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.
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.