Denouement: The Influential Novels of my Life Pt 3

Onward and upward!

7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. My friend Rob introduced me to this one as part of a series of books that he had adopted as a sort of “canon” of his life. There are other books to which he introduced me that probably could have made this list as well, but Stranger in a Strange Land is the one that has cast the longest shadow on my life, for some odd reason, though I’ve never been able to enjoy anything else Heinlein has written. Perhaps it’s that it represents that era of transition in my life so well – when I truly began to understand the meaning of what it was to love outside of the popular definition, and how that sometimes made a person an outsider. It came along at a time in my life where I was questioning every assumption that had been put into my mind, somewhere in there with my Beat period, and since then has shown me that it’s okay to present some points of view that are less-than-conventional. In short, no Stranger, no Matty in Corridors.

8. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Okay, this book probably would be one of the top two or three if this was really ranked. This may be the defining book of my discovery of writing. For some background, my high school English teachers sort of “discovered” me. I had been writing since I was…God, I guess six or seven, I have no real frame of reference, but had been discouraged by pretty much everyone that I came across, so I had gotten the idea that I was a terrible writer. So much so that I just gave up on trying in English classes. I started out high school in Remedial English and figured I belonged there. It was only when I wrote our first essay, on what we did over the Summer, that they realized that I might have been misplaced and got bumped up to the advanced class. From there, I had a series of teachers that nurtured my writing outside of classes, entering me in contests and giving me summer reading assignments to help shape my writing. The first of these was the Prince of Tides – the teacher said that my writing bore a resemblance to Conroy, so I was intrigued. Given that I had only been reading fantasy, horror, and sci-fi to that point, I was completely blown away by the depth of the characters in the novel, as well as how closely it corresponded to the people I saw in everyday life. It was the first time that I realized the potential of a novel to be more than just a story and more a transformative experience. Just writing about it is making me want to re-read it, in fact.

Let’s not talk about the movie adaptation, however. The less said about that festering turd, the better. I only chose that cover because it was the cover of the book that I read.

9. Light in August by William Faulkner. Light in August was another summer reading assignment, along with a few other Faulkner novels. In retrospect, giving Faulkner to a high school Sophomore seems like lunacy, but boy did his writing grab me and refuse to let go. His work represents a lost world of literature to me; there is just no way that someone with his level of artistry could achieve popularity these days. Every sentence is so dense and loaded with meaning that it’s almost exhausting to read, but if Conroy introduced me to the transformative power of the character, then Faulkner introduced me to the sheer power of the sentence. Here’s a particularly good passage from The Reivers:

When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they dont really know what they mean. Pressed, they will go a step further and say, Well, ignorance then. The child is neither. There is no crime which a boy of eleven had not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is, he may not be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size. But Boon didn’t know this. He must seduce me. And he had so little time: only from the time the train left until dark.

Just amazing stuff. And finally…

10.  The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. Yes, this would truly be #1, so I saved it for last. Okay, and I’ve also been trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what it means to me. I guess the best way to explain it is to say that there is a “pre-Talisman” era and a “post-Talisman” era when it comes to my writing. Granted, I was only nine when I stumbled across this in a used book store and picked it up based on the cover description, but it was that much of a defining factor in my life. I’ve spoken at length about the ideas in this novel that grabbed me in my part about The Waste Lands, so I’ll talk instead about what it means on a personal level.

Yes, it’s essentially the Hero Quest again, but given that I was pretty close to Jack’s age when I first read it, it connected with me on a level that very few works have ever managed. I had stopped writing for a few years before I discovered this, and it inspired me to start up again, writing a fanfic sequel that was probably pretty awful but has been lost to the winds, mercifully. I would go so far as to say that this was the novel that made me want to be a writer as a child. I began to realize that there might just be an outlet for getting all of the ideas in my head out into the world (given that I had already realized art wasn’t going to work out for me). It laid the groundwork for the writer that my teachers would later nurture into existence.

And that’s that. Looking back, it’s a bit of a bizarre list, ranging from the heavily literary to mainstream fiction and into horror and sci-fi, but I’d say that sort of sums up my preferences to this day; my fiance long ago gave up on understanding what makes my story preferences tick, and I think I see why. This was a great exercise though, and thanks for the inspiration, guys! Maybe I should revisit this in about ten years’ time and see where I am then…

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  1. You and I have walked some of the same paths, my friend. In my case, as I alluded to in my introduction to my guest excerpt from Brandon Schrand’s memoir, I was the attorney and Schrand was Thompson (always more of the journalistic style of writer, while I was the fiction). The only thing I didn’t like was the ending of Fear and Loathing (or at least close to the ending). The whole cassette transcribed section. Felt so different from the rest of the story. Perhaps it was reality, and very true to life in reflecting that feeling when you were coming down. I dunno’. I was also given Stranger in a Strange Land by a good friend. Liked it, but there were some definite parts I had to chuckle a little about, mostly the very dated roles of man and woman, which apparently Heinlein felt would survive into the future. And I loved The Talisman. I have Black House, but haven’t read it. Thoughts?

    As to your characterization post, I thought this was interesting. I’m a little leery of doing too much defining of my character early on, because sometimes I find that “defining” becomes “confining.” I like to learn about them as I go (and to often be surprised by the choices they make). But I’ve known many writers (including Bill Ransom, who cowrote with Frank Herbert and whom I took a class from years ago) who are big proponents of this process. Maybe it would be a practice that could save me some time in rewrites, eh?

    Paul D. Dail

  2. Oh yeah, totally agree about the usual Heinlein chauvinism. I probably should have added that as a caveat, as that really kind of amazed me. Even this guy who was so set in sexist roles could see his way to some form of social truth.

    Yeah it’s starting to sound like we have a lot in common! I kind of got that vibe reading your entries and your list of books. The end of Fear and Loathing completely slipped my mind until you mentioned it, so I’m guessing that speaks volumes about how I feel on the subject 🙂 Total ohhhhh yeah moment. I mean, in a separate work it might have been good, but it was really out of place. I could see the point he was going for, though.

    Oh man. Black House. I just…mmm. Okay first off, it has nothing to do with the Talisman, which was a huge disappointment. It’s basically an annex to the Dark Tower series, which was a fantastic idea at the time, and I looked forward to how it all fit together, but King handwaving away all the connections at the last minute (don’t get me started on that) made Black Tower completely irrelevant. So unless you’re looking to get a little more of a peek behind the curtain of the Crimson King, which admittedly was kind of cool, I’d say skip it. I was so disappointed when I realized it wasn’t a true sequel. Apparently he and Straub are still batting around the idea of a third book so not all hope is lost.

    Hah, I don’t know, I find rewrites to be pretty much just as common, I just know a lot more about the character going in and can kind of anticipate where they might zig or zag and have something waiting at the other end rather than suffering from that whole “well, what now??” thing. It’s probably an individual taste thing, I imagine. I’m doing so much discovery of the plot that if I was still discovering a lot of the character it might be too much for me to handle.

  3. Pingback: On the Dark Edge: My Top Ten Dark Fantasy Novels | Shaggin the Muse

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