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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.

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Priscilla Gilman

posted 5.11.11

“When I was working on my book, The Anti-Romantic Child, I created a playlist that I listened to over and over again while writing. Some songs transported me back to very specific moments or eras in my life, others evoked moods or stirred emotions in me, and some simply galvanized or focused me. Looking at the playlist now, I'm struck by what a motley assortment of music it is—everything from Pete Seeger singing ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ (in the early days of my discovery that my son, Benj, had special needs, this would both break my heart and hearten me) to Sufjan Stevens’s version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ (a beautiful hymn of hope and thanksgiving), Neil Young's ‘Sugar Mountain’ (a song of paradise lost that I sang at summer camp) to Peter Gabriel's ‘Solsbury Hill’ (a song of my early romance with my ex-husband). ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘Over the Rainbow,’ quintessential songs of my childhood that I especially associate with my late father, Richard Gilman, and ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story, which I sang to my own children, are interspersed with selections from Gerald Finzi's choral version of the great romantic poet William Wordsworth's ‘Intimations of Immortality.’  But what invariably puts me in the best frame of mind to write is singing with Benj himself while he plays the guitar.  Our duets on songs like ‘The Circle Game,’ ‘Box of Rain,’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ send me back to the computer sometimes elated, sometimes pensive, but always deeply moved and ready to express my thoughts and feelings expansively on the page.” 
Priscilla Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper, 2011)

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Kevin Brockmeier

posted 5.04.11

“I’m thinking about a quote I’ve seen attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 'If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.' I find that new waves are constantly rolling into shore, carrying testimonies from far places, and letting them rush over me as they arrive is what I find truly inspiring. Among the great and bracing waves I’ve greeted recently—to name one each from the worlds of literature, music, and film—are Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle (short stories), the double EP Rivers by Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and the movie The Eclipse, directed by Conor McPherson.”
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination (Pantheon Books, 2011)

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Arthur Nersesian

posted 4.26.11

“The best reason to live in New York City is to discover the endless hidden treasures in its many neighborhoods. Usually three times a week, I drop by my local bookstore, St. Mark’s Bookshop, where I’ll visit old inspirations and find new ones. My favorite walk, which I do about once every two weeks, is a big crooked quadrangle. It spans three boroughs. I start in Manhattan, walking down First Avenue, making a left on Delancey, and crossing over the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn. Then it’s on through Williamsburg and Greenpoint, over the Pulaski drawbridge to Long Island City, and up to the Queensborough Bridge, then back home. I’ve done endless variations of this: down over the Brooklyn Bridge through Brooklyn Heights, or up to Astoria, Queens, over the Triborough Bridge and over Ward Island, then south. I complete my walks in three or four hours with a head full of ideas and relaxed enough to put them all down.”
Arthur Nersesian, author of Mesopotamia (Akashic Books, 2010)

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Victoria Patterson

posted 4.20.11

“Always tucked in a pocket of my purse is a Moleskine journal. I try to write every day, no matter what, and I’ve pulled that Moleskine out while waiting for my kids—doctor’s appointments, soccer practices, piano lessons. In my Moleskine, I allow myself the freedom to write anything. No matter the inanity—it has my full permission to go down uncensored. I doodle. I make lists. I describe the waiting rooms, piano lessons, parents in the stands. And if I lose my Moleskine, my name and phone number are displayed, with a reward offered of one billion dollars.”
Victoria Patterson, author of This Vacant Paradise (Counterpoint, 2011)

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Daniel A. Olivas

posted 4.13.11

“As with most fiction writers, I can be inspired by virtually anything: a song, a kiss, a cup of coffee, an overheard conversation. And in writing three short story collections, those and many other inspirations sparked a rather diverse number of plots and characters. When I decided to move from writing short stories to a full-length novel, I wanted to find an overarching (or thematic) inspiration that would help me move forward in completing the manuscript and, at the same time, allow me to revel in the creative joy I experience when writing a short story. So, I first decided that I needed to examine who I was and what types of stories I tended to write. My fiction often revolves around my multiple identities as a Chicano (the grandson of Mexican immigrants), a former Roman Catholic, a Jew-by-choice (I converted in 1988; my wife is the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants), a husband, father, and Los Angeles native. After a few weeks of pondering, it came to me: My novel would be based on the Ten Commandments, with each chapter inspired by a commandment. Once I decided upon this structure, I felt liberated to create characters and plots that seemed to grow naturally out of the commandments. Over the course of two years (in which I also wrote short stories, poetry, essays, and book reviews), my novel grew until I had ten chapters I really liked. After reading and editing it several times, I decided to add a short prologue and epilogue. My novel eventually found a home and  received a very nice review in Publishers Weekly. So, on March 24, 2011 (the official release date), I became a novelist. If Moses only knew.…”
Daniel A. Olivas, author of The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011)

