Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.
So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.
Lace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.
He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.