Some Books That Changed My Life
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. Many great books – and even some not so great – hold a special place in my heart. Here are a few that stand out:
The Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett. This was the book that inspired Daniel Silva’s The Unlikely Spy, which in turn inspired my first published book A GATHERING OF SPIES. All three novels fall squarely into a subgenre I call ‘Beautiful-or-Handsome Deadly Nazi Spy Stumbles Onto The Secret That Can Change The Course Of The War And Is Chased By Phlegmatic British Professor’. Great, atmospheric fun, and a classic page-turner.
Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The first book I ever fell in love with. In sixth grade. Deeply, passionately in love. I was transported. I was transformed. I’m not sure in retrospect that the book can handle all that weight – it was, the authors later admitted, dashed off in six weeks as a cash grab. But as a breathless chase novel and a masterclass in dystopian world-building, it has no peer.
Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s epic western is both a full-fledged genre novel and a wry and witty comment on itself. In his full-throated telling of a story built from classic tropes, the author shows us why the tropes evolved in the first place. Lonesome Dove uses a larger-than-life canvas to entertain the hell out of us while saying something deeply true about human experience. (Honorable mention: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay.)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. This (only nonfiction book on this list) directly influenced everything I’ve written since I read it. Before Shirer, I was a writer in search of a subject. After, I found my voice. Some of my books (A GATHERING OF SPIES and A GAME OF SPIES) take place during World War Two. Others – THE ART OF THE DEVIL and FALSE FLAG – feature the war as a player in the background. Still others (DISPOSABLE ASSET, THE KOREAN WOMAN, THE WATCHMEN) address anti-Semitism and the fallout of the war (and the Bomb) more obliquely. But Shirer is always there, in the foreground or the background, as a constant.
Marvel Comics. Yes, DC had some selling points – Batman and Swamp Thing, for starters. And much of comicdom’s best talent has cross-pollinated over the years. But Marvel in general and Stan Lee in particular grabbed hold of my imagination from a young age and never let go. Flawed, realistic superheroes bickering when they aren’t saving the world … megalomaniacal supervillains possessing recognizable motivations and tragic nobility … the alchemy is magical. And Marvel and I matured together. By the time Frank Miller took over Daredevil and Chris Claremont started on X-Men, I was ready for their more complex takes on heroism and lack thereof.
My favorite author for most of my life has been Stephen King. His first dozen books, give or take, constitute the greatest run in literary history. And I stand behind that. No other writer’s characters feel so real; no other writer’s voice draws you in so conversationally; no other writer’s themes are as skilfully integrated into page-turners. Until I had children of my own, my favorite King work was The Shining. Then it became Pet Sematary, his most under-the-skin disturbing work of all. (Honorable mention: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Christine, Misery, Firestarter, Cujo, Different Seasons, and The Bachman Books.)
Around the same time I discovered Stephen King, I discovered Rod Serling. As this section is entitled books that changed my life, let me mention The Twilight Zone Companion, by Marc Scott Zicree. I used the book to navigate the show. I also read it by itself, for pleasure, again and again. The Twilight Zone led me to the work of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and back around to George Clayton Johnson, co-author of Logan’s Run. But the guiding sensibility behind the Zone is all Serling’s. (Honorable mention: Gene Roddenberry, Michael Piller, and Rick Berman, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I admit finding some of Le Carre’s work impenetrable – too high-brow for me, too literary, too low on action. But The Spy Who Came In From the Cold changed my understanding of how a spy novel works and what it can do. I thought I was prepared for its twists. But I was wrong. A short, hard, nasty, lovely little book.
The Martian Chronicles is my favorite work of Ray Bradbury’s. His whimsy is balanced by a hard edge, so it never becomes cloying or precious. Instead, it’s melancholy and moving. His language is among the most lyrical ever committed to the page. My earliest short stories, published in my high school literary magazine (see ABOUT ME), were aping Bradbury. I also borrowed his surname for my lead character in DISPOSABLE ASSET.
The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. This fictional assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle fits together with real-life history like a jigsaw puzzle. My novel THE ART OF THE DEVIL, telling of a similar attempt on Eisenhower, is an homage to Forsyth’s thriller And his edge-of-your-seat handling of the manhunt informs all of my books.
Just because I love genre fiction doesn’t mean I don’t love literary fiction. Alice Munro’s sublime Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage captures the extraordinary complexity of people. Her characters are multifaceted, sometimes contradictory, often selfish, and always vibrantly real. She gives me the courage to go deeper with “unsympathetic” characters. (Honorary mention: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.)
I could go on. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and, especially, In the Lake of the Woods. Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan expands my consciousness every time I reread it.
And on. In the past few years I read Ghost Story by Peter Straub and The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Very different books, but both absurdly compelling. When I reached the last page of each, I turned back to page one and started again.
And on, and on. Somehow I haven’t yet mentioned Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion of the World was the first “grown-up” (seeming) book I ever read, and it disconcerted me wonderfully. (I worked a shout-out into my own FALSE FLAG.) Most of his other delightfully-askew children’s books are just as good. His short stories for adults are also well worth checking out.
James Cain, Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett, John Cheever, Tom Perrotta. Ed McBain and Larry Niven. Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Every time I sit down to write, all of these are with me. And more. Not to mention the pile currently waiting on my nightstand …