Saturday, June 07, 2008

Mark Twain - Which author has most impacted you?

This post came to mind after reading through some of Moonie’s latest offerings. She’s doing a series of guest posts, having avid readers of her blog give book reviews on the novels that have made the most impact on them... That got me to thinking about books that have touched me as a writer, which spiraled into another thought, which author has had the most impact on me as writer? If I was to go with which novel, it would be a thoroughly different answer, and the answer might change depending on my mood or point of view at the time because, honestly, I’ve read a lot of amazing literature that’s impacted me in some form or fashion.

But which author? Hands down, it’s Mark Twain. I did read Tom Sawyer when I was in middle school somewhere, maybe sixth grade or so, but I didn’t think much about it until far later in life and I’ve had a love affair with Twain’s voice for most of my literate life. I can remember reading the following passage as a kid:

“...Within two minutes, or even less, he had forgotten all his troubles. Not because his troubles were one whit less heavy and bitter to him than a man’s are to a man, but because a new and powerful interest bore them down and drove them out of his mind for the time – just as men’s misfortunes are forgotten in the excitement of new enterprises. This new interest was a valued novelty in whistling, which he had just acquired from a negro, and he was suffering to practice it undisturbed. It consisted in a peculiar bird-like turn, a sort of liquid warble, produced by touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth at short intervals in the midst of the music – the reader probably remembers how to do it, if he has ever been a boy. Diligence and attention soon gave him the knack of it, and he strode down the street with his mouth full of harmony and his soul full of gratitude...”

When I was in my early twenties, I was waiting for a few of my friends to get ready to go out carousing and I found a battered old copy of Tom Sawyer on the coffee table. I was never one to sit in the mirror fretting about makeup and hair, so while they were occupied in the bathroom, I sat on the couch and paged open the book... I realized I was audibly whistling when one of my friends peered around the corner and asked what the hell I was doing. Ten or twenty two, I couldn’t help but whistle when reading that passage.

This wasn’t even my favorite of Twain’s work and my reasons for loving him as a writer are long and winding. Huckleberry Finn offered some of the most amazing characters, yes, but it also offered a commentary on racial relations that was quite radical for the time, and still loudly applauded... here’s the thing, Twain had deep and powerful motives behind his storytelling, he had paramount messages to get across, but he didn’t sacrifice the entertainment of the story to do so. The most memorable scene to me is on the river raft, when the very young Huck decides he’d rather go to hell than turn Jim in. It’s more powerful than it looks, because he really believes it.

Twain went to great pains to capture his characters and is probably most often associated with his dialect – which is tremendous. It’s funny that he would be the author I love so much, because I’m trying very hard to be a more organized writer that plots thoroughly rather than writing by the seat of my pants... Twain was anything but organized. He often had multiple stories in progress at a time and when one called to him louder, he’d move on with that one and abandon all of the others. He never plotted. He set characters down on the page and let them run around until they told the story. I think the thing that speaks most to me in Twain is his lack of pretension. His characters didn’t need to be royalty or elite, as so many of the day were. He reveled in getting into the mindsets of a society that was often overlooked...

This could probably ramble on a lot longer, as I loved the man as well as his work... I’d planned on including some of his quotes, but then we’d be here all day. How about you, as a writer or a reader, which author’s made the most impact on you? Would it be the same answer if I asked which novel has made the biggest impact?


jjdebenedictis said...

It’s funny that he would be the author I love so much, because I’m trying very hard to be a more organized writer that plots thoroughly rather than writing by the seat of my pants...

Heh. I've been doing the same thing.

And you know what I did yesterday? I said, "hell with it," and just started writing. Got three scenes done and it feels great.

Merry Monteleone said...

Good for you, JJ!

I've had plots assailing me at all hours of the day and night, myself... I think I might take a page out of your book and just write the damn thing...

Jerseygirl89 said...

What author hasn't influenced me might be a better question for me - there are so many authors that I love. Lately - because most of my writing has been blogging about my life - I've been really into Laurie Notaro and Jen Lancaster. Anne Lamott also comes to mind.

ventiseitre said...

Hi Merry, I'm back!
I think the two questions "Who is your favourite author?" and "Wich novel has most impacted you?" are not the same and the answers would be different.
For example, I love Stephen King (the old Stephen King). But the novel I liked more was "Il Gattopardo", written by the Italian Tomasi di Lampedusa.
(I never read Mark Twain, however).
I'm sorry for my bad english.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jersey,

Your blogging is nothing to sneeze at, you've grown quite a wonderful following over there and I fully expect you to be writing a column before very long.

Hi Ventiseitre!

I love old Stephen King, I liked things like Firestarter and Through the Eyes of a Dragon that no one ever really talks about anymore.

Do you read in both Italian and English? My neighbor grew up in Sicily but has been here for like forty years, and he reads in both... but he says that when they translate things from Italian it's just not the same - it's better in the original language because some things just can't be explained right.

By the way, don't apologize for your English - I think you're doing very well... far better than I would do in Italian.

Thanks for stopping in! Always good to see you.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi . . .
I think, for me, I would have to say Louisa May Alcott. I devoured her books as a girl . . . and I wanted to BE Jo. I wanted to be a writer. As I had no real role models in "real life" for being a writer, but one friend's father (who was an alcoholic and volatile) . . . she served as a model for me . . . that she became a writer against the odds, when women weren't allowed careers in the way they are today.

But writing influences (i.e., NOT the person but books), then I go in the direction fo Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood.


Merry Monteleone said...


I looooved Little Women, and Jo's Boys... I think this is why it was so hard for me to narrow down one book, because there are so many to love, to live in...

