Whiting Winners Choose Their Most Influential Books



Last March, we announced the ten winners of this year’s Whiting Awards, given annually to writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come. Now we’ve asked eleven Whiting winners, past and present, to write about the books that have influenced them the most—a list to bear in mind as you choose your holiday reading. —D. P. 

I doubt that Matters of Life and Death, an anthology of short fiction edited by Tobias Wolff, had an influence on my writing—I should be so lucky—but it had an enormous influence on me. It includes wrenching and beautiful works by artists such as Joy Williams, John Gardner, Mary Robison, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stanley Elkin, Stephanie Vaughn, Raymond Carver, and Ann Beattie. It also happens to contain what I consider a perfect short story: “Walking Out,” by David Quammen. —Jo Ann Beard

In my early twenties, my little bible was a ratty back-pocket copy of Hart Crane’s Complete Poems. I loved every poem in that book long before I could have explained to you my understanding of a single one. At some point in my hundreds of returns to “The Bridge,” I got excited about the idea that poems are not merely sent messages but also architectural structures over which we pass, again and again, and marvel, together, at the view of the world from up there. —Anthony Carelli

From an early paperback edition of Hart Crane’s Collected Poems.

Little affected my writing life quite like the discovery of an essay by Anne Carson, back in 1989, called “Kinds of Water,” collected in The Best American Essays of 1988, edited that year by Annie Dillard. I experienced that essay, about Carson’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, (collected eventually in Plainwater), as a pilgrimage, too, one I kept taking—I’ve reread it at least twenty times. I think I was learning something about time and the present tense and compression, but also, I just wanted to be inside of it—for it to be my world. —Alexander Chee

I always crawl back to the cool, bristling stories of Jane Bowles. Her work is intimate but also engaged with the surfaces of things. We see the minds of the characters as well as the looks on their faces—how they feel and how they appear. Which is all I want: that bothness, that double entry. She was a loner and you feel it in the room of the story—every story she wrote—this totally private joy. A way of laughing that is somehow never cruel. It wouldn’t have occurred to me when I began reading her stories, but now it’s all I can think: she’s a loving writer. —Leopoldine Core

This was the first book of poems I ever bought from a LGBT bookstore when I was nineteen. I remember sitting on the floor of Lambda Rising in Dupont Circle, flipping through a stack of lesbian love poetry, when I pulled Samuel Ace’s Normal Sex off the shelf and felt my genderqueer heart quake. I love the staccato declarations in “Tales of a Lost Boyhood,” how body and world pulse when the kid speaker says:  “I have real drumsticks now. I play the cardboard tubes on the bedspread so they can’t hear downstairs … There’s a fence in the bedspread. I play in that fence. I bounce over it and there’s a stream. I walk in the stream and the trees tower over me. They stand naked for a long time before they reach their full and leafy tops. I throw rocks in the water. One sound is like a bell. The next like my drum.” —Jenny Johnson

From Samuel Ace’s Normal Sex (published under the name Linda Smukler).

A friend sent me a copy of Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles when I was in grad school in Las Vegas; I left it on the floor by my bed for weeks before reading it, as if I suspected its power. Extreme, cynical, seemingly endless, the novel takes the form of a series of visits to the disturbed and the dying, ending with Prince Saurau of Hochgobernitz, whose monologue goes on for well over a hundred pages. It took a couple of reads before I realized that Gargoyles is also the story of the doctor who visits these unfortunates, though they are far beyond help, and who listens to them, as we do, reading the novel. It’s the gentlest, most generous misanthropic book I know. —Dan Josefson

I read The Known World by Edward P. Jones about ten years ago, and it’s a book I’ve gone back to again and again, simply to marvel at its capaciousness and complexity, to remind myself what the novel as an art form is capable of achieving. Its singular vision inevitably makes me doubt my own powers as a novelist while simultaneously restoring my faith in the medium. —Anthony Marra

Botticelli’s map of the Inferno.

The Divine Comedy was a major influence for me as a young writer. In fact, it changed what I thought writing was capable of doing. It’s a high-minded, disciplined work, and yet it’s intensely tactile; its twin engines are descriptive detail and sensory language. These strip down the emotions in the poem to reveal a nearly feral base. Then there’s the nature of translation, which always leaves the work feeling closer to you one moment and farther away the next; there are all these temporary Dantes waiting to be read, and in sorting through them, exercising taste and choice, you become involved in continuing The Divine Comedy. In the simplest of terms, the story is a mere journey: the persona-making road trip we’ve so taken to heart in American fiction and film. The Divine Comedy is the rare work of art that can feel foreign and familiar, classic and contemporary at once—and it’s a rare day that I don’t come back to it. —Rowan Ricardo Phillips

I read Anna Karenina once a year, to watch Levin cut the grass as much as anything else. But mostly I read it for story, for the immersion into melodrama—Anna on her deathbed forcing her lover and husband to forgive each other (would that survive workshop, I wonder). The truth is I’m a sucker for a storyline. I want to want to know what happens next. —Hanna Pylväinen

From the first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The most influential book in my life is probably C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I first read in the third grade. In the stories I wrote back then and throughout my youth, I returned again and again to that novel’s premise: of leaving one’s normal reality and entering an alien, often fantastic alternate world, which could be a better but also a worse reality for the characters. It was only recently that I realized I was basically writing the immigrant narrative that entire time, a narrative I continued to explore as an adult, particularly in my first novel, Dragonfish. Vu Tran

The novel I most often return to is Don Quixote, which I first read at university, during a study abroad program in Alcalá de Henares—a small city in the outskirts of Madrid and the birthplace of Cervantes. At the time, I was heartbroken, and I remember spending most of my days feeling sorry for myself and drinking Irish coffees at a local bar called the Black Sheep. This ridiculous behavior continued until I discovered Don Quixote, which is all about unrequited love and one man’s reckless obsession with literature. Reading Don Quixote made me laugh at everything, most of all myself. It’s such a complex book: transgressive, absurd, incredibly cerebral—an astounding exploration of the incongruities between perception and reality. For me, it will always be the greatest novel about living life as art. —Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi