Our series of guest posts by contemporary writers discussing their influences continues with a contribution from Austin-based playwright Kirk Lynn, whose debut novel, Rules for Werewolves, relates the exploits of a group of teenage squatters entirely through dialogue. Critic Greil Marcus is already a fan of the book, stating: “You get caught up with these people. You take sides. And then Kirk Lynn confounds your expectations at every turn.”
Joe Brainard taught me everything I know. I Remember is the greatest American novel that isn’t one. Brainard writes hundreds of sentences over the years that begin, “I remember . . .” and then tells the truth about growing up queer in Oklahoma, becoming an avant-garde painter in New York, and everything in between. It is a litany that wakes you up in its repetition. I keep it on my desk. It’s better than the Internet for browsing
The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson is another novel that isn’t. It asks the reader to do a lot of the work along with it, which gives me a feeling of companionship. All of Anne Carson’s books are radical, but the narrative in this one was very personal and close to me, so I keep it near. How does love work? And when it stops working, what then?
David Markson is an assassin. He killed the American novel, that vampire that gets up again and again, thank god. But read Vanishing Point, or This is Not a Novel, and it’s hard to find a better companion book. Little histories of literature and art, complete in themselves, and totally different from one another. Read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the book that seems to have taught the author how to write in his own voice. These are all novels told in the connection of ideas, one sentence urging the reader to think about its connection to the next. If there are composers who know how to use silence, David Markson is a writer who knows how to use his reader’s consciousness.
Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is one of the books that helped the future arrive. As with so much of the literature I adore, Gertrude Stein sees no reason to abandon humor in order to find intelligence. She sees no reason to abandon fact to write fiction. She sees no reason to let anyone else write Alice B. Toklas’s autobiography. You can go as deep as your tolerance for strangeness and meditation will allow into Gertrude Stein’s oeuvre and always be rewarded, but you can’t go very deep into literature if you won’t dive into this autobiography.
Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman is the standard of avant-garde elegance. Fact: Unable to hear a lick, Beethoven had to be addressed in writing for the last year of his life. The novel takes the form of the notebooks the composer carried in which people wrote their questions and requests. The maestro spoke his answers, so his responses are not recorded in the novel. It’s a one-sided conversation between the world and a silent Beethoven, but the composer’s passion and outsize personality dominate the narrative and echo in your mind for a good while after you’ve finished the book.
Imago by Octavia E. Butler is all about transformation and becoming something you’re not, both inside and out. I think the book changed me. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, but if you can get your hands on one or two real gems a year, it’s good for your full mental range—and Butler is one of the perfect mixologists, balancing deep thought and a ripping yarn.
The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson is a weird little wonder that fell into my hands when my middle school teacher, Mrs. Bathke, either assigned it or smuggled it into my life. A strange virus kills off everyone on earth older than twelve and the kids have to figure out how to feed and care for themselves, including how to defend themselves from other terrible twelve-year-olds. Dystopian fiction before it was all the rage. And the author never wrote another book and no one seems to know if he’s alive or dead.
Carpenter’s Gothic could also be subtitled, for me, “the William Gaddis book I could read.” Another novel in dialogue, this one digging into the underbelly of American capitalism and colonialism. I remember falling into a trance and reading quickly. I remember reading bits of it aloud with friends. I remember there’s only one sentence of description and it’s about the leaves outside.
Emily Dickinson, especially The Gorgeous Nothings, can be an angel who responds to doubt. She did her work her way and I’m not half feral enough to get as free as she was, but some corner of the idea that form is personal and the work is its own reward can protect you. And then the work itself is so revelatory and prophetic!
And if there is one book that inspired me after I was done with Rules and made me want to get back to the prose, it’s Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Told in short, aphoristic bursts that find some middle ground between David Markson and Anton Chekhov, this book broke my heart and made want to be a better dad and husband in addition to driving me wild with envy as a writer.
And Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write! Short, sharp, human, hilarious thinking about dialogue and umbrellas and penises. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction or essays, either, but like sci-fi if you get the right one or two a year your brain will thank you. Because these are one hundred essays all jammed into one little book, it can count for a couple years’ worth of essay reading.
You can convince yourself that James Thurber is totally legit because he was all over the New Yorker. But you know who might have a problem with that is the ghost of James Thurber. He didn’t have a high opinion of people who had too high an opinion of themselves. But as far as a guide for the kind of writing that doesn’t know whether it’s funny or sad, you can do no better than Thurber. And there is an openness to his formal approach to story, he captures the odd sad moment in cartoons one minute and then stretches them out to a fable and then abandons the pictures and makes short story of the captions in a sequential story like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and then sometimes takes that same conceit and dips it in real sorrow like “The Whip-Poor-Will.” A great guide if you’re looking to get lost in the American voice.
Kirk Lynn is one of six co-producing artistic directors of Austin’s Rude Mechanicals theater collective and also the head of the Playwriting and Directing Area in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. Recent works include Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City in 2014, and the 2014 Lincoln Center commission Stop Hitting Yourself.