Victoria Houston: The Books and Music That Have Influenced My Writing
As a kid, I was a voracious reader and, like so many of us, would check out fifteen to twenty books at a time from our local children’s library – and return them in less than a week. Fully read and savored. It helped that both my parents were dedicated readers. My dad loved Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and the outdoors writing of Robert Ruark while my mom inhaled CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN along with Thurber and other humorists – and she subscribed to the Readers Digest Condensed Books so we had plenty of books in our house. Also lots of kids. I was the oldest of eight and there was no better way to tune out the din than curling up in a corner with a book.
After charging through the traditional fare of Black Stallion, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, my mother encouraged me to read GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. With those books, I discovered you could find yourself in the stories, you could identify and wish and hope with the characters.
As a result, when writing a story today I leave room for the reader. I don’t detail absolutely everything, I give hints of how characters are responding and then I stop. I want the reader to fill in the blanks from their personal experience and I hope that drawing their own conclusions makes the book more satisfying.
I was twelve when my dad, alarmed that I was Velcroed to the entire Agatha Christie canon, recommended G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series. Those books may seem mild today but felt very grown up and wise back then. And I learned the value of the puzzle and the mix of characters.
Soon after I ramped up my reading with GONE WITH THE WIND, which taught me the value of setting – I might be sitting on a sofa in northern Wisconsin but my head was in Tara. About this time, I qualified for the adult section of the library and was pruriently devoted to Frank Yerby’s bodice rippers until the head librarian called my mom to say I was reading indecent books. Really? I thought they were fun. While babysitting I was able to savor PEYTON PLACE, which seemed really indecent and really fun. I reread PEYTON PLACE two years ago and found it to be a well-written small town story and whatever it was that I found so sexy many years ago is tame by today’s standards. Again, the lesson learned was to trust the reader: the mind of a teenage girl brought a lot to that book that wasn’t on the page. But I also read Waugh’s VILE BODIES and Paton’s CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY – so I had a growing sense of the universes that could be caught between pages. Not always fun but riveting.
Even though I went through my horrible teens reading the usual pre-college pretentious bookshelf; i.e. Naked Lunch, Henry Miller, Gravity’s Rainbow (did not finish and never will), etc. I was still addicted to a good linear narrative. When I arrived at Bennington College (on full scholarship thanks to my essay on how and why I got kicked out of high school one year but manage to graduate second in my class the next year — that’s a story for another day), I made friends with the daughter of Shirley Jackson. I had read “The Lottery” in high school, of course. But it was Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE that galvanized me. Likely changed my life. I know one thing – the nights that I was reading it I found it impossible to turn out the lights: I was terrified. Deliciously terrified. Wow, who wouldn’t want to write like that!! There’s a book to reread if you haven’t in awhile. Makes vampires and zombies look like kindergartners.
Heading into adulthood, I read a great deal but the books that have stayed with me are early John Updike, specifically his Maples stories and COUPLES; and early Joan Didion, especially SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM. Those books taught me about voice – how the voice can pull you in.
But my finest teacher has been Willa Cather. O PIONEERS! and MY ANTONIA are two novels I reread every few years as reading Cather’s prose is a master class on how to write clear, contemporary fiction. Her settings in the prairies of Nebraska continue to teach me the role that landscape can play – and in my books landscape is as much a character as the humans.
And finally, I was trying to write my first mystery after publishing several non-fiction books when a friend introduced me to Sjowall and Wahloo. Wow. Again a life changer. They humanized the classic mystery for me, brought it down to the everyday. Their main characters have issues and frustrations that I could identify with – how about the detective who continually holds up the action because he’s constipated?! Humor plus good story lines plus murder. Nice mix.
While I am not a dedicated reader of poetry, I love Mary Oliver’s work. Her nature imagery is similar to what I observe here in the lakes, rivers, streams, forests and swamps of northern Wisconsin. Her language is succinct, her word choice dazzling without being pretentious. Reading her continues to inspire and improve my own writing…I hope.
To wind up, the best mystery I’ve read in recent years is Maggie O’Farrell’s AFTER YOU’D GONE. It isn’t marketed as a mystery but it is a good example that most novels are mysteries. Could not put it down.
One last note on music: I was in eighth grade when we were instructed to write a poem. I wasn’t sure where to start but I knew that my mother’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade always sent shivers down my back. So I turned up the record player and started to scribble as an image popped into my head: a black horse racing, racing through the night. I wanted my words to keep pace with the music. My poem won First Place in the Wisconsin State Poetry Contest for students that year. And that is when it all began.
Except…maybe not. I think it really all started because as a little kid I got my hands on GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES – not the mild versions you find today but the gory awful stories in the version edited by the Untermeyers. Lesson learned: Never underestimate the power of a terrifying tale, especially since none of us ever really grow up.
Victoria is the author of the Loon Lake Mystery Series, the most recent of which, DEAD LIL HUSTLER, was published in June from Tyrus Books. The mysteries are set in the Northwoods of Wisconsin against a background of fishing – fly fishing as well as fishing for muskie, bass, bluegill and walleyes.
Houston’s mystery series was featured in a story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal (January 20, 2004) and on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan” (February 2, 2006). Both can be seen/heard on the website: www.victoriahouston.com.