The Origins of Voice.

Author Richard Thomas has written a great article here at Storyville , for the new Lit Reactor writers forum and workshop, about finding ones voice as a writer.One of the things Mr. Thomas suggests, an exercise of writing down your five favorite authors, books, movies, and t.v. shows~ while I’m not going to cover all of those here, I will answer the question about books. However the point of the exercise is to write those things down then look at it and ask yourself what you see about your own influences, directions, and the subconscious roots of why we write what we write, the origins of voice.

The question of books ~

The Pearl by John Steinbeck
The Stand by Stephen KingΒ 
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

It is important too, I think, to examine why it is we like what we like, what is it about these books that makes them favorites of mine?

The Pearl by John SteinbeckΒ 
This book was given to me by a teacher, a tutor during a bought with illness, an assignment. Two years after the fact I finally read it, had to fish it out from behind a bookshelf where I had purposely let it fall and then forgotten about it.When I found the book again, I thought, I’ll peer inside here in secret, no one needs to know I read it. From the first line, “Kino awakened in the near dark.” Clean, simple, beautiful. Kino and Juana their stark life, the tension of the description of a Scorpion dangling above the baby’s box. He finds the pearl and it becomes a story about human nature. The edition I have is 118 pages, a Bantam book, original price was 45 cents. Lean and clean, there is no flowery language or blustery prose, and yet it is beautiful. For me, at the time I read it, having gone through an experience where the darker elements of human nature had been made unfortunately evident to me, the story was a revelation at a tender age, ah Steinbeck, you understood.

Β The Stand by Stephen King
Β Β Β Β  My opinion is that this book is too often regarded by the masses as simply a lengthy horror story when in fact it is an epic accomplishment in fiction. I love his dedication to his wife, “For my wife Tabitha, this dark chest of wonders.” Indeed, that alone made me want to read it, right into the quoting then of songs that I knew, I was going to read every page. Incidentally I found an odd bookmark in our copy of The Stand and didn’t look to see what page it was left on the last time someone in the house was reading it. That’s the kind of book it is, if you liked it the first time, you know you’re going to read it again. It is a marvel. He never loses the readers interest. However, they did release an unedited edition of The Stand and for a writer, a great thing to have because you can see where he repeated certain passages, ten or fifteen pages after the first time he said something and thus the importance of the editor. For many of us this book is part of our cultural vernacular, Captain Tripps, esp, the dreams, the horror of the Walking Man, Trash and the hero, Stuart Redman. The Stand, while certainly horror, is a morality tale, it made the idea of the epic hip while making those of us who read it wonder what was really possible and perhaps consider our dreams in a new light.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Β Β  This book had so many special meanings for me but again, it was another book that changed the way I looked at writing. Another book that blew the doors off. Read it in three days and literally went back to the first page and read it again in two. Jack Kerouac turned his closest friends into fictionalized characters and told us the story of their wild ride, from coast to coast, down to Mexico and back. Really that’s what it is, he’s telling the reader conversationally what they all are doing and as I understood it, was one of the first, if not the first, writer to write that way, like he was talking to you, the reader. He is spinning a yarn, he uses words like “musta” and calls “Dean” the “Holy Goof.” Some of us were enchanted with the idea of the places he talked about, the cities, the digs and the dives, the pace and the tone move so fast that the reader forgets the desperation of the reality of what he is telling you, the drugs, the hunger, the waste and the disillusionment that set them all on that quest to begin with and so many of them writing or trying to write as they absorbed the world around them in new ways. It’s lonely, gritty and reads real.

The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones
A few pages into this book had me looking at the cover saying What is this?Β  Surreal is what it is, with references so intricate they verge on delicate. In places it seems to make no sense at all and yet it does make sense, everyone in it is somehow in love but none of it is healthy and it is horror with an ending that was gruesome to visualize but not gratuitous in the least. I still can’t figure out how Jones did that, made it so completely palatable. I read it and I was like, of course that’s where they are, of course that’s what happened to the tourists but at the same time, never saw that coming. This was another one of those books that took my writing in a new direction because it was like, really? You can do that? You can write that like, like, it’s okay? To describe this book too much more than that would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that it was another work that opened my mind to a new direction and the idea that when I pick up a pen the limits are only those of my own imagination, my willingness and ability to share that on paper,Β  and that is a beautiful thing.

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See
Friendship, between two girls who paired together as an emotional match when they are young, enduring then together their culture, foot binding, arranged marriages, sharing between them communication through a secret language called nu shu. Their world is both beautiful and brutal, haunting. The writing is astonishing. The girls send messages to each other, back and forth, in this secret language of nu shu, writing on a fan they pass between them. When I finished reading this book, I immediately bought another of her novels. Lisa See’s mastery of the English language as she tells this story set in nineteenth century China makes me wish I had paid more attention in school. It is not a romance but more about loyalty, friendship, misunderstanding and the need we have for that understanding. She takes you into the world of these women so deeply, their chores, their lessons of daily life, proper behavior and the descriptions ofΒ  the foot binding give new understanding to the meaning of pain and endurance, and what most of us take for granted in our lives, in our own culture. I know that I will read Lisa See’s novels for as long as she continues to write them, they are lessons in how to present beauty.

So for me, when I look at what my favorite books are, it is not simply a matter of content, a matter of genre, more a matter of something different, something well done, that’s the thing. After forty plus years on the planet, there are certain things that I know are definitely of no interest to me, and that is as it should be, I think. But when it comes to books, as a writer, for me it is about discovery. There are other books that I enjoyed reading or were well written, but when I think about what my favorites are, and what they have in common, it isn’t genre, but they are the books that changed the way I thought about writing.


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*Richard Thomas is the author of the neo-noir thrillerΒ Transubstantiate You can read more about him and his work at his web site What Does Not Kill Me




2 replies

  1. Great post, Katheryn. It's a really interesting mix of titles, yeah? You have the wanderlust of On the Road (and really, The Stand too) paired with the emotions and sentiment of The Pearl and The Secret Fan, and a bit of the surreal in Bird. You seem to lean towards the poetic, yet, unique. Makes me think of magical realism, or the literary fantastic, work like Cormac and Atwood, Flannery and Murakami. I'd love to see the rest of your picks, not JUST the books, because I really think that would flesh out, and deepen, the trends you are seeing here. Are Amelie and American Beauty films you love? Are you watching reality tv or Desperate Housewives? I'm curious. Hope this whole exercise helped in some small way.


  2. Thank you Richard. I had started to “complete” the test as it were and it looked like I was writing “The Stand” so, one question at a time. No “Desperate Housewives” and I have never seen “Amelie.” However your take on this is interesting. What I see, romanticized grit without regard to genre. I am interested in the work of Cormac McCarthy. Thanks again.Katheryn