What Will the Reader Remember?

A classic post originally blogged on Nevets.QST on Blogger – edited, updated, and brought back to life Behind the Green Door.

Originally posted in 2011

When I originally set out to write this post, it was going about books you might be surprised to learn influenced my writing — like Bridge to Terabithia and Rifles for Watie. Unfortunately, , as I started to develop the list, I ran into a surprising roadblock:

Books that made huge impacts on me and my writing, but whose details I cannot remember well enough to identity.

So let me tell you about this experience, and while I do, let’s think together about memory and writing. Whether you’re an author or a reader, you may be surprised as you do your own reflecting.

“You have no control over what the reader is going to remember.”

Terror in Yellowknife

For instance, I wanted to tell you about a novel called Terror in Yellowknife. I think I was about twelve when I read it, but I’m not sure. We got it at the used bookstore in Wabash, Indiana, now known as Reading Room Books. The novel was a western, a mass-market paperback. In fact, the edition I had was a double book, paired with some other western with a happier, Down the Long Hills type of feel. The one I cared about, though, was Terror in Yellowknife. It was the first thing I ever read that was a true suspense novel. It was the story of a crazed Native American who sought revenge against the whites who had wronged him. He held the town under siege, and the pacing was so tense that I needed to keep reading. Even as a child, I was uncomfortable with how the story played to negative stereotypes, right down to the cover image of angry Indian, lurking in the shadows, clutching a knife. I would never claim to love the book, but it taught me a lot of how to craft suspense and a sense of menace in fiction.

For all that it helped create my style of writing tense, moment-by-moment stories, I cannot tell you much more about Terror in Yellowknife, because Terror in Yellowknife does not seem to exist. Neither does Blood in Yellowknife. Nor Siege, Savage, or Renegade of Yellowknife. Odds are, the town was not even Yellowknife and that’s a false memory. I’ve looked through a couple lists of old double-print westerns, but nothing sounds right. Nothing has ever shown up when searching bookstore websites or Google Books or WorldCat.

The Book About Bern the Bear

There was another influential book that stumped me. I read it when it I was ten. It was 1986 and we were living for a few months in Germany. I can’t think of the book without thinking of the upstairs apartment we were staying in. The book was some kind of fantasy novel. It featured talking animals, adventure, and warfare. What I mostly remember about the book was that there was a character called Bern. He was one of the bears. And he got killed. And the book essentially celebrated his death as a villain. I couldn’t handle it. It traumatized me. I literally had a break-down about it. I felt that bear had shown a good side, and that he deserved a chance at redemption, and that his death should have been mourned and not celebrated. I remember crying and hurting inside just about as bad as I ever have my entire life. It still gets me in an emotional funk when I recollect it.

I guarantee that reading experience is one of the main reasons why every single thing I write grapples in some way with the idea of redemption, hope, or love for “the other guys.” Every. Single. Thing. It’s there. I promise you. Usually I’m quite aware of it. Sometimes it doesn’t hit me until after. But it’s in everything, even the dark stuff and the really short flash fiction.

And yet, despite that strong experience — or perhaps because of it — I can recall nothing else about the book. I think it was part of a series, but I don’t recall the title, the author, any characters other than Bern, or even the overall plot.

While putting the original post together in 2011, I discovered that it was most likely Niel Hancock’s Wilderness of Four series. I remember that we had his novel Dragonwinter, and a couple of the covers in that series look familiar. Book one at least features bears. I found a reference to, “Bern the red bear,” on a (now-deleted) internet forum conversation discussing the fourth book in the series. So I think that’s it, even though nothing else I read in reviews or synopses sounds familiar to me.

Obviously, I could pick up that series and read it to find out, but it was honestly so traumatizing to me at that time I’m not sure I have the heart to tackle it again.

