7 books that shaped me and my writing

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A friend of mine recently got a tattoo on his arm of his favorite quote from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, complete with a background image of the legend’s home in Key West. It ranks among some of the more interesting tattoos that my friends have. (I have another friend with Stevie Wonder on his arm, so keep your Chinese symbol for “table” hidden.) It got me thinking, what sort of literary tattoo I might add to my collection of zero tattoos. What are the books that have had an impact on me? I’m not going to list To Kill a Mockingbird, or A Farewell to Arms because they show up on a lot of lists. The books below books deserve more attention.

I will start with the book that made me want to write. The book that I will make sure that my son reads, and if he doesn’t I will tie him down and read it to him: Education of a Wandering Man, by Louis L’Amour. I read this memoir at the perfect time of my life. I still remember my dad handing it to me out of nowhere, and saying “read it.” I was about to head to college and he didn’t make many book recommendations. L’Amour tells his story of dropping out of school and hopping freight trains west across the country. He recounts taking a job, watching someone’s mine in the desert, his only companion for weeks on end were the books of the previous mine-sitter, who’d gone crazy from loneliness. L’Amour tells of his personal growth in relation to the great books he read and the places he traveled when he read them. Of course, the man went on to be a prolific writer of pulp westerns, many of which I read on weekends at my grandfather’s house.

The Power of OneBryce Courtenay. A trusted source suggested this book to me, and by the title I thought it was going to be some sort of Tony Robbins, Oprah “Secret” book from the self help shelf. The Power of One is an epic coming-of-age story set in apartheid South Africa. So good that I almost hesitate to say more about it, but its climax is so perfectly written, it was painful for me because as I was reading it, I knew that few books would ever match it.

power of one

Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose. The king of narrative non-fiction. This book is not only great because of the meticulously researched and amazing story it tells, but it gives an eye opening perspective on our perception of this country not too long ago. I could have picked another Ambrose book, but this one is essential reading.

The Firm, John Grisham. “What? The Firm? You had a great list going and now…” Hear me out. I was a freshman in college and everyone was reading The Firm. And I went to Florida State University, so for everyone to be holding any book is impressive. I choose the firm, not because it’s the best in its genre, or particularly noteworthy, other than for me it was the first book that I read as an adult as it caught that wave of success to Tom Cruise-movie-stardom. It’s not Grisham’s best book, but to 19 year-olds at the time, everyone wanted to write like Grisham. The movie was okay, with Wilford Brimley being all villainy, and Tom Cruise running everywhere. Walk, dude, blend in.

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond. Want to really understand the world? Why Europe and North America prosper, why indigenous tribes matter, and why Africa can’t get it together? Read this book. Shame on you if you haven’t. Another important one is 1491 by Charles Mann.

In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson. Another great narrative non-fiction writer, this story of the US Ambassador to Germany, in the run-up to World War Two is an amazing tale of an academic who finds himself in what his predecessors had treated as a ceremonial position. It gets more interesting when his daughter starts dating a Nazi.

The final, but most important book in my list is a sentimental one. Essential reading for anyone in Florida, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreamsby Gary Mormino is a social history of modern Florida. Dr. Mormino has quite possibly read every single edition of every Florida newspaper EVER. When I worked across the courtyard from him at USF St. Pete, he’d drop by my office with 1938 newspaper clippings about the topics I was researching. And he did this for dozens of people. More significantly, I met my wife at one of his book signings. The poster for that signing hangs in our kitchen.

I look back at this list and only two of the seven are fiction. The Catcher in the Rye was a huge book for me, but what can I say that hasn’t been said. I read Gone With the Wind, all 1,024 pages, in 8th grade (for school.) I loved Never Let Me Go, and Gone Girl. But I tend to get sucked in to the amazing histories that we don’t know. That’s one reason I was inspired to write The Grandfather Clockand while the entire book isn’t about Nazi conspiracies, a very intriguing theory plays a major role in the third act. I find it beyond fascinating that there is a significant number of people, who aren’t crazy, who take the fact that Hitler lived in Patagonia after the war as fact. If Bin Laden can hide for a decade a major city in the 2000s, could the story of Hitler in Argentina be true? I don’t really care, but it made for fun storytelling.

Drop me an email at jkilewrites@gmail.com and sign up on the left for updates to this blog. I think I’ve got a name for the follow-up to The Grandfather Clock and I wrote a couple more scenes last night. It’s ramping up and I’m confident of a summer release. Thanks for reading!

Jonathan Kile

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