Since I write books about crime and espionage, and created and edit a website promoting genre short fiction, I’m often asked which thriller authors influenced me the most. It’s a legitimate question, and I could pretend that I grew up ripping through the pages of Hammett and Chandler, that I devoured Westlake and McBain, that I fell in love with writing because of Christie and Spillane. But I would be lying, and any good detective would see through me like a sweaty witness in an interrogation room. I’ve read all of those writers as an adult, after I started writing genre fiction, and I’m disturbingly envious of their talent, but they had nothing to do with me picking up a pen.
In graduate school at Baylor University, I studied all the greats: Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner; Williams, O’Neill, and Miller; as well as poets going back to the Dark Ages: Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare; Donne, Wordsworth, and Coleridge; right on up to Ginsberg, Eliot, and Frost. I even took a genre early-novels class and read Shelley, Walpole, and Poe. Yet, again, as awestruck as I am by the talent of the giants of literature, they didn’t set me on the path that would consume my adult life.
No, I have one writer to thank for my career and, in particular, one book of four novellas.
When I was young, my father would always have paperbacks lying around. In the living room, in the bathroom, on his bedside table, these books littered the house like vegetables waiting to be picked and eaten. I always enjoyed reading, but by age 12, my taste hadn’t developed much further than kids’ books I ordered in some school magazine. I’ll never know what it was about the cover of Stephen King’s Different Seasons that made me pinch it off my dad’s bureau, but I swiped that book, took it back to my room, and changed my life.
King divided the book into four seasons for four novellas, and the first offering, which stood for spring, was titled “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” I had no idea who Rita Hayworth was, what Shawshank meant, and probably wasn’t too hip as to what “redemption” was for that matter, but I remember being riveted by the story of a man wrongly cast into prison and finding hope in the bleakness. I turned on my closet light and sat in there well after bedtime, flipping pages until my eyes watered. What I most remember was the epiphany I had: that writing didn’t have to be flowery and obtuse and obscure, that a great book could be written as though the author were sitting around a campfire, speaking in his own voice, having a conversation. He didn’t have to impress with vocabulary; he could dazzle with the story itself.
The second novella was titled “Apt Pupil,” and centered on a kid who discovered that an old man in his town was a Nazi war criminal. Prior to reading this, I had only a vague notion of what a Nazi was, but I remember being scared out of my mind as I raced through the pages. It had a dark, twisted ending, another new revelation for me. Hell, all the books I read before this one usually ended with Johnny throwing the winning touchdown pass, or the Hardy Boys solving the mystery of the Old Mill. The bleak ending was so shocking, it opened my eyes to the possibility of the storyteller surprising the reader, zigging when you thought he would zag, a notion I keep in the forefront of my mind as I write.
The third story was titled “The Body,” but you might remember it better as the movie Stand By Me. More than the first two, this novella pushed me down the writing path. It focused on four kids who hear about a dead body on the railroad tracks and go on an adventure to find it. I don’t know if it was because I was the same age as the kids in the story or if it was because it alternated so seamlessly between side-splitting comedy, heartbreaking tragedy, and pulse-pounding suspense, but that novella spoke to me in a way that no book had. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, and if you’ve never read any Stephen King, do yourself a favor and check out “The Body.” It should be taught in writing classes alongside any of the previously mentioned greats.
The last novella was titled “The Breathing Method” and was a weird horror tale about a decapitated woman delivering a baby. I can’t say much about this one. I never went back and reread it, but as a 12-year-old, I was fairly terrified by the detached head, still going through the breathing exercises as the body, a hundred yards away, squirted out a child. Kudos to King, that image has stuck with me all these years.
As famous, prolific and ubiquitous as he is, I still think Stephen King doesn’t get his critical due. He’s one of the titans of 20th-century fiction, and I’m not at all reluctant to call him the greatest influence in my career. His books are often pinnacles of tension, pace, and craft, and I absorbed all I could about storytelling from his canon. If you read 11/22/63 last year, then you know he hasn’t lost a step in nearly 40 years of putting pen to paper. I remain, as I did when I was 12, in awe.
My final message to you parents: don’t always put your books on a shelf, out of the reach of your children. Leave a few lying around the house. Encourage your kids to read outside their comfort zone ... and yours. You might discover you have a novelist on your hands.