“What are your favorite books?”
I’m often asked, “What are your favorite books?” And, I often struggle for an answer. I read a lot of books, and I get something out of every book that I read...even if I don’t necessarily think it is the greatest piece of writing on the planet. So, I think I’ll reframe the question to: “What are books that have had a big influence on you?”
The list of books below are ones that made me look at reading, writing and fiction in a new way, and influenced my writing today. Some of them you may have already read. Some of them may be new to you, and so I hope you check them out.
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: Possibly the greatest book ever written. As somebody who writes legal fiction. This. Is. It. To Kill A Mockingbird has the pleasure (and tragedy), the meaning, and the architecture. As a thirteen year old boy, it was so powerful that I didn’t play Nintendo. I didn’t watch television. I didn’t go outside and bike around the neighborhood. Instead, I went to my bedroom after dinner, got under the covers, and read until 2 a.m. It was the first “real” book I ever read. It didn’t matter that it was part of my English class. I wasn’t staying up until 2 a.m. because I had fallen behind and there was a test. I stayed up that late because the book captured me. I had to turn the page. I wanted to know what Scout would do next. It was and is amazing.
The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay: I read this book in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I had bought it for my mother for Mother’s Day, and it was just laying around the house. I opened it up, and I read the first three sentences: “This is what happened. Before my life started properly, I was doing the usual mewling and sucking, which in my case occurred on a pair of huge, soft black breasts. In the African tradition I continued to suckle for my first two and half years, after which my Zulu wet nurse became my nanny.” Courtenay then took me on an amazing journey of South Africa. The book had supernatural elements, history, violence, and mystery. It was because of this book that I later studied abroad in Zimbabwe and traveled around South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, researching discriminatory land use policies and the Constitutional law of emerging democracies in Africa. As a side note, if you ever find yourself anywhere near Zimbabwe, go to Victoria Falls. It really is one of the seven wonders of the world and, unlike a national park in the United States, there are no fences. You can just walk off the edge and plummet to your death if you are not careful.
Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard: This is probably not one that makes many lists of influential books, but it was a huge influence on my writing. I admire Elmore Leonard’s writing style. There isn’t anything fancy. He isn’t showing off. He just sticks the knife in you and turns. Pagan Babies showed me that you can bend genres and that a thriller doesn’t necessarily need explosions every five pages and sadistic serial killers torturing young women. It also was my first real exposure to a morally ambiguous main character, and that these main characters are far more interesting than a man wearing a white hat or a detective with a drinking problem.
Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen: I really like Carl Hiaasen’s books, and I’m not sure he gets the respect that he deserves. It is hard to be funny. It is extremely hard to write funny books about murder and mayhem. Don’t believe me? Try and write about a dead body in a way that makes the reader laugh out loud. Skinny Dip was influential to me because it showed that mysteries can be fun and surprising. It was the first time I read a mystery that made me smile and giggle. It was also a big influence on me when I wrote the “No Time” series, which isn’t as funny as a Carl Hiaasen book but has some absurd characters that would be right at home in his world. I think that No Time’s Kermit Guillardo would fit right into a Carl Hiaasen book rather nicely.
Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger: It’s the first book in an excellent, long-running series that offers a real sense of place, depth, and action. Kent Krueger has been a mentor and friend to me (and lots of others), but I loved this book long before I got to know him personally. I’ve spent significant time up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and he perfectly captures the culture and the conflict and the beauty of that space. He showed me that fiction can have heart, and that there are readers out there who want something more than sex and violence (although every book should have a little sex and violence, I mean, come on let’s be honest). But, in Iron Lake, Kent allows readers who are open to depth and learning an opportunity to see a multi-dimensional character grapple with life’s big questions and not ever come to a clean solution. He teaches readers about Native American culture. It’s simply an excellent book.