The One About the Candles

And then there was a book I read a little later in life. I think I was fourteen or fifteen. It was another fantasy novel, also part of a series. I think the author was British. Maybe Michael something? Honestly, I didn’t even finish the novel, let alone the series. I couldn’t get into the writing style at the time. It was a bit slow and ponderous for my teenage preferences. Probably, that’s why I don’t remember the particulars like title and author.

Even so, I strongly remember the essential thing the author created. Everything was built around light, lights, or candles. They were part of the world, part of the motivation for the story, and part of the literary symbolism. It felt rich and unique. It also felt like everything was tied together, without feeling like I was being beaten over the head by repetition. This crosses my mind often, and has greatly influenced how I think about a book as an integrated whole, not a collection of pieces like plot, character, and setting.

But that’s all I remember.

And so, rather than give you a list of books that have influenced me, I give you those three puzzles, and the following thoughts:

No matter what you write, you have no control over what the reader is going to remember.

No matter what you read, whether you like it or even finish it, it can have a lasting impact on you.

It’s humbling and sobering to think about this as an author. It’s also confounding. And exhilarating.

How about you? I’d love to hear from you about things you’ve read that have impacted you but defy your memory.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post! I know what you mean about not remembering certain stories and certain books by name. For the list I've been putting together about books that have either influenced me, or that I've just loved, there is an entire two year time gap. What did I read then? I know I didn't stop reading. Was I just re-reading. It's weird. Really weird. Then there are snatches of stories, like this one about a boy with a spider for a friend, who it turns out is the only "normal" human in a family of monsters and they consider him a freak. Have no idea what that story was called, but I remember it with vivid details about the spider and the boy. I agree with your conclusion about having no control over what the reader is going to remember or feel as an impact. Humbling, and exhilerating.

  2. Misha says:

    Hmm… some of those sound familiar, but damned if I can put the finger on the memory. I've read too many books to remember them all, although, if I get a cover and some character names, I can retell a plot verbatim.I just can't pull one out of thin air. Weird, but true. The one book that does keep popping up in my mind is Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche. The eponymous character just really spoke to me. 🙂

  3. Good post, Nevets. I loved the bit about the lights and candles; it underlines the fact that it's not only a book that a reader remembers, but also the mental image it conjurs up for that particular reader; an image that is unique to him. You describe it as though you were describing a film, and yet it was your own input (or perhaps interpretation) as much as that of the writer that you are recalling.

  4. LTM says:

    so true–but it's cool that you did remember things like the setting. I'm sure the writer took time on those details…have to confess LOLing at you on the name thing. I do that… 😀 ❤

  5. Interesting post!I remember things like that, too. Although if I see a cover/author name/synopsis things will usually click and I'll have a sudden recall.

  6. I have so many books I'd love to find from my childhood, and I can't remember the titles, and it's SO FRUSTRATING. The ones I do remember I've been finding on eBay and buying used (because I have this thing about the book covers looking exactly as they did when I was a kid). Good luck remembering! I feel you.

  7. C. N. Nevets says:

    The crazy thing about this is that normally I have a really sharp memory, so it drives me insane when I run into things like this I can't remember. lol@Tryean – I have a couple gaps like that, too! Weird, isn't it?@Misha – I've heard great things about that book. I need to make it a priority to read.@Frances – Oh, I love that angle on it. You're so right. My memories of these books is definitely about my experience of the books more than necessarily about the literal books themselves. That's interesting to think about.@LTM – hahah Yeah, after my initial frustation I was LOLing at myself, too.@G'Eagle – I get the sudden recall once I start reading. Pretty much as soon as I start, I suddenly remember just about the the entire book. That actually can be very annoying.@Jennifer – I'm with you on the covers!!!

  8. Nevets, this post rings true for me. When I was a kid I read some book about Eskimos eating whale blubber, and I remember how vivid that experience was and how much I enjoyed learning about it. In all the years afterwards, I've never been able to figure out what that book is, even though I can remember where I was sitting when I read it.

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