The Origins of the Species

JT Ellison

Toni Causey had an excellent blog about fear on Killer Year, and at the end, she broached a
question. What’s the first book you
ever read that made you want to keep reading? That made you realize that yes,
this is a way of interacting with the world, of learning about it or
finding someone similar, and you became a reader for life?

I’ve been dreading this question. The truth is, I don’t
know. I can’t remember. All I know is I’ve always, always read, always written,
and somewhere deep inside my conscience, always knew I’d be a writer one day. So
I thought I’d try to trace it out, see if I can find my way back to the moment.

There are certainly books that I recall affecting me so
strongly that it ultimately shaped my childhood.

The first book I remember having an impact was THE THORN
BIRDS. Damn Colleen McCullough. Maggie’s daughter gets lice, and my mom used to tell me that if I didn’t
let her brush my hair, I was going to get lice too. I couldn’t have been more than
six or seven (yes, I read much too weighty tomes early.) I forced my mother to
cut my hair. My gorgeous white blond waist length hair. Arghhh. So I guess on
some level I knew how powerful storytelling could be.

The second that really stands out is Peter Straub’s GHOST
STORY. Pardon my French, but it scared the living shit out of me. I couldn’t
comfortably go to the bathroom by myself for months. I was about nine or ten then, because
we’d moved into the new house on Apache Drive. (That’s partly how I track these
pieces of memories – where they happened is the only way I can figure when it

I know I read all the typical books a budding female reader
goes through – Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dr. Spock (because
honestly, who didn’t), Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, anything on
mythology, C.S. Lewis’s brilliant series The Chronicles of Narnia, Madeline L’Engle,
Jack London, Tolkien — I could go on and on. I read everything I could get my hands on,
whether my parents said it was okay or not. I actually don’t ever remember my
mother taking a book from me and saying no, you can’t read that. God bless her
for that.

So, interspersed with Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S
ME, MARGARET and FOREVER, I was reading the grown-up books. When I was eleven
one came out that changed me. Jean M. Auel’s CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR.

It was by far the most complex and far-reaching book I’d
read. At eleven, conceptualizing a young woman your age who is the link between
you and your pre-historic past can get a little heady. But there was more. Midway through, Ayla is raped by Broud, son
of the leader of the clan. Brutally beaten and raped.

I was outraged for Ayla. She was my hero, and she’d been
demeaned and used. Plotwise, it’s an inevitable situation. Reading the story as
an adult, as a writer, Auel’s intent is clear. But as a child, precocious as I
may have been, the inequity was nearly insurmountable. I hated Broud, cried
when Ayla found herself pregnant with a mixed breed child. As the book drew to
a close, I seethed and brooded. “It’s just a story,” my mother told me. Just a
story indeed.

Twenty-six years later, as I puzzle may way through my
inceptions as a reader and a writer, I wonder if this is the moment I’ve been searching for.
Have I found my Pygmalion? Is this the genesis of my love for crime fiction? And more importantly, is
this why I write serial killers?

I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. My journey for
self-awareness will continue.

How about you? Can you pinpoint the book that solidified
your journey, made you a reader, or a writer?

Wine of the Week: Zenato Ripasso Valpolicella 

Reminded me of a nice Pinot Noir, actually, smooth and deceptively simple.


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22 thoughts on “The Origins of the Species

  1. B.G. Ritts

    The Secret of the Old Clock — over 45 years ago, but I knew I wanted to go on more adventures with Nancy. She was like an older sister who would tell me wonderful stories before we’d fall asleep at night.

  2. billie

    The first book I found in the library and checked out for my very own – Danny and the Dinosaur. An early reader book, charming, but the real power was in what it represented – freedom. I must have been 4?

    I have a vague memory of realizing that I could read – that the letters put together formed words and I could read them. It was like discovering fire.

  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Gosh, a sort of impossible question because I was hooked on reading so young, just absolutely obsessed. But since you ask, this is amusing – the first book I can remember really getting under my skin, probably age three or four, was “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” It was a horrible, skin-crawling idea – a little old lady (scary to begin with) accidently swallows a fly, then swallows a spider to eat the fly, then swallows a – I don’t know, probably a frog – toeat the spider, and as you can imagine, it all got worse from there. It was in verse, and the tag line of every chater was: “Perhaps she’ll die.”

    DISGUSTING. It just gave me nightmares. And yet I would make my Dad read it to me over and over and over again (my Dad, the horror fan…!)

    I swear, genre starts early.

    The first book that made me want to be a writer, though? A WRINKLE IN TIME. I was writing and directing it in my head from the first time I read it, in sixth grade. Also in sixth grade I got really obsessed with Jane Langton’s cool supernatural series THE DIAMOND IN THE WINDOW. And Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s spooky THE VELVET ROOM.

