Friday, March 5, 2010

Books Inspiring Books

By Kim

The first time I attempted to write a novel I was seventeen, a freshman in college, and like many writers that age, I had unrealistic career goals. I would have a best-seller by age twenty-five, make millions, and crank out a novel every year or two until I died or ran out of ideas, whichever came first. The novels, with the exception of the one I planned to write on my great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens, would all be contemporary women’s fiction.

I should have known better on all counts. My mother is a writer as well, and I grew up watching her write novel after novel, query unsuccessfully, and secure an agent only to have the agent go out of business. My genre choice certainly does sell and I’ve read hundreds of novels within it, but very few have stayed with me long after I finish the last page.

It amazes me that I did not recognize my true calling earlier. I took every available class for 18th and 19th century literature in college, yet shied away from anything more contemporary. My electives were all history classes; I graduated one class short of a minor in the subject. I took up genealogy while still in my teens. In graduate school my favorite class was not literature (my major), or creative writing (my passion), but the one on how to conduct research. One particular assignment involved reading and transcribing original correspondence between two obscure American authors. Each student received ten letters to work on, but I was the only one in the class who read all of them. For fun. Those of you who read my post In Praise of Packrats already know that few things excite me more than finding those windows into the past.

As I write The Oak Lovers, the novel originally planned as an “exception” to my chosen genre, I’ve discovered other voices from the past who speak to me far more clearly than any of my contemporary characters. The same holds true for characters in novels written by other authors. Here are a few that have stayed with me.

The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

I originally read this book because a friend of mine mentioned that my writing reminded him of Urquhart’s. Having read all her novels, he recommended I first read The Underpainter because the protagonist was a fictional painter who would have been a contemporary of Carl’s. I had never heard of Jane Urquhart before, most Americans probably haven’t, but within a couple of pages I was in awe, both of her and the fact that someone had compared me to her. No other author could make me love such a despicable character as Austin Fraser. I never stopped hoping he would find a way to let people in, to find happiness. This remains the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room.

While Austin was unforgettable, what I fell in love with in this book was the Ontario landscape. No one writes of landscape like Jane Urquhart, and since my book is partly set in the same place and time, I learned a lot from her. I enjoyed A Map of Glass, Away and The Stone Carvers more than The Underpainter, but this is the one I remember most vividly.

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

My mother discovered this book at Barnes and Noble, took one look at the haunting cover and snatched it up as a birthday present for me. Leafing through it later, she discovered it was set in Niagara Falls in 1915, close to one of my settings and in the same time period. “This is how your book should feel,” she said when I opened the present. While she referred to the embossed cover, the quality paper, and the historic photos throughout, I soon realized that the prose, too, had the tone I wished to convey. While a love story is central, it is about far more than that. Like fellow Canadians Jane Urquhart, Margaret Laurence and Robertson Davies, Buchanan is a master of turning setting into a character. Niagara Falls is a living, breathing entity to me now. As soon as the character of Tom Cole (based on real river man William "Red" Hill) appeared on page fifteen, I knew it was a book I was meant to read. If Carl had been healthy, never found his artistic calling, and lived at Niagara Falls, he could have been Tom. If you ever read The Day the Falls Stood Still you will understand why “Believe in me, Bess” is the most poignant sentence I’ve ever read.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Thanks to Julie, I knew about this book before its release and bought it the first day it came out. It was not the Alice in Wonderland tie that drew me, but rather the time period, and that it was a fictional account of a real relationship between Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his muse, Alice Liddell. Given that I am currently writing a book that deals with an artist/muse relationship, that special bond holds endless fascination for me. I started it with some trepidation, fearing that I might have difficulty reading of such a close bond between a grown man and a seven-year-old girl. (I have an eight-year old daughter, after all.) My fears were unfounded due to the genius of Benjamin’s pen. Alice was so spirited and precocious that it was impossible to see her as a victim. I can hear her tormenting her governess as I write this and can’t help but smile.

As I read I wondered what may have happened had Madonna met Carl at seven instead of seventeen. Would they have still been drawn together, albeit differently? I sense they would have. Alice I Have Been inspired me to revise large chunks of four early chapters in The Oak Lovers, and completely rewrite the reunion scene between Carl and Madonna. If seven year old Alice could be so convincingly bold, I saw no reason why a nearly grown woman had to be innocent and naïve, especially as she is not that way at all later on. Let her bait the older, married man. Their conversations were already passionate, their glances tender. Why not let their arguments be torrid?

I wonder how many other writers unconsciously gravitate toward books or characters that will inspire their own writing. I’d love to hear from anyone with similar stories to share.


  1. Jane Urquhart is one of my favorite authors! I was introduced to her books while working in Toronto and was swept off my feet by Away.

    In my early twenties, I read a large number of mass market books like Dean Koontz, Barbara Michaels, Mary Higgins Clark. That paranormal element did inspire my own writing. Since then, I've been drawn to historical fiction (Philippa Gregory and similar). Combined with my love for Jane Austen which started just out of college, I can definitely see where my novel The Shadow Scribe has been influenced by my reading choices over the years.

  2. Hi Dreamstate,

    My friends in Ontario have recommended some fabulous books. I wish I had gone to college there, at least for a semester, so I could have taken a Canadian literature class. The books I've read are very different in tone from either American or British literature, and I would have to say that at least half of the novels on my top ten favorite list are by Canadian authors.

    Jane Urquhart is a genius as far as I'm concerned, and I am still a bit blown away that anyone compared me to her. The Stone Carvers is probably my favorite, though I loved Away as well. She is married to an artist and brings that understanding of the artistic mindset into her writing, which is very helpful for me.

    That's quite a combination of reading material to be inspired by. I would definitely pick up The Shadow Scribe if for no other reason than I'm curious as to how all that would tie together.

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  4. For any Cathy Marie Buchanan fans out there, please be aware that she is currently a finalist in the Canada Also Reads contest. The winner is selected by public poll and you do not have to be a Canadian to vote. If you loved the book please take a moment and show your support by going to before 1pm on March 12th.

  5. Fascinating and beautifully written, Kim. As you know, Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Gelman played a major part in changing the course of my writing, switching from fiction based on happenings within my life as an expatriate to travel memoir. Tears for Fear by Guo Sheng had a big influence on how I'm approaching my book about the two times I lived in China in relation to my past.

  6. Thanks, Kim. I love being mentioned in the same sentence as Jane Urquhart. And to write "the most poignant sentence", well, wow.

    And thanks so much for the Canada Also Reads shout out. Encouraging everyone to vote at

  7. You are quite welcome, Cathy, and I meant every word. I'm voting daily for you.

    Jane is a genius. My only problem with her writing is that her sentences are often so beautiful I have to read them twice. That makes for slow going!


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