Exclusive Essay
Over the years the writers I'd cite as influences on me (not that I hold any of them accountable for what I do) have changed, and then changed again. I was a sappy kid, and the writers I liked then were the ones who made me cry, who made me feel sorry for myself by projection - Hans Christian Andersen (Ah! The little match girl who dies looking in from the snow at the cozy family!), and Charlotte Bront's Jane Eyre, so horribly treated by all, so triumphant in the end. Later I read all of Thomas Wolfe, again projecting myself, this time as a sensitive artist. By the time I began to write myself, the big names were Jewish men - Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Mailer. I admired them all, but it wasn't until I read Cheever, with his rueful, affectionate distance, that I felt some fictional sense of at-homeness, some sense of the possibilities for me. In my early twenties, the sexy, funny, always-surprising voice of Grace Paley was a revelation. A little later, the magisterial quality of Willa Cather's prose, her lyricism about place, her romance with the artistic impulse, her complex but clearly expressed notions of how people get to be who the are - these thrilled me.

Among my contemporaries now I read Alice Munro for her brilliant fictional probing of how consciousness works; how we think about - or don't carefully think about - the things which happen to us and which we do. I read Alice McDermott for her looping sentences and her speculations on our need for some kind of belief, for love. I read Ian McEwan for his compellingly plotted explorations of moral life. I read Gish Jen and Jullian Barnes and Carol Shields and Helen Garner and Michael Cunningham and A.S. Byatt and Charles Baxter. I no longer know who influences me, or how, I just read and read.


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