Writers become writers because they were first readers. Readers who got lost in someone else’s story and subsequently found their vocation. Today, a few Paper Lantern Writers express their thanks to the writers who inspired them to spin their own yarns.
DEAR PETE (HAMILL),
You would never have remembered me (were you still living), but we met once, when you accepted the Damon Runyon Award from the Denver Press Club. It was then I read your book, Snow in August, about a little boy who befriends a Jewish rabbi, then faces off against neighborhood thugs in Brooklyn, New York. While this was long before I ever wrote a word of fiction, your encouragement (in passing) kept me writing journalistically, which heavily influenced my book, Blind Tribute. My WIP, The Cub, doesn’t employ the same magical realism as Snow in August, and takes place about half a century earlier, but it is set in Brooklyn, features a nasty bully (who will get his own book eventually), and uses the side plot of a friendship between the main character, an Irish boy, and a Jewish family down the street. I imagine these elements appear in a lot of books set in this area, but the way you used them was truly inspired—and inspiring. The world misses your insightful, lyrical, humorous, New Yorkish style. Thank you for your unwitting influence on my writing and my life.
DEAR RACHEL (KADISH),
I want to thank you for the inspiration your writing has given me. When I read your book, The Weight of Ink, I was wondering whether there would be readers for my kind of story. Reading your dual timeline novel, with a woman in the seventeenth century doing something extraordinary, gave me confidence that my book, The Lines Between Us, could also find an audience.
Your article for the Paris Review in 2018, with your idea that “our culture’s most scrupulous liars: writers of historical fiction” are the ones to fill in the gap for voices that have been ignored or suppressed, has deeply informed my writing. I want to contribute to this project, by blending what I learn through research with an imagined component, in a way that makes the imagined aspect believable and perhaps even inevitable. In my upcoming novel, The Map Colorist, my protagonist wants to contribute to the world’s largest publication of the seventeenth century, the Atlas Maior. A woman as a seventeenth-century cartographer? Yes, there could have been. I think you would agree.
Thank you for affirming a purpose in my writing!
DEAR ANNE (RICE),
Many years after the fact, I’d like to thank you for writing The Mummy.
It wasn’t the first novel of yours that I read (that’d be Interview with a Vampire) or the most compelling (that’d be The Witching Hour), but The Mummy was one of the first novels where I started taking notes about how the story came together. As I read and re-read and re-re-read The Mummy, I started to de-code your writing talents and tricks, to understand how scenes and chapters were written.
And I have the thirty-year old notes in the margins to prove it.
So, thanks, Anne, for what The Mummy taught me:
- If I’m writing about a unique location, I can start Chapter 1 by describing that setting. If I’m setting that first chapter in a more common location, I should start with dialogue.
- Start Chapter 1 with two characters only, and don’t mention too many other characters in the first scene.
- End the first scene in Chapter 1 with a question.
- Exotic characters—like resurrected ancient Egyptians—are perfect “fishes out of water”, and part of their job is to describe the story’s culture and setting to the reader.
- Heighten the tension at the climax by using shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and shorter scenes.
- In general, shorter scenes move the story along and keep the reader turning pages.
- OTOH, grouping those shorter scenes into big chapters creates a reading cohesiveness.
- Identify my characters’ emotional state as I introduce them in each scene/chapter; as the scene/chapter progresses, back off on the emotional state and let dialogue capture the emotions. (I’m constantly rethinking this one.)
- Every scene should shift the balance of power between characters through an exchange of information or emotions.
- Switching up the location switches the energy of the story.
- Why write a standalone when you can write a trilogy?
For a reader, The Mummy is an engrossing, captivating whirlwind; for a fellow writer of historical fiction, it’s a gold mine of how-to information.
Thanks again, Anne. Whenever I sit down to re-read The Mummy (which I do!), I’m still entertained and educated.
