“I set out to write a book that I would love to read myself: a compelling love story and thriller, full of sex and violence, and short punchy chapters that each end with a surprise – inviting the reader to keep turning page well into the night.” This quote has been pulled directly from my “Acknowledgements” page at the end of my first novel, The Hunger & The Hunted. So, as I thoughtfully examined my favorite novels, and their authors, I thought I would share with you my “Top 5” – although there are many more.
Before I make my list, I want to let you know that I grew up with a learning disability that limited my ability to read and retain material. I didn’t read a book until I was 24 (OK, perhaps Dr. Seuss, but not much more). I still remember walking into bookstores as a child and smelling the books. God, what a great smell! The only thing I can equate it to today is walking into a new car showroom! But, back to the bookstore… I would buy a couple based on their cover and synopsis on the jacket, with all the good intentions of reading them, but alas, they sat and collected dust.
Then, as part of a goal-setting seminar in my mid-twenties, I committed to read six books a year: three work/self-help related books and three novels for pure pleasure. That was hard work, but I did it. Six books – exactly – in that first year. Today, I read approximately 25 books a year and over 10,000 pages (yes, I keep track on my Excel Workbook).
In those years of my own personal joyous reading renaissance, there were so many fabulous, and influential books, but if I had to pick my Top 5 for pure influence in writing my first novel, they would boil down to these (not in any particular order but rather for reasons stated):
- The Firm, John Grisham. My brother gave this book to me, and told me that I would absolutely love this read. He and I are just a year apart in age, and no one on this planet has recommended more books that I loved. For me it was the relatability to the main character, Mitchell McDeere. I read this at a time when I, like him, was working crazy hours and putting everything I had into getting noticed and getting ahead. What happened to Mitch in that book is the stuff that movies are made of. And, it was! Fast paced with totally unexpected twist and turns, it held me rapt, and kept me turning pages well into the night.
- The Lion’s Game, by Nelson DeMille. No one influenced me more as a writer than Nelson DeMille. I’ve read every book he has written, but this one stands out as my favorite. Short punchy chapters that skip back and forth between antagonist, and protagonist, and other important characters and places, the novel painted a sympathetic view of each, and I found myself pulling for each one of them as I read their point of view. The book was like a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle. Each chapter complimented the book in such a clever way that you couldn’t wait to keep reading. No doubt I tried to emulate his style in my own first novel.
- Testimony, by Anita Shreve. The literary world lost a beauty when we lost Anita Shreve not too long ago. I have to cheat a little here and put in a strong Honorable Mention for another book she wrote, All He Ever Wanted – a ferociously clever tale of a love affair unfolding before the reader’s eyes – in reverse – starting with present day and working backward through time with “reveals” that lead to an unbelievable start. This is clever romance writing at its very best. This is only one of two books that I have ever read, that when finished, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and went back to the beginning to read it all over again. The only other book like that for me is coming up. Stay tuned…
Testimony is the story of a single stupid immature act of a teenager that has devastating consequences to him, his family and to the entire community in which he lives. That level of tragic unraveling is so relatable to families and parents across the globe. I tried to emulate this relatable falling of tragic dominos in my own work.
- The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. I love asking strangers to tell me their five favorite books of all time. The books I have listed here are the most influential for me as a first-time novelist, but I am always searching for the next page-turner. More so than any other book, this one came up on so many lists that I had to finally break down and buy it. And, probably no book remained longer on my shelf gathering dust between purchase and reading than Ken Follett’s masterpiece.
The premise of the book, building a cathedral in medieval times, just didn’t float my boat. And it was long; longer than the Bible I think! 1000+ pages if I recall. I don’t know when or why I finally picked this novel up to read, but boy was I ever hooked! It stunned me that I let this fabulous tale sit idle for so long. What made the book fascinating was that Follett unfolded his historic novel using what I would like to call “modern day English” making it eminently readable. And so full of sex and violence! And, I remember getting to the end of the book – maybe 50 pages remaining, and I just couldn’t envision the end being wrapped up so soon. I think all good books have endings that wrap up far sooner than the reader is ready. I have been told that The Hunger & The Hunted ends in much the same way. Success! Thanks, Ken, for the valuable lessons.
- The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller. Rounding out my Top 5 is the #1 best-selling novel of all time. It takes romance to a completely engrossing level and studies the very human emotions of how attractions, life circumstances and random time and place contribute to infidelities: how they start and how they painfully end – and how the memories never do. In an earlier post, I mention one of my most influential movies is Titanic, another similar one-off love affair that lasts for a lifetime.
This is the only other book (along with Shreve’s All He Ever Wanted) that I completed and immediately started reading again.
So there you have it: my five (and a half) most influential novels and their talented authors that had a substantial effect on my writing and style. I hope to meet most of them one day – and before I meet Anita in Heaven. C. Lindsey Williams