I had it a tad easier in the role model for writing department - my mother's a writer. Not fiction, though she's been working on a novel for a while that I really hope she finishes... She's more the political junky, but she's worked in PR and advertising, in the sixties she used to write the commercial copy for the announcers to say during the ballgames. She's also worked PR at a local library and done articles for the papers locally. Nothing that would bring fame or fortune, but that was actually a plus for me - I went into this knowing that a working writer isn't some lofty goal that's near impossible to attain... a fiction writer, though, that's a tough nut to crack but if she could do that during the sixties with no college, I think I can manage this, even if my writing time is the middle of the night.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm a Twain-iac as well.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Travis,

You know, with your voice, I should've guessed it... take that as the highest of high compliments, by the way.

ventiseitre said...

I read Through the Eyes of a Dragon but I didn't like it so much. I prefere It, the Stand, the first four books of Dark Tower's saga, and other...
I read american authors in italian, 'cause in english it is too hard to me. I read just one book in english, but only after I read it in italian.

(Unfortunately, I didn't live forty years there, like your neighbor here. So I can read easly just one language)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Ventiseitre,

I liked The Stand, but I couldn't get into the Dark Tower series so much... I think it's got to be very hard to enjoy a book in a second language. Matteo (my neighbor) he's used to English now, but prefers Italian. His kids are all my age (30's) and they speak Italian but only read and write in English.

How wonderful to understand both, though.

Your English is very good - are you still planning to come and drive across the country?

ventiseitre said...

Yes Merry, I'm still planning to come there and to drive the "coast to coast" across the route 66. But before to do that, I must graduate. I think I can come there in the summer of 2010 (if God wants).

Mary Witzl said...

I LOVE Mark Twain. One of my greatest sorrows is that my husband does not see how great a writer he is; he doesn't 'get' Mark Twain, and that strikes me as a real flaw in his (my husband's) character, bless him. He is crazy about Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco (the latter he must read in English translation, of course).

As far as writers who have influenced me, I have gotten a lot from Bernard Malamud, Peter Carey, Jane Austen, Barbara Kingsolver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, R. M. Koster, Amy Tan, A. S. Byatt -- and on and on. I hope they've influenced me.

I loved Little Women too; I was so heartened to know that there were girls like Jo. It made me feel a little less weird.

SUV MAMA said...

Wow. I would agree with Mary W. :) Not loving Mark Twain is a character flaw. LOL!

I try not to talk literature with my husband so as not to be disappointed. I take it very personally. (My husband is an avid reader but we read completely different types of genres).

I love Mark Twain, and he was the writer who first influenced my 10 year old mind. I caught the bug from his writings. I was given a very rare edition of a collection of his stories, a beautiful, bound leather book that I treasure as one of my greatest possessions, next to my wedding ring and my guitar.

My Mom taught Tom Sawyer to 7th graders for a while, so I had years and years and years of the "Tom Sawyer Unit", and never tired of hearing about her kids discovering Mark Twain or the adventures of Tom & Huck.

However amazing Mark Twain, I would say that the author that influenced me most is John Irving. Hands down.

Stephen Parrish said...

Hi, I don't have your email address, so I'll tell you here: I thought your last comment you-know-where was EXCELLENT.

Demon Hunter said...

Stephen King and Tananarive Due. Sorry, I had two. :*)

shelly said...

Merry, this is a great question. I have been thinking about it, and can't narrow it down to a single person. Some of the writers I love to read, you probably wouldn't see much of their style reflected in my writing. I'm not sure who my writing voice is most influenced by, but I have always been told it is fairly distinctive. I might could say Edwin Morgan, but I only came across him in adulthood, and it was probably more that he gave me a way to express some things that I didn't know how to before reading him. I'm not sure that's quite the same as a favorite author from childhood who has had a huge influence on one's own writing.

There are many writers I've loved and simply devoured over the years, and I know all of them have impacted me in certain ways. I love Twain, but as I am not a fiction writer, I don't see much of his influence in what I do write. I do follow his process, though. I am not at all organized in how I approach writing, and just go with whatever I get obsessed with at a particular point in time.

The Anti-Wife said...

Hi! Going to have to think about this one.

Merry Monteleone said...


Wow, you really must be a youngen... When you do make your way out here, drop me a line if you're barrelling through Chicago!

Hi Mary,

You know, I think Twain is a distinctly American taste - and with the way he liked to tweak the noses of the British, I can see your husband not liking him that much... still, it's a flaw...

It is hard to pick one novel or one writer, there are so many different wonderful authors to revel in, I'm always afraid to make these posts because I know I'm missing some major loves of my own.


I loooove Irving... I really do, that's a great pick. My mom is also an avid reader with completely different taste from me... I love the classics and she doesn't read them... I love literary fiction and she thinks it's a lot of flowing prose with very little to say... She, however, has read about every political and historical book ever written... she especially likes European History, which I know next to nothing about... so, yeah, we have very little in common with books, even though we both love them.

Hi Stephen,

I thanked you via email already, but thank you again, and since you popped by, who's your favorite?

Hi Demon Hunter,

I like Stephen King too, as you can tell from previous comments... I haven't read anything from your other author, but I caught your post on her and am adding her to my tbr list... next time I hit the book store or amazon I'll go hunting for it!

Hi Shelly,

You know, if you were going with one that most influenced your writing style, I suppose you could also pick a poet because you don't write fiction... then, too, loving the writing doesn't necessarily mean following the same process or vice versa.

Hi Anti-wife!

Great to see you back out and about. If you think of one, feel free to use it as a blog post at your place. I'd love to come read about your pick.

silken said...

not intending to spam you here merry, just wanted to let you know that
I started a new site at my own domain ( with another hopefully soon to follow! I added you to my blog roll. It's brand new right now, but maybe someday you can stop by and check it out!