I’ve been thinking recently about all of the things that can influence a person.
Because none of us becomes a writer in isolation, and every book that we read adds something to our experiences—but some of them do a little bit more than that. Some of them speak to us so deeply that they add a whole new paint color to our palette, opening our eyes to brand new ways of looking at books, language, storytelling. These books become turning points in our development, and without them we would not be the writers that we are today.
Four authors have done this for me.
When I was in third grade, the school librarian started to read us a book that I had never heard of, by an author I had never heard of. That book was Matilda. It was a yellow hardback, with a picture on the cover of a girl surrounded by books.
I was immediately drawn into it. She read the first one or two chapters to us, the story of a girl who loved books but whose parents disapproved. Sometime soon after, I found myself in a bookstore with my mother, begging her for my own copy. I remember feeling as if I would burst, if I did not find out the rest of the story.
By the time our class went back to the library, I’d read my copy three times. I clutched it to my chest, silently reading along as she continued the story for the rest of the group.
I quickly worked my way through as many of Roald Dahl’s books as I could. The Witches, Esio Trot, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. I easily gravitated toward the books that were macabre or crass. His was probably my first taste of dark humor, and I found myself eating it up as if it was candy. And yet, at the time I wouldn’t have described it as dark. Roald Dahl’s books felt happy to me, in a way that I couldn’t understand as a child. Matilda remained my favorite by far, though The Witches and Revolting Rhymes were read often as well.
I am not exaggerating when I say that he changed my life. He was the first author that I’d read that broke out of the mold of what was safe and normal and acceptable for children’s books, and this showed me that stories were capable of so much more than I had previously thought. Roald Dahl taught me that it was okay to break out and write something that was oddball, that the only limits placed upon me were the ever-expanding edges of my imagination. He taught me that it was okay to lift up the rocks and write about the worms that slither away from the light.
If any one author is responsible for shaping the way I construct a story, it’s Sarah Dessen. The funny thing is that I did not even realize this until years later.
My first Sarah Dessen novel was Someone Like You. I was maybe 14? It was the middle of the summer, and there was nothing in Waldenbooks that really appealed to me that day. And then I picked up this book, a brand-new hardcover by an author I didn’t know. I admit: I didn’t really like the cover (this was the original), and I’ve put books back for pettier reasons than that. But I read the blurb, and then I read the first few pages, and then I took the book to the register and continued to read it in the car on the way home—something I had never really done before, as I get carsick if I don’t stare directly out of a window. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I reached the end and discovered that this author had only written one other book! I dutifully bought it as soon as I could, and reread both of them obsessively until I heard the glorious news: a third was on its way! This was my very first preorder ever, and I stalked the mailbox waiting impatiently for it to arrive from Amazon.
Sarah Dessen became an immediate preorder author for me. For a few years. Eventually, I decided that I was too “mature” to be enjoying YA novels, and let her work fall by the wayside. Oh, I still reread the ones I owned, when I was feeling down and needed a comfort read. But it remained a guilty pleasure, not something that I would admit to.
Then two years ago, more or less, I picked up her books again for the first time in forever. At the bottom of the very first page, of the very first book, I stopped what I was doing, got up, walked into the kitchen, and passed the book over to my husband. “This is where I learned to write,” I told him, and made him read the first page for himself. He barely got into it before he started nodding. “Yup,” he said, as he passed it back. Yup.
Sarah Dessen taught me about how to construct a scene. She taught me about jumping the narrative around in time, starting one place and then backing up a day, a week, a year, to shade in the details that are impacting the character’s emotional reaction to what’s going on around them. She taught me about pacing, and narrative arcs. Her early books, read over and over and over again, until the pages turned soft and I could mouth the words along, imprinted themselves deep in my subconscious. I thought I was reading purely for fun, but it turns out that I was getting a crash course in how to write a novel without ever realizing that’s what was happening.
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but without Dessen I’m not sure if I would have ever figured out how. At the very least, it would have taken me a lot longer, and been a lot less fun.
