Under the Influence

I asked this question of the Good Girls last month and have been dying to hear from you all ever since:

Who are your writer role models?

Now, I don’t mean who influenced your writing style, although that’s a perfectly fine question to answer, too.

What I mean is, who influenced your LIFE style?

I’ll give you some examples, since I’ve been thinking about this lately.

– Perhaps my earliest writer role model was not a writer, but she played one on TV.  Rose Marie, on the Dick Van Dyke Show. I had no desire to be a writer at the time I was watching those reruns.  I was actually more inclined toward being some kind of a biologist or vet – I had a virtual menagerie of dozens of animals as a child and would have been surprised to hear anyone say I’d grow up to be a writer.  But one thing for sure – I knew I didn’t want to be Laura Petrie.  No matter how much Rose Marie complained, and even though I cringed to see her fetching coffee, I still thought she had the great job – hanging out in a room with the guys and being creative and funny all day long.   Plus dating after.   And lo and behold, I end up spending a good ten years of my life as a screenwriter, often in a room with a bunch of guys, absolutely NOT fetching coffee, but being creative all day long, and yeah, often, dating afterward.

– Another fairly early one, God help me, was Dorothy Parker.   I think we all go through that phase of falling in love with her scathing poetry and defiant cynicism and emotional vulnerability.  I’ve done performance readings of her stories for various stage retrospectives and reveled in the life and fire of her language.   The glamour and wit and fun of hanging out with the Algonquin Round Table is a great fantasy that we all get a taste of at conventions like ThrillerFest and Bouchercon, and I think it’s hard for any woman not to see herself in those brutal alone-by-the-phone ramblings of Dottie’s.   Now, I’ll refrain from going into detail about how I’m emulating her love life, but I do have this quiet but enormous pride that I’m following in her footsteps as a Writers Guild union activist.   Every time I’ve wanted to get off that WGA/WriterAction merry-go-round I think of Ms. Parker and keep on keeping on.

– Lillian Hellman, for sure my favorite American playwright.    Notorious leftist activist as well.   The whole thing with Hammett – not just for real, but fictionalized in THE THIN MAN.   Do I seek out that kind of relationship out?  Hah.

– Anais Nin… yes, well, here’s where the writer lifestyle thing starts to get out of control.   Affairs, incest, bigamy… do I really need to go there?   Yet all that lush and overblown eroticism made for some amazing writing, and I can’t deny the influence.   

So… who are YOUR writer role models?




ITW is having a cool new promotion.


31 thoughts on “Under the Influence

  1. Mike MacLean

    I’m not going to include my family and friends in this for fear of leaving anyone out. Each and every one of them has inspired my lifestyle in some way big or small.

    B.J. Honeycutt from TV’s MASH. A good family man, solid friend, funny, loved by all with out constantly pandering for attention.

    And on the flip side…

    Peter Dragon, Jay Mohr’s character from the highly acclaimed and highly overlooked TV show ACTION. Dragon was a cynical, sarcastic, politically incorrect, backstabbing bastard who would do anything to get to the top. I don’t think I’m anything like this guy. In fact, in real life I would hate him. But maybe I’d be better off if I could channel him once in a while.


    Elmore Leonard who’s still a relevant force in crime fiction after all these years.


    Comic book visionary Frank Miller for championing an underdog industry and for standing up against censorship.

    I’ll probably look at some of my answers here and cringe later on in the day. It’s early and I’m not awake yet.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mike Farrell was one of the first stars I ever met and if anything a more lovely soul in person than his character on M*A*S*H. AND a passionate political activist. And so dreamy! You couldn’t do better for a role model.

  3. billie

    Fun question!

    Paul Bowles: I discovered his writing after falling in love with the work of his deceased wife Jane. I ended up writing to him and we had a correspondence that spanned a number of years. He was elegant and mysterious, just like his writing, and very encouraging to me personally through some difficult times.

    Ellen Gilchrist: A writing teacher put me on to her work as an example of someone whose short stories and novels include a circle of characters who recur and connect in odd ways. I love the way Ellen writes bold women who go to the extreme.

    Jean Rhys: Another writing teacher said my early work reminded her of Jean Rhys, and I devoured her writing and came to love Wide Sargasso Sea.

    Colette, Anais Nin, Proust: For a couple of years I just drenched myself in these three. Love the lush writing, the intense introspection, the honesty.

