Emma Donoghue: the reading that helped my writing

24 March 2014

by Emma Donoghue
Header image of book pages (c) rosmary / flickr.com

Everyone knows that novelists rely on other people’s books for information, but in fact we draw on the work of others for far more than that: for examples of how to tackle a subject, period or structural challenge; for insight into a certain type of character. So, in writing Frog Music, I was inspired by the approach of some great novels about nineteenth-century America, yes, but also by other fiction that rises to similar challenges.

1.  The March, E. L. Doctorow: a brilliantly revisionist tale of the American Civil War, features an almost vaudeville-style duo of hapless soldiers trying to get home in one piece through a broken country.

The March by E. L. Doctorow The Outlander by Gil Adamson

2. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier: I think it’s the structure – the cutting back and forward between the endlessly divided experience of a husband and wife trying to find each other after the Civil War – that makes this novel so riveting.

3. Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, about a nineteen-year-old husband-killer fleeing from her vengeful brothers-in-law, showed me that literary crime fiction can have as much pace and momentum as the more populist kind.

4. Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers. This darkly hilarious Western is about one of a pair of brothers who is trying to get out of the contract-killing business. It proves that historical fiction need never be earnest or turgid.

5. True Grit by Charles Portis owes much of its punch to the fact that Portis takes the 14-year-old heroine and her stoical, vengeful quest quite seriously. There was no such thing as a teenager back then; if you weren’t a child, you had to be an adult.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

6. Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is perhaps my favorite fiction about nineteenth-century America. Highly intelligent in its social commentary without ever sacrificing characterisation or story.

7. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, set in Victorian London, is just about the best fiction about prostitution I’ve encountered: it gets under the itchy skin of that most ancient of professions, and delves into the similarities, as well as differences, between the archetypes of wife and mistress.

8. Sarah Waters, Affinity. This, rather than any classic detective novel, sticks in my mind as a model for a mystery in which someone deeply involved in the crime has to solve it from the inside. Waters uses the readers’ own prejudices against them, blinkering them brilliantly so they miss the clues she offers.

Affinity by Sarah Waters Killing Floor by Lee Child

9. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. After reading every one of these contemporary action thrillers over a single year, I’ve decided that they owe their magic to the hero’s combination of cool, cerebral patience and blistering violence. What I found inspiring for the character of Jenny in Frog Music was Jack Reacher’s homelessness-by-choice; refusing to be tied down, he prefers to own nothing but a toothbrush.

10. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Though I think I only ended up echoing a single phrase from this seminal collection in my novel, I tried to give my Jenny Bonnet some of Whitman’s radiant appreciation of nature as well as the speed and razzmatazz of nineteenth-century American urban life.

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