DEAR MARGARET (ATWOOD),
I first discovered your work sometime near the release of Alias Grace in 1996. I read it in hardcover, and used it for my high school senior quote. Something along the lines of: “they say go mad, as if mad was a direction, like west.” Then, as now, I’ve never understood how so many people are so certain of their realities. If I woke up living a completely different life, I don’t think I would be smart enough to go mad. But that was what you showcased in Alias Grace, and made the reader wonder, was she mentally ill, was she pretending? Did she kill those people? Of course, this was historical fiction, which I have always loved. And you showed me that historical fiction and science fiction are not so far apart. World-building is world-building, after all.
Then you wrote The Blind Assassin, which won the 2000 Man Booker Prize. I liked that one, and started to read your entire back catalogue, including your first book, The Edible Woman. By 2003, I was in an MFA program in Alaska, working at a bookstore. When I had a moment, shelving books, I would sneak your poetry book published while you were still in college in the 1960s. I identified with you: your snark, your wit. Particularly your poem, “You Fit Into Me.” It was how I felt about dating and relationships, and how every man who was interested in me wanted me to be the soft, earth-mother type to bring home to mom. The poem, in case you forgot:
You Fit Into Me
Like a hook into an eye
a fishhook, an open eye.
That might not be exact, but it’s what I remember, twenty years on. Next, you published Oryx and Crake in 2003, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This book was, and remains, hands down, my favorite work of yours.
Again, this novel showcases an unreliable narrator. And not just unreliable in what he, Snowman, was willing to reveal to the reader, but what he himself believed. I loved that often, your characters don’t know how to fit into the reality around them. Again you forced the question: Is Snowman good or evil? Was he rewarded, or was he punished?
And the other fact I loved about this book and you: you wrote science fiction. But I shelved you in the Lit and Fiction section! You conned everyone into believe you wrote straight literary, when in fact, you wrote genre. It was a struggle I had as an MFA student, since we were being taught that genre was somehow lesser than the erudite and impressive literary establishment. I was supposed to love Phillip Roth and Norman Mailer (bleh). Instead, I cited you as my favorite, and as the winner of prestigious literary prizes like the Man Booker, no one could criticize me for preferring you. (Even though you wrote science fiction!)
I’ve always had a problem with authority. But as a girl with long blonde hair, no one ever wanted to believe that I was there to start a riot. I think maybe you’re the same. You smile. You’re Canadian. Even in your youthful author photos, you appear amiable. The Midwesterner in me recognizes the Canadian in you. Pretentious language does nothing for us. Thank you for giving me a role model to cling to as I struggled to find my own writing aesthetic.
That said, I still have not mastered the unreliable narrator. Certainly not with your finesse. But I’m still trying.
You are huge now, what with Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a good book, don’t get me wrong, just not my favorite. So as I write this thank you, I know it is drowned in the noise of the world. But you were huge in my formation as a reader, a writer, and a human. Thank you to your college-aged self for “You Fit Into Me.” Thank you to your middle-aged self for Oryx and Crake. And thank you for still being as down-to-earth as your Canadian roots raised you to be.
Much love and admiration,
DEAR WILLA (CATHER),
Thank you for all your beautiful novels about women in the American West, but especially for Lucy Gayheart. Some would say its one of your “lesser works,” but to me it was essential in shaping my current work-in-progress, To See the Love-Light.
I read your tale of a small town pianist making her way from 1902 Haverford, Nebraska to Chicago many years ago. But thinking back on my journey to writing about the Gilded Age actress Maude Adams, I see parallels between Lucy and Maude. Both came from backwater locations hoping to find success in the big city. Maude does so in Manhattan, but at what cost? My other protagonist, the seamstress Early McVay, remains in Salt Lake City, but catches a glimpse of the world outside her Rocky Mountain enclave through Maude, which helps her resist the restraints of that time and place.
Since I, too, left a small Western town for an urban area—in my case, the San Francisco Bay Area—Lucy’s tragic tale was both inspirational and cautionary. Something that lingered long after I turned the last page.
Thank you for this and so much more,
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.