Fifteen Cool Authors

I don’t know how I missed this game on Facebook, but thanks to a Jaunty Quills post from my dear friend Nancy Robards Thompson, I’m stealing it. The Rules: list fifteen authors (poets included) who have influenced you and made an impression. Don’t take too long to think about it. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

  1. Dr. Seuss – This man taught me to love reading, as he did for most American children. Irresistible wordplay, humor, and wisdom, packaged with loopy, over-the-top illustrations. I hit the sweet spot with Dr. Seuss. I was exactly the right age to absorb the messages of The Sneetches and The Lorax and make them part of my life. My father read me to sleep each night with Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, a tradition I continued with my own children. I’ll also expand Dr. Seuss to include his colleague P.D. Eastman, the author of my personal favorite of the Beginner Books, Go, Dog. Go! These books will be read forever.
  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder – History told in Half-Pint’s voice. I adored these books and wished, oh, wished I could be as adventurous as Laura. And bad. She seemed to get away with so much more than I ever could! Wilder taught me that history was interesting and fun.
  3. Norton JusterThe Phantom Tollbooth is perhaps my favorite children’s book ever. Ms. Hoogeveen, my sixth-grade teacher for the short portion I spent in Ohio, read it to our class, and I fell slap in love. It has everything: adventure, mystery, impossibility, wit, puns, and minimalist illustrations by the equally wonderful Jules Feiffer. Juster is, by profession, an architect (a career I considered pursuing once), also responsible for the masterpiece The Dot and the Line. The fact that American treasure Chuck Jones chose to animate both of these says a lot about the material and its endless appeal. I read The Phantom Tollbooth to my AP students every year as a post-exam treat for them. Okay, for me.
  4. Carolyn Keene – God bless the anonymous women writing under this pseudonym, who provided me with puzzles to solve and a heroine with curiosity and a brain.
  5. Mark Helprin – I first picked up a copy of Winter’s Tale because I liked the cover. (What can I say? I fed my horse obsession for years with Walter Farley.) Between the covers is perhaps one of the most interesting, unclassifiable, poetic books I have ever read. Helprin’s sprawling cast of characters and audacious plot make for a reading treat. This book made me laugh out loud (Woola-Woola boys), smirk (“Claret, like fillet and wallet. You don’t say ‘wal-lay,’ do you?” is one classic bit), fall in love (anyone who doesn’t gasp when Peter sees Beverly playing the piano just doesn’t get it), and weep. I treat myself to this book over and over.
  6. Barbara Kingsolver – I’m amazed by her. The fact that she’s a biologist kinda gobsmacks me. Talk about someone who understands voice! Every character in The Poisonwood Bible is so distinct, you can practically hear them in your head. Same for the women in Prodigal Summer. She even makes nonfiction great–if you haven’t read her memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, go pick up a copy. It will make even the most devout city-dweller wish for an ancestral plot of land and the will and ability to farm it. Amazing.
  7. Ray Bradbury – This man loves language and is willing to fight for it. Fahrenheit 451 is on my all-time Top Ten Books list, but it’s the way he builds a world that really makes me love him. His works are classics for good reason. There’s no way you can come away from reading Bradbury without carrying the imagery of Montag’s smoke-blackened face, the lion-scented playroom of “The Veldt,” the twisted evil of Mr. Dark’s carnival, the burning breakfasts disgorged by the frenzied stove of “There Will Come Soft Rains,” or “The Sound of Thunder” in your imagination forever. As a writer, I’ll always be partial to his advice, which is why Zen in the Art of Writing has a permanent place on my inspiration shelf.
  8. Margaret Mitchell – My grandfather the doctor, who read constantly, once told me that I should write a book like Gone With the Wind because Mitchell was an amazing storyteller. He was right. Rose-colored history aside, that book is indelible because of the characters Mitchell created. I’ve yet to meet a reader who doesn’t have strong opinions about Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and Ashley. I got sucked into this book in junior high and have reread it many times since because it’s a cracking good story and because deep down, every girl has a little Scarlett in there somewhere. If she’s really lucky, she’s got some Melanie in there, too.
