by Alison Broddle.
Welcome to the second blog in this series, The Books Made Me A Writer, from the writers of the Advanced Manuscript Workshop of One Lit Place (now the Write Your Novel in 4 Months Program) Alison Broddle is a journalist, radio producer, and writer, and these are the authors and literary genres upon which she as a writer and a person are built.
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Two thoughts came to me as I was putting a list together of books that have made me:
- The books that have shaped me as a writer and that have helped give me my identity are not the same books as those I have loved to read for the pure joy of sinking into a great story.
- Beyond a suspenseful dramatic story, memorable characters and sweeping narratives, I am drawn to language- something I hadn’t thought about consciously before: careful, clever, brilliant and cutting turns of phrase, and insults and descriptions that emerge seemingly effortlessly out of a page and make me stop and pay attention in a whole new way.
These two issues have influenced my list and are the reason I’ve figured out that I more identify with authors and genres that have given me so much- as a writer and as a person- rather than specific books.
Edward Albee and Oscar Wilde
I don’t read a lot of plays, but when I do, I look particularly for ideas and inspiration from dialogue. Plays are entirely dependent on dialogue as both the engine that drives the plot and to give exposition on some of the story, so the dialogue has to be great.
One of my favourite lines of all time is from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf when Martha says mid-argument to her husband George, “I swear if you existed I’d divorce you.”
The New Yorker profiles
I get a lot of ideas for character development and description by reading nonfiction profiles of both famous and unknown people, not necessarily from the lists of their accomplishments or histories or exposés about them, but for the writers’ incisive, descriptive moments and how they capture those people on the page.
Here’s one of of those perfectly rendered moments from a The New Yorker profile written nearly 20 years ago: “He was a man without a hinterland, basking in the luxury of an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” (Spoiler alert: it was a profile of Trump.)
Women and Relationships
Rachel Cusk (Transit, Kudos) is a recent discovery for me and appealing not just for the subject matter that relates to me personally (families, relationships, and a woman’s place in the world) but for the deceptively simple language and style of the writing.
As I read her books, I find myself almost lulled by the banality of some of the subject matter, only to suddenly realize the plummeting depths of what I’ve just blithely gone by, catch myself and go back and re-read those sections to fully appreciate them. I realize this might sound like faint praise … banality and the need to re-read … but I don’t mind writing that makes me work a little bit and that pushes me to think about the writer’s motivation and layering and cleverness.
Also in this genre, I loved Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing— also not easy reading as it’s written in a broken (young girl) syntax that never evolves into full sentences, but, again, it is entirely worth it.
Two other hugely impactful books in this genre for me are Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro and The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright.
There is something about Martin Amis and his long coiling sentences that undo his characters piece by piece, seeming to gently mock them before striking at their very heart and true ambition. A great example is how he describes the literary ambitions of his character Richard Tull in The Information: “In his desk drawer […] lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.”
Similarly, John Boyne in The Heart’s Invisible Furies lacerates puffed up characters, ideas and institutions like the Catholic church with great skill, often so lovingly encased in humour that you don’t see it coming.
This genre speaks to me in a compelling way because it combines the creativity of fiction with the grounding and reality of actual events and people, which appeals to the journalistic side of me. Two authors/books I particularly admire are Paula McLain’s Paris Wife and Circling the Sun, and Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and Dead Wake.
I lived in British Columbia for over 30 years, so I feel a particular affinity for books whose settings and characters are known to me physically. I admire how something I take for granted- the landscape and people of B.C.- can be made so compelling on the page and even turned into characters in novels and short stories. A few of my favorites are:
Stanley Park, Timothy Taylor
Wild Blue Yonder, Audrey Thomas
Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
I recently moved to Toronto and am reading (and re-reading) fiction set here altogether differently. Two books in particular that make the city — especially its parks and neighbourhoods — uniquely shine as a vivid backdrop to their stories are Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill and Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis.
Ultimately, one could say we are the product of where we live, and, if books are a constant, then they are who we are.
Now that I am beginning this next chapter of my life in a new place, I find this a great comfort.
Alison Broddle is a long-time journalist and producer with the CBC. She has worked on many radio programs, including “The Current,” but now does much of her work online, as a managing editor of digital content. She still, however, prefers her books IRL (dog-eared and well-worn) and her conversations to be in person. She was also on the board of the Vancouver Writers Festival for four years and is currently working on her first novel in the One Lit Place Advanced Manuscript Workshop.
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