This is something I've written for literary mag, Open Book Toronto, answering the question: How does reading other writers of fiction inform your work?
A more direct way to phrase the question might have been: How does reading other writers of fiction influence your work? I’ve sometimes heard authors say they make a point of not reading other writers while they’re in the middle of putting together a new book or story because they don’t want their “voice” being influenced. Sure, I get that but I do find it a bit precious – and anyway, it assumes the author has total control of everything he or she is communicating.
When I’m working on piece of writing, I’ll read all sorts, old favorites and new material, vaguely hoping my own stuff will get a boost of some kind. If a piece of prose truly reaches me, maybe its effect will be visceral and not just cerebral - I mean make me feel differently, see things differently. Something like that can help validate unformed and even unrecognized concepts of my own and bring them to life. Besides, I’ll take all the help I can get.
But what I really love is when a writer tells one story on the surface - the direct narrative – but then there’s a whole other set of meanings beneath, working between the lines, so to speak. Handled by a skilled practitioner, an entirely different tale emerges. And I don’t mean symbolism – more like what amounts to a parallel world of unanswered questions and mysterious possibilities. The beauty of that is to wonder how much the writer consciously intended and how much of this submerged story is the reader’s projection.
In the same way, I get a big kick out of a reader mentioning something they understood from a passage I’ve written but their interpretation wasn’t what I’d meant at all – at least not what I thought I meant. So it can be the reader who tells the writer what the story is actually about, forcing the writer to reconsider their own motives and methods.
It makes me appreciate writers who always push the outer edge of that tenuous ground, not entirely sure what exactly they are revealing about themselves and what is being communicated with absolute certainty. Among modern fiction writers, someone like Jeanette Winterson gets to me that way, or John Banville, William Burroughs, Angela Carter and Michel Houellebecq, to name a few. It’s a thrill to see them handle an idea so deftly and work it so subtly. Like a great rock’n’roll hook, on the surface it might seem simple but can evoke an unexpected emotional response that takes you to places you’ve never been and could not have predicted.