Top Ten Books That Helped Shape My Writing
By Tiffani Burnett-Velez
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
In his tale about the stalking and, ultimate, abuse of a young girl, Nabokov taught me to write the scary stuff, to not be afraid to create something that can be as repulsive as it can be beautiful. His prose is perfect. His storyline makes me sick, and this is precisely the reaction sane people are supposed to have when reading this work. At first, I forced myself to read it. By the end, I had lost whole sections of time as I became completely lost in this important, and consuming plot. I trust less people now that I’ve read this tale, but I learned something from this quirky Russian – write bravely. Good people need to read such stories, because bad people exist.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I have an equally profound love for both Latin American and Russian literature. The fight is endless, and I can never decide which I love more. Marquez swiftly settles this argument for me, however, whenever I pick up one of his books. Cholera, taught me once, and re-teaches me every time, how to write with a delicate mixture of humor and seriousness. Marquez intertwines love and loss in this beautiful rendering of Latin American writing.
The Diplomat’s Wife by Pam Jenoff.
I used to scoff at Romance writing. I believed all the lies that said smart girls don’t read Romance novels. Well, I’m here to tell you that Pam (a lawyer and professor at the University of Pennsylvania) indeed writes Romance for smart girls. She taught me the value of a writing from a unique viewpoint (in her case, first person present, and it was the first time I had ever read any such prose) and how important a continuously moving plot is. Whenever I begin a new story, I have The Diplomat’s Wife in the back of my mind as litmus test. The memory of reading this WWII era novel of romantic suspense taught me to always ask the question, “Is my plot moving along at a decent speed, or am I boring the reader?” I think it’s probably impossible for Pam to bore a reader.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
Because Stephen King recommended it in his book, On Writing, I had to read it, and I promise you, I put it down only once in a two day period. Greene taught me the power of weaving sharp, clipped dialogue with constant action. In between, he told a multilayered story of murder and confession. I get chills whenever I think of it.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.
Greene takes the number six place here as well, and for much of the same reason as he does in Brighton Rock. But this story is about an alcoholic priest who is running for his life in mountains of central Mexico while communist revolutionaries hunt him down in hopes of hanging him. This book leaves the reader breathless, and it taught me that it’s perfectly acceptable to write about faith without being cheesy or losing sight of real life experiences. There’s a tendency, in American religious fiction, to be always sunny and always hopeful. This book is none of that, but there is salvation in the end and in the unlikeliest of places. I wouldn’t have written Budapest, A Berlin Story, or All This Time without having, first, read The Power and the Glory.
She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.
I read this book years ago, when I was still an exhausted young mother of two energetic boys under the age of 3. Oprah recommended the book in her book club, and the title seemed appropriate for my life at the time. However, the title had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the story of a young girl who grows up under the deep scars left by a harrowing abuse. I loved this book, because it broke my heart, and I know that sounds nuts. But this book was the second one to teach me about writing deeply with another woman’s pain in mind, and how important that really is. Also, he brings hope with every sentence, and this highly appealed to my own life rules. I probably will never read it again, but it was a valuable writing lesson at the time. I know it informed A Berlin Story.
Beloved by Toni Morrison.
So, if Wally Lamb was the second book to teach me how to write empathy into my prose, Beloved was the first. I can still remember being a college sophomore, taking a basic English comp class at Immaculata University in Malvern, PA and settling into the oversized comfy couches at the Chester County Library with this highly recommended book. It was 1994, and I was almost 20 years old, and I had never read such an intimate detail of slavery before. It terrified me. Morrison’s work is so open and expressive, that I can still feel the pain of the tree of scars left behind by whippings on Paul D.’s back. Morrison taught me more than empathy, however, she taught me how to write beautifully terrifying prose. She is pure genius. She makes me proud to be an American writer.
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok.
I sometimes describe myself as being “half Jewish”, because my father’s mother is Jewish and I have Jewish family and grew up with a strong affinity for my Jewish ancestry. However, some rabbis would argue that there are no half Jews, and especially, ones who go to Mass every Sunday. Fair enough. But I’m still claiming Chaim Potok for myself. He is one of the greatest writers of all time; not just in America, but in the world. I have read this book three times, and from it, I learned the true are of delicate prose. I learned how to write freely and get the words in motion, before I went back and cleaned it all up. Potok writes so perfectly in this book, that I hear every sound, taste every cream soda, feel the warm sand of southern France on my feet, and my knees ache after reading about high climbs into the Spanish Pyrenees during the Civil War. I would have never believed in myself if I had not read Potok and claimed him for myself, no matter the popularity of such an action. On a side note, I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at my husband’s college graduation from West Chester University in 1997, and I screamed out from the crowd (like a huge nerd) that I wanted to hear him quote something from Davita’s Harp. I’m sure he didn’t hear me, but he ended the benediction with the admonition to, “Be discontented with the world, but be respectful,” one of the first lines of the book. (Potok).
The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
I told you I love the Russians, right? Well, this 50lb volume of narrative was one that I could not put down. The Russians teach a few things. One, is that you must stick with the story without worrying about the page length. Two, that details matter, and are not remotely cumbersome if they are done right. I read The First Circle during the hot Pennsylvania summer of 2009, when my family was losing our house. I read about the main character’s hell in a Gulag for Soviet intellectuals, and it did more than just make me feel better about my own lot in life. From it, I learned the craft of great writing and the value of dedication, because it took dedication to pick up the heavy book each day. However, Solzhenitsyn’s words sucked me right in. I’m not sure if there are any other authors in history who can write with such profound detail, and yet, never bore you for one moment. Many can do it in few words, but Solzhenitsyn does it in MANY, and, yet, it’s just as thrilling as a short John LeCarre’ novel. How did he do this? I’m not sure. That will take a lifetime of study. Thankfully, all, but one, of his books are this long, so I have a lifetime to read them.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.
If you read nothing else in life, read this book. Period. That is all. It is simply the best book ever written, and I want my battered, dog-eared copy to be buried with me when I die. It’s something from God to write like this. I’ll work my whole life towards it. And it ends the list, because it encompasses, literally, every benefit of all the other nine books listed above.