In the years after Sarah Dessen, I was trying to take myself Very Seriously as a writer. When I was 20, I came across a book recommendation by a blogger I admired, someone a few years older, who was also trying to become an author. The book was Bel Canto.
I can’t say that I fully understood what I was reading, at the time—I didn’t have to. Bel Canto led way to the rest of her back catalog, and from there to Margaret Atwood and John Updike, to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I read poetry, and essays, and short stories from the New Yorker. I read memoirs. I read Nicole Karuss, and Johnathan Franzen. I read Virginia Woolf. I read Shakespeare.
These authors, Ann Patchett in particular, peeled back a layer that I had never noticed before. She showed me the glory of prose as an art form all its own. I read her sentences over and over again, reveling in the sound of them. They had texture and form, beauty and grace. They made me ache, sad in a way that was also deeply happy. They made me feel inferior. They inspired me to reach for something better.
This isn’t to say that the prose of every other book that I had read before was bad—it wasn’t. Sarah Dessen and Roald Dahl alone can both turn a phrase quite well. But there’s a difference, between writing that serves a primary purpose of telling a story, and writing that serves a primary purpose of being art. This is something that I had never understood before. This is something that I learned to crave. This is something that I had to figure out how to do in my own work.
Whether I’ve achieved that yet is up for readers to decide for themselves. Ann Patchett, however, put the goalpost up.
At the same time, though, something funny was happening. No sooner had I finished reading Ann Patchett’s back catalog than I picked up my first Discworld novel.
There is no excuse for me not to have read his work earlier. I met my husband when we were teenagers, and Terry Pratchett was his favorite author from day one. He had a steadily growing collection of Discworld novels by the time I read Witches Abroad, and several times before this, I had picked them up and read the jacket copy, the first few pages. I was held up, I know, by vanity. Remember, this was a time that I was trying to take myself Very Seriously, and so I was not interested in science fiction and fantasy. Never mind that I had grown up watching every Star Trek episode ever. Never mind that my childhood reading was stuffed with equal parts unicorns and orphans. Never mind that I bought an omnibus edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was 15, even if I only ever got around to reading the first book. Never mind that I was reading Harry Potter just like everyone else in the world.
At the same time as Ann Patchett was showing me the beauty of words for words’ sake, Terry Pratchett was showing me the beauty of genre. The way that an imagined world can reflect truths back at us. How humor can skewer as well as entertain. He refreshed my belief in the power of imagination, in weird. He taught me dry wit.
And of course, he brought me back to science fiction and fantasy, sparking an obsession that would eventually consume my reading habits for years. The obsession that led to my current career path. Literally everything that I am as a genre author is thanks to Terry Pratchett’s influence.
Some people worry about sounding too much like their favorite authors. It even has a name: “anxiety of influence”. This is something that I have never worried about. The thing is, you will always be influenced by what you read. You will always be influenced by what you watch. You will always be influenced by what you listen to.
You will always be influenced by life.
The way to avoid being pegged as a cheap knockoff, then, is simply this: read widely. Love broadly. If your influence is constantly changing, if you’re constantly trying something new, if you’re exposed to genres that you’ve never tried, voices that you’ve never heard, then each of these will blend into your own authorial voice, and combine into something entirely different. I am not Roald Dahl. I am not Sarah Dessen. I am not Ann Patchett, or Terry Pratchett. Each of these authors is distinct from the others—it is only once you mix them together, and steep them in years of so many others, that you end up with Jenn Gott.
Your influences will blend into something different, too. If you let them. Don’t try to stifle the parts of other authors that sing to you. If you do, all that you’ll end up with is a voice that is defined by the lack of those sounds. And what good does that do? Do you really want your stories to contain nothing of what brings you joy?
So thank you, all of my literary forebears. Thank you for shaping me, thank you for sharing your secrets. Thank you for the colors.
I’ll try to make you proud.