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Hannah Pittard

posted 4.06.11

“I walk around my apartment and read aloud from The Norton Anthology of Poetry. There are a few favorites: Michael Drayton’s “Sonnet 61”: “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part; / Nay, I have done, you get no more of me”; John Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”: “Oft a flood / Have we two wept, and so / Drowned the whole world, us two; oft did we grow / To be two chaoses, when we did show / Care to aught else; and often absences / Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses”; and John Keats’s “This Living Hand”: “See here it is— / I hold it towards you.” I’m a little like a character from a Whit Stillman movie when I do this—remember the scene from Barcelona where the one guy puts on polka music (or something similar) and dances around his apartment while he reads from the Bible?—but I know that a story isn’t too far away when I reach for the Norton.”
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way (HarperCollins, 2011)

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Tan Lin

posted 3.30.11

“I’ve spent six or seven years reading The Man Without Qualities—sometimes I read it all the way through and sometimes random excerpts of it. I’ve returned to it many times. This book has proven to be an exercise in ambience applied to reading. It exists, sporadically at times, in the various rooms that I read it in, at different moments in my life. Each chapter resolves, if that is the word for it, around an anecdote. This anecdote might be about the weather, the occurrence of a love affair, a communications medium, or a note on factory production, which is followed by a meditation or an essay. The essay is not an interruption of the fictive armature because it is part of a work that treats fiction as life.”
Tan Lin, author of Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking 
(Wesleyan University Press, 2010)

 
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Margaux Fragoso

posted 3.23.11

“I devour psychology books because they help me understand my characters; I’m fascinated by the revolutionary ideas of social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. If I’m having trouble writing a scene I examine scenes in novels I’ve read in the past. It’s a confidence booster to see that a famous author faced similar challenges and made good. I listen to poetry on my iPod; Dorothy Barresi is a contemporary favorite of mine. I’m inspired by the poetics of hip-hop artists like Mos Def and the Roots. But I can’t stick to any one writing routine or ritual forever because if I get bored with the ritual, my writing gets bored with me.”
Margaux Fragoso, author of Tiger, Tiger (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

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Téa Obreht

posted 3.16.11

“As a teenager, I spent hours dreaming up plots for books. This was something I felt was cooler than going to the mall, but not so cool that I was willing to waste daylight at a desk with a pencil and notepad. To make it cooler still, I would burn dozens of CDs (iPods not being in existence yet), soundtracks that would serve as musical stand-ins for what I felt I would be writing: mishmashes of rock and roll, classical music, and show tunes that, as assemblages, had no significance for anyone but me. When played, they would immediately transport me into the world I was devising, and I would walk, sometimes for miles, around and around the neighborhood, while my Discman churned in an effort I believed to be inextricably bound to my writing. I assumed, because I never actually wrote any of what I dreamed up, that this exercise was a failure. Then, many years later, I found myself in grad school and subject to a similar compulsion—except now I had a car, and ostensibly a brain, because the plots were actually making their way onto the page. I still can’t listen to music while I’m writing—music is never just white noise to me. But I would say that any writing time now begins with driving around under the influence of carefully arranged playlists that call to mind characters, plot points, or even the whole narrative arc of whatever it is I’m working on. I’m generally in favor of anything that makes the world you’re trying to create more real and accessible to you, so my advice is: Make a soundtrack for your book!”
Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 2011)

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Nikky Finney

posted 3.02.11

“When I was eight years old my mother found me beneath my younger brother's crib in the fetal position and sweating. I was sick with a terrible fever. But, as she reports, I was also smiling. I learned, in that fever-rich moment, how to move through space and time—unafraid, untethered—toward some kind of surprise. That dance with surprise is why I write. And the fever of dedicated drift has taught me much about how to push through my writing. Breathe—in and out—levitate, trust. Sometimes, to get this moment back, I would ask Daddy if I could stretch out in the curved back window of his silver Buick 225. While he smoked and hummed in the front seat (and never drove over twenty miles per hour), his Buick moved beneath oak and loblolly pine, and I would stare up and stretch into the fusion of spirit and mind, reentering the sweet cave of my imagination. Today one of the final acts of my revision process, when I can't seem to work it out at the desk, is to grab my poem, timer, pad, and pencil and head for my car. I place them in the passenger seat. I set the timer, then head for the highway—a road not too big, not too small, something steady and even, where I never have to think about stopping for lights or breaking for traffic. I drive for one hour only. No music. Just the air outside and the sound of the poem rambling about in my head, searching for balance, ascension, the break of the fever. The forward movement of the car is meditative and my final act of faith. One hour passes and the timer goes off. I turn the car around. Usually, before I get back home, I have made some decision about a line, phrase, title, or epigraph that I could not make while sitting still.”
Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2011)

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