Kick-ass writers

Lately, I’ve been longing for a mentor, the kind of kick-ass mentor that doesn’t exist in real life: somebody that I talk to a few times a month, who can guide me not only through the various genres in which I write (nonfiction, y.a. fiction, the occasional bad poem) but also has the knowledge and wherewithal to help me navigate the business of writing, that is, meeting the appropriate contacts, how to get publicity, where to submit, etc.

When I was in Chicago this past week for the annual AWP conference, a fellow writer asked me, “Who do you read?” The eclectic list of writers who happen to be my favorites flitted through my head. “Jonathan Krakauer, Annie Lamont, Sara Zarr,” I rattled off.

But even as I said those names, I realized that list wasn’t quite right. It doesn’t reflect the spectrum of writers who have truly influenced me, both as a writer and as a person. In lieu of this non-existent kick-ass mentor, I started reflecting on the kick-ass writers who have been most influential in my life, who have played the role of pseudo-mentor from long distance. I made a list yesterday. Here it is. And dear God, says the feminist in me, they’re all men!

  • Richard Brautigan. His quirky fiction, accessible poetry, and absolutely bizarre sense of humor are unlike any other writer that I’ve ever read. Many of his books are out of print, but I’ve collected the majority of his works by searching in used bookstores. Back in my early 20s, I used to read his books outloud to long-suffering boyfriends before we’d go to bed. Sadly, Brautigan committed suicide in 1984. I would have loved to see how his work played out through a long, full life. Favorite Brautigan Book–Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel.
  • Raymond Carver. Need I say more? Everybody loves Ray Carver’s short stories, but most people have never read his poems which are some of the best effing poems I’ve ever read. Favorite Ray Carver Book: Where I’m Calling From.
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz. Ben has actually served as a real-life mentor for me. I feel privileged to have served as one of his editors when I worked at Cinco Puntos Press. The line-by-line copyediting I did for more than one of his books gave me a better feel for language, and a sense for how to create workable plots. I appreciate Ben’s candor. I think I’ve already blogged about how much better he made me feel last fall when my second novel just wasn’t getting bought up (lots of editors saying great things about it, followed by “too dark, hence, not right for us”). Ben’s response? “I’ve written several novels that have never sold,” he said. “And never will. But I still needed to write them.” Favorite novel by Benjamin Alire Saenz: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. To be absolutely honest, I think this is my favorite all-time novel, ever. I’ve read it about a dozen times. And I still cry in the same spot.
  • Joe Meno. When I was writing Killing Isaac, my second novel, I used Meno’s first line from Hairstyles of the Damned to get myself started. During revisions, I got rid of it–but it helped me get through the first draft. Favorite Joe Meno novel: Hairstyles of the Damned.
  • Jon Krakauer. Krakauer’s abilities with non-fiction prose are among the best journalistic narratives I’ve ever read. Favorite Krakauer book: Under the Banner of Heaven.
  • J.C. Hallman. Hallman does the best mix of personal narrative and quasi-academic prose I’ve ever seen. Plus, he generously sent me copies of all of his book proposals, which I’ve used as models for my own non-fiction book proposal. Thanks, Chris! Favorite J.C. Hallman book: The Devil is a Gentleman.
  • Chinua Achebe. Richly layered, idiosyncratic prose. What I love about Achebe is his ability to make an unfamiliar world totally accessible to readers without inundating them with information. Favorite Achebe novel: Arrow of God.
  • Arturo Islas. Islas is a celebrated Chicano writer, who happens to hail from my hometown, El Paso. My first semester at Stanford, I went to an exclusive dinner for fellows at the Stanford Humanities Center. After several glasses of wine, I fell into a conversation with a man who had been good friends with Islas, even shared office space with him when Islas taught at Stanford. I remember clasping my hand to my heart and exclaiming several times, “Arturo Islas is my hero. My hero.” The next morning, I hated myself. But my drunken declarations are true nonetheless. Favorite Islas novel: The Rain God.
  • Charles Bowden. Chuck’s writings on the U.S.-Mexico border have really influenced the way I think about the region. And he’s a really accessible writer, to boot. Favorite Charles Bowden book: Down by the River-Drugs, Money, Murder and Family.

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