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7 Authors Answer: What Book Made You the Writer You Are Today?

By Meghan Power Posted on March 17, 2016
Banff Centre Literary Arts Faculty, 2016

(left to right, top): Charlotte Gill, Literary Journalism (photo credit: Kevin Turpin); Greg Hollingshead, Writing Studio; Lisa Robertson, Writing Studio (Photo credit: Laird Hunt); Ian Brown, Literary Journalism (photo credit: William Ciccocioppo); Eli Horowitz, Digital Narratives (photo credit: Rachel Khong); Marni Jackson, Mountain and Wilderness Writing (photo credit: Brian D. Johnson); Lawrence Hill, Historical Fiction Intensive (photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky / HarperCollins Canada Ltd.)

We asked our esteemed Literary Arts faculty: What book helped to make you the writer you are today?

Charlotte Gill, editorial faculty Literary Journalism

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Naturally it's hard to choose just one book, but if I had to, it'd be this one. This is a collection of essays ranging widely from topics such as windy tennis to luxury cruising, the latter being the eponymous fun thing. Wallace was a wild stylist and incredibly erudite writer in both his fiction and nonfiction. He brought curiosity, existential depth and hilarious neuroticism to all his chosen subjects.

Lawrence Hill, Historical Fiction Intensive

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was written by Alex Haley and first published in 1965, is the book that has had the most impact on the sort of writer I am today. It is a book that took me by the collar and pulled me deep into its passionate, troubled, disturbing core when I first encountered it at age 15. In the book, Malcolm X initially preached a doctrine of racial hatred. He argued that white people were the devil incarnate. I knew this was absurd: my own mother was white and she was no devil. But it was a powerful, engaging narrative which I fought and read and keep fighting and reading until finally discovering that before his own assassination, Malcolm X evolved to a more loving place, in which he abandoned the racial hatred that had governed his earlier thoughts and moved to a far more inclusive way of thinking about justice, religion, race and equality.

Ian Brown, Rogers Communications Chair, Literary Journalism

It’s impossible to say that one book has had the most impact on making me the kind of writer I am today: there are at least four. Starting with the Book of Common Prayer, which gave me a sense of rhythm, which matters a lot to me in prose, because I think structural rhythms can be as important as content, in making a piece compelling to a reader; the reporting of Tom Wolfe (especially in his first collection of reporting, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which always worked against the grain, and against the accepted clichés of the day); the reporting and writing of Mark Singer (Funny Money) and Ian Frazier (Great Plains) and Calvin Trillin (Killings, American Fried, etc.), which combined rigorous reporting and unexpected detail with fresh ways of expressing those facts and details; and the early stories of Ernest Hemingway, especially Big Two-Hearted River, which made me feel like I was there, fishing and eating and camping by a river.  

I think all of them somehow managed to convince me that every story comes with facts, but that it also comes with an emotional surround; and that that emotional surround is worth reporting (accurately) as well, because it lifts the facts off the page; and that telling the story in a lively and engaging way, as a story, so that the reader keeps reading, is no less important that getting the story—the real story, the true story, what you actually hear and see and observe as opposed to what you’re supposed to hear and see and observe. I’m not suggesting I have ever achieved anything close to their superlative work, but they are the ones I wanted to be like. Them, and Milton, and Swift, and lots of poets, but that’s another story.

Greg Hollingshead, Program Director Writing Studio

Stories of Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky

It was Chekhov who said good writing can be understood in a second. For me, writing is about transforming the chaos of meaning in my head into prose that can be understood in a second‎. From Chekhov I learned that complexity is not complication but simplicity that has history. 

Eli Horowitz, Digital Narratives

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin

I was lucky to encounter this novel at an early age. It’s funny and strange and soulful and intricate and broad and detailed and genuinely mysterious, and it helped me realize a book can be all those things at once.

Marni Jackson, Mountain and Wilderness Writing

To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.  

I read this in university and it reassured me that a novel could be both intensely interior, and rivetingly eventful. It was also the first proof I encountered that the experience of motherhood is as worthy as war as the subject of a novel.

The White Album, by Joan Didion. 

This collection of essays opened my eyes to the potential of nonfiction to combine immersive reporting with a strong point of view, and an impeccable writing style.

Lisa Robertson, poetry faculty, Writing Studio

The book would be Talking, by Phyllis Webb. 1980, I think? I was living on Saltspring Island and had seen her at the market, at the book shop, and I think she was the first poet I had ever seen. I was 19 or 20. She lived on the other side of Fulford Harbour, and that body of water between us made the idea of being a poet seem real. The essay called "Waterlily and Multifoliate Rose: Cyclic Patterns in Proust," made me buy the first volume of Proust, then over two or three years, I read the whole thing in a cabin at Musgrave Landing. I also started buying poetry chapbooks – Webb's book of Ghazals, and Michael Ondaatje's Tin Roof, both published on Vancouver Island, I think. Everything must come from that moment in my life—my love of sentences, my notion that a woman can live freely and be a poet, that poetry is made and read in a shared landscape.