In a few weeks, I will be publishing two new novels, ‘Vinegar Hill’ and ‘Hotel Continental. When I talk about my work, I’m often asked about the sources of my inspiration. What books are my favorite books to re-read? Which authors inspired me the most? So, here goes:
1. Ulysses, by James Joyce. This was an easy choice: not only is Joyce’s masterwork the inspiration for my current project, but it is the only book I know which has made a visceral impact in my life across several decades. I first read Ulysses in college, as part of a course requirement. I crossed its well-worn path again in my thirties, when I first started to publish, and then again in my fifties, when I was researching ‘The Music Teacher’. Ten years later, I am working with it again, through annotations, Dublin city maps, and web research. No book has ever taught me so much about writing, made me want to read it out loud, or laugh so hard.
2. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. I discovered Giovanni’s Room in a course at college on Gay American Fiction. This was the first time in my life I read a book in which I literally wished to live. I wanted to be David, to live in Paris, and most of all, to fall in love with a beautiful and doomed Italian. Even after growing up and understanding that all gay fiction doesn’t have to end tragically, I still believe Baldwin’s book is one of the most perfectly constructed and emotionally effective love stories ever written. Decades before it’s time, Giovanni’s Room talked about the power, the difficulty, and the responsibilities of love.
3. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is an acquired taste, and luckily for me, I acquired it early on. I believe I was barely fifteen years old when I first became acquainted with this outlandish tale that blended graphic sex, scenes of drug addiction, and occasional irrational bursts of science fiction. Like in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Burroughs rejoices in creating a language. These are characters I clearly would not wish to emulate, but I have rarely had more fun while reading.
Since I am a fiction writer, you would think that this list would be comprised completely of fiction, but my favoritism and the importance of some books in my life are not limited by genre. I would like to conclude this very brief list with two more examples, neither of which are novels.
4. The Sound Of The City, by Charlie Gillett. Before I drifted into the world of fiction, I intended to be a biographer or music historian. This book was originally published in 1970, but is far from being outdated. The subject is highly educational, revelatory, and endlessly entertaining. Gillett traces the origin of what we now call rock and roll back through its country, blues, and folk music origins. His style is extraordinary, and the story is mesmerizing.
5. Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting. I know: what is a children’s book doing on a list of serious literature? Well, you have to start somewhere. I cherish my memory of my father reading this book to me when I was only seven or eight years old. His reading to me the spark that ignited my lifelong love of reading and stories. Loftingtaught me an early lesson in simplicity; a lesson I often forget but never ignore. You should never be too old to want to play with a Pushme-Pullyou.
Okay, this list is too short, so I’ll append it with a few (only a few) honorable mentions, to keep the discussion going: At Swim, Two Boys, by Jamie O’Neill (another Joyce acolyte), Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman (soon to be a major motion picture), and The Great Gatsby, by F.Scott Fitzgerald (who proved that genius can be brief).