    And even before sixth grade, I read all of Leonora Mattingly Weber’s YA WWII-era BEANY MALONE series, obsessively. I was so aware of how vivid and perfect her writing was – I still read those books occasionally and marvel at her style.

    I could keep on with this chronicle but by high school I was in theater and I read many more playwrights than novelists. That was probably the best training for writing, though, because I was filling in all the details myself.

    Fabulous question as usual, Jay-tee. Can’t wait to read other answers!

  4. Tasha Alexander

    Lovely, lovely post, JT!

    I was a Little House girl. I said it already at Killer Year, but I have a vivid memory from when I was three of my mom reading Little House in the Big Woods to me. All of a sudden, I realized that I could read the words. You couldn’t pry a book out of my hands after that. And like you, I read weighty tomes early. Heck, why not??? I remember, at ten, reading Pride & Prejudice and thinking that Elizabeth was a fool to turn down Darcy’s first proposal. Yeah, he was rude, but he was a BOY and he liked her! That seemed an impossible thing to me (I was a total geek).

    I love the way our perceptions of books change as we reread them. Obviously, now, I’m all for turning down that proposal…

  5. JT Ellison

    BG, I spent a couple of years insisting on being called George, I wanted to be the sidekick more than the detective.

    Billie, that’s it exactly — freedom. Nicely put.

    Alex, I remember that one. All of our childhood tales were so incredibly morbid. Maybe that’s the real key, then.

    Tasha, you’re right. The perspective is all that changes, the words from these great books still make an impact!

  6. pari

    I wasn’t much of a reader until high school. Still, every Saturday for years, I’d walk a mile to the park where the library’s book mobile sat and would check out an armload of literature.

    Among the first books that I read and remembered are:Mary Queen of Scots — I don’t know the author, but the book had to have been written in the 1950s or 1960s. I’m sure I was attracted to the strong, compelling and tragic woman at the center of its story.

    The Agony and the Ecstasy — Irving StoneThis one was such a moving book about Michaelanglo and the creative process. I read it when I was about 11 or so.

    When reading both of these books, I do remember being aware of style, of how the writer brought their subjects to life.

    I guess I’ve been analyzing the craft for a very long time.

  7. Alex Sokoloff

    JT – you had that book, too? That’s truly amazing… I never even thought about it existing for anyone outside of our weird family circle.

    But I’m still trying to think of the book that would have influenced my thematic perspective the way CLAN did for you (I wouldn’t even read it because I’d heard about the rape and I just didn’t want to go there. Yet I write about sexual abuse issues all the time.)

    Fairy tales were huge for me. Enormous. The Blue Fairy Book, and all the other colors? Grisly and completely hypnotic.

  8. pari

    Oh, Alex,You just reminded me of a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I had when quite young. I still have the book today; its illustrations are really creepy, scary, in fact. And the stories certainly weren’t the sanitized versions we see on Disney.

    I’m sure those gave me my first glimpses of magic — and the double-edge of wishes coming true.

  9. Alex Sokoloff

    Pari, absolutely, the color plates and b/w sketches in those fairy books were INCREDIBLE. Not just scary, but so perversely erotic. No question those imprinted my taste for thrillers.

  10. Louise Ure

    BLACK BEAUTY, no question. I missed meals. I stayed home from school. I wouldn’t go out to play.

    And then I started a protest about treatment of horses in Tucson’s dude ranches.

    Ah, the power of the written word.

  11. Elaine Flinn

    Ah, Louise! Black Beauty! One of my earliest favorites – and then there was King of the Wind! Anyone remember that one?

    At twelve – I was into Jack London (The Call of the Wild and White Fang) – then moved on to The Brothers Karamazov. I was fascinated by so many characters! I loved sounding out the Russian names (It was pretty pathetic I must admit) – but after Dostoevsky – could Leo’s War and Peace be far behind? 🙂 And then Les Miserables?

    And yes to Pari as well – The Agony and the Ecstasy was wonderful! That book made my father happy – at least I was reading about an Italian then. The Shoes of the Fisherman is also a book that stayed with me for years.

    I think my love of ‘big books’ began early. I miss them. Don’t you? Where, oh where, are the modern versions? The Clavel’s, the Morris West’s, the Irving Stone’s now? So many wonderful writers who took us on long journeys with fascinating characters.

  12. Deb Kristy

    Great post, JT!

    I remember all of the books mentioned, and I have similar memories of them. I also don’t remember the first book that hooked me. They all hooked me, the good ones, the bad ones, the ones WAY too mature for me.

