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THREE ALBUMS AND TWO BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

THREE ALBUMS AND TWO BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

When I was in middle school I, like most people at that age, was “really in to” the same music all my friends were “really in to”: A lot of U2, a lot of REM, and a lot of late 80s DC-area punk rock, since this was the late 80s in the DC area. (I stand by all this music, by the way, and think everybody should have to listen to the Jawbox song “Savory” every day). But then the summer after eighth grade I “discovered,” Elvis Costello, courtesy of some kid named Zack at a summer camp I went to for nerds. The album this Zack kid had was Spike, which now I wouldn’t even rank in my top ten EC albums, but looking back that was the first time that I discovered an artist and knew that this was me—this music wasn’t just the music that everybody likes, this is the specific music that I, specifically, am into. I think that was probably the beginning of me having taste, good taste, my own personal taste, and to this day the song “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” (Spike side A, track 3) sends special shivers down my spine.

Readers of The Last Policeman series will not be surprised to hear how much I love Bob Dylan’s 1979 album SLOW TRAIN COING—the epigraph of the first novel comes from the title track, and “Slow Train Coming” was actually my working title for the series. I love everything by Bob Dylan and everything about Bob Dylan, including even the strange evangelical-Christian phase that produced this record. What it sings to me, this passionate album about Jesus, is the permission Bob has given himself over the course of a long career to do what he feels he is obligated to by his imagination, by his ideas, by whatever his weird brilliant heart is telling him to do at any given time. There’s courage there, and I love it.

Among the many gifts my wife has given me over the years—along with honest feedback, health insurance, and three gorgeous children—is a love for Tom Waits. Just marrying into Diana’s collection of Waits CDs was absolutely life-changing, and I’ll just pick HEART OF SATURDAY NIGHT as the exemplar, because it includes one of the greatest and most sensorially evocative couplets in pop music: “Crack of the pool ball, neon buzzin’ / telephone ringin’, it’s your second cousin.”

Everybody has a book they’re always trying to get other people to read and mine is ROSEMARY’S BABY. The book, I fear, in overshadowed in the popular imagination by the Polanski movie (which is also great, of course), but holy moly is Rosemary’s Baby a good book. I can tell you, too, why it’s so good—besides the fact that Levin was terrific at comedic realism put to the service of a deeply unsettling scenario (see also: The Stepford Wives). No, what makes this book tremendously good is the use of a strictly limited point of view; it’s one person peering out at a complicated world trying to make sense of it, and that formal choice allows for the atmosphere of dread that builds so powerfully in the novel. (The influence of this technique is present for sure in the Policeman series, and is definitely, consciously, probably glaringly obvious in the novel I wrote just before Policeman, called Bedbugs.)

The most recent book to change my life was John Le Carre’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. I only read it for the first time a three months ago, because I was teaching a class on mystery fiction and wanted a spy thriller on my syllabus—and I simply can’t stop thinking about it. It’s  a complicated book, with levels and levels of intrigue and flashbacks \and memories, tricky coded language and in-group dialog, with all these veils and switchbacks. It’s makes the reader work, is what I’m saying, but it’s so worth it when you do. Anyway, at this point in my life and career I read Tinker Tailor as like a personal challenge to me as an author: don’t be afraid to make it really good. Don’t be afraid to make the story challenging and complex. Don’t be afraid to ask the reader to do her part, to have to work to put it together. Don’t spoon feed. A novel shouldn’t be a line, but a labyrinth.

Ben Winters

Ben H. Winters is the author of seven novels, including Countdown City, a nominee for the Philip K. Dick Award, and The Last Policeman, which won an Edgar Award, was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel, and was an Amazon.com Best Book of 2012. His other books include Bedbugs, Android Karenina, the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and the middle-grade novels The Mystery of the Everything and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a Bank Street Best Book of 2011 and an Edgar Award nominee. Ben is also the author of many plays and musicals for children and adults, and he has written for national and local publications including the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and the Huffington Post. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he teaches at Butler University, and he blogs at www.BenHWinters.com