As I compiled a list of books that influenced the world or me, it quickly became obvious that what I learned from a book—new ways of seeing others and history is what made them memorable. Books that not only changed my life, but those of others, filled my mind as I sat down to write. Since I read voraciously, and have since I was a small child, I had to stop listing books when the titles and authors began to fill pages upon pages in a composition book. It took some heavy-duty weaning to get to the list below. Strongly influenced by women protagonists, I’m not surprised that I give careful attention to the development of characters in my own writing. You will, no doubt, find this to be an eclectic list.
The first women (girls) who influenced me with their pluck were Anne of Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery), Jo in Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), and Dorothy in Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum). All three protagonists were on exciting quests, and all three achieved what they set out to do—no trivial task for a young girl in the timeperiods in which they lived—regardless of the naysayers.
Books that inspired my life and took me through moral dilemmas are high on my list of favorites. All of these books profoundly affected my view of the world. I discovered new ways of problem solving, new ways of viewing ethnicity, new ways of responding to strife, new ways to value being female, and new ways of testing my faith. This list includes Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Leon Uris’ Exodus, and C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens still holds a special place on my bookcase. Dickens’ study of broken people, those wounded so deeply they cannot see beyond their selfish needs, cannot respond to others with anything but cruelty, and cannot imagine forgiveness. Today, it might well be written as a “serial killer gets even” saga with an emphasis on the over-the-top scenes of blood and gore, but that would not do justice to the cruelty and despair so evident in Great Expectations. It wouldn’t take readers on the roller-coaster ride of love and hate, self-loathing, and retribution to be followed by redemption that Great Expectations does so well and in such depth. It wouldn’t create memorable character studies that, like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (another eye-opener and favorite of mine) leave an indelible impression on our lives.
It would be impossible to create a list books and authors that influenced my life without including Agatha Christie who always challenges me to make my little gray cells work overtime and deduce whodunit. Her books are literary puzzles, making me see that all is not as it seems. The “really good stuff” goes on behind the scenes at home, at work, at large. A lesson I’m glad I learned early. A lesson that is vital for a writer to learn.
Of great importance to me as a Southerner, a writer, and a woman are the books of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. They saw: two entirely different visions of life in the South; two entirely different visions of people; two entirely different visions of women. Eudora Welty’s work is jammed with humor, country living, and a clearly defined view of her characters’ emotions and through processes. Like Welty, the women characters are usually independent and excellent problem solvers. Lily Daw and the Three Ladies is a perfect example of small town, meddling busybodies, who get their comeuppance.
Flannery O’Connor, ill over half of her life and dependent on her mother, wrote belligerent tales, dark with anger and cruelty. She deftly portrays the underbelly of human life, exposing our vulnerabilities. Choosing each word with obvious care, she wrote in a style similar to Hemingway, crisp and clear and often brutal. It would be folly to ignore her work. It challenges us to look at things we do not understand and reminds of the fragile line between benevolence and mercilessness. O’Connor’s work is an excellent way to master the art of writing.
Mahala Church is a freelance editor and writer and teaches creative writing for teens and adults through her Barefoot Writing Academy. An accomplished workshop leader and award winning author, Pushcart Prize nominee, and published editor, she enjoys all aspects of writing. The first novel in her trilogy is in “final” revision, shortly to be sent to beta readers. An avid reader of both literary and commercial fiction as well as biographies and memoirs, she particularly likes books set in Britain, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the Deep South of the United States. You can follow her at http://www.lyricalpens.com.