Thursday, May 19, 2022

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants from James W. Ziskin

Who sparked your younger self to love writing?

(Disclaimer: Some of the following was published five years ago. I’ve added to it and updated it now.)

The answer to this week’s question is easy:

Reading (and by extension, my mother)

I began my journey to writing by reading my mother's childhood books. Picture books, poetry, adventure stories, and tales of far-off places. I remember the muddy brown-and-white lithograph bookplates, picturing a young girl in a wood and bearing the mysterious inscription "Ex libris Elizabeth W***." (Her last name is what my middle initial stands for. And that name—like Rumpelstiltskin’s—shall remain a secret.) Mom’s books spanned a remarkable breadth of variety and genres and sparked my love of reading.

One Christmas, when she was seven, her parents gave her a beautifully illustrated translation of the Decameron. When I was a young boy, the language seemed old and dusty to me, and I never paid any attention to the book until I was studying Italian literature in grad school. That's when I discovered just how ribald and downright filthy many of Boccaccio's stories are. If you don’t believe me, try Googling “Putting the devil back in hell” for one modest example. Clearly, my grandparents hadn't done their due diligence when selecting an appropriate book for their seven-year-old daughter. Years later—in January 2020, in fact—I used the Decameron as inspiration for my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone. That book earned me a Barry and a Macavity award, as well as nominations for the Sue Grafton Memorial and Lefty Historical awards.

Long before I published my first novel, I studied languages (French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Hindi, with some Latin on the side). Over the years, my reading habits have changed, matured, and taken detours. And my journey has played an essential and formative role in my own writing. Here is a partial list of titles that plotted the road map I have followed:

My youngest days

Highlights Magazine. "Goofus and Gallant." I was Team Goofus
Alfred Noyes's “The Highwayman”
The King's Stilts. My favorite Seuss 
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf 
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton 
Beatrix Potter 
James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man” 
Grimm’s Fairy Tales

At school 

7th grade: Great Expectations. It took two semesters for our class to finish it. 
8th grade: Ivanhoe and Ethan Frome. Inspired choices for easily bored teens. 
9th grade: As You Like It. They told us it was a comedy. Good thing, because we couldn’t tell.

Early Teens

Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie. 
Archie comics. I could never choose between Betty and Veronica.

Mid teens

The Carpetbaggers. The cover. 
Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser. Again, the cover.

Late teens

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim
Hamlet: Borrowed it from school. Never returned it, thus validating Polonius’s advice.
Williams: Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire 
Orwell and Huxley. Perhaps now would be a good time to re-visit these two…

My twenties

Longfellow: Evangeline. My favorite epic poem. 
Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer 
Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea 
Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph 
Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men 
García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera 
Roald Dahl

Grad school

Zola: The Rougon-Macquart series
Flaubert: Madame Bovary 
Stendhal: Le rouge et le noir
Svevo: La coscienza di Zeno


P. G. Wodehouse: All of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves 
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited 
Graham Greene: All of it. Every last word.

Favorite book about nineteenth-century whaling: Moby-Dick

I suppose I could cite all the authors above as mentors. Their works inspired in me a love of reading. But the writers listed below showed me my calling and pointed the way.

Poe: “The Raven,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue” 
Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles 
Wouk: Winds of War, The Cain Mutiny 
Forsyth: Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File
Sayers: Have His Carcase, anything else with Harriet Vane 
Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder of the Orient Express, etc. 
Chandler: The Big Sleep 
Eco: The Name of the Rose 
Hammett: The Thin Man 
Cain: The Postman always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity 
Francis: Whip Hand 
Paretsky: Indemnity Only 
Grafton: my ABCs
Block: Eight Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes


1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Jim, I love your list. I checked off the ones we read in common, noticed that you chose some that I wasn't drawn to, and don't have any Jane Austen on your list, horrors! While you were reading the Decameron, I had a gorgeously illustrated (by Arthur Szyk) Canterbury Tales to feast on. In college, I took a seminar on Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida and felt way ahead of the group because Chaucer was so familiar to me. The pleasures of reading carry over into good memories now.