A good story lingers long after it’s been completed. A great story changes something for the audience. In my life I’ve been enormously lucky to have come across many stories which have shaped my writing. I was reflecting on these stories when I decided to create a list of the ones which were most influential. However, as I sat down to create this list, I had to restrain myself to only stories which had a very profound impact. The kinds of stories which altered things so fundamentally that the entire landscape of my writing and my spirit shifted in some manner, never to be the same.
So, without further adieu, I give you the nine works of art which have rocked my writerly world.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
When I was a wee thing, I hated reading because I struggled with it. I couldn’t find books which interested me. That is, until I read Black Beauty at the ripe ol’ age of ten. This book changed everything for me. It turned me into a voracious reader overnight. It taught me that stories had the power to change things and that giving a voice to those who were voiceless was important. This book also persuaded me to become a writer and begin crafting my own stories.
Mythology by Edith Hamilton
In middle school, I unearthed my dad’s old college copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and fell in love. Ever since then I’ve had an appetite for myths and folklore, from Gilgamesh to The Kalevala. Myths and folkore have permeated my writing throughout the years, and I owe it to this little tome. Here it is in all its glory with the cover of my dad’s 1942 edition, the one I still have on my bookshelf.
Salamandastron by Brian Jacques
This book definitely rocked my world when I was a young teen. I’d never read anything like it. High adventure, gorgeous writing, clever dialogue, noble heroes worth rooting for. For years I adored Brian Jacques, studying everything he wrote and absorbing it like a sponge. I learned so much about good writing from his work that nothing I do now would be the same without him.
English Romantic Poets
In high school, one of my English teachers was ga-ga about the English Romantic poets, and subsequently we spent a lot of time studying them. Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats … their verses all perfumed the air of my sophomore English classroom. I learned their style and what motivated them as writers. I ended up adopting a lot of it into my own work. I have an obsession with nature and a decidedly Romantic outlook on many things, such as a fascination with the past, focus on individual experience, and an emphasis on freedom from social rules.
Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott
When I was 16, I fell head over heels in love with this film and Russell Crowe. And who could blame me? This film is a harrowing yet rousing revenge epic, beautifully filmed and wonderfully directed by Ridley Scott. Something about the main character’s journey opened a door inside me which created an explosion of writerly productivity. I burned with unprecedented creative passion, writing my first novel the summer after I watched the film. I experimented and produced wild, crazy, wonderful things. This period also gave me a burst of confidence in my abilities, because I could see a great deal of growth and improvement during this time.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
At the tender age of 17, I picked up A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and had my understanding of the English language turned inside-out. From Joyce I learned all about the sound of language, appreciating how it hums across a page, rather than being something “dead” and fixed. My writing gained a lovely, poetic sound thanks to Joyce.
A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert
I read a lot of books for my undergraduate and graduate degree, but the real game-changer was Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. It was recommended to me by my graduate workshop tutor, who insisted I needed to learn something from “Flobber” (hey, this was how my tutor pronounced his name). I wasn’t sure what until I found myself utterly spellbound by his quiet, authoritative and captivating realism. The story was shattering in its simplicity and I realized that my tutor was trying to point out the merits of that style as it might apply to my own work. My writing had become unruly, undisciplined, and unfocused. I immediately applied realism to my work and found the clarity my prose needed. I also discovered something crucial to writing: sometimes, less is more. To this day I use the lessons of realism in constructing my writing and keeping things from becoming too messy.
The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas
Sometimes you read something and it revolutionizes your entire world view. This was one such book for me. I encountered shortly after finishing my graduate degree. Though many people may consider Gimbutas’ work to be little better than propaganda, I sincerely believe that she was on to something with her theory of an ancient Goddess-worshiping society in prehistoric Europe. There’s just simply too that makes sense of her theory. This book had an enormous impact on how I viewed the past, present, and future of humanity, but also how I went about my writing. For instance, I incorporated her symbolic systems into my work, such as white representing death and black for rebirth and rejuvenation.
Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller
Hannibal was, in a word, perfection. Beyond that it is difficult to try and describe the experience of this haunting, elegant, innovative TV series. As an audience member, it was absolutely enrapturing. It fed my muse for five or six years during my early to mid thirties. It led me through a time when I experimented widely in my writing, particularly with narrative structure and point of view. I see these experiments paying off in the work I’m doing with one of my current novels, Dancing Underneath You. I’m weaving together four different points of view as the story moves through the past and the present. I certainly wouldn’t be trying something so ambitious without having been influenced first by the impeccable, sinister, and daring beauty of Hannibal.
This list isn’t exhaustive, of course. I left out quite a lot. Honorable mentions include Braveheart, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, Sherlock BBC, and others I’m forgetting. But the nine works of art listed above stand as the ones which have had the biggest impact on me as a writer, marking significant changes in my work. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.
If you enjoyed this list, drop me a comment below, or let me know on Twitter or Facebook. Or perhaps you’re inspired to share your own recommendations or influences — go right ahead! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.