Libby Jacobs: “Three Books That Influenced Me As a Writer”
A few years ago Jessica Morrell, a writing coach and author of several books including Writing Out the Storm and Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction, posed an interesting question in her newsletter: What three books influenced you? She invited readers to submit their answers to her blog, and I accepted the assignment.
The topic sounded almost too easy until I started thinking about favorite books, important books, books whose characters, plots, and emotional impact have stayed with me for decades. Limiting the discussion to three seemed overwhelming, so I restricted the choices to books that influenced me as a writer.
Using my imaginative prerogative as a writer, I’ll pretend that I can’t count to three, and ever-so-briefly mention the Nancy Drew books that seem to be part of the childhood of most women who grow up to be writers. The books taught me that a secret, a mystery, must be hidden in the heart of any good story regardless of genre.
The first book I’d like to mention is Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates, the grim story of Quentin, a sexual predator and serial killer. While Oates frequently explores the dark side of human nature, this work is a particularly horrifying study of a deviant criminal. Not content to examine the mind of the killer from the outside, she takes the bold step of putting herself in Quentin’s mind and engaging the reader through the first person device of a diary. Lines like “My whole body is a numb tongue” establish a chilling authenticity.
Oates backs away from no gruesome detail of the serial killer’s search for a handsome, compliant slave, his “zombie.” Especially unsettling is her suggestion that Quentin appears ordinary, and could be someone the reader knows and comes into contact with every day.
Not an easy read, this novel taught me a valuable lesson: If you can think it, if it is part of your story, write it without apology. “Wolf Note,” the first story in my collection of the same name, deals with a young female cellist who has an incestuous relationship with her brother. The last story is a monologue by a disturbed adolescent patient in a mental ward. Without the courageous example of Joyce Carol Oates in Zombie, I might have pulled back in these stories or dropped them from the collection. Zombie kept me honest.
When working on my novel about a concert pianist who leaves music, I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. In an unnamed South American country, Roxane Coss, renowned American soprano, has presented a recital for a group of international guests gathered in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman. At the end of the evening, armed terrorists take the group hostage. Over the four-month siege, captors and captives become allies, friends, and lovers. I studied the book to learn how she had so skillfully interwoven love stories and international intrigue. Because she wrote so sensitively and knowledgably about opera, and music in general, I was surprised to learn that she had not been an opera aficionado before writing Bel Canto, and I examined her language for clues to how she created lines so lyrical that they supported the musical theme like breath supports a singer’s voice. And talk about a stunning first line in a novel, Bel Canto’s “When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her” is magnificent.
Each time I approach Bel Canto as a textbook to illuminate some issue in my writing, I find myself lost in the beauty of the story. Perhaps that is the most important lesson we can learn from a novel: we are storytellers above all.
I’m cheating a bit on the third book because it’s neither published nor a single volume. I recently found and have begun rereading my mother’s poetry notebooks, yellowed lined pages spiral-bound in brown cardboard covers. She was young when she died forty years ago, but if I listen closely as I read the poems she wrote and collected, I can almost hear a whisper of her voice.
She was a nurse who volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps during WWII. Her Irish father loved poetry, and she inherited his passion for words. In the notebooks she pasted poems cut from magazines, poems copied in fading blue pen from books, and verse she had written. Occasionally a poem appears in a different handwriting, an addition by a poetry-loving friend, perhaps written in a hospital ward overseas.
I remember my mother reciting poetry to my sister and me before bedtime. It was not always good poetry; one of my favorites, probably because of the tragic narrative, was “Lasca” about a young woman, “wild as the breezes that blow,” who sacrifices her life to save her lover in a Texas cattle stampede. Not your typical bedtime story for a five or six year old, but a loving introduction to the passionate, rhythmic, musical language of poetry. The memories remind me that before I was a writer, I was a reader; and before I was a reader, I was a listener, absorbing words spoken with an Irish passion for language.
On the cover of her notebooks she wrote: “I am a miser of rhyme and verse.” But “miser” suggests a selfish quality, and if long ago she gathered the poems for her own pleasure, she also saved them – for my sister and me, for my daughter, and for my granddaughter who is just learning to read.
Libby Jacobs earned an M. Ed. in Special Education from Virginia Commonwealth University, and an M. A. in Theatre from the University of Michigan. During her career as a theatre director and playwright, her scripts received readings and performances in Cleveland, Boston, New York City (Off Broadway and at Lincoln Center) and Valdez, Alaska. Her first book, Wolf Note, a collection of short stories, was published in 2006 by Rager Media, and she recently completed her first novel.