    One that’s stuck in my head to this day was Into The Road, a y/a about a kid who follows his older brother and the brother’s girlfriend on a motorcycle roadtrip. The girl had her own bike, and she had Ms. America printed on the back of her helmet. I had never wanted so desperately to BE a character in a book before.

    I gotta go find that book…

  13. JT Ellison

    Finally back from the word goal hunt today. Really interesting comments.

    Pari, Grimm’s stories still affect me. When I started writing shorts I went back to them for structure. They hold up well.

    Alex, I’m a fairy tale fiend. Love them. The title of my first book is a play on two I like.

    Louise, I remember being so entranced with Black Beauty. I rode, and just as my parents were starting to get the “I need my own horse,” arguments, I developed a wild allergy to them. I still miss it.

    Kristy (whose amazing debut novel is on sale NOW — you must go buy CATCHING GENIUS immediately!!!) I’m not familiar with THE ROAD. I’ll have to go look that one up.

    Elaine, WHITE FANG was one of my favorties too!

  14. Patti McCoy Jacob

    I have no recollection of this because I was apparently only about three, but my parents tell me my first “book” of choice, the one I lapped up daily, was the LA Times.

    A newspaper. Guess you could call that my first encounter with fiction…

    As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, even backs of cereal boxes, three at a time housed around my bowl, so I would have something to do while shoveling Grape Nuts into my mouth.

    There are too many books to list, but I LOVED Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables. I took a Children’s Lit class in college and was thrilled to learn we were going to analyze both.

    I also enjoyed Little Women. I have a slew of sisters who all reminded me in one way or another of the characters in the book. And I always wanted to be like Beth – sweet, altruistic. Sadly, I’d say I was more like Amy. Rats.

    Helen Keller was a favorite because I love rags to riches stories. This lost soul, thanks to Annie Sullivan, not only survived but thrived, and allowed others to thrive as well.

    And one of my all-time favorites was A Wrinkle In Time, although the Man With Red Eyes scared the hell outa me. Coincidentally, my 10-year old son watched the DVD last weekend and loved it. I dug out my worn-out book from our “library” – drawers and drawers of paperbacks – and handed it to him, telling him the book is always better than the movie.

    And oh yes, every Steven King book imaginable because I guess I had a thing for sleeping with the lights on.

  15. simon

    Like you, JT, I don’t have a clear idea of what book hit me first. Ones that do spring to mind are (as a child) STIG OF THE DUMP and THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, and (as a teen) James Herbert’s THE RATS and Chandler’s LADY IN THE LAKE.

  16. Mike MacLean

    I remember it well, young Mike curling up to War and Peace while sipping tea–pinkies up! Ah, to be seven again.

    Yeah right.

    I remember Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series—probably my first mysteries. The Hobbit, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s The High King. Another fantasy novel called The Ash Staff (I was amazed years later to find out it was written by a high school senior). And, if we’re being honest here, a ton of totally commercial, totally cheesy Choose-Your-Own Adventure books (anyone remember those?).

    Oh yeah, and comics by the ton—Sgt. Rock, The X-Men, Arak anything on the racks at our local 7-11 store.

    (Jesus J.T., The Thorn Birds and Clan of the Cave Bear at eleven!)

    The book that made me want to write crime fiction was Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, aka Jackie Brown (the book was better than the movie–sorry Quentin). When I finished Rum Punch, I felt like I had just discovered electricity.

  17. Gar Haywood

    The very first book I can remember reading and claiming as my own—as in “This book is MINE—hands off!”—was an old hardback library copy of THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. I must have been about six. Hooked me on mysteries forever.

    The first book I can remember solidifying my budding resolve to become a writer, demonstrating as it did the power of the written word to travel across time and space to transform lives, was IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote. Blew me the hell away. I was probably about nine. My grandmother bought it for me from a newstand outside a Broadway department store downtown. Had she had any inkling what kind of books she was purchasing for a nine year old…well, as the saying goes, my world could have been a very different place. Thank God for clueless grandmothers, huh?

  18. Jack Getze

    I remember spending my freshman year at a new high school with no friend but “The Complete Works of A. Conan Doyle.” I carried it around school with me, read it at lunchtime and my study period. It was my shield against a a cold cruel world. 🙂

  19. Daniel Hatadi

    Aside from The Encyclopedia Brown series, the first book I remember that expanded my mind was Frank Herbert’s DUNE, as well as at least two of the sequels. The Bene Gesserit concept of being wary of forming any habits just blew me away. It was the first time I realised I could actually be aware of my own thinking.

    Great post, JT, and great plug for Crimespace!

  20. Alex Sokoloff

    It is totally great to see Gar here. Can’t wait to read your DARKER MASK story!!

    IN COLD BLOOD is a hell of a way to start out. We do find our books… or they find us.


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