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Magazine » Writers Recommend
In this online exclusive we ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.
“From the moment a writer is attached to a story, said Saul Bellow, he or she suddenly has ‘feelers all over the place.’ So once I’m attached, I draw inspiration from what I think the character in question would read or consume. My first novel is about a fashion designer starting his own label, and through a turn of events he winds up a suspected terrorist in post-9/11 New York City. I didn’t know squat about fashion design, so I read Coco Chanel’s biography by Edmond Charles-Roux from 1975. Then came The Beautiful Fall about the rivalry between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Those texts inspired an alternate persona that I took on when sitting down to write. My ‘feelers’ were up, and a real person began to take shape. Once my hero was labeled an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo Bay, I read the only book he would be allowed, the Koran. You could call all this ‘research,’ but I don't. I find it to be more mystical than that.”
—Alex Gilvarry, author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking, 2012)
“Because I am an American and often worry about many things, I seek out consolation before beginning to write, and little in this world consoles me more than the male falsetto: Skip James, Jónsi Birgisson, Pepe Núñez, Roscoe Holcomb, Antony Hegarty and company. A great falsetto contains everything—vulnerability, artifice, control, tenderness, breath, hoot, indirect sexuality, finitude—but most important, it is constrained by, and therefore expresses, a sort of transgression or otherness. The male falsetto reminds me that tension among all these things is exquisite and vital—in fact, I often try to ‘hear’ my poems sung this way—and grants me permission to move beyond my usual range.”
—Paige Ackerson-Kiely, author of My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012)
“Pandit Pran Nath was a conduit for an understanding of Indian classical singing, and a major influence on American minimalism, whose disciples included Lamonte Young and Terry Riley. His two recordings of the deep, meditative Raga Malkauns are among the most extraordinary pieces of vocal music I’ve ever heard. Pran Nath’s voice is vast, raw, chthonic—as if granite had learned to sing. Sometimes I write listening to this music. Sometimes I have to switch it off, as I forget to type.”
—Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men (Knopf, 2012)
"When I’m in the thick of a project, the most important sources of inspiration are those that help me open the gates of reverie, that make me descend into that nonverbal realm from which potent fiction paradoxically springs. These forms of inspiration are everywhere. I listen to music. I read. I re-read, especially Faulkner, Woolf, Morrison, Lispector, Saramago, Borges, Melville, Rilke, Whitman, and many others, roving the pages with more than my conscious mind, trusting the masterful prose to push my own work open. I also take walks, and tune in to the light as it spills into trees and sparks in the gutters. The infinite complexity of light on the varied surfaces of the world is a remarkable thing. It is constantly taking place all around us, and a lifetime of writing would not exhaust it. I don’t know why this works, why listening to the interplay of light and things while walking on a street or trail is so damn good for the writing, but I always come back to my writing desk with more to give the page than I had before."
—Carolina De Robertis, author of Perla (Knopf, 2012)
“Often I thumb through animal books—the National Audubon Society’s field guides to birds and fish almost always shake something loose. For instance my poem 'Parts of a Feather' in Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) was inspired by, and depends heavily on, such bird facts. While taking notes for Pot Farm (on site at a California medical marijuana farm), I paged through my eastern birds field guide, reading about the birds I would never see out West. This cleared my head, prepared me to revise my notes and cobble them together into something readable. There’s something about birds and fish in glossy books—their skeletal diagrams, their oddball mating habits—that set me to jotting something down. Right now, I’m motivated by the giant squid. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately after having seen a photo of one in the Smithsonian. Travel also inspires. Last year, my wife and I traveled through India. The car-horn culture there is interesting, and infuriating. There are no rules of the road, at least none that we could detect. Cars shared space with rickshaws; tiny mopeds bearing families of eight, the two infants propped up on the handlebars; oxen; goats; dogs; and pedestrians. Drivers had to sound their horns constantly—not in a ‘get out of my way’ or ‘hurry up’ sort of construct, but as if to declare, feebly and succinctly amid the chaos, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’—as some kind of reminder, reassurance. In writing, I think I’m beeping that horn.”
