Writer Tom Dyja took a few moments to talk with us about the books and writers that he loves most.
What was the book that most influenced your life?
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg: In seventh grade I cut school, went downtown, bought a copy of this book and spent the entire day under a tree next to Lake Michigan reading poem after poem about the sorts of people that I knew back in the neighborhood. The idea that art could be created from the faces and things in front of you, that the commonplace was worth exalting, really lit me and I decided that day that I wanted to be a writer.
What are your ten favorite books?
My ten favorites:
- Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Just as reading Sandburg at 12 seems just about right, I didn¹t read Bovary until I was 35 and had already written a novel, which only made me more in awe of the book's wonders. I wanted Steven Armour in Meet John Trow to be a bit of a male Emma Bovary, someone we empathize with and root for even as their choices take them into indefensible places.
- Passage to India by E.M. Forster. The only book I know that tells a love story between nations. But Forster makes all his grand political and social points with very human and very real characters that we care about. I learned from this book that if you want to write about BIG ISSUES, they have to live in people and plots.
- The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren Painful, beautiful writing about terribly ugly things. Most everyone else who wallows in the underside glorifies it, makes the excess seem like virtue, but Algren doesn¹t pretend Frankie Machine is any kind of rebel for his habit. I especially love the scenes between Frankie and the girl he falls for, Molly, for all their tender impossibility amid the squalor.
- The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. Not only does this book still make me laugh out loud after 20 years, but it's written with impeccable craft. His narrators (Ray Midge here and Mattie Ross in True Grit), especially are remarkable creations in that their books read as if they had actually written them. They're not channeling Portis's voice, they're not showing us how amazing Portis is, they're showing off how talented they are and we get our picture of them not just from what happens and their viewpoint, but from how they tell things, from how they would write a book. That may sound easy, but trust me, it¹s not. At least, for me.
- If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino I'm not one for the obvious tour de force, but this is the Disney ride of modern fiction where the reader gets pulled, literally, into the story. You get the feeling that he really had fun writing it.
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Not the place to go for instant enlightenment. Instead, Matthiessen takes the hard road into the mountains and it's difficult to say whether he ever finds what he's looking for. In a world full of easy answers, this book always reminds me that Truth is more elusive than I ever want to believe.
- Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James. An odd choice, this a Trinidadian Marxist's ruminations on cricket but the chapters on the nature and history of sport put to rest every argument about sport being some Neanderthal waste of time. Instead, James places sport alongside dance as Man's two first forms of artistic expression. (Repeated statements of this point have either proved its virtue to my wife or bored her silly enough to let me watch a lot baseball on television.)
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Jane Smiley constantly inspires me with her insistence on trying new things. For my money, this is her best book, a masterful retelling of The Tempest.
- The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. My artistic hero and also a pretty funny guy. Don't blame him for all the silly conceptual art that came after him; he'd probably be laughing at it as much as you do.
- Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Don't fight it and don't read it in the way you might read most other books. You really have to sit back, give in and just listen to Proust. All those page-long clauses will become simply the discursions of a storyteller and lose any sense of Modernist experimentation that a few generations of academics have loaded onto what is really the greatest soap opera ever (down to the naughty bits).
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Third Edition. “Omit Needless Words.” Enough said.
Can you pick five of your favorite authors?
- Caleb Carr, for leading the charge on a new vision of history. Nowadays it seems as if many historians are writing fiction and the novelists are the ones really mining history for what we all must learn from it.
- Vladimir Nabokov: If I could have eleven books above, Lolita would probably be #11. He reminds me that I have to try to put energy into every sentence I write.
- Richard Ford, for the battered optimism of The Sportswriter and Independence Day.
- W.E.B. DuBois, for the fire of his brilliance --one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and probably the most important on a day to day level.
- And Lytton Strachey, for his most enviable prose style and a way of telling history that manages to be at once more vibrant and more fundamentally accurate than most any other historian.
What are you working on now?
A thriller of sorts about the early years of the NAACP. A writer's superstition keeps me from saying much more.
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