Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Who Are You?

 READING: What’s your favorite lesser-known novel? Who are your favorite lesser known writers? In your genre and outside of it? Why? And have they influenced your work? How?

Terry Shames

People who have heard of Eudora Welty often think of her as that little old Southern maiden lady who wrote gentle, well-bred, short stories. Having read every word she wrote more than once, I think she could rightfully by called one of our best American writers. And there is nothing gentile about her stories—including her novels. Her richly descriptive language is full of violence, her stories full of the threat of treachery, betrayal, and discord.

Her atmosphere is often one of dread, and rightfully so, because many of her characters are one step from losing their tenuous grip on dignity. Since she writes humor with a sure hand, that often serves to mask the dread just below the surface. Take away the humor in one of her most famous stories, “Why I live at the P.O.,” and you see a family story full of betrayal and disappointment. As funny as its narrator is on the surface, she’s deeply wounded by her family.

Welty’s book Losing Battles is as epic as any American novel, but hardly known at all. It should take its place alongside anything by Faulkner, or, more currently, Daniel Woodrell.

If I have an influence, it has to be Miss Welty. In fact, in a critique of the first short I ever wrote outside of school, Max Apple gently said it was too obviously a bow to Eudora Welty’s work. He went on to say that a budding writer could do worse that to emulate a writer she admires, but that in the end I had to develop my own voice. I hope that while I did develop my own voice, I kept the sense of uneasiness that Welty’s work has, along with a touch of humor.

By the strangest luck, in Berkeley, CA, I lived next door to a woman who grew up down the street from Eudora Welty. She said her memory was of a woman whose door was always open, and that she was often to be seen sipping a glass of bourbon. I love to think of her as sitting at her desk, glass close at hand, think up wicked ways to torment her characters—which is what most crime writers do.

As for lesser known writers in the mystery field, I often pick up a book and read with great pleasure and at the end wonder why the author is not better known. I’ve sung this song before, but I don’t understand why Timothy Hallinan’s books are not in every airport bookstore. I love Don Winslow’s books, but I’m baffled why his books went viral while David Corbett’s books are lesser known. Both Corbett and Hallinan write deeply satisfying books that not only have a mystery, but also probe the human condition. They are books you have to think about and savor. That isn’t to take away from Winslow’s books; just to say that those two writers deserve the same wide audience. A truly lesser-known, this one from the past, is James McClure. He writes about a team of detectives, one white, one black in apartheid South Africa. His descriptions are sure-fire, his plots fascinating. It baffles me that he is not on everyone’s list of classic crime writers. I’d like to say that McClure influenced me, since I read him when I was young, but his books are muscular and haunting, while mine are more intimate.

There are so many underappreciated women crime writers! The books of Rachel Howzell Hall come to mind. I read her books when I was on a panel with her, and I think she will one day have the wide audience she deserves. Although J. Carson Black is a New York Times best-selling author (for real), I don’t think her books get the recognition they deserve. She plunges the reader into the story with as sure a hand as John Lescroat, but doesn’t have nearly the name recognition. There are too many to go into here, and for a more in-depth look at the extent to which female writers, not just in crime, but in all aspects of publishing are undervalued by publishers and reviewers, I suggest taking a look at this article: https://psmag.com/social-justice/gender-bias-in-book-reviews.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks Terry, you've given me a couple new names to add to my reading list.

Susan C Shea said...

I really owe Welty a fresh reading. What's your recommendation for the best re-entry into her work?