—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Pot Farm (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
"I don’t intentionally scrapbook for inspiration, but that always ends up happening. I will see a graphic or image, or hear a song on the radio, and start to collect them for characters whose perspectives I am about to inhabit. Because I work in text, I find my emotional motivation within these other media. For Kim, in my story collection, We Should Never Meet (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'American Girl.' For Cam, a character in my novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), it was A Fine Frenzy’s 'Almost Lover.' When I was in France over the summer, I found these writing journals with these gorgeous graphic women on the covers. I bought one for each new character in my next project. With so much of my writing up in a digital cloud, it’s nice to have these tangible elements where I can root my characters."
—Aimee Phan, author of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong
“Lately I’ve been going to the symphony for inspiration. I don’t know classical music well, so most of what happens surprises me. The long segments of developing sounds break me out of my tight verbal boxes of thought. I listen for the emotions, rhythms, and phrasing, and think about how to do this with words. Occasionally a work leaves me stunned, like Arvo Pärt’s "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten." A single chime repeats throughout and silence is written in, reminding me to let my writing breathe. When the string sections intersect and descend through dissonance, I am carried from the announcement of death through grief to acceptance. When the last bell rings, there is clarity, as when the sky suddenly clears after a storm, and I rush home and begin to write.”
—Mark Liebenow, author of Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
“A common statement, I know, but the best stimulant for writing is reading. When it's prose, I'll turn to rich sentences from Nabokov or F. Scott Fitzgerald. If poetry, I start with the Eastern Europeans (especially Zbigniew Herbert). Otherwise, I often begin with a simple exercise I call ‘negative inversions.’ Find a one-page poem with relatively short lines. In the right-hand margin, invert each line to its opposite. I stumbled down a kudzu-choked ravine becomes I picked my way over the talislope to higher ground. Or: They bloom and loom in cities and no one notices becomes It shrivels and cowers under the tiniest shrub and somehow everyone knows. A half-dozen lines in, the poem takes off on its own and you can abandon the exercise.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011)
"I am inspired by love, which sounds simplistic and dreamy, but in my case is brutally real. My son, Ronan, is nearly two years old and has Tay-Sachs, a disease that is always fatal and results in a slow regression into a vegetative state before death by age three. The kind of love that inspires me is the one that acknowledges the great loss that comes with it—that you can’t have one without the other. This love requires a daily acknowledgment of death-in-life that so many of us try to avoid and that now, as a writer, I face full on, every day. Living with anticipatory grief has made me a more authentic writer, a writer who understands that all the neurotic, spinning thoughts that used to plague me about process, character, plot, and career, pale in comparison to the directive that Ronan has given me: to write like my life depends on it, because his, in fact, does. I am writing the myth of his life, and I’m writing it while looking right at him. So I write in love, but not in romantic love or in puppy love or in the love of bunnies and hearts, but in a blaze of fury and euphoria and necessity."
—Emily Rapp, author of Poster Child (Bloomsbury, 2007)
“When I'm stuck, I daydream my way back to a place that still holds a great deal of emotion for me, and a ritual that used to take place there, lingering on the objects that vibrate and glow with some hidden, deeper meaningI have yet to discover. (To get myself in the right frame of mind, I tend to reread work by Bruno Schulz.) Once I have recreated the ritual on the page, I think about what might happen to threaten or disrupt it.
“I got a much-needed start on my first novel by daydreaming my way back to an idyllic June afternoon in the pool at my family’s hotel. Various stories and essays have been inspired by my deep emotional attachment to the Dictaphone belts and Magic Carbons of the crazy insurance company where I used to work, the rarely used but totally intriguing pop-out cigarette lighter on my parents’ old Pontiac, the heavy double-edged chrome Gillette razor with which I gave my father fake shaves. Sometimes, I focus on a ritual that frightens or disturbs me. But if I haven’t been writing for a while, I’m usually in a foul mood, so I much prefer to daydream myself back a place and time I once loved.”
—Eileen Pollack, author of Breaking and Entering (Four Way Books, 2012)