We’re in the midst of celebrating Literacy Month here at Half Price Books. One of the great literacy organizations we support is right here in our hometown of Dallas – Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT). LIFT will hold their annual fundraiser, A Toast to Literacy, next Thursday, Sept. 18, which will feature a keynote speech from author Matt Bondurant, so we thought there was no better time to hear about some of the books Matt loves. Take it away, Matt!
This sort of question is a difficult one for a serious reader, not just a writer. I’m going to try and focus on books that made an indelible impression on me as a writer, from different periods of my life. I’m also trying to avoid the standard or canonical great books that of course shaped me as a writer and human.
The Journals of John Cheever, by John Cheever
I was getting a master’s degree in literature when I decided to take a fiction workshop. At this point I had no real intention of being a writer. The instructor recommended Cheever to me, and I immediately read all the short stories and fell in love with Cheever’s writing. But the journals were a revelation; such personal, elegant, trenchant, and heartbreaking writing, done on a daily basis, revealing the state of mind of one of the great American prose stylists. I carried it with me everywhere for several years, nearly every page dog-eared and marked up. My last novel, The Night Swimmer, is in essence an homage to Cheever. In terms of style, tone, and general depiction, Cheever is always my pole star, my guide, my champion.
London Fields, by Martin Amis
I also found Martin Amis at an early stage when I was beginning to pivot from a scholarly career in literature to fiction writing. I still find Amis’ writing to be mesmerizing, from the catalogues of grit and filth, the hilarity of human greed, gluttony, and hubris, to the intellectual puzzles and narrative tricks. He was my introduction to the postmodernism of contemporary English novelists and still ranks among the best. My first novel, The Third Translation, was basically an attempt to conjoin my love of London, Egyptology, and the writing of Martin Amis. I unapologetically emulated his work – with dubious success.
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Anderson is one of the great unacknowledged prose masters of the 20th century, who probably did more than anyone to develop what is known as the 20th century American style. In Winesburg, Ohio Anderson probed the dark spaces of small lives in a small town. The ardent desires, thwarted dreams, and how these things expressed themselves outwardly, physically, creating “grotesques,” is something I’ve always worked with in my writing. The structure of the book was also revelatory; having a series of connected characters working through the “hub” character of George Willard gives the book balance and an organic architecture. My second novel, The Wettest County in the World, follows this model, and Sherwood Anderson is actually a principal character in the book. It was like a dream to inhabit him in this way, one of my heroes, and its fair to say that everything I do is influenced by Winesburg, Ohio.
The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
This is another book in which the structure and arrangement had an effect on my writing. The way McCullers worked with the various perspectives, getting into the interior lives of these very different people, still astonishes me. She handles her characters with such sincerity and sensitivity that for me this is a profoundly emotional book. Since then I have searched for the same kind of attachment in my own work. I want to touch people in the way McCullers touched me, deeply and with lasting effect. I can just think about Singer and his loneliness, Mick and her clumsy coming of age, the quiet desperation of Brannon, and I am moved to tears. It may be my most re-read book.
Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
I was living in Paris in my mid-twenties when I came across Celine. A French Literature scholar remarked than anyone doing scholarly work on Celine must be completely insane. Of course then I had to read it. I found a paperback copy of Journey to the End of the Night at the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore and read it while sitting in various parks. I had no idea you could do the sorts of things Celine did, so vicious, dirty, crude, depraved, but intellectual and hilarious. I’ve always strived for that kind of spirit and momentum in my work. I’ve never been as depraved or funny as Celine, but I’m trying.
Matt Bondurant is an American novelist known for his historical fiction, Wettest County in the World, adapted into a film in 2012 entitled Lawless. His latest novel is The Night Swimmer. Follow him on Twitter @mbondurant.