With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.
1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.
3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.
One of the first writers I read as a writer, and not just as a reader was John D. McDonald – and specifically his Travis McGee private eye series. I found his books in the Peace Corps library in Honduras. Now you have to picture the volunteer’s library as a large shelf of mostly paperbacks next to the nurses office where you get shot in the but with gamma globulin twice a year. Always some interesting sounds coming out of that place. The couches outside in the courtyard were where you waited for your turn to get shot. The bookcase was next to couch furthest away from the nurses door.
In Honduras I read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but in Honduras, without TV and with lots of long car, bus, and walking trips to occupy my time with a good book, sometimes two was a must have in the backpack. I picked up The Scarlet Ruse first, then worked my way through the 20+ books in the series. A group of four of us traded them back and forth reading them together over two and a half years.
What I loved about McDonald’s series was the hard-boiled atmosphere, the floating houseboat called the Busted Flush, the alcohol consumed, the beautiful women who showed up as damsels in distress, the sidekick Meyers, and the violence, that could come out of nowhere and end as quickly as it began.
One book, though really made me stop and think about the whole writing process. I mean this was a genre book that followed the formula of a mystery. But this one book, A Deadly Shade Gold, turned the genre on its head. No book after it in the series played by the rules either.
About half way through the book the mystery is solved. I remember wondering what the rest of the book was going to be about if the mystery was already solved. But there was no need to worry. Travis McGee was such a fascinating character and I was so involved with what happened to him, mystery or no mystery, that I’d basically follow him anywhere. And for each of the books after that, I did. The story transcended its form.
Character, in this instance,was more important than plot. Character isn’t all, but if your character is good enough the reader will follow you far and wide, from jungle to desert and back again.