A Writer Reads: Influence and Intimidation

(a post by guest author Mary Burns)

You AgainMost writers, including me, came to their passion through reading.  We generally begin young, and it would not be exaggerating to say that we are influenced by every book we have consumed.  But some books stand out, of course, and are often reflected in a writer’s work.  For me, as a teenager, I was captured by the social consciousness of writers like Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie), Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and John Dos Passos.  In fact Dos Passos, who is not well known today, directly inspired my first historical novel, Presto! (pending publication).

What he did in his celebrated USA Trilogy (consisting of The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) was to present a picture of pre-  and post- WWI in the United States, an enormous canvas that he filled with many voices, using four different narrative modes, or ways of telling the story: a conventional, third-person narrative, mini-biographies of historical figures, including union leaders and politicians, entertainers and businessmen, such as the man who founded the United Fruit Company, Minor Keith.  Dos Passos also employed newspaper headlines and a device he called The Camera Eye, which is loosely autobiographical and reels out in a stream-of-consciousness style.

 …when the telegram came that she was dying (the streetcar wheels screeched round the bellglass like all the pencils on all the slates in all the schools) walking around Fresh Pond the smell of puddlewaterwillowbuds in the raw wind shrieking streetcar wheels rattling on loose tracks through the Boston suburbs… grief isn’t a uniform…… (have you never been able to sleep for a week in April)?

Since Presto! is set in that pivotal post-WWI year, 1919, I decided to pay directThe USA Trilogy stylistic homage to Dos Passos by alternating the straight narrative of my main character Maire Curragh’s first-person voice with newspaper headlines that reveal the explosive events of one torrid week in Chicago.  I like the look of the different typestyle on the page and that the headlines provide information Maire is not obliged to explain, something that would drag down the pace.  During my research, I learned that there were nine daily newspapers in Chicago then; it wasn’t only my character who consulted the tabloids and broadsheets newsboys would hawk from every likely street corner.  Interesting, because with several editions each day, newspapers were not too much less immediate than Google, considering that I’m talking about almost 100 years ago.  And there was a lot to report.  In that single week, a blimp crashed into a downtown bank, the sweet face of a missing child filled the front pages for days, streetcar workers went on strike, and a major race riot ended with 37 dead.

The third style I employ is that of a film script, because while the explosive events I refer to are almost a hundred years in the past, the life of the main character continued.  The script starts at the end of Maire Curragh’s life and moves back in time, from colour to the black and white of the week that changed everything.  Like the newspaper headlines, the film script excerpts take us out of the main character’s mind, allowing the reader to gain a wider perspective.  Still, my point of view is purposely more restricted than my literary model, because I like to consider the personal effect of historical forces.

The Bird ArtistThis is what Howard Norman did in his wonderful The Bird Artist, another influence.  Set in Newfoundland in 1911 and told through the eyes of Fabian Vas, it is what one reviewer described as “… a bewitching little novel that glows like a night light in the reader’s mind.”  It certainly glowed in my mind, so much so that I consciously aimed for its direct simplicity and intrinsic sense of place and time, while trying for the eloquence that seems to arise so naturally from Norman’s prose.

I don’t know any serious writer who is not a serious reader.  It’s how writers become frustrated, too, aiming for, in my case, levels of accomplishment I feel I never reach.  Luckily, a writer’s work is never done and there is always the next book, which promises to be perfect.

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