Each book I’ve written is a grab-bag of books I’ve read. I usually don’t think in terms of conscious influence as I’m writing, since this seems dangerous to me. If you think too much of other peoples’ work as you’re working, what you’re doing may resemble those other things a bit more than you’d like.
However, I would be lying if I said I was not influenced by other books as I was writing A Marble Heart. Here are just a few of them:
Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow. Possibly one of the most obvious influences, it mixes real people with fictional characters. Although I had read it once before in high school, I read it again as I was writing A Marble Heart, specifically because I wanted to see how Doctorow uses history as a springboard to tell his own story.
Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins. Somewhat obscure today, Harriet caused a sensation when it was published because it told a true story – that of a developmentally disabled woman whose husband and family let her starve to death so they could get at her money – and used the names of those involved. To be fair, I did not read this book until I was editing A Marble Heart, but I was gratified by the fact that Jenkins drew on contemporary accounts as sources for her novel, much like I did.
The USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos. I have not read the trilogy since I was in college, although I remember loving it. The biggest influence I drew from these books was the quick dispensing of information between the more obviously fictional chapters.
Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker. The only non-fiction work on the list, Human Smoke consists of short sections that build and build over the course of hundreds of pages to tell the story of how World War II came about. A devastating read in which almost no historical figure comes off well.
Fantomas, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Perhaps the most seemingly incongruous item on this list, it may have been the biggest influence on A Marble Heart. It tells of the exploits of master criminal Fantomas, whose supernatural powers allow him to change faces and identifies with ease, allowing him to repeatedly escape justice. Repeatedly? Is the book repetitious? Yes, but the joy lies in finding who Fantomas becomes next, not necessarily his actual escapes. I cannot recommend the book highly enough. It’s Fanto-marvelous.
The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. As Nelson Muntz memorably observed about Naked Lunch, “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.” A vast branch of literature seems to be built upon dysfunctional families and parent-child conflicts. There is no family more dysfunctional or conflicted than the one featured in Stead’s masterpiece. I owe more to this book than I can say.
The Works of Stephen Crane. Crane is a huge influence on my writing style, and shows that brevity can be a writer’s best friend. You don’t need to get fancy in order to say what you want to say. People may give credit to Hemingway, but Crane did it first. And best.