John Irving’s A Son of the Circus. I’ve always been fascinated by the circus—it was the theme of my MFA thesis presentation at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Irving says in an introduction to the novel that A Son of the Circus isn’t about the circus. He’s right of course, but like the best circus performances, Irving’s plot is fearless and messy and bawdy and smelly and flawlessly executed. His plot has three rings. His characters have multiple roles, lead double lives, inhabit more than one gender. The novel may not be about the circus, but it reflects an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the art form and an understanding of its most troubling aspects. One of the novel’s circus rings contains a mystery—complete with a detective and a serial killer. But this is John Irving we’re talking about, and there are two more rings in Irving’s literary circus act. One contains a multi-generational family saga and study on cultural and religious intolerance and gender identity. The other, a comic novel of friendship and social privilege with an aging narrator whose religious conversion comes about as the result of waking from a drunken sleep with a mysteriously bitten toe—the novel is a literary circus, so of course there are clowns. Anyone who knows the circus also knows that the best clown acts reflect the deepest social commentary. I found Irving’s A Son of the Circus after I’d started working on a YA novel in that is set in the circus. Re-reading Irving’s novel is both affirming and intimidating. In short, exactly what I need to inspire my own work.
Sheila Kohler’s The Perfect Place.
Kohler’s deeply flawed unreliable narrator always tugs at my consciousness when I’m struggling with a narrator in my own writing. Kohler shows incredible nerve in allowing her character’s deep trauma, faulty memory, and unrepentant dishonesty to determine what the reader learns and what they don’t.
As a reader, I find Kohler’s nameless narrator very affecting. As a writer, Kohler’s The Perfect Place is a critical reminder of the power of things that remain hidden.
In my own novel, The Balance of Fear, my handling of the character Margaret Palmer was heavily influenced by Sheila Kohler’s use of the unreliable narrator in The Perfect Place.
I was fortunate to attend lectures by Ms. Kohler at the Bennington Writing Seminars where I earned my MFA. Of all the lectures and presentations during my time there, Sheila Kohler’s were the most impactful. I recently read her memoir When We Were Sisters and returned to my notes from her lecture on the role a writer’s personal history can play in inspiring their writing, which is certainly true of The Balance of Fear.
Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country.
Ghanaian poet, Kojo Lang’s Search Sweet Country is not a novel in verse, but the figurative language is striking and surprising and funny and undeniably poetic. It’s pure joy for me to read, and it loosens my own writing and gives me permission to play. Laing’s figurative language says more than it reveals. My own YA novel in verse sprang to life shortly after I’d read Search Sweet Country.