Monday, January 4, 2010
On the twelfth of this month, my debut novel, Bloodroot, will be published by Knopf. I imagine it will feel like a dream, seeing my own book on shelves among all those I’ve read and loved. In these weeks leading up to Bloodroot’s release, I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite books, the ones that have inspired me most. Toni Morrison’s Beloved always comes to mind first. I discovered Beloved when I was in my early twenties and new motherhood had left me with little energy for writing. It was reading Beloved that got my creative juices flowing again. I was in awe of Morrison’s lyrical prose and the novel’s magic realism spoke to me as a native of Appalachia, where there’s a rich culture of mysticism and folklore. Since discovering her novels over a decade ago, I’ve read every one that she’s written. They’re all beautiful, but Beloved remains my favorite.
I also think of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy as an inspiration. I read it first in 1999, during the same summer when my aunt, whom I was very close to, died of breast cancer as I sat at her bedside. I wanted to write about her, but I didn’t know how to start. Reading McCarthy at that time was stunning to me, the way he used language, the way he wrote dialogue that was so real and true, especially since his characters were from similar places as me and spoke in voices that sounded like the people I had known my whole life. All the Pretty Horses introduced me to a new way of thinking about writing. I began a semi-autobiographical novel without holding anything back. Looking at the old notebooks I used, it’s hard to read the handwriting, words strung together without punctuation, sentences a paragraph long. It was liberating, learning simply to get the story down on paper, and not worrying about applying craft to it until later. I still write the same way. My semi-autobiographical novel is now in a box, never to see the light of day, but I consider it a turning point in my writing life, and reading All the Pretty Horses was the catalyst for it.
While Beloved and All the Pretty Horses might be the books that have most influenced my writing in general, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has most influenced Bloodroot. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time in high school and was swept away, captured by the darkly romantic moors and the twisted love of Heathcliff and Catherine. I didn’t think about Wuthering Heights as I worked on Bloodroot, but the mark it left on me as a writer is visible in my characters. John Odom’s obsessive passion for Myra Lamb, and his tortured soul, bring Heathcliff to mind. Myra’s freedom on the mountain and her later confinement in an abusive marriage mirrors Catherine’s freedom on the moors as a child and her later confinement at Wuthering Heights. Both novels raise some of the same questions as well, such as whether characters like Heathcliff and John are cruel by nature or products of their harsh upbringings. There’s also the major role setting plays in each, the Appalachian mountains in Bloodroot and the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights.
Reading and writing have been intertwined for me since I was a little girl, and I still keep a good book on hand while I’m writing, as a source of creative fuel. Right now, as I work on my second novel, I’m reading Jill Ciment’s The Tattoo Artist. I’m sure that each book I’ve read, going all the way back to my childhood favorite Charlotte’s Web, has influenced my writing in ways I don’t even realize. Now that my first novel is being published, I have hopes that my own stories might serve as inspiration in the same way.