    The Brontes: I grew up with their words. Read and re-read. Still love them.

    Lawrence Durrell: His Alexandria Quartet remains an annual read. A stunning piece of work.

    Two authors wrote books that blew me away individually but in similar ways – Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and Donna Tartt’s Secret History. Both those books made me marvel at both authors’ imaginations and the capacity to get it all on the page. Wow. They created worlds in those books.

    That’s not it, but those are the major players. 🙂


  4. louiseure

    I think Billie and I have similar tastes. Two authors whose work and lives I explored were Colette and Kingsolver. They were the first to make me realize that “an author” wasn’t necessarily a dead white guy.

    I wrote my master’s thesis on Colette and got to spend time with her third husband during the research. It was clear how much he still loved her, decades after she was gone.

    And Ms. Kingsolver … an Arizona girl who was told she couldn’t write, and proved them all marvelously wrong.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    “Who are your writer role models? . . .

    What I mean is, who influenced your LIFE style?”

    Good questions, Alex.

    Like you, I adored Rose Marie.

    Since this isn’t about style, I’ll go with Miles Franklin of MY BRILLIANT CAREER fame. I loved that story of her need to write, her determination to do it in spite of cultural and gender obstacles.

    Though a bit more histrionic, I also liked Jo in LITTLE WOMEN when I was little.

    Inspiration? How about many of the earliest female journalists? Intelligent,forthright, nimble with pen and paper, and hellbent on doing what they wanted to do.

    As a child, I was also tremendously inspired by the early female aviators — for the same reasons.

    I’m going to give this question more thought and might come back with more writerly answers later.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oooh, such great answers!!! The Brontes, of course, how could I have forgotten?

    That is so cool about Paul Bowles, Billie – jealous!!!

    Colette and Kingsolver – now that’s a Louise answer. 😉

    It’s so true about Colette – she was one of my early discoveries that made me think – hmmm, women can live do this just as well as men and maybe have an even better time.

  7. billie

    What fun for a fairly frigid Saturday!

    I came back too – to read everyone else’s comments, of course, and to add:

    One thing about Ellen Gilchrist that has made a huge impact on me is that she published her first novel when she was 48, after raising a slew of kids. I continue to hold that out as a consolation, although I’m creeping up to the edge now. 🙂

    I also forgot that reading the diaries of both Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf gave me a lot of perspective on women and creativity and depression that has informed my thinking and being quite a lot, more so when I was younger and life was more… volatile.

    Also… Louise, that is so wonderful that you met Colette’s third husband! Gosh, I would love to read your thesis! She was a force.

    You know, I just remembered – I went through a year of being obsessed with Zelda Fitzgerald and her one novel, Save Me The Waltz. She was so shadowed by F. Scott, and her madness consumed her finally, but damn, she managed to write that novel in spite of all of it.

    Okay, well this could go on and on – I’m sure every time someone else comments it will open a new string of memories of books/writers.


  8. Elaine Flinn

    Great question, Alex! Josephine Tey, M.M. Kaye and Ayn Rand were my early icons – and then, of course, Somerset Maugham and James Clavell. In fact, they were – to me – so brilliant, I almost gave up any thoughts of writing. I still do when I pick one of them up for another marvelous visit.

    Early writer role model? Ha, that’s an easy one – Rosalind Russell (before most of your times)- she played a reporter – can’t remember the movie now, damn it.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh my God, Elaine, you ARE Roz Russell!!! How perfect! That’s exactly the kind of thing that got me thinking about this to begin with – looking forward to Left Coast Crime and the whole orgy of mingling with all these wonderful, eccentric writers – and I just wondered – who everyone grew up looking at as soul models.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That is really great to know about Ellen Gilchrist, Billie – I like to have stories like that to tell to aspiring authors I meet. And you could not be more right about reading Woolf and Nin and getting more of a sense of perspective on women’s issues – depression and volatility.

    E, Ayn Rand was such a force to me – so brilliant I knew I could never even remotely get there. But oh, what I learned about story structure and page-turning from her…

  11. Elaine Flinn

    John Gault’s speech is a tour de force! Now – that’s writing! 🙂

    I shyly demur – there is only one Roz and she was it. But it’s one of the Best compliment I’ve ever had. The check is in the mail.