  9. William Faulkner – Just like I think people can be divided into groups like cat/dog, blue ink/black ink, and peppermint/cinnamon, I think writers can be divided into Hemingways and Faulkners. Hemingways like conciseness of phrase, visceral prose, bold action, and absolutes. Faulkners, on the other hand, revel in mystery, nuance, and words. Faulkner makes the grand attempt and stuns and amazes in the process. I’ll take “Memory believes before knowing remembers” as a first line a million times over “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” A million times. Faulknerian excess, I know, but there you have it.
  10. Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird is a deceptive work. It’s so simple on the surface that any decent reader can zip through it untroubled, but there is so much going on throughout that if you reach the end and you’re not crying, you haven’t been paying attention. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is the unwitting prybar that broke open the white South to show it its flaws and taught us all something about dignity, respect, family, and truth. Harper Lee may be the most-celebrated one-hit wonder in the history of publishing. But if we only get one shot, please let it be as wonderful as this one.
  11. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – Jody, Fodder-wing, and a yearling deer named Flag lured me into the mysterious underbrush of the Florida hammock when I was a child. This was one of the first works I’d read that I could truly see in my mind’s eye, since Rawlings’ Cross Creek is only a few miles up the road from our farm. Rawlings’ memoir Cross Creek is a poem of a book, a celebration of a land that few people understand even exists in my beautiful Sunshine State. Shell Pond (our farm) and Cross Creek were far more real to me than any of Florida’s famous beaches. Miami might as well be on the moon. Rawlings and her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston (another writer I could choose for this fifteen) told the truth of my home in voices I have heard my whole life.
  12. Jane Austen – My college advisor adored Austen. He encouraged me to become a “Janeite” and read all of her works, but since I was basically avoiding anything that looked like a British novel at the time, I missed out. Until later. Reread after reread since, I marvel at the complexity of Austen’s work, the sharpness of her wit, and the joie de vivre in her style. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of some talent must be in want of a muse. In Jane, many of us have found her.
  13. Anne Lamott – Wise and hilarous, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird belongs on every writer’s shelf. Her books on faith, Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace (Eventually) are warm and welcoming and reveal an openness that many people of faith seem to lack these days. She’s laugh-out-loud funny and sting-your-eyes truthful, someone who’s been through the wars and wants to help guide you through, too.
  14. Stephen King – I spent a long vacation week in the ninth grade listening to a tape of The Alan Parson’s Project’s I, Robot my best friend Kathryn made for me and reading The Shining. King’s ability to peel back normal to show its rotting bones has always been fantastic. Plus, he gets pop culture like no one else. I loved his essays in Entertainment Weekly and pouted when he finally stopped writing them. His response to the literary establishment who were collectively horrified at his National Book Award medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters is the best defense of popular fiction ever. And then there’s On Writing. Most of my writer friends own it and adore it. Part memoir, part craft manual, and all engrossing. Plus, he is the man responsible for the amazing films The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. For those ideas alone, he has my thanks, but he’s given us all so much more.
  15. Dick Francis – I picked up the first one because it had a horse on the cover (see Winter’s Tale above). Francis started in a stableyard and a racetrack because he know that world better than anything–he was a champion jump jockey in England before injuries forced him off the track and into racing journalism–but what’s amazing about his books is how neatly he incorporates research into every book. Although the racing world features prominently in every work, it never gets dull because his everyman heroes know about other things, too. How cool is it to pick up a mystery with horses and also learn about wine, survival techniques, living with a prosthesis, running a restaurant, and glassblowing? And yet, the pacing never flags. A gallop through a Dick Francis is a pleasure every single time.
I’m cheating a bit by not including a close group of writer friends who are fun and encouraging and wise and every one the kind of woman you’re glad you invited into your life. I owe more than I can say to Kathy, Nancy, Caroline, and Melynda, plus many more I don’t spend enough time with but admire the heck out of all the same. Here’s to friends who get it, and the writers who inspired us all.

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