of his novels or story collections, but with the 1999 Alexander Payne film Election, based on Perrotta’s novel. I was a fan of the quirky movie, with Matthew Broderick’s unhappy and weak social studies teacher and Reese Witherspoon’s overly-ambitious student Tracy Flick (the pitch meeting for the sitcom Parks & Rec must have opened with the question, “What would Tracy Flick be like as an adult, working in a middling government job?).

 

I was in a book store one night, recently back in college after a decade-long hiatus, and saw an interesting cover and title called Joe College. I picked it up and saw on the back that it was written by someone local, the author of Election. I left with the novel, loved it, then read Election, loved it, then found this early short story collection, stories linked by a young main character, coming-of-age in the nostalgic 1970s. Perrotta makes writing look painless, effortless even. No flowery language, no long dives into dense description. Just tell the story. And tell it well. No one I’ve read writes so simply and whose characters are so relatable and familiar. 

 

11. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway (1964)

Hemingway’s memoir was an assigned text for an MFA course I was taking called “Expatriate American Literature.” I had just completed a summer studying abroad, what would be the first of four that made up the heart of the graduate program. We were all writers, all bohemians, all forging our own unconventional paths through our 20s and 30s. It was a romanticized time, and I don’t mean that looking back. I’d felt it even while living it. Hemingway’s memoir, which I read the fall semester after the summer spent in France, only served to underscore what I was doing. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, all writing and drinking their way through 1920s Paris, these like-minded individuals who Stein would so infamously label “The Lost Generation.” I saw echoes in the book of my own recent experience as an expat, that not only did I feel a like-minded kinship with my fellow colleagues, but also with these literary ghosts from a hundred years before. Hemingway’s memoir gave confirmation that I was doing something worthwhile, and not just worthwhile but damn cool. I was in some strange kind of club; no, a fraternity, that spiraled backward from one lost generation to the one before and the one before and before.

 

12. The Motel Life, Willy Vlautin (2013)

Jesus, Willy Vlautin is depressing as hell. If his characters weren’t so vivid, weren’t so desperately drawn and depicted, I might not have included The Motel Life. Several years ago I’d been researching novels that might be considered comp titles for my own novel Land’s End, and came across Vlautin’s first book. Within a year I’d read his entire library, each story a strand of his tapestry of down-on-their-luck characters living on the fringes of society and invisible to most.

 

Vlautin is a musician and songwriter as well, and there are obvious overlaps between his two mediums: sparse, stripped-down stories, haunting in their beauty, relentless in their ability to shine a light—and hold it—to the darkest of places. After reading a Vlautin novel, you feel like you’ve been beaten up, but also, in a strange way, seen.

 

I had a writer mentor once as an undergrad—Elizabeth Cox—who championed my work and encouraged me at every turn. At our end-of-the-semester one-on-one she lauded my writing but encouraged me to not be afraid to “go darker.” At the time, I hadn’t really known what she’d meant. I’d thought that my stories were in fact already pretty dark. It wasn’t until I’d read The Motel Life, and then Vlautin’s other novels, that I finally saw what she meant.

Honorable Mention:

Jim's Journal, by Scott Dikkers

The greatest comic strip of all time just might be Jim's Journal, a crudely-drawn tour-de-force about college student and part-time McDonald's employee Jim and his bland day-to-day life. It's ridiculously mundane, to the point where a new reader might pause after one or two strips and ask, "What the hell is this supposed to be?" But after a handful more, the vanilla brilliance of Dikker's strip takes shape: there's a rhythm to the strips, a heartbeat that takes a little time for the reader's to synch with. But once it does, it's downright addictive. Jim is almost completely passive, barely motivated, and entirely likable. He's one of those guys that only has a girlfriend because someone with a much more propulsive personality took action and decided Jim was going to be her boyfriend and he was going to like it. Jim works first part-time at McDonald's, then at a copy shop making copies. The strip is a snapshot of his day, even though there's very little to take a snapshot of. I love this strip.

In college, I wrote my own comic strip called Buddy Shmidt, and even though Buddy Shmidt was entirely my own (okay, maybe a little bit of Calvin & Hobbes), I no doubt was inspired by Dikkers' comic strip. Mine was published in the school newspaper, and in fact two years in a row it won Best Comic. 

But Jim didn't merely inspire me to write a comic strip, I'm sure it also had influence on my fiction: in most of my short stories, there is no headline-grabbing drama, no monumental reveals. In my stories, characters like the people you and I know slog through their everyday lives, looking for direction, looking for meaning, and looking for answers. And sometimes those answers come - revealing themselves - but more often they don't. 

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