  12. PJ Parrish

    What an intriguing question. I knew my answer without even thinking. When I was a teenager, I found a used copy of a Georges Sand biography. She endures more as a muse than an author now, but what a life! (Shoot, is this why I now write under a neuter pen name?)

    And later came Joyce Carol Oates. I read a short story she wrote about a father and son wandering a post-apocalyse city that blew me away (if anyone remembers its name, email me!) And then came the first novel of hers I read: “Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart.” Her range (horror, crime, mystery, she does it all) is inspiring. To say nothing of her prolific output. The woman writes more in one day, I suspect, than I can manage in a month. And even the least of it is choice.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is so great because everyone keeps sparking my own memories of authors who influenced me. PJ (which?) – I saw a BBC production of George Sand’s life with Rosemary Harris (and a swoony George Chaikiris as Chopin) – do you know that one? I became obsessed with both their lives for about a year. I’d totally forgotten that!

  14. Elaine Flinn

    I’m off Alex’s subject for a minute here to say that I was VERY disappointed not to see Alex’s outstanding debut – THE HARROWING – short listed for the Edgar – and also Kris & Kelly’s AN UNQUIET GRAVE.

    Yeah, yeah – I know three were umpteen books submitted – but that’s part of the deal. But still…

  15. Elaine Flinn

    p.s. And I’m not playing favorites here, but Pari’s THE BELEN HITCH was terrific – I forgot it came out in Feb/2006 – for some reason I kept thinking it was Dec/2005 so I didn’t mention it earlier.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for the sympathy, E. but even though THE HARROWING is Poe-ish, I always thought it was a little too on the supernatural side for the Edgars. I’ve heard I might be short-listed elsewhere, though! 😉

  17. JT Ellison

    Mmmm, as always, a lush and provacative Saturday.

    I have two biggies — Ayn Rand, who I started reading becasue I wanted to impress a certain young man and continue to read because she makes me think differently about my surroundings.

    But more influential was Hemingway’s brilliant short HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS.It changed me in countless ways, opened my eyes to the power of words. The vicious tension, the aching sentiment, the callous power of that story shaped my life, so of course it affected my writing.

    I can’t say I write like either Rand or Hemingway, but they are always there, lurking in my mental recesses. GREAT post, Alex, as usual.

  18. billie

    Wow, Alex, TELL where!

    I’m reminded of a semester I took a grad course in American Playwrights, and gorged myself on plays and bios and everything to do with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, among others.

    I think the southern heat in Tennessee’s work felt so much like “home” to me I couldn’t help but get caught up in his plays.

    And Eugene O’Neill’s life was fascinating, as were his plays. Those TITLES: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Moon for the Misbegotten, etc.

    Interesting – I haven’t really ever looked back and taken account of all the time in my life I’ve spent reading and being obsessed by books and authors. It started early on and has novel yet let up. 🙂


  19. Guyot

    Holy crap, adults like Ayn Rand? Alex, Evil and Jay-Tee… what’s next, Scientology? 🙂

    Graham Greene was my first. And I failed miserably at trying to be like him. But he’s still the man today. On those late nights when I think about being a woman, I always hope to be a woman like Dorothy Parker.

    For a silly little while in Hollywood, Scott Rosenberg was my role model, but I didn’t like the hours.

    These days it’s Lee Child and Barry Eisler, for a variety of reasons. And I’m not kidding.

  20. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Um, I just came back to see what was going on with this discussion and saw Elaine’s comment about THE BELEN HITCH. It WAS a 2005 book — the trade paperback came out in ’06.

    Frankly, I was happy to see Paul Levine’s book on the Edgar list because it has humor . . . and I often believe that critical readers shortchange that aspect in lit.

    Plus, it’s rare to see “traditional” mysteries on any short list. That’s why I’m so happy about Naomi!

  21. PJ Parrish

    Alex,Omigod, I had forgotten about that BBC thing! Yes, I saw it…for a tick or two, I was put off seeing George Chaikiris as Chopin (I mean, c’mon, when you’re a Shark, you’re a Shark all the way…oh wait, that was the Jets.) When I was reading the Sand bio, I remember thinking, “dump this whining guy!” But I guess Aurore had the hots for Fred.

    p.s. did you see the nice review your “Harrowing” got from Oline Cogdill?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *