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Monday, December 9, 2013

Literary Influences: A Difficult Question to Answer

Author Katharine Britton has two novels out with Berkley / Penguin, and she is in the midst of her book tour for LITTLE ISLAND. While taking questions at readings, Katharine admits that one question is always difficult to answer: "what are your literary influences?"

Tricky, right? Because it's so easy to sound pretentious. That, and we all want to believe in our hearts that our ideas are all our own. And when she really had to stop and think about it, the author realized that her sources of inspiration could barely be counted on two hands... And that's as it should be. --S.P.

By Katharine Britton

I was asked recently what books influenced me in writing Little Island. It was a tough question to answer, in that every book I’ve ever read, beginning with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, has influenced me as a writer in some way. That said, my greatest influence for Little Island was not a book at all, but a weekend spent in Maine...

Next door, in a rented cottage, an extended family began to gather. My husband and I had a second floor unit with a balcony, which gave me an ideal vantage point from which to observe my neighbors’ comings and goings. (Writers are notoriously nosy.) I watched family members arrive, greet one another with great enthusiasm, and then cluster on their front and back lawns and on the rocks below the cottage. As darkness fell, the men migrated onto the deck and the women into the kitchen.

The next morning, more cars arrived; by midday the driveway was empty. Later, towels had appeared on the deck to dry, and croquet wickets had sprung up on the front lawn. At dinner that night, in an adjoining dining room, our neighbors, about fifteen strong, loudly celebrated an elderly relative’s birthday or anniversary: the presumptive reason for their gathering.

Their ebb and flow reminded me of our family, which gathers annually for a reunion. We greet one another, ask the requisite questions about jobs, houses, children, and then move on to more substantive conversations, few of which are ever completed satisfactorily. The weekends comprise a series of truncated interactions over meals, games, and cups of coffee all of which leave me exhausted, but wishing we had more time. I love these fractured, somewhat chaotic gatherings, and decided to replicate one in Little Island: it would be a story about a close-knit family that gathers for a weekend on an island in Maine.

It turns out that close-knit families do not make for interesting plots. So, I gave each member of the Little family, as he or she arrives on Little Island, far more “baggage” the suitcases they tote across the threshold. Their issues become subplots that contribute to the central plot (as happens in life). Although I selected one character, Joy, to carry the through-line, I thought it important to present each family member’s story and perspective, and so wrote it from multiple points of view. I could claim Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible as an influence for this style. Did I re-read it while writing Little Island? No. I didn't even think of it until I had to write a piece for someone about literary influences on my book. When I Googled "novels multiple points of view," there it was. It is one of my favorites, though, so I have no problem giving Kingsolver credit.

It seemed logical to organize my book into three sections. “Gathering:” as each character prepares for this weekend en famille, and we see what each character is “packing” for the weekend; “Gathered,” once the family is all on the island; and “Gone,” after one character reveals a secret that fractures the rather delicate connections holding the Little family together, and each heads off in a different direction. I suppose I could credit two other favorite books, Julia Glass’s Three Junes and E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India, both organized in three sections, as having influenced my decision to do this. But I don't know… I feel like I'm reaching here.

One definite literary influence for the structure of Little Island was The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Fagin. He presents his emotional story in very short chapters, which I thought would work well as a device to simulate the disjointed nature of a family gathering.

In terms of content for my book, Sue Miller’s extraordinary Family Pictures might have been an early influence. Miller’s book about how a single act (in Miller’s case, the birth of an autistic child) can disrupt a family is a theme I explored in both Her Sister’s Shadow and in Little Island. Families are systems, and what we know from Systems Theory is that a disruption anywhere affects the whole. But I was also in organization development for years and took lots of counseling classes, so who's to say those didn't influence me just as much as Miller's book? (Also, I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional family.)

And then there's the setting. I poured over: Here on the Island, text and photography by Charles Pratt; Exploring the Maine Coast, by Alan Nyiri; Our Point of View: Fourteen Years at a Maine Lighthouse, by Thomas and Lee Ann Szelog; and The Penninsula, by Louise Dickinson Rich.

Writers are readers and tend to be an impressionable bunch.

We work hard to find our own voices and those of  their characters and therefore, I know many authors, myself included, who won't read fiction while working on a manuscript because we don't want to be derivative, don't want to be influenced by another author or book.

I guess it's a fair question to ask an author, but it not an easy one to answer.

1 comment:

Taffy said...

This book sounds really intriguing! I love to read about family dynamics.