THREE BOOKS THAT INSPIRED ME WHEN I WAS YOUNGER AND INSPIRED ME TO WRITE
I have always loved stories. One of my earliest memories is making up adventures for my stuffed toys. And I’ve never really played with dolls; I remember owning a doll as a sort of experiment for a few weeks but it could not keep up with the rest of the crew and was quickly sent back to where it came from. I loved stories and adventures and – since I started reading and before I could do joined up writing – the books I read reflected the need to find new worlds and push my boundaries.
WHITE FANG by Jack London, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris, and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT a novella by Norman Maclean are very different works but somehow all have shaped how I write, and are still a source of inspiration. .
I grew up in various cities in Mediterranean Italy so obviously I found my joy reading about frozen Alaska, dog sleds and snow so deep it makes trees disappear. It was a world so exotic to me that it could have been another planet. WHITE FANG – with its wolfdog protagonist – was perhaps the first introduction to a world beyond jolly fairy tales and happy endings. It was an occasionally brutal portrait of the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s and it was quite relentless in its perspective of wilderness vs humans vs animals. Ultimately there is happiness and redemption but in order to get there the wolfdog has to experience all kinds of dangers and injustice. I fell in love with that wilderness and it was probably the first book about a serial killer I ever read – nothing is as beautiful, intriguing and ultimately lethal as an Alaskan winter.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS knocked me for six. Here was a bad guy – one of the most iconic villains of all time – and in a baffling way I was not altogether sorry he found freedom by the end of the story. The rookie agent sent to his web of deception is as beautifully written a young woman in a men’s world as she could be. Thomas Harris was a crime reporter before he started writing fiction and his style was then sparse and economic (that goes for the first two novels he wrote; by the time HANNIBAL comes along his style is grand guignol meets crime fiction with a dash of sheer unbridled nuttiness).
The notion that the antagonist was possibly the most important factor in the book was a revelation. The small touches that make Clarice Starling leap off the page were like a writing masterclass – I reread the book each time I start a novel of my own; the bar is set impossibly high but it gives me something to aim for. When I started writing my first novel – THE GIFT OF DARKNESS – and was creating the character of Alice Madison, Clarice Starling was the inspiration; the young woman who hunts down monsters to protect the innocent.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean is a complete change of pace. This gentle story about two fly-fishing brothers and their reverend father has stayed with me since I first read it (yes, the Robert Redford film is excellent but its brilliance lies in the fact that they kept much of the first person narrative from the book).
The first line of the novella says so much: ‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.’ The story is set in an early 20th-century Montana family and the relationship between the brothers lies at the heart of the tale. One of them – a fly-fishing artist – is ultimately beaten to death by criminals and his grieving brother must somehow find the answers he seeks in nature. He loved his brother but didn’t understand him; he badly wanted to help him and yet his brother wouldn’t let him. The story manages to deal with the deeper questions of life, love and family relationships with a light touch; they are explored in the description of the wild Montana rivers which seem to remind the readers and the characters that there are always more powerful forces at work. The last words of the novella are I’m haunted by waters and could not be more fitting; this story still haunts me and the odd sentence or turn of phrase will pop up unbidden when I least expect it.
The influence of these books has shifted and changed as the years have passed but they are still there, still present like specks of gold in rocks. Now I write about a homicide detective in Seattle – a young woman who could be a distant relative of Clarice Starling – and nature and wilderness have been present and essential in each of the books in the Madison series.
And, finally, many years after reading WHITE FANG, last summer I met not one but two wolfdogs – and yes, it was just as amazing as I had hoped.