A Lifelong Obsession

I began reading with comic books and children’s books. Have forgotten most, though The Phantom Tollbooth lingers. I was fortunate to have a father who worked as an editor. Though cold and stern, he showed love the only way he could, through buying books. The first things that sparked my imagination were anthologies. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents series included incredible suspense authors: Ambrose Bierce, Richard Matheson, Patricia Highsmith, and Daphne du Maurier. Then, Ray Bradbury collections like The Illustrated Man and The Golden Apples of the Sun were mind-blowing and led me by age twelve into a full-on fixation with Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I must have read a dozen of his paperback novels one summer.

Between ages sixteen and eighteen, I had a few brilliant, crazy friends. They would recommend books (as well as films and music), and chastise me, berate me if I didn’t follow their advice. Not bullying. More an attempt to break through my know-it-all, jaded, New York cynicism. Through their influence, I read Rimbaud, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, then Thomas Pynchon and John Barth.

In college, I became entranced by Samuel Beckett and tried to imitate him. Many of us need to write through our influences to reach something resembling an original style. In the later 1990s, I devoured most everything Paul Auster and T.C. Boyle published. I also formed a lasting obsession with nonfiction writers or essayists who broke all the rules: Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe. They showed me that genre classification doesn’t matter. Exciting writing is anywhere it exists.

I have received many bits of advice over the years—some sound, some idiotic. But the most solid was: your writing cannot improve if you don’t read. And not just in whatever genre you’ve chosen to pursue, but widely.

That has influenced me to build a vast book collection and also to not limit my writing. Literary fiction, horror, crime, science fiction, historical fiction, and essays are all intriguing. Genre fiction can be literary and literary fiction can be interesting. Strangely, the two areas where a writer might actually have a chance to make money in, romance fiction and New Age, hold zero interest for me.