The Books that Scare Me

Maria Semple Side by Side Crop


When I’m creating a character, I ask myself, “What is she afraid of?” And I make sure to throw plenty of that in her path. When I’m starting a book, at some point I realize that it has similarities to other novels. Then I start comparing myself to those other writers…and panicking. As I wrote Today Will Be Different, these books loomed scarily.



Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain

Another novel that takes place in one day. The story follows Billy Lynn, a private enlisted in the Iraq war who’s on his last day of leave. It’s urgent, fiendishly well written, and packed with heart. The greatest challenge with a single-day narrative is finding urgency in the story. Unless you’re Jack Bauer trying to save Los Angeles from nuclear disaster, how gripping can the stakes be over twenty-four hours? Fountain succeeds spectacularly in making the ordinary feel extraordinary.


Mrs. Dalloway
By Virginia Woolf

I read this in college and have always included in it my top ten list. When I realized I was writing a book that followed a complicated woman through the course of an ordinary day, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to revisit Woolf’s classic. I opened the book with zeal, read the breathtaking first page . . . then slammed it shut and stuffed it out of sight. Sometimes, in the face of fear, denial is the only option.


Bridget Jones’s Diary
By Helen Fielding

A brilliantly funny and gutsy book. I deeply admire Fielding’s nerve in making her comic heroine a genuine mess. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Martin Amis all have a grand old time pushing their male comic heroes to depraved depths. But it’s not something I often see in novels by women about women. While I was writing Today Will Be Different, anytime I felt the instinct to water down Eleanor Flood, I remembered Bridget Jones. Helen Fielding didn’t wimp out; why should I?


Ghost World
By Dan Clowes

Early on, I decided to make Eleanor Flood an illustrator and include a graphic novel in Today Will Be Different. The trouble was, I didn’t particularly like graphic novels. (Just sayin’!) One exception was Dan Clowes’s Ghost World. Hilarious and joyful, haunting and poignant, mean-spirited and heartfelt: it’s a perfect work of art. As soon as I came up with the idea to have Dan Clowes “himself” write an “introduction” to Eleanor’s graphic novel, I knew it would mean tracking down Dan Clowes to ask permission. The specter of Dan Clowes himself one day reading my novel had me writing scared.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage
By Bryan A. Garner

I could spent my entire day binge-reading this cranky and entertaining prescriptive grammar guide. Garner is so precise and passionate about language that a page (or two, or three, or ten) of this hefty book before a day of writing is the novelist’s equivalent of Gene Hackman’s speech in Hoosiers. It fires me up to run to my keyboard and win one for the team!

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